A Discussion with Rajil Abdelaziz, Afkaar Center for Studies and Research

With: Rajil Abdelaziz

May 11, 2016

Background: As part of the International Higher Education Interfaith Leadership Forum, in May 2016 student Katherine Butler-Dines conducted an interview with Rajil Abdelaziz, who is a founding member of NGO Afkaar in Morocco. Abdelaziz discusses his definition of interfaith faith dialogue, religion and its relationship to the state of Morocco, and examples of best practices for engaging in dialogue.
What institution(s) are you affiliated with?

In terms of my civil activism, I am a founding member of the Afkaar Center for Studies and Research. The research is independent from the government, and the organization is composed of a group of young researchers from a variety of academic fields, including those interested in religion. The goal of the organization is the formation of students and of knowledge with particular awareness of the risks that threaten the whole world as a result of some deadly and destructive ideas. We give the students space to express their ideas and opinions with freedom, and we try to build a comprehensive approach in dealing with religious or ideological issues that concern Moroccan society.

How would you define interfaith dialogue? How do you define intercultural dialogue? Are these two different things?

In addition to the dialogue between religions and cultures that you mentioned, there is also discussion of dialogue between civilizations and relations between religions. Each phrase is associated with a specific historical context. For instance, the dialogue between cultures has been linked to globalization when the world turned into a “small village” because of the information revolution. The things that communities pay attention to are privacy and identity; but more than that, to emergence of violence and violent rhetoric, especially that which is incited against religious groups. This has resulted in the world talking about dialogue between cultures to understand other people’s beliefs regarding religion and create respect for each other’s cultures. This type of dialogue is characterized by the participation of politicians, in addition to the work of cultural or religious scholars, and thus, interfaith dialogue is part of the larger dialogue between cultures. However, interfaith dialogue began in academic and media circles due to the important role of religion in society, or what some might call might the repression of religion, especially in Europe.

What our organization offers as the definition of interfaith dialogue is that it is certainly not followers abandoning their own religious beliefs, and not picking elements from every religion and trying to form some religion from the sum of these elements. Nor is it a gathering of religious people just to exchange greetings, take pictures, and then leave. According to my personal beliefs, interfaith dialogue should be based on the acceptance of the other as equally religious, and the exertion of maximum effort to try and understand each other in order to deal with this “religious other” peacefully and in order to remove the preexisting prejudices. I do not like any kind of interreligious dialogue that is called “pragmatic,” where only the purely religious leaders meet, and which doesn’t result in an ongoing and inclusive process. Nor do I like any type of dialogue that is called “ideological” because it leads to followers of different religions trying to outdo and refute each other’s arguments.

Is there a different term you would use to describe these phenomena?

I care more about the content of these statements, whether defined as interreligious or intercultural or some other dialogue. What really concerns me is: Do these dialogues contribute to creating a real connection between people based on knowledge and science and not based on prejudices? Do these dialogues seek to dispel hate and fear? Do they contribute in spreading noble values?

As an activist and a student, how do you undertake interfaith dialogue or service work? Do you engage in it directly, or is it just a part of the larger work you do?

You cannot be a modern person without engaging in dialogue generally, and specifically in interfaith and intercultural dialogue, because they are effective means for self-development on cognitive and moral levels. These dialogues effectively correct many of the preconceived notions or prejudices surrounding people of another religion. Participating directly in these dialogues is an excellent opportunity to achieve these noble goals and human values that are advocated by all religions. In these dialogues, some basic conditions are required: openness, respect, trust, humility, and responsibility. But those values are not enough; practical and tangible results whose effects can be seen in society should also emerge from these dialogues. This demands work in civil society targeting all segments of society. So this type of work should be the life’s work of actors like you and me, not limited to academic meetings.

I can give you an example. At the center, before we could talk about interfaith dialogue, it was necessary that we laid the groundwork for this dialogue and others by looking for marginalized youths, far from urban centers, and giving them the opportunity to express themselves and highlight their talents, bringing them together. We did not impose anything, so for example, in an activity we call “forum readings,” we asked young people to read any book and discuss with us its content. The goal was to create discussion and criticism, and in this way, we can form a generation that clings to dialogue and accepts different opinions.

Can you give me an example of interfaith work at Afkaar or at your university?

Our basic priorities are to educate children and youth about dialogue and critical thinking because educational institutions, i.e. public schools, lack this method of education, and what results is a failure of our society at all levels. We undertake developing a love of science and knowledge within Moroccan youth, the opposite of which is the spread of intolerance and hate. This is not just between religions, but between individuals within a single society. Then we try to get the students to invest their curiosity in knowing other religions, beliefs, traditions, and cultures as to avoid misunderstandings. Additionally, we are involved in removing negative stereotypes that are enshrined in some media sources.

I focus on creating individuals who are open and accepting of others through workshops discussing religious texts and how they are misused to support the hate propagated by some extremist religious groups and television channels. This is the challenge for educators and civil society activists; we have to double the effort to correct some misconceptions promoted by those who exploit religion to achieve political ends. So for the students, I try to distinguish between religion’s supreme principles, religious practices, and those relative human experiences. I want to remove the holiness of some of the prejudicial ideas and historical views, and instead promote the idea that every human being is taken from him. The Qur’an responds to those who want to impose their will on others who are different by emphasizing that respecting others’ right to choose is an expression of respect for the will of God.

Does a university or the government formally support your work?

We do not have a relationship with the government, a political party, or any partisan bodies. We have ideas that we would like to share with others, and we want our work to benefit society and elevate Morocco to the ranks of developed societies. Of course, Moroccan law considers us a part of civil society, and we have the right to benefit from grants given by the government, as well as to use public spaces. But at this moment, we still work in accordance with the limited means available to us. We also have coordinated on several occasions with a European institution that operates within Moroccan civil society and is based in Rabat. For example, we held a conference for young researchers on the topic of “Religious Issues and Tracking the Political and Social Transformation in the Countries of the Maghreb.” The works of the forum focused on religion, the state, patterns of religiosity, religious associations, and the relationship between religious groups and sects.

Within the university institution to which I belong in Morocco, there are limited initiatives to really explore the sciences of comparative religion and the move to interfaith dialogue. These university initiatives need to review and develop the level of curriculum. There are shortcomings of interfaith dialogue within Moroccan universities, since unfortunately, any dialogue between different religions is based on a lack of understanding of the religious other. For example, in the study of Christianity, the students depend on intermediaries and translated books about Christianity that lack objectivity, in which the purpose of knowledge and intake of knowledge was not to produce an understanding of Christianity as much as it was obsessed with responding to it without knowing its origins. Most of the criticism of previous religions was based on prejudices and total ignorance. It is necessary to overcome the Salafi approach to curriculum. There are other universities who raise the slogans of interfaith and intercultural dialogue but are preoccupied with issues and problems of Islamic thought. In my opinion, the purposes of teaching religion at Moroccan universities should be reconsidered. We have noticed that many of the professors at the university who are talking about religions assume they are right and others’ opinions are false, and they do not consider the validity of others’ opinions or the fact that their own opinions may be mistaken.

Afkaar’s perspective of religious dialogue is that others who are different are not solely a tool for dialogue but rather an essential component as which we, ourselves, are the same. Therefore, we are working hard to strengthen critical thinking and give it priority in our work to pave the way to a better future, in terms of the ability of Moroccan students and civil society actors to deal with other religions and to benefit from dialogue with them.

Do you know of any support or initiatives the Moroccan state is giving for interfaith/intercultural dialogue?

First, I want to comment on the status of religion and its relationship to the state of Morocco. After independence from French colonial rule, the Moroccan state began paying more attention to the religious domain by creating a set of official religious institutions. The Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs is the ministry through which the king exercises his influence, because according to the Moroccan constitution, the king is “the Commander of the Faithful and the Protector of the Religion.” Additionally, there are the councils of the ulama, the Association of Muhammadiyah Scholars of Morocco, Dar al-Hadith Hassania, for the education and supervision of the imams and mosques, and the media, such as the television station Mohammed VI Qur'an. These institutions show the extent of the presence of the state in the religious field.

The Moroccan state is distinguished from some of the other Arab countries by its deep attachment to the Malaki school of jurisprudence, as well as the belief in the Ash'ari doctrine and the presence of Sufi orders. It has come to focus on these components to protect society from extremist groups and militant sects, in a time of globalization and the satellite broadcast of fatwas from Wahhabi/Salafi militants. Overall, it can be said that the policy adopted by the Moroccan state has produced a kind of religiosity that can be called the official religiosity associated with the king, and at his side, we find groups in Moroccan society who can be termed as religious folk represented by Sufi orders and zawais that characterize the Sufi followers in North African countries. This popular religiosity has played a role in history and still, to some extent, plays educational, social, and political roles. There is also a pattern of religiosity away from these two types, spread in the ranks of the educated middle class, which some call the religiosity of movements or political parties, which is linked to Islamic groups emanating from the Muslim Brotherhood.

With respect to the existence of other religions in Morocco, there is the presence of Judaism in Morocco, one of the oldest religions, which entered before Islam into Morocco. Jews have educational and religious institutions of their own, guaranteed by law as Moroccan citizens. While Christianity has been linked to the French colonial presence in Morocco and almost all Christian denominations are found in Morocco, their activities are mostly confined within their own religious institutions. Generally, the Moroccan state, in its relations with these other religions, considers itself legally and religiously responsible to respect the religions, and gives protection and demonstrates openness to the followers in coordinating with them to discuss some of their common issues.

In regards to answering your question, I am reminded of some initiatives. For example, the Muhammadiyah Association of Scholars Morocco (an official religious institution) established a research and training center in interfaith relations, and on February 24, 2016, I attended the opening meeting. They had summoned representatives from all of Morocco’s religions and religious sects, and each representative spoke about their religious community’s experience and aspirations. This is a positive introductory step regarding more effective relations between religions and to remedy the shortfall in this area in our country. Also, conferences have been held under the auspices of the state, either on its own initiative or in partnership with international organizations. For example, in Marrakesh, from January 25 to 27, 2016, the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs and the Forum for the Promotion of Peace in Islamic Societies organized a conference on "Rights of Religious Minorities in the Islamic World: The Legal Framework and The Call to Action," which resulted in the Marrakesh Declaration about the rights of religious minorities in the Islamic world. There is a long historical experience in Morocco of the coexistence between religions, and so there is a need to draw lessons from studying it to discover the pros and cons.

Are there any social or political matters specific to Morocco which influences how intercultural or interfaith dialogue is undertaken?

I have raised freedom of conscience as an issue of controversy in Morocco. Some demanded that the phrase be included in the new constitution, but others opposed this because they felt it threatened the Moroccan identity and unity of society. A path between the two opinions was taken, and the state maintained that Islam is the religion of the state, but also the state shall guarantee the freedom of religious worship. This shows that the Moroccan state is not secular, and its religious point of reference is Islam. But this doesn’t mean that only Islam is allowed, because Islam recognized the previous religions, Judaism and Christianity; just that the practice of other religions will take place within the specified religious associations. So the dialogue between religions occurring with Morocco takes into account these facts.

What are the best practices for engaging in interfaith dialogue?

Personally, I appreciate the efforts of Professor Paul Heck of the Theology Department at Georgetown University. I consider that the project SORAC (Study of Religions Across Civilizations) is the embodiment of a practical and real interreligious dialogue, which on one hand aims to strengthen scientific ties between America and Morocco in the field of studying religions, and on the other hand seeks to promote mutual understanding between peoples, through field visits and direct communication with emerging leaders and young people so they can listen to each other’s questions and share what they want each other to know. I think the best mechanism to activate dialogue among followers of religions is to connect different religious leaders through friendship, the exchange of visits and hospitality, and to make them live in the atmosphere and traditions of the other as to know each other closely. All that is intended to facilitate understanding and discourse.

On the level of content, which should be the focus both in official government meetings and informal ones, it is advisable to approach the problems of the era rather than problems that have occurred in history because that doesn’t benefit the modern man.

It is ironic that we live in Arab countries where people who believe in God do not reflect this faith in their behavior, actions, and treatment. Faith involves compassion, charity, love, solidarity, forgiveness, pardon, and peace.

I wonder where these values are in our world today. What is the meaning of interreligious dialogue that does not invest in the spiritual powers of religion to solve the worrying and depressing problems of modern man and to spread humanitarian and religious values?

What is something you know now about this work that you wish you had known from the start?

I feel we are failing. It is worthwhile that we learn how to represent the values of our religion and how to live the values in our lives. In order to search for commonalities between us and the other and to work on common human development, it is necessary to avoid controversy and misunderstanding. It is worthwhile that we Moroccans have a long history of coexistence with the Abrahamic religions, especially Judaism, and that the influence of this history can still be seen in the Moroccan architecture, dress, music and cooking. I think we should observe the various religious experiences in American society and the method of coexistence between them despite their differences. Because generally, the thinking in America is dominated by practicality more than the theoretical, which is what influenced Moroccan society by way of the French school of thought.

In summary, I believe the activities of official Moroccan religious institutions in the field of interfaith dialogue are deficient and inadequate. There is a terrible lack of qualified activists in interfaith dialogue. The teaching of the science of religions in Moroccan universities needs to be reconsidered, particularly the teaching methods and its purpose at the curriculum level. Afkaar is fully aware of the importance of interreligious and intercultural dialogue, and it aspires to employ more modern functioning mechanisms and to provide more effective and influential content.

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