Is Morocco a model for curbing extremism? By Helen Wilkinson

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The British government's recent announcement about tackling religious extremism by giving young Muslims "citizenship lessons" among other things is an interesting one. It's easy to sneer at initiatives in the face of the omnipresent threat of Muslim religious extremism worldwide, but Britain is not the only country pursuing such an approach. So too is Morocco, where I live for part of the year.
On the edge of Europe, Morocco stands proudly in the Arab Muslim world. While Islam is the state religion, King Mohammed VI has placed Morocco firmly in alliance with the West.
His approach has provoked reaction. On 16 May 2003, suicide bombers in Casablanca killed 45 people, heralding a resurgence of religious fundamentalism and signalling a wake-up call for the King. Terrorism touched Moroccan citizens and also put at risk the King's strategy for foreign investment and tourism.
The parliamentary elections in Morocco last September had a record low turnout (of only 37 percent), especially among the youth. The implications are not lost on King Mohammed. Neighbouring Algeria casts its dark violent shadow over this small country. The King knows he must give Moroccans – especially young unemployed men – a reason to invest in the country's political and economic future. Otherwise, Muslim extremists will find new recruits just as they did in Algeria. Some will find their way to Europe and the West, just as others will stay in Morocco itself. That's why King Mohammed needs to bring jobs and foreign investment if he is to curtail the threat.
But he is not content to rely on economic growth alone. The King understands that it is in civil society that the battle to contain Muslim extremists will be won. Education is therefore also essential. As Islam is the state religion, the kinds of controversies that muddy the waters in Britain are less apparent. Not that his initiative is without controversy, for the King has gone beyond traditionalists and is feminising the face of Islam. Women, he believes, can be the purveyors of a mainstream humanitarian Islamic message.
At the heart of King Mohammed's initiative is the recruitment and education of female guides. This initiative first made news in April 2006 when the Moroccan government announced that the first 50 had graduated. The second class – another 50 – is currently being prepared for their role in the capital, Rabat.
They will work in local communities helping women with religious questions and giving support in schools and prisons. By working face-to-face in the community, women (still the primary care givers and nurturers in Moroccan society in their role as mothers, sisters, aunts, friends and community guardians), will present the mainstream face of Islam and curtail fundamentalist violent excesses.
September 11, 2001 showed that in an increasingly global interconnected world, terrorism, like trade, knows no boundaries. King Mohammed's initiatives are leading the way in understanding another implication – namely that cross-cultural understanding is vital, and that women can lead the way in moderating the messages of Islam.
The British government and leaders of the Muslim community there should adopt the Moroccan king's approach. In Britain, the paucity of women speaking on behalf of and for the Muslim community is striking, yet education starts inside homes and families, and continues in the informal spaces of civil society – like voluntary groups, schools, and mosques.
To tackle the terrorist threat, and stop the subversion of Islam in its name, the face of Islam must be feminised in both the public and private sphere in Britain. And initiatives that promote interfaith communication and cross-cultural understanding must be supported. Without this – as chairman of City Circle, Asim Siddiqui, points out – in a culture where religion and the state are separate, Muslims and others will distrust initiatives which target one sector of the community without reaching out to others.

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* Helen Wilkinson is author of Time Out – The Costs and Benefits of Paid Parental Leave and a director of Genderquake Limited. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews)

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