Morocco, modern Islam, and the future of Africa (Comment: Special to IANS)

In the wake of unprecedented Islamist explosions and attacks across North Africa, the foreign ministers of 19 countries – including France and much of North Africa – launched an equally unprecedented response. Meeting in Morocco’s capital Rabat last November, they vowed to pool their intelligence efforts against the Al Qaeda and its fellow travellers. Their agreement, known as the Rabat Declaration, creates a counter-terrorism intelligence fusion centre and formalises its plans to share secret reports on terrorists. This is a major blow against Al Qaeda’s North African affiliates, which have long exploited intelligence gaps among neighbouring nations.

The Rabat Declaration has got little notice in Washington, but it signals that some major changes are under way in Europe and Africa.

France and Morocco have acted with vision and boldness. France sent its forces to Mali to combat Al Qaeda affiliates there. For the first time in nearly 50 years, French ground forces fought the terrorists of Sahara and routed the Islamist enemy.

Morocco’s efforts were largely diplomatic, but, if anything, more dramatic. While the kingdom is America’s oldest ally in the region, it had been largely ostracised by neighbouring Algeria. Algeria’s influence has long kept Morocco out of the African Union, the only nation on the continent to be excluded, and Morocco has been excluded from most major regional security initiatives. But when Islamist-inspired civil war ravaged neighbouring Mali, Rabat did not stand idly by.

At first, the European Union and North African nations looked to Algeria to lead efforts to stabilise Mali. As Algeria’s Francophone southern neighbour, Mali has largely been seen as part of Algeria’s sphere of influence. But Algeria did nothing. Algiers was consumed by a power struggle between the powerful Department of Intelligence and Security and the ruling FLN party. The battle turned on who would ultimately replace the nation’s ageing president, Abdel Aziz Bouteflika. So Algiers turned a blind eye as suffering in Malian cities mounted and refugees poured desperately into the desert. All Algeria could manage to do was patrol its own vast borders with Mali.

With Algeria on the sidelines, Morocco charged on to the field. The Moroccan king saw a chance to partner with the new French leader and forge a regional alliance to defeat the Islamists in Mali and contain the contagion of radical Islam. This is a major reversal. Long excluded, Morocco emerged to lead an African-French coalition against jihadists in Mali. The king knew that due to North African migration patterns from 1960 onwards, the North African jihadist threat actually stretches from the Congo to Belgium. That requires a broad strategy encompassing intelligence and military operations, economics and, most controversially, religion.

Morocco has also launched initiatives to boost trade and investment across the region. In the past decade, Morocco signed free-trade accords with the European Union and the United States. Now it is looking south. Morocco’s Attijariwafa Bank, which recently acquired a majority stake in Mali’s Banque Internationale, has an innovative approach to emerging market banking. Many of its clients have opened their first bank accounts or taken their first bank loans in the past five years. Where Western banks only see risk, Moroccan banks see high-margin opportunities. Office Cherifien des Phosphates (OCP), the Moroccan phosphates company, increased mining operations in Mali (while its phosphate-made fertiliser has boosted food production). These investments are creating economic growth, which should also minimize the appeal of radical Islam.

The third pillar of Morocco’s strategy is religion and it is the one that makes Western policy makers most uncomfortable. Raised in a culture that separates religion and politics, many Westerners intuitively believe it is wrong for secular parties to make religious arguments. And, they always say, it is the jihadists who mix religion with politics. What they fail to fully grasp is that in Muslim countries, politics and religion are one.

In Morocco, King Mohammed VI is both the head of state and the highest religious authority, the Commander of the Faithful. He has used his religious post to champion moderation and reform across North Africa and southern Europe, which is home to many Moroccan and Algerian migrants. Among his initiatives, the king dispatched Muslim imams to French and Spanish cities to emphasise the religious errors in radical Islam.

The king has also engaged Mali on religious grounds. Morocco and Mali (and other North African nations) share the moderate Malikite school of Islam, which preaches deference to civil governments. The king wants to strengthen this school and inoculate other north African Muslims against extremism.

This pre-empts the appeals made by Saudi and Pakistani missionaries, who spent the past two decades trying to radicalise North African Muslims. Meanwhile, Morocco is building on its success in the religious outreach by announcing partnerships with Tunisia, Guinea and Libya to jointly train imams and fight extremist ideas.

President Obama will host a US-Africa summit in Washington on August 4-5. American officials should take a closer look at Morocco’s case of deploying moderate Maliki Islam to combat radicalism. Like the Cold War, the War on Terror is a war of ideas. How to promote peaceful religious ideas should be a major focus of the summit, even if it makes some Westerners uncomfortable.

(23.02.2014 – Ahmed Charai is publisher of the weekly Moroccan newspaper L’Observateur, president of MED Radio, a national broadcast network in Morocco, MEDTV network and chairman of the board of Al-Ahdath al-Maghrebiya Arabic daily newspaper. The views expressed are personal.)

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