Thousands of Moroccans were expected to join demonstrations today marking the third anniversary of the May 16 terrorist bombings in Casablanca. The explosions, linked to al Qaeda, killed 41 people, injured 100, and sent shock waves through the small North African nation. Americans ought to pause today as well--and learn more about an Arab country that is seeking to become a model of political reform and religious tolerance for the rest of the Islamic world.
"We should recall that Morocco has also been a victim of terrorism," Ahmed Abaddi, Morocco's director of Islamic affairs, told journalists at a recent Washington-area dinner. "We were attacked by al Qaeda, and a million people went out to protest."
They did indeed, joined by over 1,000 Moroccan Jews, who've long enjoyed good relations with their Muslim neighbors. And--thanks in part to Abaddi, a senior advisor to King Mohammed VI--Moroccans have done more than protest. Imams have repeatedly denounced Osama bin Laden and extremist Muslims as enemies of the Koran. "In all our mosques," Mr. Abaddi said, "al Qaeda was condemned." A documentary film, Deconstructing the Terrorist Discourse, produced in several regional dialects, has been shown in prime time on Moroccan television. Earlier this year, a class of 210 imams graduated from a year-long seminar on moderate Islam and the religious roots of Western democracy. They're all being sent back to their local mosques to carry the message. Says Abaddi: "To be mute when all of this is happening would be a sin."
It's too early to tell whether these efforts will stir the conscience of Muslim leaders outside of Morocco. Strategically located with both Atlantic and Mediterranean coastlines, Morocco is the most western of the North African countries. Its constitutional monarchy shares authority with a parliament; parliamentary elections in 2002 were judged to be the most representative in the nation's history. King Mohammed is widely seen as a political and religious reformer. President Bush calls him a strong ally in the war on terrorism.
Abaddi's visit to the United States underscores this point: It was part of an ongoing campaign to reach out to religious groups in the United States. One aim is to raise the profile of what he calls the "Moroccan model" of moderate Islam. Evangelical leaders, for example, have been invited to Casablanca for high-level meetings and inter-faith dialogues. In March of this year, the Moroccan government helped sponsor a conference of "Rabbis and Imams for Peace" in Seville.
That model is not without its problems. A 2005 U.S. State Department report notes that Moroccan law does not prohibit arbitrary arrest or detention, either in theory or in practice. Non-Muslim groups may openly practice their religion, though Islamic law criminalizes the act of conversion from Islam to any other faith. Human rights groups conclude that the status of women is improving under the Mudawana (the recently approved family law), but that domestic violence is still common.
Another objective of the Moroccan government is to challenge the scornful images of America and the West that pervade many Islamic cultures. Ninety-nine percent of Morocco's 31 million people are Sunni Muslim and the population is overwhelmingly Arab--a formula for violent anti-Americanism in much of the Muslim world. But in the course of a three-hour dinner conversation, Abaddi ignored the usual Arab bugaboos: the Palestinian problem, U.S. support for Israel, the war in Iraq. "The West ain't no angel," he admitted, "but the West ain't no demon."
The apologists for Islamic terror--those who tout victimization theories or liken the United States to Nazi Germany or Imperial Rome--will not get much help from this gracious, soft-spoken Muslim leader. Instead, Abaddi explains how religion is being manipulated by radicals and corrupted by political leaders throughout the Islamic world. He describes a "wide gate" that draws many young people into terrorism--from poverty to propaganda--but puts the burden squarely on Islam's religious leadership. "The imams will be playing the role of closing those gates in future," he promises.
If administration officials hope to close more of those gates in the struggle against radical Islam, they should invite Ahmed Abaddi over for lunch--and the sooner the better.
Joseph Loconte is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a commentator on religion for National Public Radio.
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