At first glance, Madinat Al Irfane seems like an odd location from which to launch a global war of ideas against Islamic radicalism. The upscale middle-class suburb of Rabat is packed with nondescript office buildings and recently built apartment blocks, telltale signs of the widening prosperity of Morocco’s capital. But nestled behind these structures is a marker of a very different sort: a multimillion-dollar academic campus that houses the kingdom’s premier religious training academy, formally known as the Mohammed VI Institute for the Training of Imams.
Launched in late 2015, the institute is the central “professionalization” school for religious education in the country, subsuming other official training programs that had previously been carried out elsewhere. But it is also much more. The facility, and the ideas it promotes, lies at the center of the complex counterterrorism effort that Morocco has erected over the past decade and a half—one that has put the North African state on the frontlines of the intellectual struggle against radical Islam.
CAUSE AND EFFECT
Morocco’s contemporary counterterrorism strategy can be traced back to the spring of 2003. That May, 14 suicide bombers carried out a series of synchronized attacks throughout the city of Casablanca, killing 45 and wounding dozens of others. For the kingdom, the bombings and the individuals that perpetrated them—native Moroccans from the city’s hardscrabble shantytowns—were a wake-up call. They provided concrete proof that, contrary to conventional wisdom among the country’s elites, the nation was not immune to the radicalism plaguing the rest of the Middle East and North Africa.
The Moroccan government’s response was rapid and decisive. By the following year, it had initiated a sweeping overhaul of the country’s family law, known as the Moudawana, as part of efforts to forge a more inclusive society. Among the revamped document’s signal achievements was a dramatic enhancement of the status of women, who gained equal legal standing in the household, the power to initiate divorces, and the right to inherit equally. They also became (nearly) equal players in the country’s religious life, a role unthinkable elsewhere in the Middle East. Beginning in 2006, the Moroccan Ministry of Islamic Affairs launched a pilot training program for female preachers, known as morchidates, designed to pluralize religious interpretation. Today, hundreds of these morchidates are at work throughout the country. Like their male counterparts, they provide counseling on marital problems and assist in the interpretation of religious texts, among numerous other functions—although, unlike their peers, they cannot lead Friday prayers.
Simultaneously, leveraging the religious legitimacy of its monarch, Mohammed VI (one of only a handful of Middle Eastern rulers who can trace his lineage back to the Prophet Muhammad), the kingdom launched an extensive overhaul of how Islam is taught, interpreted, and promulgated to its citizens. Working through its Ministry of Islamic Affairs and the Rabita Mohammadia of Ulamas—a council of religious scholars appointed by Morocco’s king—the government formulated a response to the virulent and threatening strain of religious thought propounded by radical groups such as al Qaeda. To debunk, discredit, and delegitimize radical interpretations of the Koran of the sort advocated by Osama bin Laden’s network (and more recently by its offspring, the Islamic State, or ISIS), the ministry and council have created comic books and games for young children, launched peer education efforts among teens, and reshaped academic curricula for the kingdom’s primary educational institutions.
APPROACHING PRIME TIME
That effort has now entered a new phase. With the inauguration of the Mohammed VI Institute last year, the various strands of Morocco’s strategy—female empowerment, religious professionalization, and tolerant teachings—have been woven together.
Yet although a significant portion of the school’s students is Moroccan, its true focus—and message—is international. Today, in addition to national clergy, the facility is training religious personnel from six other countries: Mali, Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Chad, and France. A number of Tunisian imams have previously been students at the facility as well. This international cadre, moreover, is growing. During the Moroccan king’s visit to Russia in March, the two countries concluded an agreement paving the way for the training of Russian imams in Morocco in the near future. Senegal has signaled its interest in doing the same.
Although so far the school has not caught the eye of extremist forces, either inside the country or abroad, Moroccan officials fully expect it to meet ideological resistance. For now, the school has the ability to accommodate some 1,000 students. An institutional expansion now under way will increase this number to 1,400 by the fall of 2016. The facility accepts 250 new students (150 men and 100 women) annually in an extremely competitive process that rejects up to 90 percent of its applicants. In terms of curriculum, Moroccan students at the institute complete a one-year term. The course of study for students from other African nations is two years. French students, meanwhile, are expected to stay for three years. According to the school’s administrators, these longer stays are intended, in part, to “unwind” bad religious teachings that are now endemic throughout Europe and Africa.
How students come to the institute varies from country to country. In some cases, such as that of Tunisia, the selection process is performed by the relevant government ministries in the home country. In others, such as that of Nigeria, quasi-private institutions such as the national ulamaassociation make the selection. Once accepted, however, these students become formal guests of Morocco, with the kingdom’s government footing the bill for their education and providing each with a supplemental monthly stipend.
They also receive a rather diverse education. Whereas similar religious training centers in other countries concentrate almost exclusively on Koranic study, the institute’s curriculum is made up of 30 separate subjects, divided evenly between religion and the humanities. Students thus get instruction in social science topics such as philosophy and psychology, as well as an education in the geography, history, and politics of the country where they are from. Simultaneously, vocational training is offered in four separate fields: electrical engineering, agriculture, sewing, and computer use.
Despite these auspicious beginnings, the school’s leadership admits that—at least for the moment—it remains something of a pilot project. Just one class of some 100 imams, most of them Malian, has graduated from the institute since it formally opened its doors last year. Within half a decade, however, its administrators are convinced that the institution will be able “to actively help in the fight against radical Islam” and to contribute to the adoption of the “correct” interpretation of Islam the world over.
There is reason to think that it can. In an echo of contemporary U.S. strategic thinking about the importance of networks to combat other networks, the institute’s strategy is to create a cadre of educated religious leaders in various countries who can simultaneously interface with one another and spread their teachings locally.
That approach is increasingly garnering attention from abroad. Currently, the institute is still mostly an African experiment. Tunisia is the only Arab state to have sent students to the facility to date. However, the school’s officials say, Arab states are “watching closely,” and places such as Bahrain are moving toward cooperation with Morocco on religious affairs.
Inevitably, this is also bound to attract attention of a less savory sort. Although so far the school has not caught the eye of extremist forces, either inside the country or abroad, Moroccan officials fully expect it to meet ideological resistance, and perhaps more, from extremists as the institutea nd its message become more and more prominent. It is a challenge they say they are prepared for.
FROM DEFENSE TO OFFENSE
This view represents a remarkable shift in perspective. For years, the Kingdom of Morocco viewed itself as an exception to the radical political problems of the Middle East—a designation that suggested its experience was both unique and not easily translatable to the outside world. Increasingly, however, Morocco appears to be transitioning into the role of an intellectual model that is both willing and able to take a stand against Salafism and jihadism. In the words of one Moroccan religious official, the kingdom today “sees itself as a natural leader” in the battle of ideas taking place in the Muslim world, on account of its religious credibility and its tolerant teachings.
For the United States, this should come as welcome news. Washington, deeply invested in countering violent extremism in its various forms, would do well to take note of Morocco's soft-power innovations. It would do even better to leverage them in the global fight against Islamic radicalism.