Will Morocco’s imam training program work?

Will Morocco’s imam training program work?
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Morocco imam training program is seeking to counter extremism by taking a holistic approach to moderate teaching, undermining the power of ISIS.

The recent spate of horrific attacks in Baghdad, Dhaka, Jeddah, Qatif, Medina, Sholakia, and Nice, all within days of each other and all claimed by ISIS, has raised a question in the minds of observers everywhere: how do we stop them?

The rapid pace with which ISIS took territory in 2014, as well as the spread of its ideology, has left the world perplexed. Actors around the globe have responded to this threat through military force with coalitions: with the U.S, France, Russia, and the UAE conducting airstrikes and ground combat, as well as through intelligence sharing cooperation. The White House also launched its Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Summit to devise a counter-strategy with input from local, federal, and international leaders.

Yet, ISIS, with its extremist interpretation of Sunni Islam, still manages to recruit youth through the use of independent extremist preachers. ISIS, unlike other traditional terrorist groups like Al Qaeda, has made a point of reaching out to individuals outside their group, thus making it possible for individuals, or lone wolves, to partake in its ideology and extremist mission without officially being part of ISIS.

While many of these fighters have been drawn from ‘the usual suspects’- radicals in the Gulf, second generation European Muslims disillusioned with an ideal of freedom that seems to exclude them – ISIS has proven particularly adaptive and resilient, accepting almost any volunteer, recruiting fighters using personalized targeting, and resisting attempts at discrediting its violent ideology in the eyes of young volunteers.

Morocco’s soft-power counter-extremism strategy

While Morocco has been spared the large numbers of ISIS recruits that bedevil neighboring Tunisia, many are still worried about the estimated 1,500 fighters who have gone to fight for ISIS in Syria. To counter this trend, the Kingdom of Morocco has devised an innovative policy to supplement Morocco’s existing CVE efforts; put in place after the May 2003 terrorist attacks in Casablanca.

In addition to the post-May 2003 reforms that instituted centralized control of religious affairs, in 2013 Morocco launched an internationally oriented imam training policy to curb the rise of independent and extremist preachers and streamline religious in line with moderate “Moroccan-style” Islam, based on the Sunni Maliki school of thought.

In March 2015, Morocco inaugurated the new Mohammed VI Institute for Imam Training in Rabat, thus, institutionalizing the training of Moroccan, African, and European preachers and religious scholars. Morocco’s vision is to become a hub for moderate religious training, exporting their brand of Islam to West Africa and Europe.

The Moroccan plan shows promise: in three years, institute has trained 212 Malian, 37 Tunisian, 100 Guinean, 75 Ivorian, and 23 French imams, a total of 447 foreign imams. Morocco has also signed a memorandum of understanding with Russia to train Russian imams, and has received a request from Senegal for Dakar to partake in the training program.

The program’s curriculum is designed with input from the students’ countries of origin and provides a diverse education that includes humanities, languages, psychology, and jurisprudence, to name only a few. The curriculum is a year long for Moroccan students, two years for sub-Saharan African students, and three years long for French students. The longer duration for foreign students is designed to “unwind” the bad religious training the students received throughout their careers as imams, making them stronger opponents of ISIS, as the group often relies on recruits’ limited knowledge of Islamic tenets.

Does the program have in-built biases?

While it is too early to judge the effectiveness of the training program – three years is too short of a time-frame to truly assess impact – one might question the efficacy of streamlining religious education across different countries, cultures, and socio-political contexts. By doing so, Morocco might be unconsciously adopting the same mantra as ISIS and company: that subscribing to their particular interpretation and worldview is the only true way to be a Muslim.

Indeed, the longer curricula for foreign students compared to Moroccans may infer that only Moroccan Islam is the “right” interpretation of Islam, and that foreign imams’ interpretation of the religion may be corrupted. The foreign imams are trained to preach an interpretation of Islam that was formed over centuries of political and cultural influence, particular to Morocco.

The program appears not to take into account the varying interpretations of Islam that stem from each country’s unique cultural history. By trying to curb religious fanaticism through the streamlining of religious education, Morocco may be unconsciously curbing religious diversity – and tolerance of diversity – needed to fight extremism and build an environment less hospitable to a black-and-white worldview.

To its credit, Morocco seems to be aware of the importance of incorporating target countries’ specificities in its training. The program’s curriculum, for example, includes courses on the history and institutions of the imam’s countries of origin. Morocco’s efforts are well intentioned and may possibly curb the influence of radical preachers. If it manages to incorporate acceptance of heterodoxy based on cultural, idiosyncratic interpretations in its existing curriculum, Morocco’s imam training program could have a better chance of attaining its goal and Morocco could emerge as a regional and global leader in CVE.

Morocco’s soft CVE approach has not been limited to imam training. Morocco’s reforms have included the launch of state-sponsored religious TV programming, a Quranic radio station, a literacy program in mosques, the creation of a new position of religious authority for women, cultural programs promoting Sufism as a more ‘tolerant’ version of Islam, and reforms of religious education in public schools. In 2011, Morocco saw the election of an Islamist party, the Justice and Development Party (PJD), for the first time in its history. Such developments, implemented over the last decade, have rendered Morocco better equipped to fight the ISIS threat looming over the region.

In a world plagued with the rise of violent extremism, the Moroccan approach – encouraging dogmatic reform – could emerge as a viable and potent weapon against radicalization. So long as heterodoxy based on cultural, spiritual, interpretations is accepted and encouraged in religious teachings, the Moroccan approach could even be replicated throughout the world.

Malika Layadi is a M.A. candidate in International Affairs: Global Governance, Politics, and Security at American University. She also holds a B.A. in political science from Haverford College, PA, with a concentration in Peace, Justice, and Human Rights. She is fluent in Arabic and French.

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