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Morocco trains female spiritual guides to fight extremism and empower women

May 20, 2015 at 6:15 PM EDT
In Morocco, a school that trains imams to lead prayers in the country's many mosques is at the center of a government program to provide "spiritual security." Here, female students are studying to become spiritual guides, on a mission to combat extremist thought and raise women's status in Moroccan society. Special correspondent Kira Kay reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next: combating extremism. It’s a subject we have been exploring closely recently.

Tonight, we focus on Morocco, where NewsHour special correspondent Kira Kay got special access to a group of women on the front lines of an unusual effort to win over hearts and minds.

Her story is produced in partnership with the Bureau for International Reporting.

KIRA KAY: Nestled in a quiet residential neighborhood in the Moroccan capital of Rabat, this school is the nerve center of an ambitious government program aimed at providing what is being called spiritual security.

Here, Morocco is training imams to lead prayers in the country’s many mosques, but sitting next to them, 100 women. They are not imams. That word is reserved for men. These students are studying to become Mourchidat, meaning spiritual guides.

They will deploy across the country with a twofold mission: to raise women’s status in Moroccan society and combat extremist thought.

FATIMA AIT SALEH (through interpreter): I always felt I was made for this work. It’s a dream come true.

KIRA KAY: Fatima Ait Saleh is a recent graduate of the Mourchidat program.

FATIMA AIT SALEH (through interpreter): As you know, religion can be a double-edged sword. That is why our mission as Mourchidat is to show a tolerant Islam, a moderate Islam that advocates dialogue and acceptance of others, and how to stay far away from extremism.

KIRA KAY: The Mourchidat students are an elite group. Only 10 percent of applicants are accepted. All must have already completed a bachelor’s degree. They study 30 hours a week for a year, topics ranging from fundamental Islamic texts to Moroccan civil law, to how to write a good research paper.

WOMAN (through interpreter): These issues that are connected to women, we need to approach them from the perspective of Islamic law.

KIRA KAY: Morocco takes special pride in the innovation of using women to spread religious messages when imams and even fathers can’t.

ABDESSELAM LAZAAR, Director, Dar Al-Hadith Al-Hassania (through interpreter): The risk of terrorism can begin within the family.

KIRA KAY: Abdesselam Lazaar is the school’s director.

ABDESSELAM LAZAAR (through interpreter): The Mourchidat is above all a woman, a mother, a sister. Her role within the family is very sacred. She has influence in her environment.

For her influence to work in the right way, she needs to be fully equipped and well-positioned. That’s why she learns the social sciences and also good skills of communicating with men and women.

KIRA KAY: Zohra Sebbtawi is from a city in the north of the country that has been a hotbed for extremist recruitment.

ZOHRA SEBBTAWI (through interpreter): The more we delve into it, the more we realize how sensitive our mission is, because we must correct misconceptions of Islam by people who pretend to know about it, but only put the religion in trouble.

KIRA KAY: Morocco, which is a strong U.S. ally, sits in North Africa, a region plagued by terrorist groups and failed states. Moroccan Islam is rooted in mystic Sufi traditions and is considered moderate.

Morocco’s king is revered as a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, making him not just a monarch, but a spiritual leader. This promotes religious and political cohesion, but also gives the government power to sometimes muzzle dissent.

But terror has come here. The Casablanca bombings of 2003 killed 33 people and have been called Morocco’s 9/11; 17 people, mostly tourists, died in Marrakesh in 2011. An estimated 1,500 young men have joined the Islamic State.

The Moroccan government is fighting back by promoting a state-branded Islam.

Issandr El Amrani is with the International Crisis Group.

ISSANDR EL AMRANI, North Africa Director, International Crisis Group: More than probably any other Arab country, Morocco has invested in this and thought that this is something that will pay off in the long term, trying not just to control religious discourse, but using that control to prevent radicalization, to de-radicalize to some extent.

KIRA KAY: Recent graduate Fatima and her partner Hanane Dahi are two of the 500 Mourchidat already working in the field. They spend their days in mosques and other public spaces. Their speeches are a surprising blend of traditional religious sermon and feminist activism.

WOMAN (through interpreter): Perhaps in our history, women have faced some injustice because of a misunderstanding of Islam. But all women should be aware of their important status. They are entitled to buy, sell, mortgage, own everything.

WOMAN (through interpreter): The number of women going daily to the mosque is higher then the men. Women and kids are more faithful. We mourchidate are trying to take advantage of this presence.

KIRA KAY: Noufissa Rachidi has been attending these meetings for six years.

NOUFISSA RACHIDI (through interpreter): Previously, we women wasted our time in trivial conversations. Now we encourage each other to understand our religion. If women benefit from this program, then there is no doubt that all of society benefits, because mothers are our primary educators.

KIRA KAY: The Mourchidat also do outreach in the country’s public schools. Fatima particularly relishes her time working with young people. Today, she is sharing her favorite poem about the Prophet Mohammed and drawing real-world lessons from its text.

FATIMA AIT SALEH (through interpreter): Honesty leads to heaven. When we are honest in our life, Allah will recognize us as a trustworthy person.

Protecting the youth from extremism is a part of our mission. They are adolescent. It’s a crucial stage. The values we are teaching them might make it easier for them to avoid bad influences.

KIRA KAY: Fatima’s husband, Mohamed, sees his wife as something of a trailblazer.

MOHAMED ELATIFE (through interpreter): I’m proud of her work. She’s serving her country. I acknowledge that there are still some people who think a woman’s place is only within her home. But those old convictions are changing.

KIRA KAY: And now Morocco is expanding its spiritual security program beyond its borders, spending millions to bring in imams from other countries for study, most notably from Mali, which has been grappling with an Islamic insurgency.

This imam saw his home city of Timbuktu overtaken by radicals.

AHMED ISSA (through interpreter): This program is rescuing Muslims from the tight spot we are in. If Islam is truly understood, security will come, justice will come, peace of mind will come.

KIRA KAY: And upstairs from the Malians sits a first class of imams from France initiated before the Charlie Hebdo attacks, but now taking on new relevance. There is some political gain for Morocco as well, says analyst Issandr El Amrani.

ISSANDR EL AMRANI: Morocco is not a rich country. It is not particularly a militarily powerful country. It serves, I think, everyone’s purpose to have this government say, well, we have a counterextremism solution. We have a model to export. This is part and parcel of Moroccan diplomacy.

KIRA KAY: And he questions how effective these programs, even the Mourchidat, truly are, given the high level of Islamic State recruitment.

ISSANDR EL AMRANI: Would it be a lot more if there hadn’t been these programs? It’s a very hard thing to measure, I think. It’s also not clear, really, the extent to which that kind of state discourse is really that popular in those most problematic areas, where you find at least a tendency towards extremism. And I think that that’s especially the urban peripheries.

KIRA KAY: But back at the Mourchidat school, there is firm belief among current students that their mission is urgent.

MERIEM OUARDI (through interpreter): This training doesn’t just serve my nation. It has international importance. The West has a bad image of Islam, and we have a role in changing that. I swear I am losing sleep when I hear our professors say we are the guardians of this religion.

KIRA KAY: These 100 elite women will graduate in December and fan out across the country, perhaps hundreds of miles from their families. They say they are up to the challenge that awaits them.

For PBS NewsHour, this is Kira Kay in Rabat, Morocco.

Field producers Mahacine Mokdad and Khadija Boukharfane contributed to this report.