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At the centennial of Armistice Day in November 2018, world leaders attended a ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe. Seated in the front row with the heads of state of France, Germany, Russia, Canada, Israel, and the United States was King Mohammed VI of Morocco. The monarch’s inclusion in the company of some of the world’s most powerful individuals offered a visual representation of the king’s international standing. Mohammed VI has developed partnerships with the EU and the U.S., particularly on the issues of combatting terrorism and preventing migrants from crossing into Europe from North Africa. Although he has cultivated the image of Morocco as a bastion of moderate Islam and of himself as a strategic partner, to what extent does his international reputation correspond to public opinion in Morocco? Evaluating the king’s domestic standing has policy implications for the U.S., as the American government seeks to invest in allies that can support the strategic objective of countering violent extremism.
In addition to serving as head of state, Mohammed VI’s domestic position is imbued with religious significance due to his title of “Amir al-Mumineen” or “Commander of the Faithful.” A moniker historically associated with Moroccan sultans, the religious status was codified by King Hassan II in the 1962 constitution. Although Mohammed VI’s role as a religious figure is frequently noted in media coverage, few studies have sought to evaluate whether Moroccan citizens view their king as having Islamic authority. This report examines respondents’ trust in Muslim religious figures. In addition to Mohammed VI, respondents answered questions about the leaders of Moroccan Islamist groups, political parties, and government officials, as well as non-Moroccan international figures. The survey was commissioned by the Baker Institute for Public Policy and administered by YouGov in 2017. The report also draws on interviews with Moroccan university students, religious officials, and U.S. embassy personnel conducted by the author in 2016.
The survey results indicate that of the individuals named by the survey, King Mohammed VI enjoys the highest religious authority. These findings may reflect a taboo against questioning his status as the Commander of the Faithful, but also indicate the crown’s success in establishing the king’s religious credentials through the process of state-sponsored religious messaging. The results also reveal respondents’ lack of familiarity with some of the religious figures they were asked to evaluate. Due to recent shifts in leadership at many influential religious organizations, the field of spiritual leadership in contemporary Morocco is relatively sparse, although such figures persist in recent memory. Overall, although his status as both a religious and political leader is significant, the finding that King Mohammed VI enjoys high religious influence should be evaluated in the context of state-led efforts to bolster his authority.
This report proceeds by providing historical background on the construction of religious heritage in Morocco, specifically regarding the status of the monarch; government responses to the challenges raised by Islamist groups; and the policies adopted by the Moroccan religious establishment in the context of the “war on terror.” Respondents’ views of different individuals’ religious leadership are discussed, especially regarding counterterrorism and long-term regime stability. Although King Mohammed VI has sought to establish himself as a religious leader capable of counteracting religious extremism on a global scale, it is important to assess how Moroccans perceive their king, as well as other religious leaders. From the perspective of U.S. policymakers, evaluating the landscape of religious influence in Morocco and across the Middle East and North Africa offers insights into which individuals and institutions can credibly contribute to initiatives to counter violent extremism. However, the U.S. should also be cautious about appearing to support leaders whose credibility may suffer as a result of U.S. affiliation.
This material may be quoted or reproduced without prior permission, provided appropriate credit is given to the author and Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. The views expressed herein are those of the individual author(s), and do not necessarily represent the views of Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.