In his new book Extrémisme religieux: plongée dans les milieux radicaux au Maroc (“Religious Extremism: A Dive Into the Roots of Radicalism in Morocco,” published by En Toutes Lettres), journalist Hicham Houdaifa explores the theme of religious radicalization from a variety of perspectives. He begins and ends, though, with education.
The book’s first chapter describes the atmosphere at Islamic studies departments in Moroccan universities. At the Faculty of Letters of Ain Chock University, students attend the lectures of Professor Zine El Abidin Balafrej. The auditorium is segregated by gender, with male and female students using separate entrances and sitting on different sides of the room. When a few men sit on the women’s side, the professor makes a negative remark about al-ikhtilat (mingling between the sexes). In 2013, the department made news when it tried to segregate male and female students entirely; the decision was reversed and its dean was fired.
Balafrej is a star of the Salafist firmament in Morocco, with his own YouTube channel, Facebook page and website. He teaches and preaches at mosques, publishes books and issues fatwas. His lectures are attended not just by students but by followers and fans.
He has advised against women being allowed to go to the hammam (public baths) because they should not undress outside their homes; has defended the niqab (full face covering) and said that Moroccan tradition calls for women to show “only one eye” and that a “respectable munaqqaba (veiled woman) cannot enter a café where there are male customers or sit with unveiled women.” If she does, she is “a liar” and possibly “a prostitute.”
At another Islamic studies department, at the University of Ben Msik, one popular teacher tells his students: “There is only one Islam, one Qur’an. Above all we must not touch religion, at the risk of causing discord.” Outside class, the reporter hears students argue that watching soccer games is haram; blame Jews for all the troubles of the umma; and explain that pork is forbidden in Islam because pigs’ flesh is harmful to one’s health and because “male pigs are not jealous of their females.”
In the same department, Professor Mustapha Bouhandi teaches comparative religion and has called for “interpreting the Qur’an with the Qur’an”—without reference to the centuries of interpretation and tradition that have been layered upon it.
“Why are we afraid for our ideas?” Bouhandi lectures his students. “Let’s put them to the test and if they don’t stand up, let’s get rid of them. [Imam] Boukhari, whom everyone wants to regard as sacred, put 60,000 of the hadiths in circulation in his time to the test, and only 6,000 survived. Imagine the reaction of the shuyoukh of his time who used these fatwas and hadiths in their teaching.”
Houdaifa reports that students gather around Balafrej at the end of his lectures, treating him with the respect of disciples for their master. But they interrupt and argue with Bouhandi and tell the reporter in their midst: “We’re aware of the message he’s trying to send. He wants to get rid of the sunna, which is unacceptable.”
Professor Bouhandi only teaches two hours a week, and says he has faced “an orchestrated war” from his own colleagues and demands for his dismissal. While there are scholars in Morocco and other Arab countries who have argued for more progressive or contextual readings of religious texts, they often come under attack from fellow scholars, religious authorities and social conservatives.
Houdaifa’s book raises the question of what constitutes religious extremism, and the relationship between fundamentalist movements like Salafism and violent radicalism. Those in the auditorium described above do not view themselves as extremists or radicals, just as observant Muslims. There are plenty of classes, even whole universities, in the region that are segregated by gender. There are also plenty of classes, whatever the subject, where the words of the professor are held sacred.
Salafism embraces a literal, conservative reading of Islamic texts, and calls for Muslims to live as closely as possible to way the Prophet’s companions did, but it does not call for violence. Many young jihadists today radicalize online, outside the authority of school and family. Some observers have argued that Salafism, with its focus on everyday piety rather than opposition to the authorities, is a bulwark against outright violent extremism.
Others argue that Salafism—with its discrimination against women and non-Muslims, its insistence on dogma rather than freedom, its aggressive policing of the behavior of fellow Muslims—creates an environment that facilitates radicalization. Not all Salafists are jihadists, goes the argument, but most jihadists are Salafists to begin with.
Morocco has witnessed domestic terrorist attacks, and jihadists have traveled from here to Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. The authorities have responded to concerns about radicalization with security crackdowns and by emphasizing the country’s moderate traditions of Islam.
The oldest university in the world, al-Quaraouiyine, was founded in Fez in 859 by a woman, Fatima al-Fihriya. It taught all the available knowledge of the time, from science to Arabic to theology. In 1963 it joined the state university system and became a modern university, with faculties of shari’a, Arabic and foundations of religion (‘usul al-din) in cities around the country.
In 2016 the government opened a new school in Rabat to train Moroccan and African imams. It also initiated a reform of the religious curriculum throughout the school system, with an aim to “prioritize teaching the values of tolerance in Islam, within the framework of the Sunni Malekite school, which emphasize finding the middle ground, moderation, tolerance and cohabitation with different cultures and civilizations,” according to a communiqué from the Royal Cabinet. The reform also removed hundreds of defamatory remarks from 147 textbooks in various subjects.
Yet in Houdaifa’s book, several educators criticize the reforms for being hasty and superficial and say the Islamic studies curriculum remains rigid, boring and full of injunctions rather than opportunities for reflection and debate. A recent controversy over the presentation of philosophy in a religious textbook highlighted this. Teachers themselves have not been trained to present religious studies in a new way.
“To face this rise in radicalization, we must begin an educational reform that encourages critical thinking, a dose of rationality and a solid religious culture among students,” says Mohamed-Sghir Janjar, anthropologist and director of the King Abul Aziz Al Saoud Foundation, a library and research center in Casablanca.
The point seems to be that in reforming religious education changing the way one teaches matters as much—if not more—than revising the content.