Morocco’s King Mohammed VI inaugurated last Friday a huge education center for foreign Imams in the capital city, Rabat. This $20 million facility is primarily intended to Muslim scholars and imams from all over the world, including Mali, France , the UK, and China.
However, for some, its aim goes way beyond religious objectives. It also has geostrategic goals. Indeed, one can only wonder why a middle-income country like Morocco – with approximately $110 billion of annual GDP- is ready to spend that much money on such a center?
In fairness, the initiative taken by Morocco to train foreign imams is not new. Since the early 60’s, the Kingdom has been providing training to foreign scholars and imams in order to disseminate its “Islam of the middle path doctrine,” a vision of religion based on tolerance, intercultural dialogue and respect of other faiths.
Yet, this is the first time that the North African Country is scaling up this initiative.Why now?
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By building this facility, Morocco is trying to benefit from a narrow geostrategic window, in order to increase its global influence. Hence, beyond its will to bring to the world its expertise in religious training, Morocco also wants to export its tolerance-based religious model to reach three main objectives.
Objective #1 Constrain The Velocity Of The Islamic State
One of the most surprising aspects of the rise of the Islamic State, also called the Daech, during the last two years is the velocity of its expansion and the professionalism of its recruiting, all over the world. By training foreign imams, Morocco wants to provide tools of “early detection of extremism” to religious professionals, who are in constant contact with their communities. This is no easy task, but it is considered as one of the most effective ways to detect and prevent young Muslims from collapsing into the dark path.
Objective #2 Become The African Muslim Hub
Morocco has on its soil some of the most sacred saints of Islam, such as Sidi Ahmed Al Tijani, in Fes, a patron revered by West Africans, who regularly come on pilgrimage. Morocco also has strong historical ties with other spiritual centers such as Timbuktu in Mali, where there is still a Moroccan community. Through its new education and training center of Imams, Morocco wants to build on those assets and follow in the religious field the same successful path it has taken regarding African economy. The main objective is to become, in the long run, a multidimensional West African Hub. Another unspoken objective might also be to constrain long time rival Algeria’s influence in the Sahel region.
Objective #3 The Sword And The Pen
Morocco is engaged in bilateral military coalitions with the Saudis in Yemen and the Emirates in Syria, and has been providing soldiers as well as aircraft for several months. By adding a religious training dimension to its efforts to counter Daech expansion, the Kingdom is making an attempt to use both the “sword and the pen”. Although one will have to wait years for this initiative to bear fruit, it may also have immediate benefits for Morocco with key allies such as the US or European countries. On the academic level, some major international universities and think tanks already closely examine this “soft power” move by Morocco to assess whether it could constitute a breakthrough in dealing with Islamic extremism.
In an old country such as Morocco, where symbols are as important as actions, analysts consider this move one of the most engaging for the Kingdom. Should it succeed, it could make the country foster its strategic advantage at becoming one of the most influential spiritual centers in the Islamic world.