By Siham Ali
Rabat, July 3, 2012
As religious issues start to shape domestic and international policies, and the number of devout citizens continues to climb, Morocco’s novel approach to extremism is based on inclusion and understanding.
Noted Moroccan sociologist Ali Chaâbani talks with Magharebia about how information gleaned from a new report will help guide the government stategy.
Magharebia: The Moroccan Centre for Contemporary Study and Research (CMERC) recently published a study on the state of religious beliefs in Morocco. What led to this report?
Ali Chaâbani: This study is a part of the work the Centre for Contemporary Study and Research has set itself. In fact, it can be seen as a continuation of the line of thought pursued by some of the CMERC members who belong to the Justice and Development Party (PJD).
As an Islamist party, it is only natural for it to conduct scientific research in the field of religion.
Magharebia: But the PJD is the ruling party in Morocco. What does that mean for the objectivity of the study?
Chaâbani: The Centre precedes the elections and the appointment of the new government. As far as the researchers involved in writing reports are concerned, we should simply welcome their efforts, regardless of their ideological viewpoint, as long as the study abides by the standards of scientific research. This kind of initiative is to be welcomed.
For years, this sort of research was virtually dead in Morocco.
Magharebia: How has the survey been received?
Chaâbani: Every individual, depending on his own convictions, can take a different view of the results. For some, this is pure political propaganda, rather than a scientific work.
Magharebia: But some of the results are hardly propaganda, such as the observation that religion does not necessarily have a positive impact on how members of the public behave. What do you think?
Chaâbani: You have to make a distinction between three types of religious adherents. The first group consists of extremists who may even resort to violence and terrorism. This group exists in Morocco. The second group preaches a moderate form of Islam. It is these people who uphold the real values of Islam and who have a positive impact on society.
The third group is hypocritical. Its members do not live out the values they seek to display in public.
The extremists and those who are self-absorbed cling to their own opinions and convictions. Some even preach violence. This is a great danger to society.
Magharebia: What is the extent of the extremists’ presence in Moroccan society?
Chaâbani: You can’t quantify it. They exist in Morocco, but it is rare for them to show themselves, given that they are aware that they are the main enemy of the state and that the authorities are against them. Statistics – if, indeed, they even exist – will not be accurate.
Their intentions are kept hidden, so it is difficult to detect them.
And that’s where the danger lies. That’s what happened with the terrorist attacks in Casablanca and Marrakech, for example. No one was expecting such murderous acts by terrorists. It was a surprise to everyone. This kind of act is difficult to keep under control.
Magharebia: What can the government do to minimise the risk?
Chaâbani: The authorities are working towards the inclusion of religious believers. Theses people are being called upon to organise themselves within associations and political parties. Those operating in such contexts are known. The state is fearful of those it cannot see.
Magharebia: So how then do we deal with fanaticism?
Chaâbani: We must implement a long-term strategy and follow it through. The idea is to not overly control these people and increase their oppression, in order to avoid a violent reaction.
Sometimes you need to try to understand their points of view in order to limit the degree of danger. I must make a distinction here between organised and spontaneous crime. The first is more dangerous than the second.
Magharebia: One point to emerge from the study says that imams are the main source of religious knowledge for young people. Do you agree with this conclusion?
Chaâbani: I accept that point with some reservations. In Morocco, we haven’t had a study of imams: who they are, what training they’ve received, what are their religious convictions, and so on. These are questions for which we need detailed answers.
I would say in general that Moroccans, especially young people, see the imam as a spokesman for the Ministry of Islamic Affairs –someone who will execute its policies. It must be said that some imams do not practice in their private lives what they preach in public. Still, you should not make generalisations. A detailed, objective and scientific study of this subject is needed.
The report by the Moroccan Centre for Contemporary Study and Research is just the beginning. It has flagged some indicators. We need to launch further studies of the religious situation in Morocco so that we can promote the real form of religious behaviour which should prevail in Moroccan society.
Magharebia: Religious behaviour has changed noticeably in Morocco over recent years, the study indicates. How do you explain that trend?
Chaâbani: It’s a perfectly natural situation. There are religious depths to Moroccan society. With the advent of the French Protectorate, it was knocked back. Even after independence, that same trend continued.
Over recent years, religion has gradually returned to its place in society. I recently visited Tunisia, and there I could see the presence of religion after it was blocked by former presidents. It’s a normal situation; we simply need to avoid excess and exaggeration.
Dr. Ali Chaabani is a sociology professor at the Faculty of Law, Economics and Social Sciences, Mohammed V University, Souissi-Rabat, Morocco. He also teaches at Tunis I University in Tunisia. He is published extensively in Morocco and abroad.