The Imam Academy against radical Islam

The Moroccan monarchy and has always striven to strike a balance between different religious currents, social tendencies and economic interests.

Moroccan king Mohammed VI (right) and his brother Prince Moulay Rachid in the Moroccan capital Rabat in September 2011 (photo credit: PHILIPPE WOJAZER / REUTERS)
Moroccan king Mohammed VI (right) and his brother Prince Moulay Rachid in the Moroccan capital Rabat in September 2011
Mohammed VI is quite a taciturn monarch in comparison to his late father, Hassan II, an eloquent speaker, keen on public speaking and giving interviews to foreign press. The son, unlike the father, believes more in deeds than words and, indeed, since his accession to the throne has hardly given any interviews to the media, be it national or foreign.
The Moroccan monarchy is one of the oldest in the world, dating back to the Idrisid dynasty (788 – 974) and has always striven to strike a balance between different religious currents, social tendencies and economic interests and achieve equilibrium for the sake of stability. The task has always been difficult, if not impossible, but this political system has been successful through time in keeping the country united and inclusive.
The monarch in Morocco is the head of the state, but most importantly, he is “the Commander of the Faithful”; amir al-mu’minin, a religious office that gives him a quasi- sacrosanct status. Ordinary people would often criticize his political acts, his worldly decisions in running the affairs of the country, but hardly ever his religious clout or actions. Interestingly enough, his religious status is recognized even in many countries of Western Africa, especially among the Tidjane communities in Western Africa.
In the 19th century, Morocco was divided into two political territories, but it was still one country. There was bled al-makhzen, land under total control of the central government, and bled as-siba, “land of dissidence,” made up generally of mountains inhabited by Berbers, who recognized the religious but not temporal authority of the sultan, since they often refused to pay taxes to him.
But in spite of this quiet and muted rebellion of the Berbers against the sultan, his religious clout remained intact. The inhabitants of the mountains made Friday prayers and the ensuing sermon khutba in his name, as well as all other prayers, especially prayers for the rain followed by a procession, called taghunja.
Because of the importance of the religious field, the Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs was always located in the Mechouar (palace precinct) so that the monarch can walk to the ministry whenever he deems it necessary, to oversee personally the management of religious affairs of the country.
During the reign of Hassan II (1961- 1999), a very conservative monarch, he made it a rule to always start and end his numerous speeches to the nation with verses of the Koran, and intersperse them with sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, or hadiths, which gave his words a kind of sacredness and his message utmost importance, even though most of the people did not understand such speeches because they were delivered in classical Arabic and not in darija, the local Arabic idiom.
Following the Iranian revolution in 1979, and the subsequent rise of political Islam in the Muslim world, Islamists easily took control of religious matters in most Muslim countries because local political leadership had either secular inclinations or did not consider religion an important aspect of daily life. To give their campaigns importance and gain in membership, the Islamist groups also invested effort and money in social affairs. A good example of the Ikhwan in Egypt assisting poor people with education, health and living expenses.
In Morocco, the Islamists were frustrated by the predominant role of the conservative monarchy in religious affairs, epitomized by the yearly act of allegiance called bey’a, presented by officials to the “Commander of the Faithful” on the day of his accession to the throne, to give his office a religious blessing. As a result, they indulged in violence in the Casablanca bombings of May 3, 2003, leading to the death of 47 innocent people. This dramatic event served as a wakeup call to Mohammed VI to review his management of religion in Morocco.
As a follow-up to this dramatic event, Mohammed VI launched on May 18, 2005 the National Human Development Initiative (INDH), a national solidarity project aiming at empowering the needy and alleviating poverty.
This was followed by a rigorous program of training of imams in the conservative and moderate Malekite doctrine and school of thought and, for the first time, women were included as clergy and were trained to initiate womenfolk into moderate Islam. They were called mourchidate and have achieved incredible success in counseling women in religious affairs, to the extent that many countries copied this model.
However, the most important achievement in the present monarch’s progressive management of the faith issues is the opening, on March 27, 2015, of the Mohammed VI Institute for the Training of Imams, Morchidines and Morchidates, slated to play a leading role in fighting religious radicalism and violence related to extremist interpretation of the Islamic faith in Morocco and the world.
The Imam Academy in Rabat is, probably, the first organized reaction to the massive fundamentalist tsunami in religious preaching and education. Until now, radical Islam has had the upper hand in religious education, or rather religious indoctrination, brainwashing the youth into hating anyone standing against their philosophy and teachings, and especially the West, for its secularism and democracy.
This institute is training at the moment Moroccan students as well as clergy from such countries as Nigeria, Chad, Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire and France. Soon students from Tunisia and the Russian Federation will join.
The Institute provides not only training in religious subjects but also in the humanities, mainly history, geography, philosophy, psychology and sociology – subjects despised by the Islamists because they foster critical and free thinking.
The duration of the training is a full year for Moroccan students and two years for the others. The French will have to spend three years at the academy, after which they will be granted a degree to become official imams in their own countries.
Mohammed VI has not only succeeded in keeping Morocco safe from the Islamist tsunami and the ill-fated Arab Spring and its dire consequences, but has, also, successfully initiated a paying strategy to combat radical religious indoctrination, which for the moment is available only in Morocco but can be easily copied in other countries.
So, not only has Morocco miraculously survived the Islamist undertow, but it is also leading the way toward a more moderate Islam, accepting of other faiths and cultures and respectful of their differences.
And it was about time Muslim moderates stood up to extremism in an orderly manner.
The author is a political analyst for the Middle East and North African region, based in Rabat, Morocco.