At the mouth of the sprawling plaza that houses Casablanca's magnificent Hassan II mosque overlooking the Atlantic Ocean lie two squat, ornate buildings. In these structures, flanked by neatly manicured gardens and largely unnoticed by the outside world, the Kingdom of Morocco is forging what could become one of the world's most potent weapons against Islamic extremism.
The buildings are the future site of a new Quranic school, which--once formally inaugurated in the coming year--will serve as a magnet educational institution for the country's religious students, as well as those from the rest of the region. Its objective, my guide told me, will be singular and unequivocal: "To promote Moroccan Islam. Tolerant Islam."
The future of Morocco's counterterrorism strategy may lie in Casablanca, but its past is even more important. Over the past two decades, under the direction of its late king Hassan II and his son, Mohammed VI, the former French and Spanish colony has erected a formidable "soft power" strategy by which to eradicate the intolerant Islamic ideals that have taken root in much of the rest of the region.
Morocco can trace its contemporary approach back to the end of the Cold War. While many in the region saw the Soviet Union's collapse as a destabilizing development--and consequently tightened domestic control--Morocco's monarch did the opposite. The previously authoritarian Hassan II began a gradual process of social liberalization that included the release of political prisoners (chiefly leftist dissidents from the country's north and minority opposition figures from Morocco's contested south), an expansion of civil society and a dialogue with the country's various political factions.
These early efforts kicked into high gear in 1999, when Mohammed VI ascended to the Moroccan throne following the death of his father. In the years since the young monarch (still only in his mid-40s) has set in motion a sweeping series of social and religious reforms that are equal parts idealistic and pragmatic.
The first deals with greater female empowerment. In the Muslim world, few issues are as accurate a barometer of societal dynamism as the status of women. As recent scholarship convincingly shows, women have consistently been at the forefront of societal change in the region. Whatever their political orientation, countries that reward (or at least permit) this behavior, such as Tunisia and post-Saddam Iraq, tend to be vibrant and hopeful places. Those that do not, like Saudi Arabia, are stagnant and sclerotic.
Morocco unequivocally falls into the former camp. Under the Moudawana, the progressive family code reformed in 2004, Moroccan women have been endowed with rights not present--or even conceivable--in other parts of the Muslim world. These include equal status in the household, the power to initiate divorces and the right to inherit equally. The King's religious reforms, meanwhile, have helped shatter the traditional glass ceiling facing women in Islam. Since 2005 Morocco's Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs has been actively building a cadre of female preachers, known as morchadates. Now numbering approximately 150, these women clerics are helping pluralize the religious interpretation of everything from marital problems to scientific inquiry.
Another key metric in gauging stability in Islamic societies is the disposition of religious minorities. In places where political Islam has crowded out alternative views, other faiths have found themselves under siege. The plight of Zoroastrians and Baha'i in today's Shi'ite Iran and of Shi'a Muslims in contemporary Sunni Saudi Arabia are sorry reminders of this truism. Morocco, however, has embraced a different status quo. Under the Moroccan constitution, the King serves as the "commander of the faithful." In that capacity, he is charged with safeguarding all faiths, not just the religion of Islam. The practice of other monotheistic religions is therefore constitutionally protected (although proselytization is forbidden).
The results are striking. The country boasts a vibrant (though tiny) Jewish community, one that is fully integrated into the country's economy and social fabric. Churches abound, and the country's Christian population--currently numbering some 3 million people--is allowed to practice its faith largely in peace. (The Kingdom's recent, well-documented spat with Christian aid workers had a great deal more to do with allegations of illegal conversion than with any latent religious intolerance.) This pluralism, and the protected status of religious minorities, has made Morocco inhospitable soil for radicals seeking to drive a wedge between Islam and other faiths.
Finally Morocco has mastered the art of political reconciliation. The country's independence in 1956 was followed by an extended period of domestic turmoil and heavy-handed governmental response. That time (between roughly 1960 and 1991) is still known in Morocco as les années de plomb (the years of lead) punctuated by the targeting of dissidents, political purges and human rights abuses on the part of King Hassan's government. Conditions improved considerably in the 1990s, but social and political grievances still festered.
Reconciling the country with its past therefore became one of the new king's most pressing tasks upon his assumption of power. He responded with a sweeping lustration plan that has provided financial restitution for former political prisoners, created truth and reconciliation commissions to air grievances and establish historical truths, and aided in the "social reinsertion" of former enemies of the state and their families. Underpinning these steps is Morocco's adherence to a simple concept, albeit one that so far has eluded most other regimes in the Middle East and North Africa: To retain the trust of its people, a government cannot be beyond the law.
That it has been able to set these developments into motion is a testament to the Moroccan government's dynamism--and to its unique religious authority. The monarchy traces its lineage back to the Prophet Muhammad, giving it religious standing shared by very few others in Islam. Morocco's king has used this stature deftly, couching his social agenda in religious terms and justifying it via the Koran. By doing so, he has conferred religious legitimacy upon his reforms, and discredited radical interpretations that are at odds with them.
But can Morocco's political system serve as a model for the rest of the region? The answer isn't immediately clear. The country's exposure to Western values and European culture has left it very much out of synch with other parts of the Muslim world. Moroccan officials understand this very well, and have embraced their role as outlier. "We have made a choice," says Mbarka Bouaida, the dynamic young female chairwoman of the Moroccan parliament's Committee on Foreign Policy, National Defense and Islamic Affairs. "We prefer to look to the West."
Still, the Moroccan experiment is enormously significant. After all, as Mideast scholar Michael Scott Doran wrote in Foreign Affairs back in 2002, the struggle against radical Islam is nothing quite so much as "someone else's civil war"--an internal contest between differing interpretations of the Muslim faith. The West may not have much of a voice in this competition, but that doesn't mean it does not have a stake in its outcome. America desperately needs allies that are willing and able to promote moderate interpretations of Islam at the expense of more extreme ones. In Morocco, it is fortunate to have found one.