Religious Pluralism in Morocco: Between the Spontaneous Change of Belief and the Creation of Religious Minorities

Religious Pluralism in Morocco: Between the Spontaneous Change of Belief and the Creation of Religious Minorities

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In discussing religious minorities in Arab and Islamic countries it is useful to consider the legal and sociological definitions of the concept of a religious minority, especially in light of the different constitutions and laws regulating public space in each country. At the sociological level, the existence of a religious, ethnic, or linguistic minority may not necessarily mean a legal recognition of their existence.  Also, the existence of a minority is not separate from that group’s awareness of being different from the majority, whether that be on religious, ethnic, or linguistic terms.

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In discussing religious minorities in Arab and Islamic countries it is useful to consider the legal and sociological definitions of the concept of a religious minority, especially in light of the different constitutions and laws regulating public space in each country. At the sociological level, the existence of a religious, ethnic, or linguistic minority may not necessarily mean a legal recognition of their existence.  Also, the existence of a minority is not separate from that group’s awareness of being different from the majority, whether that be on religious, ethnic, or linguistic terms.

Ethnic specificities often characterize religious minorities in the Arab world. For example, the Christian minority in Morocco is the product of extensive missionary activities in areas with large Amazigh populations (Nador and Al Hoceima, in the high and middle Atlas, and the Souss Areas).[1] In this respect their production is not so different from the production of the Shi’ite minority through the process of Shi’itisation. Both minorities are founded on an intensification of differences between populations; based on the one hand, on the basic right of religious freedom, and on the other on complex processes of social and political failure.  In contrast, the Baha’i minority, which has stood at about 350 followers since the 1970s, has not witnessed any increase in numbers or significant evolution in group formation, leaving them as a very small group at risk of disappearing altogether. Legal recognition is difficult to achieve in the absence of social recognition and in a conservative country such as Morocco the tolerance of religious pluralism is highly dependent on a number of determinants, which shall be explored below.

The Christian Minority in Morocco: Between Spontaneous Conversion and the Christianisation Strategy

Although the current data regarding Christian Moroccans indicates that there are approximately 8,000, mostly living in Rabat, Casablanca, Marrakech, Tangier, and Agadir; a US Department of State report on ‘International Religious Freedom’ 2014 noted that some clergy estimate the number of Christians living in  Morocco was as high as 25,000 (including Christian foreigners living in the country).[2]

It is difficult to establish the number of Christian missionaries in Morocco, let alone ascertain the number of Moroccans who have converted to Christianity, as this topic is still considered taboo. Certain media outlets have reported that about 150,000 Moroccans have received courses in Christianity from the ‘Arab World Ministries’ (AWM) through email, yet these remain mere assumptions.[3]

According to a research paper by Mohamed Srouti,  both Arab and Western reports indicate that there are around 800 missionaries and about 13 Churches in Morocco.[4] Other researchers claim that the number of European missionaries is closer to 900, with 500 of them are permanent residents in Morocco -  along with 5 Protestant priests who are officially registered in the Evangelical Church. Some of these reports estimate that the number of Moroccans who have converted to Christianity from Islam is almost 7,000.[5]   

According to US Department of State’s report, local Christian leaders themselves say that the number of Christian Moroccans is approximately 8,000. However, they don’t gather regularly out of fear of police interference, or what the report labels as social oppression.[6] Due to such factors and the secrecy surrounding unofficial religious belief the reports necessarily lack statistical accuracy.

Although the Moroccan Constitution, adopted in 2011, guarantees in its ‘Article 3’, ‘free practice of religion for everyone,’ the Law prohibits conversion to religions other than Islam. Moreover, ‘Article 220’ of the Code of Criminal Procedure punishes any activity that, ‘undermines the faith of a Muslim,’ and stipulates that ‘whoever uses violence or threats to coerce a person or persons to practice or attend a certain religious practice, or prevent them from that, shall be punished…’ The article, associated as it is to ‘undermining the faith of a Muslim,’ makes the change of religious belief from Islam synonyms with this crime.   Hence, the majority of Moroccans who have converted to Christianity live in what has been described as a ‘virtual world’.[7]

The State’s fear of active missionary movements in Morocco has taken on a political dimension due to the increasing rise in the number of converts since mid 2010, as is confirmed by a WikiLeaks document.[8] US Department of State’s reports, especially its annual ‘International Religious Freedom’ reports. During the last decade, Morocco has witnessed several missionary campaigns, which have been described as ‘organised’.[9] These have been carried out in a discreet manner by numerous European associations and NGOs through the distribution of books, tapes, thousands of high-quality printed copies of the Bible and CDs about the life of Christ in French, Amazigh, and Darija (Moroccan dialects).

In this context, an important event was the deportation of a number of foreign missionaries in March 2010. These included 16 British and American Evangelicals; a Venezuelan couple; a Korean nun; and a French, a South African, and 7 Dutch priests.  All of the above were accused of performing missionary work through an institution caring for orphaned and abandoned children in Ain Leuh, Ifrane. This case can be seen as a turning point in Morocco’s relation to missionary activity, and the recognition of its role in the creation religious minorities.

Shi’itisation and the Issue of the Shiite Minority in Morocco

Shi’itisation has only come to light in the Moroccan public landscape in recent years.  This growing awareness has been in no small part due to the US Department of State’s annual International Religious Freedom reports, which along with other press articles reveal that the phenomenon has been largely hidden from view, due to the dissimulation strategy followed by the Shi’ites themselves.

The first widespread media and civil debate around the subject of Shi’itisation date back to 2009, after the release of the 2008 annual International Religious Freedom report. While this report only addressed the existence of 3,000 Shi’ites in the country, later reports mention 3,000 to 8,000 Shi’ites in Morocco.  In contrast earlier reports in 2006 and 2007 only confirmed the government’s admission of the existence of Shiites in Morocco, without attempting to determine their number.[10]

Despite claims of the existence of Moroccan Shi’ites from the time of the Muslim conquest, making Moroccan Shi’isim a historical phenomenon, sociological studies indicate that recent Shi’itisation in Morocco has been closely linked to the success of the Iranian revolution in 1979. This has been part of a broader process involving the exportation of Iranian Shi’isim into the Arab world in the context of the intensifying regional Sunni-Shi’a conflict.

While Shi’ite Moroccans may draw on historical arguments to justify their beliefs, since the death of King Hassan II of Morocco in 1999, Moroccan Shi’ism has been considered a dangerous indication of Iran’s interference in Moroccan religious affairs and a threat to the Kingdom’s security. Morocco and Iran have had a history of tension, disagreement and crises that began immediately after Khomeini’s revolution overthrew the Shah of Iran 1979. Ever since, Iranian-Moroccan relations have experienced ups and downs, mixing political issues with religious and doctrinal matters.   

Over the history of the two countries’ strained relations since 1979 religious disagreement has become more intense, and the consequences of this have become more striking and visible, even reaching the level of accusations of takfir (apostasy). Since the Iranian Revolution, Morocco, like other North African countries, has not escaped the Iranian regime’s strategy of spreading Shi’a Islam in the region.  This has been especially notable in the Moroccan Diaspora.[11]

In West Africa the Iranian regime entrusted the Lebanese Shi’ite communities in Cote d’Ivoire, Gabon, and Sierra Leone to support Shi’ites in the Maghreb. There are approximately 350,000 Lebanese in Western African countries most of them work in trade, invest in precious minerals, and manage hotels and other tourist institutions. A large portion of their revenues, which are often dependent on Iranian capital investments, are then channelled to Shi’ites in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya.  This has been achieved through a range of methods including smuggling through the southern borders of these North African countries.[12] In this context there is a clear link between Shi’itisation as a change in  individual religious belief (Sunni Islam to Shi’a Islam) and Iranian sponsored Shi’ite missionary work, thus removing the spontaneity of Shi’itisation and making it part of a broader political-religious strategy.      

In 2009 a warning issued by Abdellah Boussouf, the General Secretary of the ‘Council of the Moroccan Community Living Abroad’(CCME), stated that four Moroccan community mosques in Brussels were known to be following the Shi’ite doctrine. Representatives of the Moroccan community in Belgium speak of the growth Shi’ite associations and centres, centres which organise preaching activities every weekend and especially during Ramadan. Notable in this context is a famous Moroccan Imam, Imam El Ouerdassi from Tangier, who announced his conversion to Shi’a Islam in 2009, making him the first Moroccan Shi’ite Imam.  He has since been followed by many members of his community. In Brussels alone there are currently numerous Shi’ite Moroccan Imams from a number of northern Moroccan cities.[13]      

Arrests made by the security authorities in March 2009, were followed by the closure of an Iraqi educational institution (The Iraqi Complementary School, Rabat) and the prohibition and confiscation of magazines and books published by organisations with Shi’ite views.  March 2009 also saw Morocco sever diplomatic relations with Iran, citing the Iranian regime’s attempts to spread Shi’a Islam in the country as one of the key reasons.[14]

This all forms a clear indication that Shi’itisation in Morocco has reached what is for many an alarming level and is now a matter of official concern. The years following these events have seen an increasing media interest in Moroccan Shi’ites, especially as some attempt to gain legal recognition for their beliefs - beliefs which contradict Morocco’s official Maliki-Ashari Suuni doctrine.  

The current concern stems from the mix of political and religious issues that pertain to belonging to a Shi’ite sect in Morocco. These include the existence of Iran as an important regional power and the association of Moroccan Shi’ites with doctrinal authorities involved in political conflicts in their countries, including their involvement in public discussions, including Fatwas and religious speeches.[15]  These, in turn, are seen to be contributing to the intensification of the regional Sunni-Shi’a conflict.

The Shi’ite Minority in Morocco and the Issue of a Legal Recognition

The claim that Moroccans were historically Shi’ites has fuelled several crises which have erupted between Morocco and Iran. The latest of which occurred in 2015 after the Ressali Line association, which represents moderate Moroccan Shi’ites, received a license to work legally through a ‘studies institute’, from a headquarters in Tangier. When the Commercial Court authorised this association to establish the ‘Ressali Line for Studies and Publishing institution,’ Moroccan Salafists rose up against this public ‘coming out’ of Moroccan Shi’ites.

The Ministry of Interior had previously rejected applications submitted by the lawyer Issam Hamidan, one of the most prominent supporters of the association, to establish their organisational entity on the basis of the 1958 Dahir of Public Freedoms. Although this was nothing more than a license for a publishing house of a cultural and scientific nature, a dispute (which has yet to subside) emerged between Salafist figures in Morocco and Moroccan Shi’ites. This can be seen as a follow up to the public’s reaction towards the Shi’ite movements earlier attempt to establish a Shi’ite entity in Meknes in the 1990s, headed by Hassan Ighiri, which was dismantled after a campaign of arrests that targeted its members (who have since been released).

Similar events occurred in early 2000, when attempts were made to establish the Al-Ghadeer Association, also in Meknes, headed by Mohammad Taheri, and including members such as Mohsen Hani, brother of Idris Hani, and Soliman El Haouari, who had recently joined the Ressali Line. This time, the authorities' response was unyielding, arresting a number of the association’s members and opening an investigation regarding their beliefs.[16] In the last two years, in an attempt to avoid the authority’s sanction and due to the perceived lack of separation between religious and political issues in the Shi’ite case,  Moroccan Shi’ites have moved towards working through associations that include other religious minorities.  These include the legally established ‘Moroccan Forum for Freedom of Belief and Thought,’ which includes representatives of Baha’i, Christian, and Shi’ite Moroccans.

Atheism and the Issue of the Atheist Minority in Morocco

A report by the Egyptian Dar Al Ifta estimated that the number of publicly atheist people in Morocco is a mere 325.[17] In contrast, in its annual International Religious Freedom report (2014), the US Department of State claimed that the number of openly  atheist  Moroccans is over 10,000 - much larger than the number of Moroccan Jews or Christians.[18]

Regardless of the contradicting reports, and numbers that change depending upon the definitions applied by each organisation, the 2017 report produced by the Red Sea Centre of the US-based Global Institute[19] presented a number of factors that have led Moroccan youth to atheism; these include ‘terrorist groups’ that have tarnished the image of Islam by representing violence and killing as part of the Islamic teachings. The report also claimed that social media outlets are providing atheist youth with a space for freedom of expression, enabling them to safely express their opinions, even those which transgress established societal norms, without being subject to intimidation or censorship.

The authors of the report had interviewed a number of Moroccan youth who were publicly atheist and suggested that there were three main reasons why young people in Morocco turned their back on religion. These were: those who do not oppose religion itself, but rather the use of religion for political purposes and the adoption of Islam as a political system - hence calling for the separation of State and religion; those who said they oppose the very idea of religion; and those who renounced Islam after the terrorist attacks carried out by extremist groups in the name if Islam. Among the reasons advanced in the report to explain why increasing numbers of young people in Morocco are refusing the idea of religion in general, and Islam in particular, they highlighted the strict religious rhetoric that is now prominent in many Islamic countries.[20]

The report also emphasises that ‘the religious rhetoric that focuses on appearance and formalities, such as the way women and men dress, thus overshadowing the spiritual essence of Islam,’ is one of the reasons people give up their religious beliefs.[21] This is  often done without a public declaration of their atheism, for fear of the harm that could be inflicted on them and their families. Morocco’s modern and contemporary history is filled with examples of minorities who have openly renounced the country’s official doctrine, and the consequences they have faced, especially under pressure from the Salafists and religious conservatives. These trends are becoming more evident every day, as exemplified by the conference on religious freedoms in Morocco that was going to be held in Casablanca in June 2018, but was indefinitely postponed due to several government officials’ refusal to participate because of opposition from both governmental and non-governmental bodies.

There is a prevailing belief in the Moroccan religious domain that atheism is an elitist form of religious change that concerns only a small segment of Moroccan society. That it is generally limited to: youth groups; students – especially philosophy students; artists; intellectuals; and leftist politicians – particularly those who have been associated with the Marxist theory and practice.

Until recently irreligiosity in all its forms, including atheism and agnosticism, remained largely associated with the individual choices of people living in secrecy. This changed with the events of the Arab Spring in 2010, which accelerated the pace with which those previously hiding their irreligiosity have come to publicly express their views through a number of virtual groups and forums, such as: Massayminch (we won’t fast), Mamfakinch (no concession), and the MALI Movement (alternative movement for personal freedoms) which called for public eating during Ramadan in 2009. These groups’ demands represent a renewed call for the basic values ​​of modernity, democracy and secularism. Such demands can be seen as integral to the establishment of a modern state based on the rule of law and respect for human rights; as such, these demands have been an essential part of the Moroccan Spring protests.

Atheism: Legal Recognition and Social Rejection

Confronting the atheist and agnostic groups’ call for legal recognition and the right to express their opinions on religious issues, associations and movements - generally Salafist - have been established which oppose their demands.  This has contributed to the founders and activists of atheist movements being stigmatised, accused of homosexuality, apostasy and heresy, and subject to social harassment. While these atheist movements do not aim to turn all Moroccans into atheists, some of their members have publicly proclaimed their atheism, especially through social media and in blog posts. They are relentlessly calling for the political neutralisation of religion, its separation from the state and the recognition of individual freedoms. They have also sent warnings to any person or group who attempts to monopolise religious or secular power. These developments demonstrate that there are Moroccans who are able to discuss all subjects courageously, even in the face of powerful opposition.  Their demands are an attempt to establish greater social and intellectual openness in Morocco. As they seek to train the Moroccan mind in intellectual courage and the flexibility necessary to accept others’ divergent opinions on important issues, the Massayminch, and other campaigns can be seen as primarily symbolic movements.[22]  

These groups are demanding the establishment of a secular society based on individual freedoms, a difficult task given that Moroccan society has long been inherently conservative regarding such matters, especially those related to sexuality and religious sanctity. While Moroccan society is widely tolerant of those who abandon prayers, it becomes orthodox, even fundamentalist and extremist, when confronted with public atheists, especially those who eat during Ramadan (given the sanctity of this month for Moroccans). With, of course some exceptions, Moroccans can be said to turn into intolerant extremists when confronted with behaviour that challenges their religious identity; an identity based on the concept of honour and religious mandate - not free choice.  This makes the religious domain in Morocco a profoundly social and political one.   

Conclusion

Returning to the nature of the Moroccan Shi’itisation and Christianisation, it appears that the Shi’ite and Christian expansion strategies have been established on a communicat and media foundation that utilises a discourse of universal human-rights to encourage Shi’ite and Christian converts to publicly proclaim their beliefs. Hence, the concept of religious minority in the Moroccan context is a political, more than simply a religious or social matter, in a way that does not pertain in more open and / or secular societies.Furthermore, the creation of Shi’ite and Christian minorities in Morocco, when understood through the lens of religious identity, is inseparable from their self-awareness as minority groups.

Their approach, which focuses on the right of religious conversion, works according to a communicative, constructive strategy of religious solidarity and mutual assistance that creates social solidarity between Shi’ite Moroccans on the one hand, and Christian Moroccans, on the other. Such solidarity, while found smaller and closed groups engaged in practices of ‘dissimulation’, has recently become more visible through attempts to establish associations that include multiple minorities (Christians, Shi’ites, and Atheists) w have openly positioned themselves in the public sphere. This has been manifested through the establishment of the ‘Moroccan Association of Religious Rights and Freedoms’ in 2017 (an organization which appears to suffer from internal organizational problems and is yet to receive legal recognition, though it is not subject to any official harassment) and through the ‘Moroccan Forum for Freedom of Belief and Thought’ which was legally established on June 30, 2018.

Translated from the French by Nada Taibi.

 

 

[1] Ablal , A. (2018) Compound Ignorance: Religion, Religiousness, and Changing the Religious Belief in the Arab World. Beirut: Mominoun without Borders.

[2] US Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (2014) International Religious Freedom Report for 2014: Morocco. Available online at: https://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/irf/2014religiousfreedom/index.htm#wrapper Accessed: 13 September 2018.

[3] Abdessalam. oussama (09/02/2008) ‘150 thousand Moroccans receive lessons in Christianity by post’. Available online at: http://almoslim.net/node/96917. Accessed: 19 September 2018.

[4] Srouti, M. (09/03/2013) ‘Will Christianity become the Second Official Religion in Morocco?’ Available online at: www.coptreal.com/Wshowsubject.aspx?SID=15253. Accessed: 15 September 2015.

[5] Al-Ash’ari, A. (2015) Evangelization and Christianity, from the Report on the Religious Situation in Morocco. Rabat: Moroccan Centre for Contemporary Studies and Research, pp. 354-355. (In Arabic)

[6]  US Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (2014), op.cit.

[7] El Rouidi, A. (2014)Waiting for the Implementation of the Constitution: Morocco’s Christians Migrate to the Virtual World. Report dated April 23, 2014. Available online at: https://hunasotak.com/article/6801. (in Arabic) Accessed: 17 August 2018.

[9] Al-Ash’ari, A. op.cit.p. 35.

[10] US Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (Multiple years) International Religious Freedom Report. Available online at: https://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/irf/

[11] Moncef, Y. (2015), ‘The Background behind Tangier’s Shiites Coming to Light’. Maghress. Available online at: https://www.maghress.com/almassae/307143 Accessed: 13 September 2018

[12] Ahed, S. & Kheirat, M.) 17/05/2014) ‘The History of the Religious Formation in Morocco’, the weekly Ittihad Ichtiraki, Issue 10706, p. 4.

[13] Ahed, S. & Kheirat, M. (17/05/2014)‘How Shiisim is Expanding in Morocco, and Who Funds it today?’ The weekly Ittihad Ichtiraki, Issue 10706, p. 4.   

[14] Another important factor was Iranian support for the  Bahraini Shi’a uprising in 2011.  Diplomatic relations were restored in 2014, but severed again in May 2018 with Morocco again sighting Iranian interference in its domestic affairs.

[15] Bouchikhi, M. (2015) ‘Shia and Shiism’, in M. Hamadi & S. El Hamad (eds) The Religious Status in Morocco. Rabat:  Le Centre Marocain des Etudes et Recherches sur le Maghreb.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Kingsley, P. (2014) ‘Egypt’s atheists number 866 – precisely’. The Guardian Newspaper, Friday 12 September. Availiable online at : https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/dec/12/egypt-highest-number-atheists-arab-world-866 Accessed : 9 September 2018.

[18] US Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (2014), op.cit.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

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