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 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.
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