Global affairs and media coverage remind us continuously of the crisis of interreligious dialogue, and the rise of extremism, terrorism and populism. The issues of religion, secularism and pacific coexistence, in particular in relation to the Muslim world, are discussed in many parts of the world. In a global environment characterized by economic crises, instability and anxiogenic migration waves, xenophobic reactions have grown. In both the Northern and Southern sides of the Mediterranean, these phenomena have fueled prejudices and exacerbated coexistence troubles. States and civil societies, including religious representatives, have sought to tackle these issues. When considering violent extremism, it is relevant to examine the policies emanating from international actors, which have considered religious extremism and the crisis of interreligious coexistence as a main issue to be tackled. A variety of approaches have been elaborated and implemented to deal with these various phenomena, involving States, religious leadership, civil societies.
The reflection focuses here on the Moroccan experience. The Moroccan State has explicitly and fiercely expressed its mobilization against religious extremism and radicalism. It has developed a wide range of targeted and coordinated actions at both the international and domestic levels, which deal with education, social, socio-economic affairs and security. These reforms, projects and resolutions are all embedded in a holistic strategy that aims to occupy the religious field, among other objectives.
At the top of this strategic policy stands the Moroccan King Mohammed VI, in his dual quality of State and religious leader (“Amir al Muminin”). He is the protector of the believers in the country, be they Muslim, Jew and Christian. Under this aegis, the King is also responsible for national unity, for the preservation of faith, life, the property and the honor of the believers. Therefore, Morocco is a Muslim State embedded in religious pluralism.
The Moroccan experience in the field of counter-extremism as well as in the field of peace and promotion of diversity is thus deliberately anchored in the country’s cultural, mystical and religious heritage. It is also characterized by a strong link between the security approach, which includes prevention, and religious diplomacy. For these motives, Morocco has succeeded in developing an original experience and in occupying an exceptional position in the matter, both in the Arab, Muslim and African world, as it is widely recognized. It has consolidated a number of antiterrorist measures which reflect an integrated multidimensional approach relying on three key vectors: consolidating security governance; combating poverty, inequality, social exclusion; and rethinking the religious field. It has come up with an enlightened set of religious values of tolerance, moderation and peaceful coexistence . The expression “mutual recognition” could however be preferred to the word “tolerance”. It implies indeed the fact that I recognize the other in his differences and that and I love and respect him as he is, whereas the term “tolerance” somehow conveys the idea that I tolerate the other because I have no choice. To put it in another way, beyond living together, we must “do” together.
We notice today many positive results of the whole Moroccan experience, an experience which is also much appreciated abroad. Many diplomats, government and international institutions’ representatives come indeed to Morocco to understand more about the axes of this experience, its implementation and results. In the struggle against extremism international, cooperation is essential.
As said before, one specific aspect of the Moroccan policy against radicalism is to invest considerably in the religious sphere, since it is considered to be the best bulwark against extremism. Indeed, one main factor that favored the growth of radical religious movements appears to be the spiritual and religious vacuum that pre-existed, and the fact that the religious and cultural heritage was unknown by part of the believers. In their search of identity, while seeking to get closer to religion, several young people, regardless of their country of origin and residency, have not found a clear and convincing religious offer emanating from traditional or conventional spheres. Many have consequently “cobbled” an approximate and somehow “google-shaped” Islam, using numerous biased, instrumental and de-contextualized interpretations of Islam shopped on the internet. For example, when we check the profile of the European terrorists who have been trapped by radical networks, we notice that most of them did not even speak Arabic and, for some of them, had never really opened a Quran, or received any theological training. Therefore, it is paramount to work on content and spread it.
This singular Moroccan policy is not only oriented towards the population living in Morocco, but also towards the Moroccans living abroad. It intervenes for instance in the training of Imams and Murshidates (women preachers), and through the religious representatives in Europe, for example within the “Conseil Européen des Oulémas Marocains” (European Council of Moroccan Ulemas), created officially in 2008.
At the same time, other initiatives need to be mentioned. For example, the “Fondation Mohammed VI des Oulémas Africains” (Mohammed VI Foundation for African Ulemas) was created in 2015. The Foundation’s main objective is to consolidate and spread Islamic values, those of a fraternal, peaceful and moderate Islam (Islam de « juste milieu » as it is said in French). A huge work has been initiated in this vein by the Moroccan Ministry of Habbous and Islamic Affairs. This work includes the training of Ulemas and preachers, women included. Enabling women to become religious leaders is very important because they have much to provide and say about Islam. Women have often suffered from male and patriarchal domination, including in the religious domain. They have been the first victims of religious extremism, but they are also those who have been very proactive in the struggle against terrorism, doing an extraordinary job that really needs to be valued and mediatized. Yet, women still suffer much from the lack of recognition regarding their contribution in the field of prevention. We must thus shed a light on their action and mobilization.
In the struggle against extremism and promotion of Islamic inclusive and fraternal values, the Moroccan experience is exemplified by the work implemented, among other institutions, by the Rabita Mohammedia of Ulemas. This institution has established, in its various centers, numerous programs and initiatives dealing with the promotion of peace, nonviolence, interreligious relations, the prevention of extremism and the struggle against it, and the support to people who have been through a radicalization process. The containment of the process of religious extremism has become one of the priorities of the institution’s engagement. It is implemented transversally in its many programs and centers.
One of the original axes of action has been the issuing of a series of seven papers in which the violent extremist discourse is deconstructed through different thematic keys, such as “jihad”, “sharia”, “rule” or “governance”, “community”, “excommunication”, etc. This work aims at deconstructing the conceptual foundations that are specific to the extremist lens, and at clarifying the main Islamic concepts, “restoring” and “liberating” them after they have been instrumentalized and pervasively misinterpreted by extremist voices.
The Muslim world suffers from the excessive weight of the norm in Islamic exegesis and thinking or, in other words, from “norm obesity”. Most of the Quran deals actually with humanist values, education, the transcending aspects, the relationship to the Other, be him a believer or a non-believer, ecology, spirituality and beauty. Indeed, the Quranic text is extremely rich, but it is rarely stressed. The Rabita Mohammedia of Ulemas has thus dedicated much effort to shed light on these values and aspects, to remind people of them, and to spread this knowledge of Islam in relation to critical thinking. To be able to do this efficiently, there is a need for valuable theological content. This is why the Rabita offers axes of reflection and actions for the future programming on the fight against online radicalization in Marocco.
Dr. Ahmed Abbadi, General Secretary of the Rabita, explains that the approach of deconstruction is articulated upon several axes: “The first axis is spreading the knowledge of original Islam, which is open and moderate in its ritual and spiritual dimensions. The second axis is deconstructing the “rigorist” discourse and offering an alternative discourse. The latter must be conveyed by ulemas (theologians) who have been habilitated. The third axis is structuring the religious field, regarding both the institutions and the content, in order to avoid any vacuum that could be infiltrated by extremism” .
All the institutions of the Islamic religious field in Morocco (The Rabita Mohamadia Of Ulemas, the Council of Ulemas, Ministry of the Habous and Islamic affairs, training structures such as Al Qarawiyin) collaborate closely and complementarily to implement this paradigmatic change.
Another important action implemented by the Rabita is related to its “Center of study and research in the field of values”, which is a unit specialized in the “struggle against risky behaviors”. Its main projects are:
- the training of young leaders, taking into consideration the “strategies of community mobilization”.
- The deployment of “intervening peer-educators” who are engaged in the prevention of risky behaviors, and deal with issues related, for instance, to violence, drug addiction and a shift into violent extremism and terrorism. This supposes an important level of proximity on the field and a transmission of good practices. The Institution has already trained 5000 peer-educators, in four years.
- The training of religious leaders which incorporates the notions of human rights, gender, violence and religious extremism; it also includes a training related to the use of social networks, to social mobilization and to community dynamics.
- the training of “key actors”, which concerns mainly the teachers, heads of schools, facilitators, community leaders, non-governmental organizations and medical staff.
- The training of “peer-educators”, selected among young people coming from fragile and destitute environments, in order to involve them in local dynamics .
The Rabita also trains medical staff and NGOs to tackle risky behaviors. More recently, it has also started the training of influencers and journalists.
More broadly, the “Center of research and study in the field of values” implements proximity activities, such as the organization of round tables targeting the youth and dealing with current affairs, risky behaviors, societal matters. Conferences and symposiums are also organized, addressing issues such as risk factors, as well as sensitization events dealing with specific key issues. These events are organized in strategic places like professional training centers, youth centers, women centers, prisons, higher education centers, etc.
In addition to its presence on virtual platforms, the research unit has created an interactive website operating as a space connecting the youth with the broader society and religious leaders. Also, the media production available on this website is quite dense; it includes a TV channel online that proposes shared videos, interviews, sensitization videos and messages and popular interviews (“micro-trottoir”), while online training sessions are also available. Alongside the videos, other kinds of productions and illustrations are also proposed.
The Rabita has also developed a network of theologians named “Réseau des Oulémas relais” (“Network of relay-ulemas”). This network is oriented towards graduates from higher education, and aims at training them on various techniques of communication and facilitation to allow them to intervene in prisons, youth centers, women centers and universities. The training also aims at transmitting cognitive content regarding issues such as violence and religious extremism, but also stalking, gender and addiction. This is meant to develop an adequate know-how and knowledge among the targeted populations. Eventually, the unit has implemented a series of activities seeking to facilitate the social inclusion of vulnerable people into the local community and to limit the risk of social exclusion and social troubles.
The Rabita is also involved in the training of “peers” in prisons targeting the detainees. It is an innovative “reconciliation” (Musalaha) approachimplemented in cooperation with the General Delegation to the penitentiary administration and rehabilitation and the National Council of Human Rights and various experts. This action is part of larger program of struggle against violent extremism in prisons, focusing on reconciliation, rehabilitation and resocialization in favor of prisoners who have been accused of terrorism. This program, initiated in March 2016, aims at sensitizing the population incarcerated in Moroccan prisons, by providing it with an alternative discourse aimed at struggling against violent extremism and terrorism. The program is partly implemented in cooperation with the Japanese government, and with the United Nations Development Program. The aim is more precisely to propose trainings to prison directors, prison employees and detainees with a focus on the opening to alterity and tolerance, and on countering radical discourses in prison environments . The project targets a few detainees who, after having acquired the necessary knowledge and know-how, become “peers” and animate themselves training and sensitization sessions in prison. The approach is participative and inclusive.
Last but not least, the activities and projects implemented by Al Fitra Unit, another unit affiliated to the Rabita, deserves to be highlighted. The unit, together with its own network of young leaders, intervenes in schools. Finally, the work done by the Center of interfaith and peacebuilding, which is also affiliated to the Rabita, is also to be stressed. The Center focuses on the promotion of peace-building and non-violence, and on women leadership for peace and security. It should be reminded indeed that women are also much engaged in the religious field and in the struggle against extremism.
Ultimately, on the basis of what has just been presented, a few recommendations can be formulated to help in the struggle against radicalism and extremism.
- To reconnect with complex thinking, as conceived of by Edgar Morin, to enhance the understanding of violent extremism and better struggle against it. We have to be aware that this issue is complex and that the approach to solve it is also complex.
- To renew the approaches to counter evolving processes; we have to continuously adapt to transforming phenomena and processes, and acknowledge randomity since everyday, new profiles of terrorists appear, and to question our theories, which is not an easy task.
- To not discount religion in the struggle against religious extremism. It is essential to incorporate all the religious aspects in the struggle. Some religious aspects can be a problem, at certain point, but religious factors can also be the solution. The suggestion is to use religion as a spiritual and theological source to build a wall against fanaticism and religious fanaticism. One should deal with religious discourses and their symbolism not necessarily as instruments of violent actors but as sources of theological and spiritual diversity which can barricade fanatism and ideological take over.
- To incorporate, at the core of the religious discourse, the humanist values preached by Islam, and to make them known and spread them.
- To invest in a genuine and demanding interreligious dialogue with humility, taking into consideration the differences and similarities between different religious parties, doctrines, etc.
- To share and cross research, studies, good practices and data, for example by developing digital/online libraries and platforms for researchers and for all citizens.
- To invest further in training the youth and women for the consolidation of a good leadership. More broadly, and to invest significantly in long term education, in order to provide the youth with an education centered on humanist and inclusive citizenship and open them to diversity, including through religious education.
- To emphasize and acknowledge further the contribution of women in this field. Women are still unsufficiently included and under-represented in the programs and policies against extremism, and under-trained in these aspects. The spheres of counter-terrorism and counter-radicalization are still highly dominated by a male presence, andm more generally, the spheres of decision-making.
- To better grasp the steps, trajectories and motivations of the people who have been through a process of radicalization and have been tempted by violent extremism.
 Cf. Note of the permanent mission of the Moroccan Kingdom in Geneva untitled : « L’expérience du Royaume du Maroc dans la prévention et la lutte contre l’extrémisme violent ».
 Contre la radicalisation islamique – Ahmed Abbadi : « comment le Maroc s’y prend ».
 Cf. http://global-ssmart.org/fr/solution/promotion-de-la-tolerance-en-milieu-carceral
Proceedings of the Study Seminar
A Strategic Perspective on “Religion, Peace, and Security”
Dr. Elie Al Hindy: “Interreligious Dialogue: Three Levels of Engagement for Peace and Security”
Dr. Majeda Omar: “The Amman Message and Other Insights from Jordan”
Prof. Aicha Haddou: Preventing Extremism: The Moroccan “Experience”
Imam Yahya Pallavicini: Policies and Initiatives Against the Radical Discourse in the MENA Region
“Religion, Peace, and Security: Challenges and Prosepcts in the MENA Region”