Muslim NGOs and Civil Society in Morocco

A response to “Muslim NGOs and Civil Society in Indonesia: An Interview with Robert Hefner”

By John Thibdeau

The Religious Studies Project inaugurates its series on “Religions and NGOS” with an investigation of Muslim NGOs in Indonesia and their contribution to the development of both a vibrant civil society as well as a successful democratic system. Drawing primarily upon two examples from his extensive fieldwork in Indonesia, Hefner demonstrates how associations such as Nadhuatl Ulama (NU) and the Institute for Islamic and Social Sciences (LKiS) participated in the authorization and normalization of democratic institutions (e.g., electoral system, political parties) and concepts (e.g., religious tolerance, religious freedom, women’s equality, separation of powers) from within an Islamic framework. In other words, according to Hefner, these groups performed the “normative work for justifying a readjustment in Islamic legal and political thought.” In doing so, these groups have been able to facilitate the development of vast networks of associations and organizational structures for social welfare.

However, in addition to this line of argument, the interview is interspersed with moments of personal reflection that enable him to articulate aspects of the process of fieldwork. As a doctoral student currently conducting fieldwork in Morocco, this aspect of the interview resonated with me in two respects. Firstly, the duration of his fieldwork and conducting it in multiple locations affords wonderful opportunities for analyzing the trajectories of these organizations – preceding and succeeding May 1998 – as they helped create some conditions for electoral politics. Secondly, Hefner reflects on two transformative moments in his research that illustrate how his own thinking emerged over time.

In the first case he recalls, in proper ethnographic fashion, a question posed to him by a member of NU at a meeting: “Do you think Muslims can possibly create a civil society?” While it is important to note that this question was presented with an air of self-critique and critical self-reflection among members of the Muslim organization, the point I want to draw attention to is how this moment of practical concern from within the group served to orient significant aspects of Hefner’s fieldwork between 1991-99. As a second moment, Hefner remembers “stumbling across” a second group – LKiS – a group of young graduates from traditional Islamic institutions that worked within the Islamic legal tradition to construct arguments in support of concepts such as democracy, gender equality, and religious pluralism. Again, what I want to highlight for the present purposes is not so much the details of his analysis of the group, but instead the way in which this “stumbling across” in the course of fieldwork operated as a guide and transition in his work. It is truly a pleasure to hear such an accomplished ethnographer speak candidly about how his own approach to and perceptions of the issue of democratization and civil society emerged through these encounters.

One of the central ideas that emerged from this direct engagement with Muslim NGOs – and he emphasizes that this is not “his idea” but one that he learned – was that although democracy may have emerged in the West first, it is ultimately a “social tool for negotiating difference.” As such, for Hefner it is possible for democracy to assume a plurality of forms as it adapts to and finds roots in local traditions. Given this claim about the plurality of democratic forms, it also seems possible that civil society, or more specifically the institutions, practices, and organizational structures that underpin it, may also have different manifestations between contexts. Through an investigation of these locally produced forms of civil society and the types of social welfare they provide, in conjunction with an appreciation for the historical circumstances that condition possibilities for organizations, we can create space for comparison as well as insight into the potentials of some alternative forms of association.

In the spirit of the comparative project undertaken in this series, I will briefly discuss some of the topographical features of social welfare programs in Morocco and the forms of organization that take shape around them. I do not present this as a thorough comparison between the two countries; instead, I am trying to think through the effectiveness of the concept of “Muslim NGO,” so critical to Hefner’s analysis, in a different context with the simple hope of encouraging comparison through this series of interviews.

Although varieties of small-scale faith-based organizations do exist, Morocco “has shown a degree of state monopoly over the provision of social welfare and tight control over civil society which has reduced the extent to which faith-based welfare provision could grow” (Harrigan 2009, 189). In further contrast to Indonesia where many large Islamic NGOs can be found, the few organizations that do exist operate outside and in strict separation from politics. For example, the Jamaat al-Adl wa al-Ihsan (Organization of Justice and Charity),[1] a popular Islamic group highly active in the provision of forms of social welfare, is officially banned from political engagement, thereby making it difficult to operate as an associative civil institution that can mediate between state and society. By contrast, the Party of Justice and Development (PJD), which is the main political party in Morocco, while representing a somewhat conservative vision of Islamic society, has not been highly effective in motivating support through social welfare programs. Therefore, there seems to exist an inverse relationship between political participation and engagement in social welfare for these two Islamic groups, as opposed to other cases where the ability to provide social care has fostered political capital.

One strategy undertaken by the Moroccan state has been the formation of “governmental non-governmental organizations.” Most prominent among these are associations established through the Mohammed VI Foundation such as Mohammed VI Foundation for the Training of Imams, Murshidin (male religious guides), and Murshidat (female religious guides), Mohammed VI Foundation for Publishing the Holy Qur’an, Mohammed VI Foundation for African ‘Ulama, and Mohammed VI Foundation for the Promotion of Social Welfare of Religious Employees. I highlight these relatively new religious institutions (all established within the last decade) as an innovative attempt on the part of the Moroccan state to implement its multi-dimensional strategy for controlling the religious sphere and to illustrate an alternative associative framework – a governmental, religious non-governmental organization.

Other examples that fall in this category are groups such as Grand Atlas in Marrakech, Sauvegarde, promotion, and development of Essaoura, and Jamaat Fes-Saiss for Cultural, Social, and Economic development. One function of NGOs such as these is to host conferences and festivals, mostly attended by wealthy individuals, to discuss aspects of Moroccan culture. At the moment, for example, the Fes-Saiss organization is hosting its 10th Festival of Sufi Culture and also helps to host the famous Fes Sacred Music Festival each year. This group, although not a “religious” NGO, nonetheless contributes to the circulation of religious ideas in society and one mechanism for doing this is the festival. The practices of these organizations point on the one hand to the difficulty of distinguishing religious from non-religious NGOs in this context and on the other hand to the festival as a potentially effective practice within civil society.

Another significant area of intersection between different types of NGOs is women’s rights. In her work on women activist in Morocco, Rebecca de Faria Slenes writes, “Activists in rights-based and faith-based NGOs pursue different approaches in their work with survivors of violence, but their strategies and discourses cannot be classified as purely secular or religious” (Slenes 2014, 250). In addition to organizations such as the Amal Association that works to provide legal support to victims of violence, other women’s organizations focus on education and professional development. However, in my (albeit limited at this point) discussions with members of these organizations, the educational and professional development is not merely about improving material conditions, but also about enabling women to better raise their children. Those I have spoken with do not articulate this need for upbringing within the context of citizenship; instead, the argument for the need to educate women so as to improve the quality of care of younger generations is articulated primarily within an Islamic framework.[2]

Despite these various forms of organized social welfare, the practice of providing social care to local populations in the Fes medina where I currently conduct my research falls largely on individuals. These individuals include muhasinin (doers of good deeds) who anonymously bring water or food as sadaqa (“charity”) to local hospitals as that are often overrun and understaffed, as well as less wealthy individuals who, such as the manager of a small shop in the henna souq who gives baraka in the form of money to individuals who ask for it every Thursday. Local zawaya (Sufi lodges) sponsor clothing drives and soup kitchens, in addition to bread and tea provided at ritual events. These various forms of highly local and individual social care can help give us insight into some of the more fluid dimensions of associative groups in civil society – specifically notions of community and friendship. These embodied practices, while not necessarily belonging specifically to the domain of civil society, are nonetheless integral to the forms and possibilities of civil society in Morocco.

[1] One can find three translations of the group’s name in English publications: Justice and Charity, Justice and Benevolence, and Justice and Spirituality.  The term Ihsan connotes a combination of doing good, as in giving alms or charity, and of doing well, that is, of having a mastery and expertise in something.

[2] I want to emphasize strongly here that these are preliminary findings in my research.  See Rachel Newcomb’s Women of Fes (2010) for a more comprehensive study.



Harrigan, J., El-Said, H.  Economic Liberalisation, Social Capital, and Islamic Welfare Provision. Palgrave: 2009.
Newcomb, Rachel. Women of Fes: Ambiguities of Urban Life in Morocco. University of Pennsylvania Press: 2010.
Slenes, Rebecca de Faria. “Human Rights, Religion, and Violence: Strategies of Moroccan Activists Fighting Violence against Women.”  Social and Behavioral Sciences 2014 (161): 247-251.
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