This year’s research project, carried out thanks to the support of Fondazione Cariplo, focuses on two hubs of Sunni religious and political thought: Gulf countries and Morocco

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:55:28

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Sunni Islam which can boast more than a billion faithful and which also has a strong presence in the West – is currently experiencing a phase of crisis and renewal. Faced with the increasing assertiveness of Shia Iran and the political failure of the jihadist movements, the “Sunni front” has split into two: on one side, the supporters of political Islam (Turkey and Qatar) are not opposed to reaching a compromise with Tehran; on the other side the Saudi-Emirati axis is willing to make concessions as it is increasingly undergoing strategic difficulties. In the background, the peaceful power of Morocco and its “updated” model of traditional Islam is on the rise, enjoying ever-increasing institutional support and favour not only in Africa, but also in the European Union and Italy.


Just like a nuclear reaction, the division of the Sunni “nucleus” has released enormous amounts of energy that could ignite an explosive reaction, the consequences of which even Europe would perceive. On the other hand, this phase of internal turmoil could also pave the way to a radical reconsideration of the relationship between Islam and modernity, which would allow an exit from the “authoritarianism/political Islam/jihadism” impasse by concentrating on the positive legacy of the Arab revolts of 2011. It is a global match in which Italy is deeply involved.


The context


A tragic wave of violence has swept the Middle East for years, with significant repercussions for Europe and the West, in terms of security and refugees. Some of the clues that have been used to explain the increasing acuteness of the crisis over recent years include the emergence of Salafi jihadism, the possible political role of Islam, authoritarianism, the condition of the disenfranchised strata of the European Muslim populations, as well as the long term consequences of the colonial era.


Confronted with this variety of causes, there is a tendency to explain the entire phenomenon in light of conflicts between Sunnis and Shi‘ites, the two main streams within Islam. This explanation was entirely ignored by the mainstream media in the days of the Arab uprisings – but not by Oasis, who dedicated its first issue in 2011 to this subject – however, nowadays it has become the daily bread of all analysts. This approach bears the risk of transmuting into new errors of evaluation, remaining, once again, one step behind relevant events.


From a context characterised by a strong institutional structure, which allows us to speak of the existence of two “fronts” (Sunni-Shi‘ite), we appear to be moving towards a fragmented scenario. In this framework, the real novelty for the post-Arab spring period is not the Iran-Saudi Arabia rivalry, but the emergence of a cleavage within Sunnism, pitting Qatar (and Turkey) against and the new Saudi-Emirati leadership. This development is nothing more than the geopolitical certification of a cultural, religious and even spiritual fact: the Sunni predicament.


A movement of compromise, created to resolve the trauma of the civil wars of the first Islamic century, commenced with the idea that “no one sect has it completely right” (Suleiman Mourad, The Mosaic of Islam). By now, Sunnism is made up of trains of thought that are very different from each other, with a non-uniform theological orientation, different geopolitical ambitions, different concepts about the role of religion in society and the relationship between ulama and state power. The movement is contested from “the right” by Salafism and from “the left” by the Muslim Brotherhood and by reformists who are more or less secular, all the while suffering the rise of pro-Iranian groups, the persistent instability of the region and the deterioration of the economic situation. The delicate situation also influences the way in which the Sunni countries of the Persian Gulf and Southeast Asia to North and Sub-Saharan Africa relate to and orient the European Muslim diasporas and their relationships with institutions and society.


However, attempts at renewal have been observed alongside these signals. This is the case, especially, in Morocco, where, after the 2003 Casablanca bombings, the monarchy has promoted a form of traditional yet updated Sunnism, linked to the three pillars of Malikism as a legal school, to Asharism as a theological doctrine and to Sufism as a spiritual practice. Valuing of tradition has been combined with some openings, particularly in the field of citizenship and religious freedom, and it has more explicitly assumed the traits of an organised religious policy through which Morocco tends to be acknowledged as a reliable partner in two directions: towards Europe, taking charge of the management of the North African diaspora and beyond; and towards sub-Saharan Africa, an area of ​​exceptional geopolitical importance that has been destabilised by jihadist movements. In contrast to the pharaonic plans of the Gulf monarchies, Morocco is one of the very few countries in the area that has raised the issue of long-term environmental sustainability and launched some significant projects.


In view of these considerations, the research that Oasis will undertake in 2018 thanks to support of Fondazione Cariplo will focus on two hubs of Sunni religious and political thought: the Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia, especially the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, as well as Morocco.




Through the study and analysis of these two “hubs,” the Crises and renewal in contemporary Islam project aims to:


  1. Define and illustrate the nature of contemporary Sunnism
  2. Understand its internal divisions, also in relation to other movements in the region
  3. Assess the European repercussions of the Sunni States’ religious policies


According to the specific Oasis’ perspective, which considers the religious dimension as a primary factor, articles and papers will be elaborated to shed light on developments in the Sunni world and about the concrete consequences that these developments could have.

The main contributions that Oasis will make in the context of this project will be disseminated through our website, our newsletter and our biannual journal.