MACP (Washington, DC, June 28, 2013) — Islamic radicalism is of growing concern in North Africa. Last month, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace published the book Perilous Desert: Insecurity in the Sahara, which describes how “Islamist militant groups and transnational criminal networks are operating in the region’s most fragile states….”; and just this week, the New York Times wrote, “International efforts to bolster the region against terrorism are focusing on Algeria and its neighbors, considered increasingly threatened by jihadist groups.”
North African governments are taking action, however, and on Monday, June 24, Dr. Ahmed Abaddi, Secretary General of the Rabita Mohammadia of Ulamas in Morocco—the council of religious scholars established by His Majesty King Mohammed VI—spoke at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington about the rise of Islamism, Morocco’s unique experience with Islam, and how the country is focusing on youth outreach to stymie the spread of dangerous ideologies.
“When the caliphate (in Istanbul) collapsed in 1924, there was a very deep feeling of orphanage,” explained Dr. Abbadi. “Muslims throughout the world started looking for a ‘father.’ Then there was a ‘cure-all’ syndrome—restore the caliphate, and everything will be fine again. This [restoration of the Islamic caliphate] was the doctrine of the Muslim Brotherhood, as it was the doctrine of many other groups.” It was this kind of thinking that heightened the spread of Islamic radicalism.
Morocco’s unique religious system, however, allowed the country to weather this rising tide of radicalism throughout the 20th century. First, explained Dr. Abbadi, Morocco’s Islam draws on the Maliki school of thought—a more moderate Islam that relies on the practice of the Prophet’s Companions in Medina as a source of law, and centers on practicing religion within the context of an ever-changing society. Furthermore, the King serves as the Commander of the Faithful, a historic title based on his religious heritage and legitimacy. In this capacity, he serves as the arbiter over religious affairs to ensure that moderate, tolerant Islam is maintained and broadened in Morocco.
But perhaps most importantly, Morocco chose a path of moderation early on, launching a first round of religious reforms in 1980 under the late King Hassan II. His son, King Mohammed VI, has continued on this path of moderation and has looked at the education system in particular.
“We needed to revisit our [religious] education system,” said Dr. Abbadi, “to see what doctrines are being spread. We should be very cautious, because [education] is what shapes psyches.”
In part, the government has sought to influence religious education by publishing an “official” version of the Koran and distributing it to schools and mosques both in Morocco and abroad. Moroccan officials tasked with researching the teaching of Islam in the country nevertheless found that, as Dr. Abbadi explained, “We needed a new generation of scholars. We needed a new generation of speeches. We needed a new generation of media programs. We needed a new voice to give a voice to the voiceless. Because once you have [people who feel] voiceless, extremists will take their place.”
So they created a peer education program.
“We will take some bachelor’s degree students, some master’s degree students, and train them, build capacities within them of conversation, of communication, of perception… so that they are able to go in the field and speak to people and face extremists,” explained Dr. Abbadi. The hope is that these young scholars will spread the moderate message through the Internet and social media—the same arenas in which extremists prey on the vulnerable—to counter radicalism.
There remains much work to be done, Dr. Abbadi admitted. But it is a work in progress.