It’s one of many countries around the world experimenting with various “countering violent extremism” (CVE) or de-radicalization programs. As Maddy Crowell noted in The Atlantic, “Germany, Britain, and Belgium have developed programs that focus on further integrating radicals into their community. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, focuses on finding jobs and wives for recruited jihadists.” But programs that reach people once they’ve already been radicalized might come too late. “The most effective kind of rehabilitation and reintegration is the rehab and reintegration that doesn’t have to happen, because the person was afforded an off-ramp before they got to the point of no return,” Nathan Sales, the coordinator for counterterrorism at the U.S. State Department, told me. “What does that look like? It looks like early intervention and not necessarily and maybe not ideally by government officials.”
Early intervention spearheaded by local community leaders and groups, as opposed to government officials, was a focus of America’s CVE approach under the Obama administration. “Community leaders, neighborhood leaders have a comparative advantage in a number of different dimensions,” Sales said. “They will know more than government officials will about problems that might be cropping up and they also have a way to intervene in a way government people wouldn’t be able to … to steer somebody who is at risk of taking a wrong path and bringing them back into the fold.” President Trump recently stripped funding from several groups aiming to counter extremism through this kind of outreach. Meanwhile, Morocco has continued to invest in it. Through various experimental initiatives, the country is attempting to show how a certain kind of religious education can prevent extremism.
One particular initiative comes with a twist: It places a special emphasis on women. Eleven years ago, Rabat saw the opening of an elite new school called L’Institut Mohammed VI Pour La Formation Des Imams, Morchidines, et Morchidates. It turns young women into religious scholars and then sends them out into pockets of the country where radical Islamists are known to recruit disenfranchised youth—to provide spiritual guidance that contradicts the messages they might receive from violent extremists. Making school visits and home visits, each woman—called a morchidat, or spiritual guide—talks to young Muslims and contests interpretations of the Quran that terrorist groups use for recruitment. For women to be employed by the government to do this kind of work within Morocco’s Islamic communities, where spiritual leadership is generally the domain of men, is unusual. Men are also trained at the Rabat school, but it’s the hundreds of female graduates who are having the most impact, according to the program director, Abdeslam El-Azaar.
“I’ll tell you frankly, the women scholars here are even more important than men,” said El-Azaar, a thin grandfatherly man in a cream-colored Moroccan tunic and a burgundy fez. “Women, just by virtue of their role in society, have so much contact with the people—children, young people, other women, even men. ... They are the primary educators of their children. So it is natural for them to provide advice,” he said. “We give them an education so they can offer it in a scholarly way.”