I asked a prominent Moroccan figure about the reasons behind the severance of diplomatic ties between Rabat and Tehran, which came as a surprise to many. He said, “A lot has been said about this issue, from the mistreatment of the Moroccan Chargé d’Affaires in Iran to displaying solidarity with Bahrain. However there is no doubt that the main reason for this [severance] is the threat to the religious security of Morocco, which is strongly linked to the [Sunni] Maliki school of thought.” He told me that Morocco is the guardian of the Sunni tradition in the Western region of the Islamic world that extends to central Africa, south of the Sahara Desert. Morocco has assumed this role ever since the era of the Marabouts, which saw the uprooting of all non-Sunni sects that had established strong states and dynasties in the region in the past. The king of Morocco, Mohammed VI, is unique among all rulers in the Islamic world as he bears the title ‘Commander of the Faithful.’ Therefore the issue of spreading Shiism in the land of Qadi Ayyad Ben Moussa, a famous scholar of Maliki law, is a very sensitive one that cannot be ignored. There has been a lot of talk in Morocco recently about the Shia presence which focuses on two points:
– Contractual conversion to Shiism, which is a limited phenomenon linked in the past to the activities of Iraqi and Lebanese teachers who studied in Morocco during the sixties and seventies within the context of a strategy of Arabisation adopted by Morocco. These limited groups were further supplemented by groups of students who in recent years have enrolled in Iranian universities and Hawzas [religious institutions] and returned to Morocco as Shia converts. Not to mention the impact of books written by Shia scholars and published on a wide scale in the Moroccan cultural sphere recently.
– Ideological conversion to Shiism which is visible amongst some Islamic movements that have been impressed by the Iranian intellectual trend ever since the success of Khomeini’s Iranian revolution. Despite the fact that this phenomenon was prevalent in all of the North African Arab countries, it was reflected the most in Morocco, which witnessed the rise of the Justice and Charity movement in the 1980s under the leadership of Sheikh Abdesslam Yassine who wanted to be the “Khomeini of Morocco,” and to set up a radical movement just like the Iranian revolutionary movement. He formed a unique and interesting image in the Moroccan Islamic domain that combines Sufi sheikhdom and political leadership, which transformed into a kind of “Spiritual guide” in the same way as the “Wilayat al Faqih.”
Last year, Moroccan security authorities arrested a number of individuals accused of plotting terrorist attacks. Among them were leading figures of the Civilised Alternative Party, which is considered a local base for Hezbollah and clearly has Shia orientations.
The interaction of Belliraj cell (to which those arrested belonged) still continues. Its complete ties and background are yet to be revealed. The severance of diplomatic ties between Morocco and Iran has coincided with clear efforts to revitalize the religious field whilst the Moroccan authorities are aware of the necessity of providing alternative intellectual material to Iranian-produced material that has invaded Morocco over the past few years.
The Moroccan asked me: “In your opinion, what is it that attracts our youth to Shiism, which is alien to our scientific and cultural traditions?”
I told him that this phenomenon is not exclusive to Morocco alone; it is a clear reality in many Sunni Arab states and there are many reasons for it that we should stop and think about. By looking at the issue carefully, one will notice it has nothing to do with the traditional distinction between the two ideological schools of thought; rather, it is related to a different background away from doctrinal and sectarian factors. There are two key elements that we will look at briefly:
1) The weakness of the Sunni institution for which ruling regimes and fundamental currents contended whilst its basic structures for issuing fatwas, teaching and providing endowments, were weakened and were no longer producing composed traditional knowledge. At the same time, the Shia institution that was already firmly established was further consolidated. (Ernest Gellner noticed that the Islamic course differs to that of Christianity in terms of institutional organization whereby the main sect, meaning the Sunni majority, has a fragile institutional structure unlike the sectarian minorities that have a firm structure). However, the matter here is related to the Shia institution that was subjected to ideological restructuring since the Iranian revolutionary project (Wilayat al Faqih) was launched. At first, this was isolated to the realm of Shia knowledge.
2) Sunni Islamist movements played the role of attracting the contemporary Shia ideology towards which it sought openness away from the sectarian equation. There are two reasons for such openness: the first refers to ideology, which is related to the proximity that occurred gradually between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Wilayat al Faqih. The second reason refers to politics, which is related to the positions on regional and international issues and this is most clearly reflected in the prestigious status enjoyed by the Lebanese Hezbollah among Islamic Sunni currents.
Sheikh Yusuf Al Qaradawi’s warning against the “Shia expansion” had some significance to Sunni institutions. However, what the Muslim Brotherhood Sheikh failed to notice was that it is not the ideological Shia expansion that is dangerous and should be feared but rather “ideological and strategic Shiism,” which is subject to political and geo-political factors rather than the sectarian or doctrinal ones.