A face of modern Islam in the Arab world



The Arab world is in a bloody ferment. The Yemen conflict is just the latest in the upsurge in regional unrest, compounded by the spread of extremist forces with their violent ideologies that threaten to take the region and beyond into a vortex of uncertainty.

This may have unpredictable – and possibly dangerous – consequences.

The political volatility and theological rivalries is deleterious not for just the region’s population but is ominous for millions of expats from different countries, particularly the South Asian subcontinent, for whom the Gulf region has been a source of livelihood and well-being, and a passport to a better life.

The continuing instability in some of the countries in the Sahel and Maghreb has created a fertile ground for the spread of fundamentalist ideology and spread of terrorist networks such as the Al Qaeda in the Maghreb, Ansar Dine and Boko Haram in western Africa and the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

Boko Haram, which means ‘Western education is forbidden’, has developed linkages with the Islamic State with portentous implications for the stability of this region and beyond. The horrific attack on the Bardo Museum, that resulted in the killing of 21 persons, mostly European tourists in the Tunisian capital was a grim reminder of the vulnerability of the region to extremist violence.

“The Arabian Gulf is in a dangerous confrontation, its strategic security is on the edge, and the moment of truth distinguishes between the real ally and the ally of media and statements,” UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Mohammed Gargash was quoted as saying in an uncharacteristic outburst. He was reacting to the Pakistani parliament’s resolution counselling neutrality in the Yemen conflict and rejecting the request to send troops for the Saudi Arabia-led military coalition.

Many saw the Saudi decision sans a US security umbrella as a signal of the Gulf major’s assertion as the region’s politico-religious overlord. Others saw in the Yemen conflict the danger of it becoming a proxy war between Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia and Shiite-majority Iran, in a region where a bevy of Islamist extremists are holding it to ransom with their radical ideologies and medieval thinking.

Amid this volatility and radicalism, what has stood out as a beacon of of peace, stability and modernity is the low-profile nation of Morocco, wedged at the cross-currents of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.

Morocco sees itself as a “strategic link” between Europe and Africa. Because of its cultural origins, its multi-ethnic heritage and its civilisational linkages with Europe, it has been able to promote a moderate and tolerant brand of Islam that has been a counterpoint to the radical fundamentalism and religious orthodoxy seen to dominate much of the Arab world.

“Morocco remains an island of political and social stability in a region where the forces unleashed by the Arab Spring have engendered political and social chaos, heralding a transformative process,” remarked Anil Wadhwa, secretary (East), in India’s Ministry of External Affairs, while speaking at a recent roundtable in New Delhi on ‘India and Morocco: Imperatives of Cooperation’.

Why is Morocco different? Two reasons stand out: one, it is an adherent of the Malikit school of Islam, one of the more moderate strands of the religion, that not only advocates gender equality, but also stands for women’s emancipation, religious modernisation and zero-tolerance against radical thinking.

Two, it is led by a modernist, young monarch who has done a lot to instill a sense of confidence in him by the people of Morocco and the region. King Mohammed VI has undertaken path-breaking political and social reforms begun by his visionary father, King Hassan II, and has been recognised for his efforts to resolve regional crises and play a useful mediatory role.

Morocco constitutes an example of stability and progress, and with the implementation of major reforms, these have spurred a positive political dynamic, the country’s Communication Minister Mustapha El Khalfi said in Kuwait City while speaking at the 8th MIT Pan-Arab Conference in mid-April.

Because of its theological underpinnings and modernist thinking emerging out of a Euro-Berber socio-cultural heritage, Morocco not only ensures that mosques remain free of radical teachings but also has taken steps to train imams from the Arab world and Europe.

With the active backing of King Mohammed VI, an Institute for the Training of Imams – a first in the Muslim world – has come up in Rabat as part of an integrated strategy aimed at inculcating values of moderate Islam as a bulwark against all forms of extremism.

The institute, equipped with a modern educational infrastructure, trains male and female religious guides, reviews textbooks and school curricula to eliminate radical exhortations and seeks to promote values of moderation, openness and religious tolerance in mosques across the kingdom.

Additionally, because of its highly trained and motivated police force, the country has managed to break up over 110 terror cells, prevented over 260 terror plots and 109 deadly plans, and arrested over 27,000 militants, according to Larbi Reffouh, its ambassdor to India. These put Morocco in the frontline of efforts in countering terror. Its initiative in setting up a 30-member Group of Friends on Counter-terrorism at the UN in New York has been highly appreciated.

But Morocco realises that countering terrorism is not just a religious or security matter. Hence it has tried to find socio-economic solutions to the root causes of terrorism, especially in countering the appeal of extremist messages and ideologies among the poor and the disadvantaged. It has done this by improving healthcare and providing skills training to jobless people, expanding rural infrastructure and improving the overall livelihood of Moroccans.

In May 2005, King Mohammed VI launched a rural and urban development plan called The National Human Development Initiative, a $1.2 billion worth of social programmes that have created thousands of income-generating activities and improved the lives of nearly five million Moroccans.

In this context, it is important for India to work together not only with Morocco but with other countries in the region like Tunisia – which has also demonstrated progressive thinking that made it one of the democratic successes of the Arab Spring – to develop a joint strategy to fight terrorism, say Indian officials.

US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, at a recent debate in the Security Council, highlighted efforts made by Morocco to counter violent extremism and held out Morocco’s example in striving to spread a brand of moderate Islam.

The French newspaper Le Monde wrote that “while many states are looking for the means to counter the influence of radical Islam, Rabat has come up with a Moroccan model” promoting its brand of “religious diplomacy” to complement its political reformism and economic progress.

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