The Politics of Faith

By Younes Abouyoub

From the 5th to 7th of June 2011, a seventh round of negotiations started between Morocco and the Polisario Front in Manhasset, a suburb of New York. These talks are held at the invitation of the UN Secretary General’s Personal Envoy for Western Sahara, Christopher Ross, and are attended by Polisario Front and Morocco, in addition to Algeria and Mauritania as observer countries. The informal talks, which started August 2009 in Austria, will help prepare the ground for the fifth round of direct negotiations.

This conflict has been going on for decades, taking a heavy toll of human life and causing suffering and economic problems besides being a stumbling block in the face of consolidating the Maghreb Union. Both the Algerian and the Moroccan governments have divergent interpretations of this protracted conflict. The former insists that it opposes Morocco and the Polisario Front, which represents a people claiming their right of self-determination, while the Moroccan position has been advocating the granting of an autonomy status to this geographic area lying in the southern parts of Morocco and bordered by both Mauritania and Algeria.

During the recent years, with the burgeoning of a relatively independent press, there have been many articles in the Moroccan newspapers warning that the Moroccan diplomacy has been weakening since the death of the former king Hassan II and the changes made by his successor Mohamed VI in the diplomatic staff. No doubt that the international setting has changed. The cold war, used diplomatically by Morocco to win the Western bloc’s support for his position, is over. The war on terrorism does not carry the same weight since both Algiers and Rabat can use it as an argument to win support for their respective positions. Yet in the diplomatic arena, King Hassan II had more than one ace in his sleeve. One of them was religion.

Indeed, religious brotherhoods were in the heart of the Moroccan diplomacy during the reign of Hassan II, with a main focus on Tijania brotherhood in Western Africa. This religious movement can be traced back to late 18th century. It was founded by a Sufi named Sheikh Ahmed Tijani, hence the name of Tijaniya movement. It spread first in North Africa then in the Southern parts of the continent by early 19th century. Sheikh Ahmed Tijani was born in 1738 in Ain Madhi, a small desert town in Algeria, not far from a town called Laghouat, where the Algerian government organized a controversial international symposium on the life of the Sheikh. Ahmed Tijani travelled extensively throughout the Maghreb and settled to study theology in the Moroccan city of Fez, at the Qaraouiyine University. He died in Morocco in 1817 and his tomb is still nowadays a place of pilgrimage for all the followers of this Sufi movement from different parts of Africa.

For the Algerian government, this movement is an Algerian one since the aforementioned Sheikh was born in an Algerian village, while Moroccans oppose such an argument by contending instead that the Tijaniya is a Moroccan brotherhood since the Sheikh spent most of his life in Fez, where he was educated and started his movement. What this new controversy shows is that religion is also one, sometimes even a main component of an effective diplomatic strategy, hence the new attempts by Algiers to use it after it has underestimated its efficiency for decades of socialism.

In fact, the Algerian government has attempted during the 1980s to organize an international seminar on the legacy of Sheikh Ahmed Tijani, but Hassan II intervened swiftly to nip this attempt in the bud. Unlike his successor, he has always been aware of the importance of religious symbols in the construction of a national identity and in building alliances internationally. He was thus the Commander of the Faithful nationally and President of the Al-Quods Committee internationally, Jerusalem being highly symbolic for Muslims all over the world.

Millions of Tijaniya followers live in Sub-Saharan Africa and mainly in Senegal, a traditional ally of Morocco, where they represent 90% of the Muslim population. Besides, the expansion of the movement in Western Africa started from Senegal during the nineteen century.

The tangible proof that testifies to the strong lobbying role played by this movement is what happened in the United Nations years ago. During the first mandate of the former Senegalese President Abdou Diouf, the permanent representative of Senegal at the United Nations supported officially the Algerian position, backing thus the Polisario Front, the rebel movement that fought for years an attrition war against the central government in Rabat. The following day, King Hassan II sent his emissary to Dakar to meet with Sheikh Tall Moltaka, then the leader of the Tijaniya movement, who immediately pressured President Abdou Diouf to withdraw his support of the Polisario. Finally, the Senegalese President caved in and the permanent representative of Senegal at the United Nations was removed. Hassan II would later on back Abdou Diouf in his campaign to win a second mandate.

This faith-based diplomacy was adopted by the Moroccan regime towards other West African countries. During the presidency of Ibrahim Babangida in Nigeria, a huge mistake, or rather a lese-majesty crime was committed by the Nigerian diplomacy when it recognized officially the Polisario Front as the legitimate representative of the Saharoui population. In such case, calling back the Moroccan ambassador and severing diplomatic ties with Nigeria should have been in order, but Hassan II did not choose that option. Rather, he applied the same tactics as with Senegal and had the Tijaniya lobby pressure the Nigerian government to change its position, which it did eventually. The same thing took place when Olusegun Obasanjo presided over Nigeria. During a meeting in Abuja with a representative of the Polisario movement, the Nigerian President agreed to host an embassy for the Saharoui Front in the Nigerian capital. Once again, the Tijaniya lobby torpedoed the initiative.

Finally, when the Moroccan regime wanted to have a Moroccan elected president of the African Development Bank; it activated the Tijaniya network to achieve successfully its aim with the nomination of Mr. Omar Kabbaj. Many African Presidents took offence at these religious-diplomatic ploys. Presidents of Chad, The Sudan and Burkina Faso even drew the king’s attention to the danger of using religion as a diplomatic tool and subtly warned him against intervening in their national affairs. It was all in vain. Time and again, Morocco kept activating these networks and extended its diplomatic effort to other religious brotherhoods in Africa such as the Qadiriya.

Times have changed since. It seems that the regime has lost its dexterity at playing with this highly efficient diplomatic tool. The new diplomatic team has focused on other religious movements, unfortunately less effective in the on-going conflict, such as the Boutchichiya brotherhood, which has a smaller presence in Africa than the Tijaniya. Yet, this is not the only explanation of such a deficiency. Today, with the growing clout of political Islam and mainly movements such as the Salafists and the Wahabis, who do not hold in high esteem Sufi movements in general, these brotherhoods seem to have lost their strong lobbying role.

The French statesman and novelist, André Malraux once said that the 21st century will be religious or will not be. He was right, but only partially though. Religion has always played an important role in politics; a role which will increase tremendously as we are witnessing a revival of schisms within Islam between Shiites and Sunnis and a plausible clash between civilizations if the unfortunate trend in international affairs stays unchanged.

Younes Abouyoub, Ph.D.
Political Sociologist and Research Scholar
Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies,
Columbia University, NYC
Dr. Abouyoub may be reached via email at: ya2125@columbia.edu

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Filed under Analysis, Interests, PIDE (Policy, International Development & Economics), Politics

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