Ann Wainscott on Morocco’s Religious Foreign Policy
Date: September 6th, 2015

During the past two years, the Moroccan government has begun exporting various religious education programs as part of its foreign policy strategy in the North and West African region.  Prof. Ann Wainscott, an assistant professor of political science at St. Louis University, explains how this new development is both an outgrowth if its domestic religious strategy, and a response to requests by other nations to adopt some of the policies implemented in Morocco.  We also receive a fascinating lesson in the unique brand of Moroccan and West African Islam, indicating that Islam is really a variegated religious tradition, not the monolithic entity that is often assumed by Westerners.

The conversation begins with Tony pointing out that Ann previously appeared on the show as a graduate student, but now is calling in as a tenure-track professor at a superb university.  We chat a little bit about the transition from graduate student to professor, and Ann offers up a few pieces of wisdom for others who are about to go on the academic job market.

We quickly turn to a discussion of recent developments in Morocco and some of the fascinating changes that have taken place since Ann was on the show two years ago.  Prof. Wainscott reviews the recent history of Morocco and briefly summarizes the government’s domestic policy towards religion over the past four decades or so.  Dating back to the 1960s/70s, the Moroccan monarchy promoted Islamic education as a means of building a national identity that would counter growing secular leftist movements of the time.  This policy inadvertently gave rise to some Islamic extremism, resulting in a major terrorist attack in Casablanca in 2003.  Since that time, the regime of King Mohammed VI has become more involved in the religious education system as a means of moderating the more radical elements of Islam and as a means to avoid the bloody civil conflict that beset Algeria during the 1990s.  Ann then notes that this domestic educational policy has been of great interest to several other countries in the North and West African region, and there have been requests by these nations to help implement similar policies leading to a new religious foreign policy emphasis.

Before diving into the specifics of Morocco’s religious foreign policy turn, Dr. Wainscott helps us understand the unique nature of Moroccan (and West African) Islam.  She lists five features that make Islam in this region unique.  The first feature, which is the dominance of Sunni Islam is not particularly unique to the region, but it is different than Shia Islam that has been increasingly promoted in the region by Iran, and which has concerned the Moroccan regime.  The second differentiating aspect of Moroccan Islam is its general adherence to the Maliki school of legal interpretation, which is more flexible perspective than other legal traditions.  Ann also explains why legal interpretation is important in Islam.  Next, and in a related vein, Moroccan (and West African Islam) favors the Ash’ari doctrine of scriptural interpretation.  This way of looking at the Koran and other holy texts promotes the use of human reasoning, and not just rote adherence to holy texts, as a means of understanding one’s faith.  Moroccans also tend to favor Sufism, a mystical form of Islam that emphasizes ones direct experience with Allah.  Fifth, and finally, Moroccans and others in the general West African region, prefer a Warsh style of scriptural recitation.  Ann explains how this gives oral readings a distinct dialect and serves as an important signal that the Koranic texts being read come from an interpretation of Islam that favors the other four characteristics mentioned above.

We then return to a discussion of Morocco’s new foreign policy of promoting this brand or “flavor” of Islam in other countries in the region (as well as in France, which has a sizable Moroccan population).  Interestingly, Ann points out that a desire to promote religious education as part of its foreign policy was not simply a unilateral decision by the Moroccan government, but rather developed out of requests by other nations to adopt Moroccan policy.  Concerned by the emergence of a radical Islamist separatist movement in northern Mali, many political leaders in the region wanted a model for a more moderate and controlled Islam.  Morocco’s experience proved tempting.  Ann then argues that the success of Morocco in promoting its policies of religious education abroad are the result of three factors: 1) Morocco’s cultural and historical legitimacy in the region; 2) the pre-existing institutions that Morocco has built over the years; and 3) linking religious education with increased economic trade.  Ann details several of the ongoing efforts to train regional religious scholars in Morocco, as well as to promote different scholarly associations abroad.  Prof. Wainscott points out the strength of these initiatives by noting that King Mohammed VI has made several trips to other countries to promote these efforts and build new relationships.  While seemingly innocuous to citizens in Western democracies, trips by monarchs or autocrats in less-than-democratic regimes often raise the probability of a coup, thus such trips by Mohammed VI are very notable.  We finish with some of Ann’s reflections on these recent developments.  While the promotion of more moderate forms of Islam may fall in favor with Western diplomats battling the “war on terror,” the increasing involvement by the government in training clergy is of concern in that it weakens a traditional buffer between the state and the citizenry.  Recorded: September 1, 2015.



Prof. Wainscott’s personal website and bio at St. Louis University.


Ann Wainscott on the Politics of Islam in Morocco.

Paul Kubiceck on Islam, Political Islam, and Democracy.

Ani Sarkissian on Politics and Religious Civil Society in Turkey.

Kevan Harris on Iran’s Islamic Revolution and Green Movement.

Alessandra Gonzalez on Islamic Feminism.

Ahmet Kuru on Islam in Europe.

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