The idea of a “Moroccan exception” has been belied by the Casablanca attacks in 2003. Nevertheless, thanks to a series of reforms in the religious field, Morocco seems to have re-appropriated its image of potential model and is trying to export it to Europe as well
Last update: 2022-04-22 09:58:44
The Kingdom of Morocco tends to view itself as somewhat of an exception when compared to its Muslim and Arab neighbours due to the purported absence of religiously-inspired conflict. This idea of a “Moroccan exception” was violently shattered by the Casablanca bombings of 2003, perpetrated by home-grown Islamic jihadists. However, thanks to a series of wide-ranging reforms implemented by the state in the religious field following the attacks, Morocco seems to have regained its image as a potential model not just for its region, but for European Islam as well.
The specificities of Moroccan Islam and its history are commonly cited as an explanation for why Morocco stands apart from other Muslim countries in terms of the relationship between politics, power, and religion. According to one member of the state’s Ministry for Habous and Islamic Affairs, “Morocco has this Moroccan-Andalusian-African, Arab-Berber specificity, this mix, [which]… engenders a particular mentality, a way of seeing things, a [kind of] tolerance.” On a theological level, this ostensible capacity for tolerance is affirmed by scholars and officials thanks to a particular triumvirate of national Islamic traditions: the Maliki school of Islamic jurisprudence (maddhab), the Ash‘ari creed (‘aqīda), and the influence of various forms of Sufism. This theological mix has been mobilized by the state in opposition to what has been perceived as the unnamed culprit for the 2003 attacks: the excessive growth of Saudi Arabian-style Wahhabi Salafism in the country, portrayed as foreign to Moroccan religious traditions. Indeed, the current King Mohammed VI has reiterated the importance of these national Islamic traditions for ensuring the “tranquillity and spiritual security” of Moroccan Muslims at home and abroad, as befits his own official position as “Commander of the Faithful” (amīr al-mu’minīn).
The possibility of extending the state’s vision of religious tolerance and spiritual security to the members of the Moroccan diaspora has grown markedly in importance since the first major waves of labour migrants left for Western Europe in the 1960s. Today, Moroccan migrants and their descendants can be found in every Western Europe country. They represent major established demographic groups in France, the Netherlands, and Belgium, and more recently have joined the ranks of the largest minorities in Spain and Italy as well. Along with the development of these diaspora communities, the Moroccan state has gradually elaborated religious policies designed to provide religious services to Moroccans abroad, ranging from sending imams during the month of Ramadan to outright funding the construction of mosques and Islamic associations in foreign countries. To what extent, however, are these state-promoted religious policies adapted to Western European contexts and how much influence might they have on the construction of a European Islam?
Changing Diaspora Politics for a Growing Diaspora
Despite the specificities of Moroccan religious policies abroad, they are to be understood within the general context of how Moroccan diaspora policies have evolved over the last decades. As many scholars have noted, from the 1960 until the 1990s, Morocco perceived its migrants abroad at best as convenient sources of foreign currency and at worst as potential sources of political unrest and sedition. During these initial years, the state did very little to support its citizens in foreign countries and sought rather to implement a system of oversight and control conformed by a network of associations called the Amicales (Friendship Societies). Moroccan identity was seen as in need of protection and King Hassan II himself reacted with hostility at signs that Moroccans abroad were integrating into their host countries. As late as 1989, the king stated that participating in French elections could be seen as “a betrayal of one’s origins.”
The creation of the Hassan II Foundation for Moroccans Residing Abroad and the Ministry of the Moroccan Community Residing Abroad in 1990 marked the beginning of a fundamental shift in relations between Morocco and its diaspora. Over the course of the 1990s, the Moroccan state began to perceive its communities abroad as a resource in a broader sense, reflecting a more general shift towards what Ragazzi has called a form of “diasporic governmentality” in which states with high rates of emigration seek to forge stronger ties with the diaspora and rebrand themselves as a “global nation.”
As time has passed, Islam has emerged at the forefront of this state endeavour to reinforce the bonds between Moroccan nationals abroad and their homeland. Yet religion had originally attracted very little attention from state officials, who habitually did not go beyond sending small delegations of imams to Western European countries during the month of Ramadan. The religious field abroad relied largely on informal kin and family networks to find imams for new mosques and prayer spaces, while the influence of more politically charged Moroccan currents such as Abdelkrim Mouti‘’s Islamic Youth and Abdessalam Yassine’s al-‘Adl wa’l-Ihsān was only sporadically felt. Conversely, many second-generation Moroccans in Western Europe became involved in pan-Islamic movements such as the apolitical Tabligh or groups affiliated to different currents of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Unsurprisingly, Moroccan officials reacted most vigorously when competition in the religious field was perceived as coming from their perennial rival Algeria, such as in the case of the mosque of Évry-Courcouronnes in the southern suburbs of Paris. The Évry mosque was completed in 1990 thanks to a decade of fundraising efforts by a group of Moroccan migrants who initially secured financial support from Saudi Arabia and to a lesser degree Kuwait, and thereafter from the newly founded Hassan II Foundation. However, a series of internal conflicts within the mosque management raised the spectre of groups close to Algeria taking control of the mosque, leading the Moroccan ambassador to write home a missive equipped with an action plan entitled “Saving Moroccan Islam in France.” Not long thereafter, Moroccan officials succeeded in co-opting the National Federation of French Muslims (FNMF), an association that had begun as a multi-ethnic associative organization, in order to create a counterweight to the monopoly that Algeria had held through its control of the Great Mosque of Paris. Over the coming years, Morocco would gradually shift its diplomatic and financial support from the Amicales to a growing network of Moroccan Islamic associations across the country.
While always relevant in the case of France, the paradigm of Moroccan-Algerian rivalry in the religious field began to fade as the stakes became more diversified at the European level. By the 2000–2010, Moroccan Muslim leaders and associations were well established in Belgium and the Netherlands, in direct dialogue with state officials in the German Islamkonferenz, at the head of the Great Mosque of Rome (the largest in Europe), and were thoroughly redefining the Islamic landscape in Spain from their base in Barcelona. Moreover, in 2008, King Mohammed VI founded the European Council of Moroccan Ulama (CEOM) in Brussels and Rabat with the goal of better coordinating Moroccan Islamic associations across the continent. These evolutions abroad took place in the wake of series of developments back home that would lay the groundwork for the Moroccan state to increase and reinforce its transnational presence in the Muslim religious fields of Western Europe.
The Restructuration of the Moroccan Religious Field
Following the shock of the Casablanca attacks, in 2004, King Mohammed VI delivered a speech announcing the official restructuration of the religious field. The extensive series of reforms launched by the monarchy has had an across-the-board impact on Islamic affairs in the country: the reforms have created new departments of religious bureaucracy in the Ministry of Habous and Islamic Affairs, targeted institutions of Islamic education and their curricula, established a monopoly over fatwas at the level of the Ulama High Council, institutionalized the position of female preachers (murshidāt) in the state administration, and brought about a massive training programme for the approximately 46,000 imams in the country. One of the most prominent changes brought about by these reforms has been the increased formal presence of the state in the religious field and the “bureaucratization” of imams and other religious officials as state employees.
Given the transnational nature of the Moroccan religious field, it would have been surprising had the diaspora not been included in these reforms. One of the most notable changes has been the move to centralize all religious activities abroad under the auspices of the Ministry of Habous and Islamic Affairs, which has been led since 2002 by Ahmed Toufiq, a university professor and member of the Sufi Qadiriyya Boutchichiya order. The size of the Ramadan imam delegations has steadily increased each year and currently involves over 500 individuals, the majority of whom are Qur’an reciters, but also male and female preachers as well as theology professors. The delegations are sent to dozens of countries around the world, though primarily to Western Europe, where Islamic associations close to the Moroccan state help in organizing and coordinating their activities. The Habous ministry has also provided approximately 10–11 million euros per year for mosque construction projects and Islamic associations abroad since at least 2010.
While the Ramadan delegations and yearly financial contributions represent impressive displays of religious diaspora policies, it is worthwhile asking what concrete impact they have on the development of Islam in Western Europe. For instance, given that the Ramadan imams do not stay longer than one month and often spend their time travelling between different mosque communities it is doubtful that their influence extends beyond these temporary holiday periods. In the case of direct funding, at times conditions do seem to have been attached, such as preserving the “Moroccan character” of the mosque in the case of the Great Mosque of St-Étienne in France. Nevertheless, the Moroccan state does not have the capacity to directly intervene in the religious field outside of its borders with the same sovereign authority as it does at home. As a result, while Western European politicians may criticize the “long arm of the Moroccan king,” mosques associations abroad cannot be forced to obey orders from Rabat.
To the contrary, one might even ask if the religious personnel sent abroad has the necessary training to understand the realities lived by Moroccans in the diaspora—as one member of the Moroccan parliament did in 2017. Indeed, while the Moroccan state takes care to screen the imams and preachers sent abroad for views not in accordance with official state policy, such as those perceived to be close to Islamist currents or al-‘Adl wa’l Ihsān, it does not require them to have much background knowledge concerning the countries to which they are sent. Consequently, the state has launched several new programmes in order to address this line of criticism.
First, the Habous ministry now employs 30 imams in France on a semi-permanent basis thanks to an interstate agreement concluded in 2008. This new policy seems to imitate the diaspora policies employed by Turkey and Algeria and opens up the possibility for developing an on-the-ground understanding of the needs and demands of Moroccan Muslims abroad. In addition, it establishes an extra layer of control over the content and form of what is said in mosques abroad. Home state oversight of the religious field abroad can prove to be quite effective at times: when Moroccan authorities began to feel that their erstwhile partners, the Rally of French Muslims (RMF) had become too close to the Moroccan Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) in 2012, they wasted no time in replacing them with a new national associative structure through the creation of the Union of French Mosques (UMF) the following year.
Second, the founding of the European Council of Moroccan Ulama (CEOM) by royal decree in 2008 has also been with the goal of contributing to “the instauration of a Moroccan religious reference in Europe for the benefit of the Moroccan Muslim community.” The CEOM organizes seminars and events with partner associations across Western Europe and has focused in particular on imam training seminars, which, as opposed to the Ramadan delegations, are designed to be inclusive and not to “worry about the [religious] identity or affiliation of the imams.” The composition of the council itself reflects this rather hodgepodge theological outlook in which nationalism is the common denominator: the CEOM brings together Saudi-trained theologians and the son of the head of the Boutchichiya Sufi order, as well as members with less training in Islamic studies but substantial experience as religious figures in Western European countries.
Finally and perhaps most importantly, the newly founded Mohammed VI Institute for the Training of Imams, Morchidines, and Morchidates has received French students of Moroccan origin since 2015 thanks to an agreement signed between the president François Hollande and Moroccan authorities. The Franco-Moroccan students receive full scholarships and study specially designed programmes with the goal of returning and taking up positions as religious leaders back home. The number of French students hovers between 30 and 50, which is small when compared with the Moroccan and other foreign students (including hundreds from Western African countries); however, these European-born and Moroccan-trained religious leaders nevertheless represent a significant new variable that will have an impact on the development of Islamic authorities in Western Europe. In a similar fashion, the Qarawiyyin University of Fez, which is tied to the Habous ministry and supervises the Mohammed VI imam training institute, signed an agreement with the University of Siena in Italy in 2017 so as to participate in the training of Italian imams.
Despite the many obstacles, recent Moroccan religious diaspora policy has endeavoured to adapt to the realities of Moroccan Muslims living in Western European contexts. These new policy initiatives are designed to accomplish a set of complementary goals: institutionalize a more direct and permanent presence on the ground for Moroccan religious authorities abroad; retain control over the intermediaries in the diaspora (mosque associations and Islamic federations) by means of financial subsidies and religious personnel; and influence the development of Islam abroad by training the next generation of religious leaders. Yet what might be the contribution of Morocco to a European Islam that goes beyond a simple reaffirmation of Moroccan nationalism?
Moroccan Islam and an Emerging European Islam
In terms of theology, it is still hard to image the contours of a “European Islam.” What school of fiqh will it follow, or will there truly be a fiqh of minorities? Which authorities will it listen to when deciding the starting date for Ramadan?
Of course, the most obvious answer is that there will be as much theological diversity in Europe as in any other Muslim society. Nevertheless, the development of distinct transnational religious fields in Western Europe that are fragmented along ethnic and linguistic lines, but which are within a generalized context of Muslims as minority communities, raises the question of the degree to which this diversity will simply reflect the national origins of migrants and their descendants abroad. Hashas, following scholars such as Jørgen Nielsen, argues strongly that European Muslims are in the midst of creating their own pluralist theology, which has certain identifiable traits such as the rationalization of religious ethics. Jouili similarly draws attention to how central Islamic concepts such as maslaha (“common good”) and the search for the common good (istislāh) are reemployed by female Muslims in Germany and France so as to provide a pious yet rational means of understanding a Muslim’s actions and relationships vis-à-vis the non-Muslim majority.
In the case of Morocco, state religious officials are apt to mention that the Maliki school gives special importance to local community traditions and the concept of maslaha over more rigid literal interpretations. Moreover, they contend that it is thanks to this flexibility that Islam has adapted so well to Morocco’s multi-ethnic population and that it might do so in the context of Europe as well. Indeed, the Council for the Moroccan Community Abroad has even organized an international conference and published a book specifically on the question of the possible models for Islam in Europe and the potential role for Moroccan Islam. In a complementary fashion, Halverson has argued that the Ash‘ari creed’s esteem for rational thought holds the potential to create new spaces for interpretation (ijtihād) and renewal (tajdīd) in a way that is quite opposed to the literalist and conservative visions promoted by Wahhabi Salafist movements, but which is quite similar the cases of female European Muslims as analyzed by Jouili.
In the best of worlds, these few cases may represent examples where Moroccan national religious traditions could plausibly make a contribution to the theological development of European Islam. However, it is important to keep in mind that when religion is tied to the state it is just as beholden to the changing contingencies of state interests as any other element of public policy. Indeed, Morocco had no qualms about supporting Wahhabi Salafism in the past in its bid to quash leftist movements in the 1970s and 1980s. At the same time, despite the worries of Western European lawmakers, the influence of home states such as Morocco in the religious field abroad remains tenuous. True, Morocco may play a key role in establishing certain frames of reference for its diaspora communities abroad and it has the capacity to act as a source of symbolic and monetary capital. However, this structural reality does not diminish the agency of those concerned: ultimately, European Islam will be the reflection of what millions of European Muslims make of their faith.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation
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To cite this article
Benjamin Bruce, “Morocco on the Road to European Islam”, Oasis, year XIV, n. 28, December 2018, pp. 45-53.
Benjamin Bruce, “Morocco on the Road to European Islam”, Oasis [online], published on 27th March 2019, URL: https://www.oasiscenter.eu/en/morocco-on-the-road-to-european-islam.