Restructuring the Religious Sector in Morocco

Nipping Religious Extremism in the Bud

Morocco's King Mohammed VI has restructured the religious sector in his kingdom for the second time. He hopes that these new sweeping reforms of the religious establishment will promote a moderate brand of Islam and nip radical Islamism in the bud. Alfred Hackensberger has the details

Morrocco's King Mohammed VI and praying Muslims (photo: dpa/DW)
On the king's initiative, the country's religious sector is facing a
fundamental restructuring, affecting imams, mosques and Moroccans
living abroad

​​ Sheikh Mohammed Maghraoui's vindication of the marriage of nine-year-old girls was greeted with public outrage and indignation. Human rights and women's rights organisations voiced their objections and the 60-year-old theologian was denounced in the media as an advocate of rape and child abuse.

A court case has even been brought against the sheikh. As far as Mohammed Maghraoui is concerned, however, he cannot see that he has done anything wrong. He argues that when he issued the fatwa (a judgement issued on a point of Islamic law) on his website declaring that it is "not forbidden" for a man to marry a nine-year-old girl, he was merely interpreting Islam literally. Says Maghraoui: "The Prophet Mohammad married Aisha when she was seven and consummated the marriage when she was nine."

Ever since the authorities quickly closed his network of 60 Koranic schools, he has seen himself as the victim of a secularist campaign. None of this should really come as a surprise to the theologian, who receives funding from Saudi Arabia. Firstly, by issuing his fatwa he was encouraging people to break Morocco's family laws which, explains lawyer Toufek Laroussi of Tangier "decree that marriage for individuals below the age of 18 may only be sanctioned by a judge."

His fatwa also questions the authority of the country's Commander of the Faithful, none other than King Mohammed VI himself, who presides over the Supreme Council of Ulemas. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the council dismissed the fatwa as an "abuse of religion" and referred to the sheikh as an "agitator".

Continuing religious training for a tolerant brand of Islam

In order to prevent more sectarian fatwas of this kind in the future, Mohammed VI announced the introduction of a package of reforms that seeks to restructure the religious sector. The reforms will affect imams, mosques, and even Moroccans who live abroad.

The number of regional councils of ulemas will be increased from 30 to 69. These councils will, depending on local

Morrocco's King Mohammed VI (photo: AP)
Islam must maintain its character of tolerance in Morocco, says
Mohammed VI, who sees himself not only as head of state but also as the
"ruler of the believers" and religious leader of the country

​​ customs and traditions, "contribute to the reinforcement of national spiritual security and the promotion of a tolerant Sunni Islam." These regional councils will hold meetings in mosques and organise events at universities and women's organisations and in private homes.

The councils will also ensure that Imams attend regular continuing religious training courses in which the Moroccan state is willing to invest 200 million dirham (approx. €18 million). A special 18-strong council will be set up for the approximately 3 million Moroccans living abroad. This council will be active across borders and cultures and will "seek to protect Moroccan identity and faith."

This is the second reform of the religious sector in Morocco in recent years, the first being the reorganisation of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs in 2004 and the revision of the legislation governing mosques. The difference being that this time, the reforms are much more comprehensive. "With these reforms, the king is making it clear that he is the supreme and the only authority and that he is going to fight these self-professed theologians," says Islam expert Rachid Bezine.

Other imams

However, the objective of these reforms is not so much to target sheikhs like Mohammed Maghraoui who issue obscure fatwas, but to at last get a handle on religious extremism, which is not afraid to use violence to achieve its ends.

Since 45 people were killed in a suicide bomb attack in Casablanca in 2003, Moroccan authorities have prevented over 50 attempted Islamist attacks on targets both inside and outside the country.

The aim is to identify radicals in the early stage of their development, i.e. before it is too late and before normal young people are transformed

A mosque in Tangiers, Morrocco (photo: Alfred Hackensberger)
The religious councils set up by the king are designed to improve
control over the imams in the country's more than 40,000 mosques,
preventing further growth of radical Islamism in Morocco

​​ into Islamists who are willing to sacrifice both their own lives and the lives of others. The new regional councils and the continuing training courses for imams mean more monitoring and more outreach at the same time. "My friend might still be alive today," says Rait, who studied with Moncef Benmassaud, a suicide bomber who died in Iraq in 2007. "He was an utterly normal guy who studied, but wanted to have fun and was interested in girls. Suddenly, all of that ended," he says reflectively. "That would not have happened with a different imam."

Rait is referring to Abdelilah Fathallah, the imam at the El Yazid mosque in Jamaa Merzouak, a bleak residential quarter in the coastal city of Tetouan. Fathallah is now in prison. Rait explains that his friend Moncef and each of the thirty other young men who left Tetouan for Iraq prayed with this imam regularly before leaving the country. And this was not the first time that the El Yazid mosque was linked to terrorist attacks. A few years previously, the men responsible for the attack on the commuter trains in Madrid on 11 March 2004 had been regulars at this mosque.

Like evangelical television preachers

"Apparently all of them came because the imam recited the Koran so beautifully," explains Jamal Benhayoun, a professor of comparative cultural science at the University of Tetouan with a smile. "In reality, however, it was all about the planned manipulation of young people who were being shown a new way, a new life, by an imam." With the new structures, which were designed by the Supreme Council of Ulemas, this will be virtually impossible in the future and certainly not over a period of several years.

Rachid Benzine of the Institute of Political Studies in Aix-en-Provence sees the reform package less positively. Writing in the French daily Le Monde, he warns against the spread of a radical brand of Islamism on the Internet and on a number of television channels broadcasting from the Gulf. He points out that today's Islamist preachers are working like Evangelical television preachers. "This being the case, there are no guarantees that the reforms will have the desired effect."

It is correct to say that propaganda on the Internet or on some television channels plays a role, but the path from reading about jihad to actually detonating a bomb is a long one. It requires a kind of "transmitter" who, like the imam at the little mosque in Tetouan, provides the necessary incentive and above all the contacts and the money.

Alfred Hackensberger

© Qantara.de 2008

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

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