I’m sitting at lunch with Ahmed Abbadi at lunch in Rabat, Morocco. He bears a mild resemblance to Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. His English is precise, and he is extraordinarily well versed not only in his own field of Islamic studies, but also in other religious ideas including the work of Martin Buber, a modern Jewish philosopher and father of Judaism’s reconstructionist movement. Abbadi is the head of the Muhammadan League of Religious Scholars. That group is responsible for training scholars, operating schools, answering questions about Islam from ordinary citizens, chairing religious conferences and, most important, training imams from Morocco and around the world.
In explaining Morocco’s unique history and its own brand of Islam, Abbadi makes clear that the West’s vision of radical, inflexible Islam is a far cry from the mind-set of ordinary Moroccans. These are a faithful, practicing Muslim people, but they do not view Islam as requiring a theocracy, nor do they see it as incompatible with the modern world. In Morocco’s distance from other Muslim powers (e.g.. Saudi Arabia), it achieved both geographic and intellectual separation from its Muslim brethren over centuries. Here the ideas that holy text must be combined with historical context and with reason took hold. It is no modern twist, but rather, a well-rooted ideological perspective that is light-years from Wahhabism. Abbadi dismisses the notion that Islam must be about anger, restrictions and prohibitions. He wants to reach young people with music and even religious cartoon programs. This is a joyful man.
Morocco also has the benefit of a monarchy that is the head of the faithful, and therefore capable of drawing on the respect of the faithful. If the king interprets holy texts as allowing women full civil, legal rights, that becomes both doctrinal law and civil law (if ratified by the people in elections). It also allows a supreme council responsible to the king to take control of the issuance of fatwas so that local imams do not dispense them at will, wreaking havoc on the cultural life of the country. These are not Islamic-lite people; they are deeply religious, but it is religious faith divorced from theocratic violence.
Why is this more than an interesting footnote in a course in comparative religion? It matters deeply because here is a prominent Muslim country and a Muslim organization that understands what President Obama does not: To fight jihadist terror one must recognize its theological underpinnings and try to weaken its hold. The war on terror, the president would like to think, is about “extremism” (what — extreme vegetarianism?) or discrete groups like al-Qaeda, not about the phenomenon of Islamic fundamentalism. He therefore can “end” the war on terror by simply leaving a specific battlefield, and he need not offend cultural and moral relativists by uttering the worlds “Islamic fundamentalism.” The result, however, is twofold.
First, it leaves the battle of ideas to the jihadis. Second, it undermines the work of people like Abbadi, who benefit when Muslims and non-Muslims understand the difference between jihadists and the devout, peaceful people of Morocco.
While the president would prefer to ignore the reality that we are in a civilizational war, Abbadi does not have that luxury. Morocco can see the waves of Islamic extremism washing over the Muslim world, and the radicalization of North Africa. He commands no armies, but he is effectively waging a war against jihadism in a way the United States is entirely incapable of doing. His organization to date has trained about 1,000 imams from Morocco and around the world. A new religious school has broken ground and is set to open next year, allowing the group’s work to continue. The instruction and the theocratic perspectives — if imbibed by these and thousands of imams in the future — can help shape the face of Islam in the region. Moroccans are nervous about being viewed as a model or instructing their neighbors, but in essence they are doing both.
This should not be seen as evidence of Moroccan “liberalism” or secularism. To be sure, the constitution specifically recognizes Jews as a group within the country and the king is personally undertaking a restoration of beautiful ancient synagogues around the countries. But this is a Muslim country. Ramadan will be strictly observed, even as it falls this year during the blistering hot summer, which will make sunrise-to-sunset fasting punishing. While the Jewish synagogues and cemetery in the old imperial city of Fez are lovingly restored, there are only a few thousand Jews left around the country from a population that once reached 300,000. almost of those Jews who didn’t or weren’t allowed to leave after the founding of Israel fled after the 1967 war as anti-Semitic sentiment and violence swelled throughout the Muslim world. And proselytization of other religions is strictly forbidden, leading to some incidents involving the expulsion of Christians operating orphanages.
In short, this is not a secular country, nor one that separates mosque from state. But it is a far different sort of Islam and a far different relationship between mosque and state than in nearly any other country in the world. For the United States, it is critical that Morocco and other countries like it (e.g. Tunisia) succeed politically but also spiritually. Morocco and the United States have a common enemy even if the Obama administration won’t admit it — radical Islam. It would help if now and then the administration would at least say as much.
As a reminder, my airfare and hotel expenses are being paid for by the Moroccan Institute for International Relations. The views here, as always, are mine alone.