Historically, Sufism’s heterodox set of Islamic beliefs and practices have been key political and social features of Morocco’s religious landscape. The often inextricable and fluid relationship between Morocco’s sultans and Sufi leadership has run the gamut from key political partnerships to outright antagonism and open conflict. The political and societal influence of Sufi orders and zawaya (singular zawiya; referring to religious schools, lodges, or orders that play an important social role in their surrounding communities) has ebbed and flowed over time.
Since the country’s independence, Morocco’s monarchy has played an active role in managing the country’s religious sphere, including its Sufi orders. Building on its historical role, Morocco’s monarchy has asserted itself as the institutional embodiment of national religious authority based on its claims of descent from the Prophet Muhammad. This religious authority is an important element of the king’s political authority as embodied in cultural customs and codified by the country’s constitutional design. Inherent to these efforts is the goal of building a strong political basis for the monarchy. While the appropriation of religious authority to serve political purposes is a common theme in the Middle East and North Africa, the Moroccan monarchy’s claims about its lineage, together with its long history, grant it a concrete reason to insert itself in religious affairs. The monarchy’s self-touted claims of religious authority tend to garner broad popular acceptance, and the monarchy’s management of religious affairs tends to be largely viewed as part of its function.
Still, the character of the Moroccan monarchy’s religious management has evolved over time. Before the period of French colonialism, Moroccan sultans often formed mutually beneficial and constantly changing alliances with politically influential Sufi zawaya. In the decades after Morocco gained independence, however, the political fortunes of many Sufi orders waned for various reasons as competing religious traditions including fundamentalist Salafist strains of Islam grew in popularity. At times, the monarchy even actively encouraged and abetted this erosion of Sufi influence in Moroccan society.
But the specter of Salafist-inspired religious extremism and terrorism since the turn of the century has prompted the Moroccan monarchy to shift gears again. Since the mid-2000s, the Moroccan government has undertaken a series of religious reforms to curb the appeal of Salafist religious extremism as part of the global war on terror. Counterterrorism became a pressing domestic issue as well in the aftermath of a prominent 2003 domestic terrorist attack in Morocco.
Since the mid-2000s, the Moroccan government has undertaken a series of religious reforms to curb the appeal of Salafist religious extremism.
A central aim of these reforms has been to invoke a consolidated, shared vision of the country’s historical Sufi tradition for counterterrorism purposes.1 Consequently, the government since has been pushing a revival of Sufism as a supposedly less rigid, more moderate, and more inward-focused approach to spiritual life that is seen as being less prone to radicalization and violent extremism than Salafist traditions. The Moroccan monarch has sought to send a strong message that it sees Sufism as the true indigenous character of Moroccan Islam over foreign, more radical, strains of Salafism.
The Moroccan monarchy’s religious authority also confers broader political benefits. Reforms meant to promote and instrumentalize Sufism also augment the monarchy’s religious authority by emphasizing and strengthening the king’s links to Sufi orders. An important collateral benefit of popularizing Sufi networks is that the king can mobilize Sufi adherents to advance his domestic political agenda when needed.
The king’s religious reform agenda has taken important societal, institutional, and diplomatic forms. In societal terms, the state has sought to repopularize previously marginalized Sufi beliefs and practices in different aspects of Moroccan social and political life. In everyday communal life, the state has sought to destigmatize Sufi practices and interpretations, while rebuilding the monarchy’s links to prominent Sufi zawaya and communities of adherents.
A major institutional prong of these reforms has been a long process of bringing zawaya more effectively under state control. To expand its oversight of Morocco’s religious sphere, the monarchy has tasked the Ministry of Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs and the Ministry of the Interior with supervising Sufi orders and zawaya more closely.2 The king seeks to empower key zawaya and consolidate or reestablish the monarchy’s ties with Sufi orders and Sufism more broadly. Some of the zawaya and Sufi orders that have benefited most from this revival are forging or rebuilding patronage networks that support, promote, and increase the legitimacy of the monarchy’s religious and political authority.
Morocco’s revived Sufi traditions are also affecting the foreign policy arena, as the Moroccan monarchy has been wielding rejuvenated zawaya and Sufi orders as a diplomatic tool abroad, especially in parts of West Africa and the Sahel where these orders are also prevalent.3 This outreach is aimed at bolstering the Moroccan monarchy’s religious authority by granting it an influential leadership role in global efforts to combat religious extremism. Successfully solidifying such a role would help the Moroccan government market itself as a key partner for Western countries on deradicalization and counterterrorism endeavors, while driving engagement particularly in West Africa and the Sahel.
Sufi Orders and Zawaya in Morocco, Past and Present
Sufism made inroads in Morocco in the eleventh and twelfth centuries as Sufi practices gained prevalence throughout North Africa and elsewhere. Sufism does not constitute its own sect or school of Islam; rather, it is a way of viewing and practicing religion that focuses on individuals’ relationships to God. Sufism highlights the spiritual aspects of religion and encourages people to find a path to God through love and devotion.4
As in other parts of the Islamic world, Sufism was established as a powerful tradition in Morocco, and zawaya and Sufi orders became centers not only of learning and community but of substantial political influence at certain times.5 Zawaya and shrines, with their long history in the country, are often the physical representations of Sufism and Sufi orders (or tariqas).6 In addition to general Islamic tenets and practices, Sufi adherents also employ meditation and isolation, chanting, and other mystical practices that emphasize seeking a direct path to God. Sufi orders form as groups of adherents adopt the ideas and practices of certain religious scholars.7
The Social Functions of Sufi Institutions
In 2019, Morocco’s Ministry of Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs reported a headcount of the 7,090 Sufi organizations throughout the country, including 1,588 zawaya, 5,471 complexes that combine zawaya and shrines, and thirty-one standalone shrines.8 The number of zawaya and shrines has increased as the ministry has updated its records each year.
Zawaya provide spiritual, religious, and social services for their adherents and constituents. Sufi orders created these institutions as places of learning and meditation for disciples (or seekers) to gather, though they also can provide lodging, food, financial relief, emotional and spiritual support, or even healing to those in need.9 They are considered places of refuge, solace, and contemplation. Zawaya can provide leadership training, spiritual guidance, and educational instruction both in terms of literacy or more religious teaching, such as memorizing the Quran.10 For hundreds of years, then, zawaya have served as community centers and the nodes of social, spiritual, economic, and even political networks.
For hundreds of years, then, zawaya have served as community centers and the nodes of social, spiritual, economic, and even political networks.
Zawaya often also host the tomb of a notable scholar from their respective orders who has become a saint and whose proximity is believed to provide a baraka (blessing) and a closer connection to God. Some zawaya may offer general blessings from the saint’s shrine and his descendants or family (who often tend to manage zawaya or shrines), while others offer educational instruction or some degree of social support. Larger zawaya with state support hold monthly and annual events, including mawasim (festivals), which serve important spiritual, social, and often commercial roles. The Ministry of Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs, in its 2019 report, explained the importance of gathering and updating information on zawaya and shrines as a way to formulate strategies for managing them.11
The Early Political Evolution of Moroccan Zawaya
Throughout Moroccan history, Sufism and zawaya have evolved as important social and political actors. Looking back at particular historical junctures, it is difficult to separate religious actors from political ones or differentiate their respective roles. Over the course of the country’s history, the political functions of certain zawaya have ebbed and flowed.
Through the sixteenth and seventeenth century, the political influence of certain zawaya grew as Sufism prospered. Zawaya were also an important dimension of tribal politics and political contestation in Morocco at this time. Certain zawaya shared an important and strong tribal affiliation and were therefore crucial to certain political positions or events.12 Zawaya could bestow legitimacy through temporary or permanent alliances with ruling powers, and more importantly they could help mobilize supporters for one political claimant over another.13 Zawaya would often become the foundation of power especially during periods when Sufism gained significant political influence through their tribal affiliations and religious legitimacy.14
An important example in Moroccan history of a Sufi order that played a prominent political role is the Zawiya Nasiriya. This Sufi order had a mutually beneficial relationship with the Alaouite dynasty, which has claimed control of Morocco since the 1600s and to which the current monarchy still belongs. The Zawiya Nasiriya facilitated trade and, by supporting the dynasty’s territorial and political expansion, carved out a lucrative arrangement for itself. In these ways, Sufi orders became part of the contest for both temporal and religious leadership in Morocco.15 The power of Sufi leaders, through their community leadership roles and their religious credentials, became a source of great influence in shaping popular perceptions of political legitimacy.16 In various instances, they provided an additional religious foundation for the political and religious rule of particular sultans. During this period, the support of zawaya was particularly key in areas where the power of central authorities was limited or where allegiances were tenuous.17 For various ruling powers over the years, certain zawaya served as a tool for proxy control in remote areas where the sultan’s armies did not have access or support, and in exchange these zawaya were able to accumulate financial gains.18
Financial and monetary ambitions were (and continue to be) important aspects of various zawaya’s relationships with Moroccan ruling powers. Many relied on the state’s largesse—including gifts from the sultan and tax exemptions from the palace—to supplement donations of their adherents and their own assets and to extend their reach, influence, and political involvement.19 As zawaya provided religious legitimacy to political actors, in turn these political alliances allowed certain zawaya to expand their own influence. Some orders even harbored broader political ambitions that drove them to maneuver beyond domestic politics, at times engaging with foreign colonial powers.20
Financial and monetary ambitions were (and continue to be) important aspects of various zawaya’s relationships with Moroccan ruling powers.
During Morocco’s colonial period from the early 1900s until the country’s independence in 1956, the French administration mostly sought to establish similar dynamics with zawaya as the sultans had before them. The colonial administration utilized certain Sufi orders to their own political goals and benefits. In areas where the French administration faced resistance to its presence, French officials either co-opted zawaya and Sufi orders; played them off each other to ensure their acquiescence to the French protectorate; or otherwise fought, punished, and marginalized those who opposed French rule.
A Period of Diminished Sufi Influence
As the push for Moroccan independence intensified in the early 1950s and in the early years of independent rule in the 1960s, the societal and political roles of Sufism faced a conversion of sorts as both the Moroccan monarchy and the nationalist movement sought to diminish its influence.21 Within the nationalist movement, rising intellectuals and pro-independence political leaders in Morroco, striving to create an image of modernity and progress, veered away from Sufi practices that were viewed as archaic and even heretical, given the Sufi custom of venerating saints as intermediaries between worshipers and God.22 The Moroccan monarchy, for its part, was in the process of consolidating its rule and facing down sources of opposition that cropped up around the newly independent country; the monarchy also wanted to neutralize Sufi orders that could threaten its supremacy. Similarly, some Sufi orders supported French colonial rule and thus came to be marginalized in the aftermath of independence.23
In terms of religious beliefs too, zawaya began to face greater competition, as budding alternative and competing religious and political movements drew support away from Sufism in Morocco. Furthermore, in the 1960s and 1970s, the monarchy allowed the spread of Salafist Wahhabi ideology to drive support away from various far-left opposition currents by introducing competition among the working classes supporting them. Taking a page from the playbook of other regimes, the Moroccan monarchy used Salafist dogma to undermine the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters in Morocco in the late 1970s and 1980s.24 The spread of Salafism and even Muslim Brotherhood–style political Islam further diminished the appeal of Sufism during this period, and Sufi orders’ influence withered. In response, some Sufi orders found little alternative but to coalesce around the throne.25
For this variety of reasons, Sufi orders and zawaya lost ground after Morocco gained independence. Sufi practitioners had to contend with competing religious currents and ideologies, the rise of an urbanized modern class less receptive to traditional practices, and the consolidation of the monarchy’s religious leadership role alongside its political role. These trends also coincided with the monarch’s efforts to build a centralized religious management apparatus in Morocco. Since independence, Morocco’s Ministry of Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs has gradually assumed and codified an oversight role over zawaya and shrines. In an earlier time, some zawaya had operated independently by providing blessings or spiritual relief and guidance to local populations. However, this changed gradually as the ministry began to take over the management of zawaya. That effort was driven in part by a growing push for a modern administrative state and by efforts to confine zawaya to handling spiritual and social matters.26 As the process played out over decades, the ministry came to manage zawaya’s income, appoint administrators, and specify which activities, religious or social, that zawaya may hold. More recently, government oversight of zawaya has also been motivated by efforts to ensure any religious teachings or practices align with the streamlined official version of Islam that the government uses to promote tolerance and counter extremism.27
Sufi practitioners had to contend with competing religious currents and ideologies, the rise of an urbanized modern class less receptive to traditional practices, and the consolidation of the monarchy’s religious leadership role alongside its political role.
The Moroccan monarchy’s drive to consolidate its power, including over the religious establishment, has played out in multiple ways over the years. These have included establishing tight control on the country’s party politics, neutralizing potential opposition by weakening political parties, curtailing political engagement, and limiting freedom of speech. The ascendance of a supreme monarch with the highest political and religious authority in the country has subordinated all other religious and political entities. Extending and streamlining control over these entities has become crucial, particularly for those that straddle the political and religious spheres.
An important element of the Moroccan monarchy’s oversight is also to ensure that religious engagement eschews politics. This dimension of overseeing zawaya is particularly important in that it allows the monarchy to ensure that it remains the country’s main political player with a religious mandate. The country’s constitution bans any political parties that are based on religion. The exception to this is the Justice and Development Party, the country’s main Islamist party, which has what it refers to as an “Islamic reference,” meaning that while the party does not advocate the creation of an Islamic theocracy it does adopt some Islamic principles.28 In 1992, the monarchy allowed the party to register and operate as a sort of monarchy-approved religious party that wouldn’t compete with or deny the king’s religious and political authority, while siphoning popular support away from other and potentially more potent religious political actors.
As the party has become more entrenched in national politics, its religious character has been secondary to and separated from its leading members’ political function, as it has served alternately as an opposition party and then as the leader of Morocco’s governing coalition (since 2011). The party maintains fluid ties to its religious (Daawa) wing that it plays up or plays down in turn depending on the political needs of the moment. Furthermore, the party’s religious beliefs initially provided some credibility with the electorate, but this political role does not give its leading members any religious authority. In that sense, the monarchy remains the only actor whose religious and political roles bolster one another. The other main religious political actor in Morocco is a group known as al-Adl wal-Ihsan, whose name often is translated as Justice and Charity. The group, which rejects the king’s dual role (as king and commander of the faithful), is banned from registering as a political party, but its members continue to operate as an important spiritual and social grassroots opposition group. The group has a powerful ability to mobilize its members, which drives the monarchy’s pushback against it.
For a long time, the state’s control over zawaya was meant to dissuade them from dabbling in political engagement. For example, some of the politically active zawaya sought to field electoral candidates in 1984 but were prevented from doing so.29 Likewise, some zawaya sought to field candidates in 1997, but they were again rebuffed as the country formally moved toward banning political engagement by religious groups. During this period, zawaya continued to provide largely ceremonial and nonpolitical community-oriented support for the monarchy. This state of affairs, however, gradually began to change during the war on terror, as the Moroccan monarchy began to see a more active role for zawaya as part of the country’s religious overhaul.
The Monarchy Instrumentalizes Sufi Orders and Zawaya Again
In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, Morocco (like most Muslim-majority countries) was confronted with the challenge of stemming the extremist religious ideologies that had driven the rise of groups like al-Qaeda who were behind these attacks and other subsequent ones in Europe. The Moroccan monarchy responded with a series of religious reforms and took part in the war on terror under U.S. pressure. Domestically, the Casablanca bombings of May 2003 injected the issue of religious extremism with a strong sense of urgency. An important part of Morocco’s religious reforms to recentralize and tighten official oversight over the religious sphere—and perhaps more so religious discourse—was finding a clear religious and more active political function for Sufism following years of stagnation.
Seeking an alternative to some of the more conservative and rigid Salafist interpretations of Islam that had taken root in Morocco, the king gave a notable speech roughly a year after the Casablanca bombings. In it, he emphasized the “Sufi” character of Islam in Morocco. He highlighted the “unique character” of what he called “Moroccan Islam”—a sort of three-pronged foundation that includes the Maliki jurisprudence that Morocco follows, Ash‘ari doctrine, and a Sufi tariqa known as the Junaidi path.30 The rationale behind the king’s clarifying reminder was to emphasize that Morocco’s religious tradition has been (and remains) tolerant, open, and separate from more exclusionary and extreme visions of Islam. Regardless of whether Sufism in Morocco was (and is) as tolerant as the monarchy sought to portray it, emphasizing the traditional character of Sufism as a more indigenous and more characteristically Moroccan form of the faith had a certain domestic appeal.
The monarchy tacitly, and at times actively, has embraced various religious trends, currents, and interpretations over time for specific political purposes.
Internationally, too, Sufism, which is widely viewed as less rigid and less prone to extremist tendencies, gained traction as a potential antidote within Islam itself to extremist ideology. In that sense, the Moroccan monarchy was seeking to disempower rigid Salafist religious currents that had found their way into Morocco and that had become associated with extremist ideology and even violent extremism. Incidentally, these are the very currents that the monarchy itself had previously used as tools to weaken other political actors. As Moroccan history has shown, the monarchy tacitly, and at times actively, has embraced various religious trends, currents, and interpretations over time for specific political purposes.
Promoting a more tolerant vision of Islam infused with traditional Sufism became a key element of the Moroccan monarchy’s religious reform agenda in the early 2000s. Zawaya and Sufi orders ensure that Islamic teachings and practices reflect a tolerant and open version of Islam that can counter radical interpretations of Islam associated with violent extremism.
This reform agenda has included sophisticated and multilayered efforts to centralize and streamline religious authority, guidance, and decisionmaking.31 In addition to structural and educational reforms, the monarchy sought to raise awareness of and repopularize various forms of Sufism. Reorienting populations toward Sufi practices and traditions is now once again a mainstream endeavor intended to blunt the appeal of extremist ideologies.
The Moroccan government has strived to elevate the cultural significance of the country’s Sufi heritage. Since the early 2000s, Sufi orders have been highlighted as an important part of Morocco’s patrimonial legacy and the country’s understanding and practice of Islam. To that end, the king himself has participated in Sufi rituals, has visited different zawaya, and continues to provide royal patronage to festivals and other Sufi events. The patronage and support that certain zawaya receive allows the monarchy to maintain links that ensure the monarchy’s message and ideals reach some of the country’s most remote populations.32 Morocco’s dedicated religious television channel has promoted Sufi rituals as well, including by broadcasting traditional Sufi music and more contemporary Sufi-inspired artists.33
More recently, zawaya have been mobilized for very clear political purposes and continue to support the monarchy’s political initiatives and agenda—on matters beyond ideology and security.
The monarchy’s revival of zawaya and Sufi practices is not just about countering violent extremism. More recently, zawaya have been mobilized for very clear political purposes and continue to support the monarchy’s political initiatives and agenda—on matters beyond ideology and security. Furthermore, externally, the revival of Sufism has become an important foreign policy tool for Morocco. In other words, the monarchy’s Sufi ties and patronage have provided an additional foundation for religious leadership that the Moroccan king has been using heavily in the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa. This type of religious ideological leadership is particularly appealing to Morocco’s Western allies, as it provides a definitive type of religious leadership that is often difficult to assert given the decentralized leadership structures of Sunni Islam.
Managing Zawaya and Sufi Orders
The Moroccan government, through the Ministry of Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs, oversees zawaya and shrines and allocates an annual budget for their upkeep and management. This budget is supplemented by direct donations and gifts from the king. While zawaya have long garnered outside financial support to one degree or another, the government now considers these funds a key element of the fight against extremism.34 Spending on zawaya in 2017 was reported to exceed $16 million.35 Zawaya generate income through donations and alms from supporters, hosted events, and land holdings. The question of how much financial support a given zawiya has at its disposal is dependent on the zawiya’s resources, reach, and its sociopolitical usefulness—including by virtue of its location. The funding process remains opaque, and there are no clear parameters for which zawaya receive which funding. Some zawaya receive little or no financial support and become either rundown or even abandoned. These zawaya struggle to maintain a steady income, and eventually some face closures and the services they provide—modest as they may be—are lost to the local population. Meanwhile some of the zawaya that benefit most from government support have transformed into even more powerful social institutions.
The Elite Patronage Network of Zawiya Boutchichi
On the domestic front, the Quadiri Boutchichi order is a case in point. The Zawiya Boutchichi is one of the most powerful in Morroco today—its members are long-time supporters of the monarchy, and their role has grown in recent years. This zawiya represents an example of how the monarchy can instrumentalize an order domestically to actively mobilize adherents for clear political purposes.
The Boutchichi order’s zawiya is located in Madagh near Berkane in eastern Morocco.36 Since the 1970s, the order has gained a strong following among Morocco’s educated middle class, due to the efforts of its leader, Sheikh Sidi Hamza, who sought to broaden the order’s following especially among young educated Moroccans.37 While the order may have been created without the state’s direct involvement, state support has facilitated its popularity and growth.38 The order has grown rapidly in recent decades; in 2000, it was estimated to have about 25,000 followers, but by 2009 this number had risen to 100,000.39 The order has a wide range of adherents, including members of the Moroccan diaspora.40 The order’s openness even to non-Muslims showcases its pragmatism and to some extent a novel and somewhat elite-driven approach.41
The Boutchichi order is very much a twenty-first-century zawiya—complete with sophisticated communications platforms, including a magazine, a website, an official spokesperson, and dedicated youth engagement and outreach efforts.
The Boutchichi order has been touted as a Sufi vessel of sorts that exemplifies the very message Morocco wants to broadcast about Islam: traditional and indigenous, yet moderate and tolerant. To that end, the order currently has a semi-formal educational system that includes a summer program focused on religious and spiritual education. The program emphasizes Sufi tenets that support openness and eschew radicalization and extremism. The events that the order organizes appeal to elites, particularly the youth.42 The Boutchichi order also organizes an annual conference dubbed “The World Meeting of Sufism,” which is held at the same zawiya where the summer program takes place.43
The Boutchichi order has created a sophisticated internal structure with branches across the country and an international presence. The order plays an important political and diplomatic role on behalf of the monarch’s interest, and in exchange it has benefited from significant state support (through aid and tax exemptions) in addition to the usual donations.44 Unlike more traditional zawaya—which rely largely on their respective legacies in their given communities—the Boutchichi order is very much a twenty-first-century zawiya—complete with sophisticated communications platforms, including a magazine, a website, an official spokesperson, and dedicated youth engagement and outreach efforts.45 The order also benefits from significant exposure through state media, which promotes activities either organized by the order or by foundations close to the order. One foundation, Espirit de Fez, organizes the Fez World Music Festival—supported by the king directly—and the Sufi Culture Festival.46 These activities emphasize Morocco’s Sufi heritage, giving Sufism greater appeal and reorienting domestic and international audiences to Sufi Islam as an open, tolerant, and spiritually fulfilling alternative to rigid religious interpretations.
State support has improved and bolstered the order’s organization and even shaped some of its practices. For example, the Boutchichi order downplays Sufi practices that are seen as outdated. For instance, it does not encourage adherents to visit the graves of saints—a common practice for seeking a saint’s blessing.47 Sheikh Sidi Hamza effectively has done away with many conditions for adherence, limiting many of the religious strictures that modern and professional supporters may find cumbersome, such as ascetic retreats, daily readings, and limiting one’s material possessions.48 The leader has emphasized the need to “enjoy life as you see fit and sometimes, when you want, come and visit the zawiya, because proximity eliminates defilement.”49
As a result, the order has gained national renown. Its utility to the state has been shaped by its proximity to power, its pragmatism, its capacity to organize, and the extent and power of its adherents’ network. The order’s rise is also the result of the opportunities it provides its members in the sense that membership is increasingly seen as a way to gain professional and social advancement.50 The order’s growing reputation as an “ascenseur social” or “social elevator” that seeks out adherents beyond the middle class in elite circles.51 The order essentially provides an exclusive patronage network that is ripe with opportunities for advancement. Some of the most notable members of the Boutchichi order include the minister of Islamic Affairs, Ahmed Toufiq; his chief of cabinet, Ahmad Qustas, and Ahmed Abaddi, the secretary general of the Council of Religious Scholars, a religious research body.52 Several royal councilors are said to be members of the order.53
This religious, and particularly social, identity is bolstered by the Boutchichi order’s relationship with the state—the order is currently the most influential in the country.54 Sheikh Sidi Hamza once explained: “We could intervene in Moroccan politics only in three cases: when the Islamic religion, Moroccan territory, or the king are threatened.”55 This definitive statement makes clear the order’s political purpose: to amplify the monarchy’s message and purpose.56 The Boutchichi order also has supported the monarchy by reaching out to hundreds of young Moroccan Salafists to highlight the merits of Sufism.57 One clear example of the Boutchichi order’s political involvement was its support for Morocco’s 2011 constitutional revisions and its efforts to mobilize the order’s adherents to support this proposal and promote a vote in the monarchy’s favor.58 The order’s position aligned with the overarching efforts of the Ministry of Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs to encourage a yes vote by promoting it during Friday sermons across the country.59 This was an example of a very public, official, and organized effort to mobilize the order’s adherents politically on behalf of the state and the monarchy.
The Diplomatic Influence of Zawiya Tijania
Beyond domestic politics, the Moroccan monarchy has also drawn upon another notable Sufi order to bolster its foreign policy agenda: the Zawiya Tijania. The Tijani order—which extends across the North Africa, the Sahel, and West Africa—has played a role in rejuvenating ties between Morocco and its Francophone West African neighbors. Morocco’s foreign policy, over the past ten years, has sought to rebuild and reclaim connections to the rest of Africa by using (among other tools) shared religious practices and highlighting the shared history of the Zawiya Tijania.
Morocco’s efforts to rebuild its foreign policy outreach into sub-Saharan Africa are tied, in part, to one of the country’s top foreign policy priorities: the Western Saharan conflict. The conflict pits Morocco against the Polisario liberation movement, supported by Algeria, in a long dispute over who should rightfully rule the Western Saharan territory. When several African nations supported the Polisario’s claims to sovereignty and Western Saharan independence, Morocco left the African Union in 1983 in protest. Morocco then decided to focus its foreign policy efforts for a time on the Western nations that controlled the relevant international dispute negotiation mechanisms. In doing so, for years, the Moroccan government overlooked many African neighbors and partners. However, over the past decade or so, Morocco’s outreach to its African neighbors has taken on greater focus and importance, and the king has spearheaded several initiatives to reboot and bolster ties to various African nations. The bulk of these initiatives have focused on investment and economic cooperation—with what Rabat refers to as religious or “spiritual diplomacy” bolstering these efforts.60
However, over the past decade or so, Morocco’s outreach to its African neighbors has taken on greater focus and importance.
In this religious diplomacy realm, Morocco’s spiritual outreach relies on the king’s religious authority and his ties to the Tijani order, which is widely followed in West Africa. Although the order itself and its zawaya had long diminished in influence in Morocco, they have recently been revived for this particular purpose.61 During the Gathering of Tijanis Adepts in Fez, the king emphasized “you can count on Morocco’s support in your effort to disseminate [the Tijani] radiant message and expand its scope for the sake of Islamic, Maghrebian and African solidarity. We want the Tariqa Tijania to emerge as a pillar of African unity.”62
This outreach—through the order and other means—aims to grant Morocco a key role in countering violent extremism as the country’s leaders strive to build an alternative religious narrative with a cross-border dimension. In addition to supporting the Zawiya Tijania, the king of Morocco has built mosques in West African countries and helped support Sufi events and gatherings, while promoting exchanges on this shared spiritual and religious basis.63 The king’s role relies on the monarchy’s religious authority, which has historically reached what is now Senegal and Mali. Through these historical links and the shared spiritual heritage embodied by the Tijani order (whose founder is entombed in Fez), Morocco has undertaken several initiatives to broader religious cooperation. These efforts have included training imams in Morocco’s newly built Imam Training Center, which includes many applicants from West African countries who are either connected to or followers of the Tijani order. 64
Even as Morocco has made some headway in reshaping Islamic religious discourse both locally and regionally, the results of its efforts have been mixed. The state’s promotion of Sufism as a moderate religious force and as an indigenous and more legitimate ideology are evident in the government’s broader effort to create a consistent brand of Moroccan Islam. What is less clear, however, is whether this policy has succeeded in curbing the appeal of extremist religious ideology. For example, while it is difficult to precisely measure the spread of extremism ideology, Moroccans were among the highest number of foreign fighters who joined the ranks of the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Syria.65
Domestically, in the rehabilitation and use of zawaya, the Moroccan state has expended significant financial resources to streamline and centralize their management. These efforts are particularly visible in the country’s promotion of its Sufi heritage locally and internationally through television programming and support for gatherings of Sufi orders and Sufi music festivals. However, the role of zawaya in providing education and social services to local Moroccans is largely dependent on the extent to which the Moroccan state can offer support and prop them up. Many zawaya are not able to fulfill these social and religious functions to the extent that they can influence the population’s understanding of Islam without significant state support.
The role of zawaya in providing education and social services to local Moroccans is largely dependent on the extent to which the Moroccan state can offer support and prop them up.
A small but telling example of this took place during the coronavirus pandemic, which brought Morocco’s religious institutions to a halt for the better part of 2020. Morocco’s decision to close worship spaces affected zawaya due to social distancing policies. The zawaya supported the state’s decision to close these spaces, but they could have been used to provide much-needed social support while complying with national public health guidelines. Zawaya could have served as networks for the distribution of goods to the needy, and they could have played a more grassroots role in supporting and amplifying the state’s messaging on public health guidelines. Instead, those functions were assumed entirely by the state, with support from some nongovernmental organizations.
In terms of its international engagement, and particularly its support for deradicalization initiatives, the Moroccan monarchy has sought to fulfill its role as the country’s religious leader and supporter of education in the ways its international partners have wanted. International partners engaged in countering violent extremism in North Africa and the Sahel rely on Morocco to play a leadership role in teaching and retraining imams and preachers in a more tolerant version of Islam that fits in with these regions’ history and traditions. Through institutions such as the Mohammed VI Foundation of African Oulema (founded in 2015) and the Mohammed VI Institute for the Training of Imams, Morchidines and Morchidates, Morocco has been able to reach hundreds of religious leaders in Africa and Europe with its own brand of spiritual leadership. Similarly, Morocco has signed multiple conventions on “religious cooperation” with some African nations to provide religious education, training, and capacity building for the management of religious institutions.66
Morocco’s work, especially supporting other Sahel countries, is supported and praised by Western partners and gives Rabat more regional prestige and influence. On the ground, however, the situation might be more complex. It remains unclear how much of the monarchy’s religious authority is truly and readily accepted and how much the king’s message of a more moderate and tolerant interpretation of Islam is genuinely embraced by populations throughout the region.
While it remains unclear how effective the promotion of Sufism has been in countering religious extremism, the Moroccan monarchy’s use of Sufism for domestic political purposes has been more successful, as the example of the Boutchichi order demonstrates. The monarchy’s patronage and sponsorship of zawaya, and its ability to wield them nationally and internationally, will likely continue to bolster the monarchy’s religious and, by extension, its political authority.
The author would like to thank Ann Wainscott for comments on this paper as well as Abigail O’Keefe and James C. Gaither Junior Fellow Jaqueline Stomski for research assistance.
About the Author
Intissar Fakir was a fellow in Carnegie’s Middle East Program, where her research focused on political, security, and economic change in Morocco and other North African countries. Her research examines political Islam trends, local governance, social mobilization, and foreign policy
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