In Morocco, the state has greatly expanded the religious bureaucracy since 2004. There are now institutions that print the Qur’an, teach individuals various Qur’anic recitation styles, and train domestic and foreign imams and other lay religious leaders. Citizens have access to a greatly increased number of councils of religious scholars, who answer questions about the application of Morocco’s state-sponsored interpretation of Islam in everyday life. There is state-sponsored religious media, including a TV station, radio station, and an enormous amount of online content. Much of this content is produced by the Mohammadan League of Religious Scholars, an innovative government sponsored think tank.
Why this effort to bureaucratize Islam? And why now?
My new book, Bureaucratizing Islam: Morocco and the War on Terror (Cambridge University Press, 2017) analyzes this development with specific attention to the role of War on Terror discourse in facilitating expanded state regulation of religion. While this process was already underway prior to the Casablanca bombings of 2003, which spurred the reforms in Moroccan religious policy, I argue that the War on Terror has accelerated that process by providing a rationale widely accepted by domestic and international audiences for why the state must take greater control of the religious sphere. What is perhaps most interesting about this dramatic expansion of state control is how little opposition it has received from religious elites, especially the ulama, for whom it represents a dramatic loss of autonomy.
The intended and unintended effects of bureaucratization
“The bureaucratization of Islam empowers some ulama, but for the most part it transfers religious authority from the scholars to bureaucrats who lack the intellectual lineages and corresponding training in the Islamic sciences long cultivated by the ulama. Bureaucratization represents a multiplication of the ulama’s functions to the point of irrelevance, while at the same time restricting which scholars can exercise the most crucial roles,…”The bureaucratization of Islam empowers some ulama, but for the most part it transfers religious authority from the scholars to bureaucrats who lack the intellectual lineages and corresponding training in the Islamic sciences long cultivated by the ulama. Bureaucratization represents a multiplication of the ulama’s functions to the point of irrelevance, while at the same time restricting which scholars can exercise the most crucial roles, such as that of offering Islamic legal opinion or fatwa, to those in positions of authority in the religious bureaucracy. Because the Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs is one of the ministries of sovereignty, which means that the Minister reports not to the Prime Minister but directly to the King. The bureaucratization of religion therefore represents a domestication of religious elites to political authority in a more formal and institutionalized way than existed previously.
Further, bureaucratization discourages opposition. The expansion of the bureaucracy necessitated an increase in the number of bureaucrats. As a result, the majority of Moroccan religious leaders are on the state’s payroll in one form or another, as employees in the Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs, or at one of the other religious institutions managed by other ministries. The state also closely regulates the credentials required for employment in the Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs, creating an incentive structure with serious consequences for religious elites who do not conform to the state’s preferred interpretation of Islam and other non-negotiables such as respect for the king as the country’s highest religious leader. Those who have questioned state control of religious institutions have faced severe sanctions. Ahmed Raïssouni, formerly a prominent leader of the social movement, Mouvement Unité et Réforme / the Unity and Reform Movement (MUR) aligned with the country’s leading Islamist party, Party of Justice and Development (PJD), spent years in exile for his comments questioning the right of the state to monopolize the fatwa (and the implicit critique of the king’s religious authority).
“Moderate” Moroccan Islam
Moroccan state elites defend this policy as one necessary for the “spiritual security” of the Kingdom. In other words, in the absence of state management of religion, extremist religious belief and jihadism would proliferate. By promoting what is ad nauseam referred to as “moderate Moroccan Islam,” state elites (including the King) claim that they can protect the Moroccan religious scene from “intruders.”
“The interpretation of Islam promoted by the Moroccan state is Sunni, Maliki, Ash’ari, and Sufi. But it is almost laughable to promote Sunni Islam in the Kingdom.”
The interpretation of Islam promoted by the Moroccan state is Sunni, Maliki, Ash’ari, and Sufi. But it is almost laughable to promote Sunni Islam in the Kingdom. Despite some Iranian proselytizing, there are virtually no Shi’a in Morocco. Malikism is also undisputed in its dominance over other legal schools. Ash’arism is perhaps more controversial, but is really disputed only by some Salafis. Why create such a huge institutional apparatus to promote an interpretation of a religion that is already pervasive and largely unquestioned? What political goals are accomplished by presenting mainstream religious beliefs as “under threat?”
The so-called “moderate” Moroccan Islam promoted by state-sponsored religious institutions is not very compelling, and there is increasing evidence that the state acknowledges this reality. After more than a decade of promoting an Islam that is Sunni, Maliki, Ash’ari, and Sufi, the state now appears to be changing its position vis-à-vis Salafism. After 2003, state elites depicted moderate Moroccan Islam as a bulwark against Salafism. The state also aggressively policed Salafis, and the main leaders of the trend found themselves jailed after the Casablanca bombings. Today, however, state elites increasingly present Salafism as an acceptable interpretation of Islam available to Moroccan citizens rather than as a threat. In 2015, the Moroccan Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs hosted a conference on Salafism. Minister Ahmed Toufiq opened the proceedings by claiming, “All Moroccans, today as in the past, are Salafis.”
Observers have offered various interpretations about this change in approach, but Moroccan political scientist Salim Hmimnat gave the most compelling explanation:
“The government increasingly doubts the ability of the Sufi trend—despite the support they receive from the state—to provide a socio-religious current, as the state was hoping it would, strong enough to become an alternative to Salafi-jihadi and takfiri ideologies. The latter have yet to lose their appeal and recruiting capabilities among some fragile social groups.” (emphasis original).
Moroccan efforts to accommodate Salafism will not be successful, however. The idea that state support of Salafism will have different results than state support of Sufism because of the “strength of the ideology” is flawed. The better approach would be to allow a diversity of religious trends to flourish. The state would be wise to distance itself from (rather than accommodate itself to) Moroccan expressions of Salafism, so that those who reject any religious idea embraced by the state have a place to go that is still within the Moroccan mainstream religious field. By seeking to accommodate or even domesticate some of the regime’s main religious critics, state policy may even push individuals to more extreme interpretations of Islam than they would otherwise embrace.
The bureaucratization of religion is not limited to Morocco. The trend in the Muslim-majority world seems to be toward increased state control of religious institutions, often defended as necessary to prevent the spread of jihadism. When Saudi Arabia recently introduced a new institution for regulating interpretations of the hadith, the Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs explained it was necessary to “eliminate fake and extremist texts and any texts that contradict the teachings of Islam and justify the committing of crimes, murders and terrorist acts.” Expanded religious regulation tends to follow a similar pattern elsewhere as it does in Morocco: the creation of new institutions, state-sponsorship of an official theology, the use of the security sector to police religious elites, and an expansion of the Ministries that regulate religion.
“…few scholars seem interested in investigating the assumption that underpins these policy changes – that religious regulation shapes religious belief in ways that promote peace and stability. The literature of which I am aware suggests the opposite – that religious regulation encourages persecution, and that discrimination on religious grounds frequently leads to violence.”
The implications of these changes on Islam as a religious tradition, and on Muslim societies, are in need of greater examination. The former is perhaps a special responsibility of Islamic Studies scholars. They might listen to the silences, and seek to understand how the contemporary obsession with policing Islam is reshaping the Islamic scholarly tradition in terms of both what subjects scholars pursue, and those they do not. Alarmingly, and despite the vogue of arguing for religious freedom in Washington, D.C. and beyond, few groups have expressed concern about the shrinking space for religious discourse in Muslim societies – the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief at the United Nations is a noteworthy exception. Perhaps of even greater concern, few scholars seem interested in investigating the assumption that underpins these policy changes – that religious regulation shapes religious belief in ways that promote peace and stability. The literature of which I am aware suggests the opposite – that religious regulation encourages persecution, and that discrimination on religious grounds frequently leads to violence.
Islamic Studies scholars need not be complicit in the War on Terror, obsessing about jihadist ideas or conforming their research agendas to national security interests. At the same time, ignoring the impact of changing forms of religious management and other implications of the War on Terror is a serious misstep for the discipline. I hope that my book will draw attention to this important subject, though I worry that the most important questions have yet to be asked, let alone answered.