Religion and diplomacy in Morocco and the Middle East


For a long time, religions, or rather the differences between them, have been one of the drivers of conflicts between people and societies throughout human history. Tensions are especially latent in places where a large number of religions and sects coexist. The Middle East, where the three great monotheistic religions emerged, and North Africa (the Maghreb) are two examples of such places.  

Analyses from Europe and America often reduce the complexity of Eastern societies to the stereotypes with which they are commonly associated: one of these stereotypes is the perception of religions as the main variable behind the numerous conflicts that plague the region, ignoring other factors such as inequality, geopolitical interests and, above all, the fateful consequences of European colonialism. Moreover, for recognised experts such as Gregory Gause III, religion functions as a channel through which authoritarian elites in Middle Eastern countries seek to protect their interests - which may involve deepening conflict between warring sects in the same country.  

In this way, religions become an instrument used cynically by rulers, rather than a driver of regional conflicts. For example, the Alawite minority in Syria, to which the Assad dynasty belongs, cemented its dominance in the country by supporting other minority groups such as Christians, under the pretext of preventing a Sunni-dominated majority government. In Iraq, where Saudi Arabia and Iran are battling to control the myriad groups and parties according to their affinity with the elites in Riyadh and Tehran, a similar situation can be seen. 

In short, religion alone does not explain the spate of conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa. It does, however, play a prominent role in international relations. While, as mentioned above, religions can be used to deepen social divisions and even fuel tensions, they can also help bring governments closer together and forge unlikely alliances. The diplomacy of religion is being explored by governments around the world as a tool to facilitate understanding between countries, without neglecting national interests. 

It is no coincidence that the diplomacy of religion has been very latent over the past two years in the Middle East and Maghreb. This period has seen unprecedented geopolitical movements that have led to a progressive reconfiguration of relations between countries, and a realignment of alliances. The Abraham Accords signed in August 2020 between Israel and two Arab countries, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, consolidated the quiet but unstoppable rapprochement that had been taking place for years between Tel Aviv and several governments in the Arab peninsula. Through the Abraham Accords, Israel gained formal recognition of the UAE and Bahrain. This recognition has been followed by the opening of Israeli domestic markets to Emirati and Bahraini investors, and vice versa. 

Morocco was quick to join the agreements and normalised relations with Israel in December 2020. The Alawi kingdom has traditionally adopted a less critical stance towards Israel compared to other governments in the Arab world, noting also the involvement of part of its Jewish community in political affairs, as evidenced by the fact that André Azoulay, a Jew, is one of King Mohammed VI's top advisors and confidants. However, until 2020 Morocco and Israel had no diplomatic relations.  

The political and economic motivations that pushed Morocco, as well as the Emirates and Bahrain, to join these historic agreements are clear, notwithstanding the pressure exerted by the United States, which sought to present the Abraham Accords as a triumph for the Trump administration in its quest to contribute to the stabilisation of the Middle East. But the Abraham Accords, far from focusing only on economic issues, have gone hand in hand with greater cooperation on religious matters. The reference to the father of the three monotheistic religions in the name of the accords is a clear indication that they are not only intended to try to resolve a political conflict, but also to promote religious understanding. 

The UAE has used the rapprochement with Israel to promote dialogue between the majority faiths in both countries, Islam and Judaism. In November 2020, Israeli and Emirati ministers participated in an event with representatives of eight religions present in both states to mark the International Day of Tolerance. Agreements have also served as a warning against discrimination on religious grounds, as shown by a landmark memorandum against anti-Semitism signed between Israel, the UAE and the United States in October 2020. Since 2019, the Emirati government has been placing great importance on religious diplomacy. Pope Francis' visit to the UAE in 2019, the first time in history that a pope has visited the Arabian Peninsula, is another example of this. Bahrain is also developing diplomacy with religion at its core, as shown by the recent inauguration of the largest church in the Persian Gulf in December 2021, with a capacity of some 2,500 people.  

Israel, the UAE and Bahrain perceive the diplomacy of religion and the promotion of religious tolerance as a pillar of their soft power, i.e. their ability to be seen as attractive to the citizens and governments of other countries. In other words, to please. 

Morocco has also joined the diplomacy of religion, especially since the mutual recognition with Israel. The Moroccan government announced in December 2021 the rehabilitation of more than 13,000 Jewish graves in Fez, as well as the restoration of synagogues and other places of worship. Although the Jewish community in the country currently numbers a few thousand, Morocco's history has long been linked to Judaism, being home to more than 300,000 Jews in the mid-20th century and, today, approximately 7% of the Jewish population in Israel are of Moroccan descent, according to the 2019 census.  

Indeed, even before the signing of the Abraham Accords, major renovations of Jewish places of worship had taken place, such as the Ettedghi Synagogue in Casablanca in 2016. Even so, the agreements have opened up new avenues of cooperation between Morocco and Israel, as shown by recent excavations in the Atlas Mountains by a team of archaeologists from both countries. The preservation of cultural and religious richness and the promotion of intercultural dialogue have become one of the main objectives of the agreements, and a pillar of the two countries' diplomacy.  

With the agreements, a new chapter in Arab-Israeli relations has opened. Although driven by commercial and diplomatic interests, the Abraham Accords have provided a unique opportunity to improve understanding between followers of different religions. The diplomacy of religion shows that protecting national interests is not always at odds with promoting respect and tolerance between peoples and individuals of different cultures and faiths.