The particularly toxic but influential ideology of Wahhabism, a sect within Sunni Islam that underscores much of the Islamist and jihadi worldview, is exported en masse from Saudi Arabia. This trend has continued for decades and much of the terrorist violence we now see around the world can be traced back to a Saudi influence, whether it is in schools, books, funding for imams or anyone that will preach the Wahhabi ideology overtly or covertly.
There are many ways in which one can become radicalised. Much of the time there is a combination of background factors including: identity crisis, grievances and a social influence. But to get a jihadi you need the Islamist ideology - the wish to impose an interpretation of Islam on society.
If ideology is a key ingredient, and this has come through the spread of these ideas throughout the world by the aforementioned means, then is it possible to mitigate this message through the promotion and export of a different Islamic school of thought?
In March 2015 King Mohammed VI of Morocco inaugurated in Rabat, the "Institute Mohammad VI of Training Imams, Mourchidins and Mourchidats": a well-funded training institute for aspiring imams of all ages (some as young as 15) both male and female. According to the director of the institute the imams will be taught a "correct understanding of Islam". The ideas promoted are inspired by the Malikite doctrine and school of thought, which aims to be centrist if not progressive in its ideas. By training thousands of imams from Africa, Europe and elsewhere the king seeks to spread a moderate interpretation of Islam throughout the world, as an antidote to takfiri notions that have been prevalent for the last few decades.
Graduates are educated across a wide range of subjects not limited to Islamic studies, including: history of religions, geography, ethics, and human rights. Social science subjects such as these are in desperate need in the Middle East/North Africa region and there is evidence that those educated in social science fair better when it comes to susceptibility to radicalisation. This type of education and subsequent pedagogy may help to spread critical reflection to ideas within traditional or entrenched cultural Islamic thought. So for places like Chad, Nigeria, Guinea, France, Mali, Ivory Coast and of course Morocco, where these students currently hail, there is a least a coherent form of memetic resistance.
Can this work? Or perhaps the better question is can this help? It is hard to think a well-funded initiative such as this cannot have an impact on the communities to which these trained imams return. Any counter narrative to the Saudi influence is desperately need - one only need peruse the Pew research on attitudes of Muslims around the world to recognise the issues regarding fundamentalism and Islamism, or turn on the news regarding the latest terror attack.
So whilst an initiative like this may be pragmatic and in desperate need, it is instructive to look at some potential problems. The director emphasised how the institute promotes " a correct understanding of Islam". It is not hard to see how this statement is contentious. Given that there are 1.6 Billion Muslims in the world with arguably 1.6 billion definitions of Islam a sense of "correctness" might be a bit optimistic. What the Moroccans say is "correct" others may at best disagree and at worst file a charge of apostasy (common in Wahhabi thought).
Also, simply replacing one interpretation of religion with another via the authority of the imam and the Moroccan king is problematic. Moderation of fundamentalism and mitigation of Islamism comes from critical and non-binary thinking; the suspicion is that it is the social sciences that foster this worldview better. Using faith (believing without evidence), or arguments from authority, at its roots harbours the epistemological shortcomings of Wahhabism.
Nevertheless, the Moroccan initiative should be welcomed, particularly by those who ask moderate Muslims to stand up to terrorism – in fact what we see is state-sponsored resistance.
Australia should and could take note. Where we see sponsorship, promotion and preaching of the poison that is Wahhabism we should cut ties logistically, ideologically and intellectually. Perhaps aspiring Australian imams may seek out religious training in Morocco, a move we should encourage and facilitate.
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