Mohamed Chtatou
Last updated: 19 May, 2016

“This is something that can easily be copycatted in other countries of the Muslim world”

The Imam Academy is, probably, the first organized reaction to the massive fundamentalist tsunami in religious preaching and education, writes Dr. Mohamed Chtatou.

Mohammed VI is quite a taciturn monarch in comparison to his late father Hassan II, the eloquent orator; keen on public speaking and giving interviews to foreign press. The son believes more in deeds than words and, indeed, since his accession to the throne, he hardly gave 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 continuously strived to strike a balance between different religious currents, social tendencies and economic interests. The task has always been difficult, if not impossible. Still, one must acknowledge that the political system has undoubtedly been quite successful in keeping the country united and inclusive.

Monarch’s religious clout

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, his religious clout or actions. Interestingly enough, his religious status is, even, recognized in many countries in West Africa, who acknowledge his religious title of “Commander of the Faithful,” especially among the Tidjane communities in the Western parts of the continent.

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 generally of mountains inhabited by Berbers, who recognized the religious authority of the sultan but not his political role; 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.

Because of the importance of the religious field, the Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs was always located in the Mechouar (palace’s precinct) so that the Monarch could walk to the ministry whenever he deemed it necessary, in order to oversee 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 speeches to the nation with verses, surats, of the Koran and intersperse them with sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, hadiths, which gave his words a kind of sacredness, even though most people did not understand such speeches because they were delivered in classical Arabic and not in darija, the local Arabic idiom.


Islamist frustration in Morocco

Following the Iranian revolution in 1979, and the subsequent rise of political Islam in the Muslim world, Islamists took control of the religious matters in most Muslim countries because local political leadership had either secular inclinations or did not consider religion as an important issue of daily life. To give their campaign importance and gain in membership, they, also, invested effort, money and dedication in social affairs, a good example of that is the Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) 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, 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, militant Islamists 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 the religious faith in Morocco.

Proactive management of the religious field

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 aimed at empowering the needy and alleviating poverty.

This was followed by a rigorous program of training for Imams (religious preachers) 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 other women to 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 experience.

However, the most important achievement in the present monarch’s progressive management of the faith issues is the opening, on March 27, 2015, of Mohammed VI Institute for the Training of Imams, Morchidines and Morchidates, initiated to play a leading role in fighting religious radicalism.

The Imam Academy is, probably, the first organized reaction to the massive fundamentalist tsunami in religious preaching and education. Until now, radical Islam, quite aptly, had the upper hand in religious education, or rather, religious indoctrination, brainwashing the youth in hating anyone standing against their philosophy – especially the West, for its secularism and democracy.

This institute is training Moroccan students as well as clergy from countries such as Nigeria, Chad, Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire and France. Soon students from Tunisia and the Russian Federation will join.

The academy provides a curriculum in religious topics such as Koranic interpretation, exegesis, Sayings of the Prophet (Hadith) and his doings (Sunnah), as well as Islamic law (shari’a). It also provides education in the humanities, mainly: history, geography, philosophy, psychology and sociology, subjects that are despised by the Islamists because they stimulate critical thinking.

The duration of the training is a full year for Moroccan students and two years for the others. The French, however, will have to spend three years after which they will be granted a degree to become official Imams in their own country.

Morocco leading the way

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. To be sure, this is something that can easily be copycatted in other countries of the Muslim world.

So, not only has Morocco survived the Islamist undertow, but it is also leading the way toward a more moderate Islam, accepting other faiths and cultures and being respectful of their differences. It was certainly about time Muslim moderates stood up to extremism in an orderly manner.