Mosque diplomacy

In North Africa, religion is being used to spread political and cultural influence.

Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca, Morocco. Image credit Jorge Láscar via Flickr CC BY 2.0 Deed.

In a grand ceremony on the morning of February 25, Algerian president Abdelmadjid Tebboune arrived in east Algiers, his motorcade winding through the hilly capital until it came to a halt in front of the Great Mosque of Algiers. Stepping out with a camel-haired qashabiya (a traditional overcoat worn in rural areas of Algeria) draped over his shoulders, Tebboune unveiled a black and gold plaque in front of a slew of approved television cameras, marking the official inauguration of the religious megaproject.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that the Great Mosque is finally accommodating worshippers in an election year. It was originally completed five years ago, in time to stand as a cornerstone of former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s 2019 electoral campaign, before he was unceremoniously ousted by the Hirak anti-government protest movement. Nonetheless, it is still not uncommon to hear some Algerians refer to the Great Mosque as “Bouteflika’s mosque.” The house of worship is the biggest in Africa and the third biggest in the world, behind only Islam’s two most sacred mosques in Mecca and Medina. The construction costs amount to approximately $958 million, and the edifice can accommodate up to 120,000 worshippers; its 265-meter-high minaret overlooks the Bay of Algiers and dominates the city’s skyline.

Across the Maghreb, such monumental construction projects often serve as legacy mementos for narcissistic leaders. Former Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali built the El Abidine Mosque in Tunis in 2003 (after the Arab Spring, it would be officially renamed Malik Ibn Anas Mosque). On the Casablancan coast, King Hassan II left a similar imprint with his eponymous mosque, once Africa’s largest before Algeria’s Great Mosque dethroned it. Under the current ruler, King Mohammed VI, Morocco has expanded its “mosque diplomacy,” aimed at fostering cultural ties and spreading its influence across Central and West Africa. The strategy began as early as 1964, when Hassan II donated the Great Mosque of Dakar to Senegal. In the 1980s Gabon and Mauritania were also adorned with their own Hassan II mosques. Nouakchott’s mosque was even delivered with a Moroccan cultural center to boot.

During Ramadan this year, Morocco’s mosque diplomacy was in overdrive. Two Mohammed VI mosques were opened in quick succession: one in Conakry on March 29 and the other in Abidjan on April 5. Guinean prime minister Bah Oury, who attended the grand opening in Conakry on behalf of General Mamady Doumbouya, declared, “This isn’t the first time that Morocco, on the king’s initiatives, contributes to our country via infrastructure, donations, or other cultural activities, which contribute to the longstanding links between that part of North Africa and this part of West Africa.” The brand-new buildings were entirely financed by Morocco and equipped with numerous amenities, including shopping centers and libraries. The ornamental facades were crafted by traditional artisans, who recreated the style of Moroccan architecture, part of an effort by the king to “inscribe in the West African landscape the marks of the civilization and culture of Morocco,” as Bah Oury concluded. 

This religious diplomacy extends beyond mosque construction to initiatives like the Mohammed VI Institute for the Training of Imams, which welcomes students from various African nations and promotes a moderate interpretation of Islam. The foundation has an annual capacity of 700 to 1,000 students. Additional agreements have also been signed with countries such as Senegal to train their imams almost exclusively. Moroccan authorities claim to want to strengthen the fraternity between Morocco and its African partners through religious investments; however, it cannot be denied that the kingdom also uses its soft power to preempt and curb extremism by exporting a more “tame” and “government-friendly” version of the religion both in Morocco and in Muslim-majority countries in West Africa.

If Morocco’s religious diplomacy is part and parcel of its foreign policy, Algeria’s is just as political, but tends to be more inward-looking. Indeed, it is no coincidence that the Algerian authorities appointed Mohamed Mamoune El Kacimi El Hassani as the head of the Great Mosque of Algiers. The 80-year-old, who instantly became the face of Algerian Islam, previously led the renowned El Hamel zawiyah in Bou Saâda.

In Algeria, religious Sufi orders of brotherhoods ( “zawiyah” in dialectal Arabic) have a far-reaching influence, particularly in rural areas of the country. Visitors regularly make donations to them and visit them to practice rituals and honor the memory of the patron saints. Due to their importance to the Algerian population, several of the zawiyahs had been restricted or closed during French colonization. Partly for this reason, political figures believe that the zawiyahs are intrinsically linked to Algeria’s national fabric, and they continue to act as a metaphorical moral compass. Some of them even welcome and train foreign as well as Algerian students of religion—as a result, their reach can transcend borders. One Algerian researcher, who preferred to remain anonymous, explains, “Certain Sufi orders and zawiyahs have branches or affiliations in other countries, particularly in the Maghreb and the Sahel. These networks can be used to propagate spirituality, establish links between communities, facilitate cultural and religious exchanges and sometimes act as centers of informal political power.”

It is believed that having the endorsement of the influential zawiyahs significantly boosts a presidential candidate’s chances of winning. Consequently, it has become customary for Algerian presidential contenders to visit these Sufi orders during their electoral campaigns. In 2019, for instance, Tebboune kicked off his campaign by visiting the zawiyah of Sheikh Belkebir in Adrar, southwest Algeria. He was the third candidate to visit a zawiyah, prompting the National Independent Electoral Authority (ANIE) to remind all candidates that using places of worship for electoral campaigning was prohibited. However, just a month before the elections, Tebboune received the endorsement of the National Union of Zawiyahs. The organization had previously supported former president Bouteflika. “Presidential candidates go there to ask for a sort of blessing and obtain the support of large sections of society who are always impressed by the speeches of zawiyah leaders,” the Algerian researcher believes.

Tebboune repaid the favor in 2021 by designating September 15 as National Imam Day. Notably, the date coincides with the anniversary of the passing of Sheikh Sidi Mohamed Belkebir, the leader of the zawiyah that Tebboune visited during his electoral campaign, who died on September 15, 2000. While Tebboune has not officially announced his candidacy for the September 2024 snap presidential elections, it is highly likely that any candidate vying for the presidency will, at some stage, try to visit zawiyahs and harness the politics of religion.

Further Reading