Hopeful signs for religious reform in the Arab world

Hopeful signs for religious reform in the Arab world
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Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s visit to the United States has generated much press and excitement about the future monarch, a leader who appears to be committed to religious, socio-economic and political reforms.

New York Times writer Thomas Friedman commented, “MbS. is definitely bold … no one else in the ruling family would have put in place the profound social, religious and economic reforms that he’s dared to do — and all at once.” The U.S. press has expressed a lot of excitement about the potential changes that could occur in Saudi Arabia, the country that is the custodian of the two holiest mosques in Islam.

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This will come as a welcome sign to Morocco, Jordan and Tunisia, who have been grappling with significant change and reform for the better part of two decades. The first and most impressive effort concerning religious reform, however, is that led by King Mohammed VI of Morocco, who has initiated significant projects with the objective of teaching moderate religious values based on the Maliki rite of Islam, and focused on tolerance and openness to counter extremism and radical religious interpretation.

 

In 2015, the king inaugurated the Mohammed VI Institute for the Training of Imams, Morchidines and Morchidates, which includes training for female religious leaders (morchidates), the first initiative of its kind in the Arab world. His objective was to “see women specialized in religious sciences sit in these councils, in fairness to them, and equality between man and woman.” Empowered to do everything as their male counterparts, with the exception of leading Friday prayer, the mourchidates are assigned to mosques, schools and towns throughout the country to answer religious questions, provide guidance in family law and improve literacy.

King Mohammed carries the title “commander of the faithful” in Morocco, is chairman of the Al Quds (Jerusalem) Committee of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and is a direct descendent of Prophet Mohammed. Few other Arab leaders have the religious authority to influence a country and perhaps a whole region as he does. This leadership, as well as his strong desire to teach moderate Islam, have attracted countries in the Middle East, Africa and Europe to the Institute, which has now become a hub for educating imams and preachers in Islamic studies from France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Italy, Denmark, Germany, the European Union of Mosques, the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa, the Gulf States, Tunisia and Libya.

Morocco has practiced Maliki Islam for a millennium, and under the same ruling family since 1630. It is succeeding in fostering its values and teachings by offering its historical context, its tolerance, and involving women in this reform process, thus fostering an opportunity to bring new leadership for teaching good family values and reform minded ideas.

Such an effort may be a catalyst in transforming the world’s view of this very important Abrahamic religion and the way in which Muslims from the Arab region view their own religious and spiritual responsibilities. In Morocco one learns not only to pray five times a day, but also that it is the responsibility of every good Muslim to work for social justice, care for the environment, care for animals, provide security for one’s family, and practice good values every day.

The late King Hassan II once said that he wants his children (Moroccan children) to go to the mosque on Friday, but also to play football (soccer) in the afternoon. In other words, creating a good, well-rounded person. This pretty much sums up what Morocco’s religious training is attempting to do.

The United States should take notice and find ways to support Morocco in its effort to preserve its religious identity and spread a tolerant and moderate Islam, domestically and beyond. For, as King Mohammed said in 2016, “Those who engage in terrorism, in the name of Islam, are not Muslims. Their only link to Islam is the pretexts they use to justify their crimes and their folly. They have strayed from the right path, and their fate is to dwell forever in hell.”

Edward M. Gabriel is a former U.S. ambassador to Morocco and current president of the American Task Force for Lebanon, a nonprofit group based in Washington, D.C.