Geopolitics

The Moroccan Model: Using Islam To Fight Extremism In Africa

For the past 50 years, religion has been a key element in Moroccan diplomacy with its African neighbors. Now it's part of the fight against Islamic terrorism on the continent.

Moroccan imam at the Shrine of Moulay Ismail
Moroccan imam at the Shrine of Moulay Ismail
Charlotte Bozonnet

RABAT — In the capital's university district of Madinat Al-Irfane, this particular school campus is three hectares (7.5 acres) wide, and all shiny and new. Visitors walk through a labyrinth of patios and courtyards designed in a traditional architectural style to arrive at the area dedicated to classes — huge amphitheaters equipped with overhead projectors and about 10 computer rooms.

The Rabat complex cost almost $23 million and also has a 1,250-seat mosque and a sports field. "It was built in nine months, a feat," director Abdeslam Lazaar says proudly.

Announced last year, the Institute Mohammed VI, which trains imams and preachers, was inaugurated by the king himself on March 27. Since then, it has opened its doors to the first student-residents. With a capacity of 1,000, it already counts 700 students, among them 250 Moroccans and 450 foreigners: 212 from Mali, 37 from Tunisia, about 100 from Guinea, some from Ivory Coast, and 22 French people sent by the Union of Mosques.

Foreigners are gathered by nationality and are provided with accommodation and meals during the two years of their training, which consists of common classes with a few personalized ones depending on the country.

"They need to master Islamic sciences, but also human sciences, history and communications," Lazaar explains. "The ultimate goal of all this work is to fight radicalism and religious misinterpretations."

Supervising imams isn't new in Morocco. After the 2003 terrorist attacks in Casablanca, in which 45 people were killed, the government firmly took back control of its religious sphere.

A Moroccan mosque in Meknès Photo: Lietmotiv

"It's just more formal now," says Islamic Affairs Minister Ahmed Toufiq, who's involved in the project. Every year, Morocco trains 150 imams and 50 preachers. Over the course of two days, all of the country's 50,000 active imams must participate in a training session. On theory, the authorities promote an Islam based on the Maliki rite (one of the four legal Sunni schools, used in most of North Africa), which is "moderated and tolerant" and revolves around the image of a king commanding believers. "Nowadays, we have to protect ourselves against the threats, but also protect other people worldwide," Toufiq says.

Concessions and suppressions

While numerous countries are wondering how to fight the influence of radical Islam, Rabat asserts a "Moroccan model." Since independence from France in 1956, religion has been a key element in Moroccan diplomacy towards Africa. "Recent events in the region brought our strategy back on the agenda," says anthropologist Mohamed-Sghir Janjar.

Since 2001, King Mohammed VI has completed five tours around Africa, and he could be preparing for a sixth. While economic issues still top the agenda, religious matters are also top of mind because of the rise of terrorism. "The country counts on its historical relationship with Sub-Saharan Africa that never deteriorated," Janjar says. Apart from the fact that the Maliki school is very common in Africa, the Moroccan monarchy maintains ancient ties with the Sufi societies settled in this sub-region.

The first agreement for the training of imams was signed with the latest elected president of Mali, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, in 2013. Imams sent from Mali's capital of Bamako were first welcomed in existing Rabat schools until new applications convinced the Palace to build a new institution. Besides the Ivory Coast, Guinea and Turkey, Chad and Niger showed some real interest along with European countries such as Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy.

For Morocco, which wants to appear as a leader in the fight against terrorism, the project is a success in terms of image. But it's also a means to promote its political model: Confronted with a social uprising during the 2011 Arab Spring, Moroccan authorities answered with a mixture of concessions and suppressions.

"During those months of training, students learn how to serve the religion, the country and the citizens," Lazaar says. "Those who don't respect this will be asked to leave the institute."

The student imams, who often come from troubled countries, understand Moroccan stability. "Mali has been living with terrible terrorism problem for years without finding any solution, whereas Morocco handled the situation quite well," explains Mamadou Issa Coulibaly, who represents Mali's Ministry for Religious Affairs in Rabat.

In Morocco, around 1,200 young people are believed to have left the country to join international jihadist organizations. "Today, we have to face worldwide forces that develop new forms of interpretations for Islam and spread it on the Internet for an educated youth," says Janjar. "Far from the traditional ways of socialization like the family, imams and mosque. It will be important to review these training experiences and their influence."

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Queen Elizabeth II with UK PM Boris Johnson at a reception at Windsor Castle yesterday

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Hej!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where chaos hits Syria, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is accused of crimes against humanity and a social media giant plans to rebrand itself. For Spanish daily La Razon, reporter Paco Rodríguez takes us to the devastated town of Belchite, where visitors are reporting paranormal phenomenons.

[*Danish]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Syrian violence erupts: Army shelling on residential areas of the rebel-held region of northwestern Syria killed 13 people, with school children among the victims. The attack occurred shortly after a bombing killed at least 14 military personnel in Damascus. In central Syria, a blast inside an ammunition depot kills five soldiers.

• Renewed Ethiopia air raids on capital of embattled Tigray region: Ethiopian federal government forces have launched its second air strike this week on the capital of the northern Tigray. The air raids mark a sharp escalation in the near-year-old conflict between the government forces and the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) that killed thousands and displaced over 2 million people.

• Bolsonaro accused of crimes against humanity: A leaked draft government report concludes that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro should be charged with crimes against humanity, forging documents and incitement to crime, following his handling of the country's COVID-19 pandemic. The report blames Bolsonaro's administration for more than half of Brazil's 600,000 coronavirus deaths.

• Kidnappers in Haiti demand $17 million to free a missionary group: A Haitian gang that kidnapped 17 members of a Christian aid group, including five children, demanded $1million ransom per person. Most of those being held are Americans; one is Canadian.

• Putin bows out of COP26 in Glasgow: Russian President Vladimir Putin will not fly to Glasgow to attend the COP26 climate summit. A setback for host Britain's hopes of getting support from major powers for a more radical plan to tackle climate change.

• Queen Elizabeth II cancels trip over health concerns: The 95-year-old British monarch has cancelled a visit to Northern Ireland after she was advised by her doctors to rest for the next few days. Buckingham Palace assured the queen, who attended public events yesterday, was "in good spirits."

• A new name for Facebook? According to a report by The Verge website, Mark Zuckerberg's social media giant is planning on changing the company's name next week, to reflect its focus on building the "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"Oil price rise causes earthquake," titles Portuguese daily Jornal I as surging demand coupled with supply shortage have driven oil prices to seven-year highs at more than $80 per barrel.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

98

For the first time women judges have been appointed to Egypt's State Council, one of the country's main judicial bodies. The council's chief judge, Mohammed Hossam el-Din, welcomed the 98 new judges in a celebratory event in Cairo. Since its inception in 1946, the State Council has been exclusively male and until now actively rejected female applicants.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Spanish civil war town now a paranormal attraction

Ghosts from Spain's murderous 1930s civil war are said to roam the ruins of Belchite outside Zaragoza. Tourists are intrigued and can book a special visit to the town, reports Paco Rodríguez in Madrid-based daily La Razon.

🏚️ Between August 24 and September 6, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, more than 5,000 people died in 14 days of intense fighting in Belchite in north-eastern Spain, and the town was flattened. The fighting began on the outskirts and ended in house-to-house fighting. Almost half the town's 3,100 residents died in the struggle. The war annihilated centuries of village history. The town was never rebuilt, though a Pueblo Nuevo (or new town) was built by the old one.

😱 Belchite became an open-air museum of the horror of the civil war of 1936-39, which left 300,000 dead and wounds that have yet to heal or, for some today, mustn't. For many locals, the battle of Belchite has yet to end, judging by reports of paranormal incidents. Some insist they have heard the screams of falling soldiers, while others say the Count of Belchite wanders the streets, unable to find a resting place after his corpse was exhumed.

🎟️ Ordinary visitors have encountered unusual situations. Currently, you can only visit Belchite at set times every day, with prior booking. More daring visitors can also visit at 10 p.m. on weekends. Your ticket does not include a guaranteed paranormal experience, but many visitors insist strange things have happened to them. These include sudden changes of temperature or the strange feeling of being observed from a street corner or a window. Furthermore, such phenomena increase as evening falls, as if night brought the devastated town to life.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

We still cling to the past because back then we had security, which is the main thing that's missing in Libya today.

— Fethi al-Ahmar, an engineer living in the Libyan desert town Bani Walid, told AFP, as the country today marks the 10-year anniversary of the death of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The leader who had reigned for 42 years over Libya was toppled in a revolt inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings and later killed by rebels. Some hope the presidential elections set in December can help the country turn the page on a decade of chaos and instability.

🇮🇷🎓  IN OTHER NEWS

Iran to offer Master's and PhD in morality enforcement

Iran will create new "master's and doctorate" programs to train state morality agents checking on people's public conduct and attire, according to several Persian-language news sources.

Mehran Samadi, a senior official of the Headquarters to Enjoin Virtues and Proscribe Vices (Amr-e be ma'ruf va nahy az monkar) said "anyone who wants to enjoin virtues must have the knowledge," the London-based broadcaster Iran International reported, citing reports from Iran.

The morality patrols, in force since the 1979 revolution, tend to focus mostly on young people and women, particularly the public appearance for the latter. Loose headscarves will send women straight to a police station, often in humiliating conditions. Five years ago, the regime announced a new force of some 7,000 additional agents checking on women's hijabs and other standards of dress and behavior.

Last week, for example, Tehran police revealed that they had "disciplined" agents who had been filmed forcefully shoving a girl into a van. Such incidents may increase under the new, conservative president, Ibrahim Raisi.

Speaking about the new academic discipline, Samadi said morals go "much further than headscarves and modesty," and those earning graduate degrees would teach agents "what the priorities are."

Iran's Islamic regime, under the guidance of Shia jurists, continuously fine tunes notions of "proper" conduct — and calibrates its own, interventionist authority. More recently the traffic police chief said women were not allowed to ride motorbikes, and "would be stopped," Prague-based Radio Farda reported.

Days before, a cleric in the holy city of Qom in central Iran insisted that people must be vaccinated by a medic of the same sex "as often as possible," and if not, there should be no pictures of mixed-sex vaccinations.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Thoughts on Facebook's new name? Zuckerverse? Tell us how the news look in your corner of the world: Drop us a note at info@worldcrunch.com!

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