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.
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.
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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."