In 2003, a wave of bombings ripped through the heart of Morocco’s largest city, Casablanca. When it emerged the men behind the attacks had been inspired by the teachings of independent preachers, the North African Kingdom set out on a process of Islamic reform. Today, as states across Africa and Europe continue to grapple with the development their own counter violent extremism (CVE) programs, Rabat has emerged as a favoured partner in the fight.
At the core of cooperation is Morocco’s burgeoning role as a trainer and educator of Muslim religious leaders. The state has made significant progress towards institutionalising both the vetting of Imams and the content of religious discourse. The crown jewel of this new religious structure is the ‘Mohammed VI Institute for the Training of Imams, Morchidines and Morchidates’ (preachers). With students from Mali, Guinea Conakry, Ivory Coast, Tunisia, France, Nigeria and Chad, the centre is targeting the next generation of Muslim leaders and inculcating them with Morocco’s unique brand of moderate Islam.
In contrast to the radical interpretations of Sunni Islam promoted by groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda, Moroccan Islam is rooted in the Sunni Maliki School; a doctrine which authorities have promoted as especially moderate and flexible, accommodating a middle ground between literal and figurative interpretations of scripture. Since opening in 2015, 712 Imams and preachers have graduated from the institute, with a cadre of 778 foreign students currently at various stages of study. While Moroccan students are only required to complete a year of study, sub-Saharan and European students spend two and three years at the institute respectively. The goal of the longer foreign student program is to unlearn prior training incompatible with the Moroccan dogma and provide additional education specific to each student’s country of origin.
Driving Morocco’s engagement abroad is the threat posed by the import of the ideologies of migrants and refugees. Morocco has long been a destination for African immigrants and a transitory hub for those heading to Europe. Census data from 2014 identified the total number of foreign nationals residing in Morocco as 86,206. A clamp down on migrant and refugee flows out of Libya only exacerbated the problem. Unauthorised migrant arrivals into Spain from Morocco increased by 88% in the first quarter of 2017, totalling 21,000 by years end.
Estimates vary, but census data suggest that at least 80% of non-nationals originate from West Africa and the Sahel region. With extremist groups like al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Boko Haram and ISIS actively recruiting across the region, Morocco has sought to counter their messaging through the Mohammed VI Foundation for African Ulema. Functioning as an extension of Morocco’s religious bureaucracy, the foundation works with the governments of over 30 African states to select candidates for training in Moroccan institutions and consult on religious rulings and policy.
But, while Rabat’s engagement across Africa has expanded steadily since 2003, comments by their counter terror chief made clear in October their aspirations to transpose the Moroccan experience into the EU.
“The practice of religion should be institutionalised in all countries and by this I mean there should be institutions which take an interest in monitoring religious discourse in mosques,” said Mr Khiame.
From a European perspective, a string of high profile terror attacks in recent years perpetrated by those of Moroccan origin makes clear the need to engage with Rabat. Attacks in Barcelona, Cambrils, Brussels and Paris all involved Moroccan youths inspired by radical preachers. Preventing further radicalisation of Morocco’s 3.1 million European diaspora has become a priority for the North African Kingdom.
French President Emmanuel Macron is planning the first substantive move towards a ‘reorganisation’ of Islam in France. While details of this plan aren’t due until the end of June, it’s expected to target three key areas: community representation, financing, and training. Morocco’s relationship as a former colony and long-standing partner in the training of French Imam’s provides an inside track to deepen ties with a newly reformed French religious establishment.
However it is Italy, home to Europe’s fourth largest Muslim population, which provides a glimpse at the type of partnerships that can be expected in the future. Partnering with al-Qarawiyyin in Fez, the University of Siena has introduced a major for the training of Imams—Europe’s first. Teachers from Morocco will provide religious instruction, while humanities, law, social and economics courses will be taught by Italian academics. It is hoped that the combination will provide an opportunity to shape religious leaders to better help their communities reconcile religion with their civic responsibilities.
The institutionalisation of European Islam remains in its infancy, but by styling itself as a bulwark of moderate Islam, Morocco is poised to play a critical role in shaping the future of Islam across two continents.
James Baylis is the Middle East and North Africa Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.