By Julia Lang Gordon
Forty-one innocents killed in Istanbul. Eighty-four slaughtered in Nice. Eighty massacred in Kabul. Almost every day our computer and TV screens flash with new horrific headlines about terror and violence. The world’s leaders still seem to be struggling to effectively combat extremism. Many common responses to terrorism in the U.S. and across the Arab world are short-term strategies primarily focused on killing and capturing terrorists. However, these strategies do not get at the root of the problem, namely the fact that thousands of people are being persuaded by an extremist ideology claiming to be Islam. When forming counterterrorism policy, it is vital for nations to formulate a strategy that attempts to turn hearts and minds away from radicalism. Empowering women in religious sectors through programs like the morchidat model can facilitate a counter-narrative that provides a different and moderate interpretation of Islam, while also democratizing dialogue and promoting equality.
A University of Miami study examining women’s roles in extremist groups found that there are many more women in the Islamic State than researchers previously thought. The study utilized the Russian social media outlet Vkontakte and monitored users whose behavior on the site suggest they are pro-Islamic State. The study concluded that although there are more male than female members of the Islamic State, the women in the group tend to possess stronger connections with other members because they serve as communicators and messengers. Applying this influence that women can clearly have in a community to combatting terror could encourage moderate religious interpretations.
An effective counterterrorism strategy could utilize the power that women clearly have within religious movements to weaken radical rhetoric and strengthen a more moderate and progressive Islam. Morocco has done just that through the morchidat program. In 2006, three years after the Casablanca bombings that killed 45 people, the morchidat program was launched under the leadership of the Moroccan Ministry of Islamic Affairs. Morchidat, or female religious guides, are women who have been educated in Koranic studies and serve as spiritual leaders in their communities. Prior to 2006, only men could become religious guides, or morchidoon. In order to apply to the morchidat program one must have an undergraduate degree in any subject, pass an entrance exam, and be able to recite half of the Koran by heart. The training itself is a rigorous one-year course for both men and women. Students study Islam and other subjects, including international affairs and psychology. Upon completion of the course, morchidat choose to work in specific fields such as schools, orphanages, prisons, or hospitals, in addition to the time they spend in the mosque.
Rosa Rogers, the director of a film about the morchidat program, Casablanca Calling, says, “The idea was always that the morchidat would be in the mosque, but also really out in society; it’s very much about applying Islamic teachings to modern life” and “to open up the teachings of Islam to women.” Granting women some authority within the religious hierarchy allows them to participate in the societal discussion about values and norms. The program embodies the idea that religious structures can and should be reformed. Through their presence in schools, prisons, hospitals, and mosques, morchidat not only democratize the national discussion around Islam, but they also support and empower women across the country who may want to challenge the roles they find themselves in. Morchidat possess religious authority, which gives them a significant ability to legitimize a different way of thinking about women.
Morocco possesses specific characteristics that may make it easier to employ policies aimed at religious reform. For example, King Mohammed VI has incredible religious authority within Morocco because he claims to be a direct descendant of the prophet Mohammed. Even more helpful is the fact that Morocco is one of the most religiously homogeneous countries in the world; Sunni Muslims make up 99 percent of the population. The combination of these two factors make the Moroccan people more likely to react positively to policies aimed at religious reforms when put forth by their monarch, especially in the wake of a terrorist attack.
Still, other nations can learn a thing or two from the Moroccan case. The U.S. government, as well as many leaders across the Muslim world, may not have the domestic legitimacy that King Mohammed VI enjoys or Morocco’s religious homogeneity. However, many nations could join the effort to empower advocates of moderate Islam. Ilan Berman, the vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, argues that nations must “amplify the voices of modern, tolerant Islam in a way that makes it more salient.” He continues, “We [the U.S.] can’t offer our own interpretation but we can decide that certain interpretations are closer to Western values than others.” Such support could manifest in many different ways. Berman recently wrote an article in Foreign Affairs about the new Mohammed VI Institute for the Training of Imams located in Rabat, which has gained international attention due to its liberal arts-like approach to teaching. Similar to the morchidat program, imams are trained in both Koranic study and the humanities with the goal of producing well-rounded and open-minded religious leaders. In addition to Moroccan students, the school will accept international students who will hopefully return to their countries and effect change.
Whether by granting aid to the Moroccan government to expand the Morchidat program or by sending American imams to the Mohammed VI Institute, the U.S. government should join the effort to embolden religious interpretations that preach tolerance and condemn extremism. The more nations that follow Morocco’s model through the empowerment of women and the expansion of multi-disciplinary religious education, the stronger the ideological backlash will be against the type of radicalism propagated by groups such as the Islamic State.
Julia Lang Gordon is a research assistant at World Policy Institute. She is on Twitter: @julangdon.
[Photo courtesy of Rosa Rogers]