More — not less — religion needed to fight extremism, imam director says

Watch a report on the imams’ training program in Rabat, Morocco.

The North African country of Morocco has a series of religious training programs aimed at countering Islamic radicalism. Now, it is working to expand these programs to regional and even global levels.

Government-funded institutes in the capital Rabat are educating imams — Muslim religious leaders — from countries such as Tunisia, Guinea, Ivory Coast and France to fight against extremist ideas in their communities. The two-year programs instruct these imams in Islamic subjects and religious thought as well as computer literacy so they can confront radicalism online.

The largest group of imams comes from Mali, located in West Africa. A 2012 civil war allowed extremist groups like Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and Ansar Dine to get a foothold in the country’s desert north. An international military intervention pushed them back, but a permanent peace agreement still has not been reached. Peeling away supporters of the extremists’ ideas, as these imams aspire to do, is an important part of winning the war.

In March, the Moroccan government inaugurated a new campus, which will integrate these international students with local imams, who also undergo state training. Another program creates cohorts of female religious guides, known as Mourchidat. These women go into Morocco’s schools, mosques and prisons to educate vulnerable people in the country’s moderate brand of Islam that draws on Sufi traditions.

According to the program’s director, Abdesselam Lazaar, more, not less, religion is the answer to extremism. “When a Muslim experiences a lack of spirituality, they can be easily indoctrinated,” said Lazaar. “Our aim is to spread the real meaning of Islam that shows the Muslim how to live side by side with any other community in the world.”

These programs, which are collectively known as “spiritual security,” also benefit Morocco, by demonstrating to its major allies, the U.S. and France, that it is playing a role in the global terrorism fight, according to International Crisis Group North Africa Director Issandr El Amrani. “As much as there may be some valid security benefits, there are also political reasons,” said El Amrani. “It serves, I think, everyone’s purpose to have this government say, ‘We have a counter-extremism solution. And we have a model to export, about how to ground religion in traditional and moderate types of identities, against these new identities that we see come up, like transnational jihadism.’”

This article and video were produced through the GlobalBeat program at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. Student journalists Thalia Beaty, Kristopher Brant and Maggy Donaldson, along with Siyi Chen, Kelsey Doyle, Madeline Gressel and Zoë Lake, worked with PBS NewsHour special correspondent Kira Kay. Kay’s report on the training of female spiritual guides in Morocco aired on Wednesday’s PBS NewsHour.

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