For several years, Morocco has been positioning itself as the champion of “moderate” Islam in order to emphasize its role as mediator in the Sahel and West Africa.
Mbarka Bouaida, minister delegate of Foreign Affairs, headed the Moroccan delegation at a White House summit that explored ways to counter violent extremism from Feb. 18-20 in Washington.
It was an opportunity for Rabat to confirm a long-standing diplomatic position, whereby it tried to place itself at the forefront of “moderate” Islam or tolerance in order to serve as a better mediator in the pacification of the Sahel, and thus extend its sphere of influence by playing the religious card.
The NIHD and mourchidats in Washington
Bouaida notably recalled in Washington — as summarized on the official website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs — the 2005 launch of the National Initiative for Human Development and the Moroccan administration of the religious field. He praised “the importance of the role of the institution of the commander of the faithful,” most notably “in granting religious services to citizens, removed from any ideological ends.” Bouaida went so far as to talk about “the continuing education of young imams and 'mourchidats' [female Islamic scholars] as well as the rationalization, rehabilitation and modernization of traditional education.”
On Sept. 25, 2014, Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane raised Morocco's approach to the issue before the UN General Assembly. This approach consists of religious cooperation programs with Arab and African countries. Benkirane specified at the time that Morocco was ready to share its experience in the fight against terrorism, in the framework of bilateral cooperation with its allies.
Religious cooperation across Africa
The list of countries with which Morocco has committed to religious cooperation is on the rise: In addition to Mali, there is Guinea, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Gabon, the Maldives, Tunisia, Libya and even Egypt.
Morocco witnessed the culmination of the diplomatic strategy that it has been working on for several years at the Washington summit held last week in response to the various religious extremism crises plaguing the international scene (the Islamic State in Syria, Iraq and Libya, Boko Haram in Nigeria, AQIM [Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb] in the Sahel, etc).
In July 2013, Morocco benefited from the visit of Dominique Reveyrand-de Menthon, EU special representative for the Sahel, to position itself as part of the so-called moderate Islam movement. One can thus read in the visit’s program, which was published by the anonymous Twitter account Chris Coleman, this message aimed at the European diplomat: It should be emphasized that Morocco can assume a key role in the spread of moderate Islam in the region, to dissipate the radical ideology of a strict Islam advocated by AQIM. A Morocco-Mauritania-Senegal axis to represent a tripartite force in this direction.
Morocco, a bulwark against intolerance?
In September 2013, a parliamentary delegation told European MPs in Strasbourg that “Morocco is establishing itself in the region as a democratic Arab and Muslim country integrating several civilizations … a role that makes Morocco a unique political and economic development model that answers the problem of absolutism and intolerance that has arisen in other Arab and Muslim countries.”
Again, in December 2013, during the 11th session of the Morocco-EU Association Council, Rabat defended its “comprehensive approach in the security and development fields," as mentioned in the meeting’s report and as revealed by Chris Coleman. This meeting was an opportunity for the kingdom to welcome the more than 3 billion euros [$3.36 billion] (32 billion dirhams) released by the EU for the Sahel (Morocco had already mobilized a budget of $5 million (47 million dirhams) and to say it is “totally ready to continue and strengthen this cooperation through the implementation of tangible actions, particularly as part of a triangular approaches (EU-Morocco-Sahel).”
The two most important moves were the king's visit to Mali in September 2013 and the religious cooperation agreement, which was announced on that occasion, and according to which "Morocco will train 500 Malian imams over several years."
Extending this experience to other countries of the Sahel and West Africa
This agreement was approved by Morocco’s Western partners, including the Americans. In January 2014, following a confidential message by the Moroccan ambassador to Washington, Rached Bouhlal, recounting his conversation with Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the diplomat in charge of African Affairs, the Americans “expressed appreciation to the US for this kind of cooperation and for the excellent approach by the kingdom to help Mali, highlighting Morocco’s desire to extend this experience to the other countries of the Sahel and West Africa.”
The rest of the exchange between the two diplomats, according to the document released by Coleman, has specifically focused on the role of Morocco, which could be accomplished in Africa with the United States (especially in Gambia).
Morocco: 'a launch pad for a rapprochement between Europe and Africa'?
In the confidential documents released by Coleman, religion appears to be a springboard to Morocco's diplomatic ambitions on the continent.
On April 22, 2013, a message by the Department of African Affairs at the Foreign Ministry was sent to the attention of Minister [Salaheddine Mezouar] titled “Thoughts on Morocco’s Strategy on Africa.” The letter mentioned “the establishment of a dialogue aiming at protecting religious integrity in West Africa, in the face of the rise of Shiism,” as one of the means for Morocco to play the role of “a powerful representative” with Africa and a launch pad for a “rapprochement between Europe and Africa.”
A few months later, a religious debate was sparked by a senior Moroccan diplomat during his meeting with his British counterpart William Hague on Nov. 27, 2013. The minutes of the meeting were also released by Coleman.
[Mezouar] took part in Morocco's efforts to counter extremist tendencies by promoting a tolerant and open Islam, which is in line with what has been practiced in Morocco and traditionally across the region.
Although religion is not the only motor of Moroccan diplomacy in the Sahel, it remains one of the means that allows the kingdom to find its place in the fifth conference of donors for the development of Mali, which was held on Feb. 17 in Bamako.
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