Between the Lines – Who and What Reflect Muslim Values?

The US Presidential campaigns have staked out their positions on Muslim-Americans, Muslim immigrants, and by extension Muslims worldwide. These positions have been defined by perceptions about Islam and its various components: the Quran, Sharia law, religious terms such as kafir and jihad, and generally not well understood rituals. Most telling are the images daily broadcast and projected by radicals who use Islam as a cloak for their violence and heinous crimes against mostly other Muslims.

The ongoing conflict is not only between Muslims and those who are not. More and more courageous Muslim voices are being raised against radicalism and extremism as not representative of Islam and actually in deep conflict with the basic values of Islam. These rejections by Islamic leaders and communities are at odds with those who claim that Muslims are not public enough in their condemnation of extremists who claim the mantle of Islam as justification for their actions.

Lately, there is growing recognition in the West that Muslim leaders from Malaysia to Morocco are indeed making the case against terrorism and Islamic radicals. In this context, the Globe and Mail published an op-ed by the noted French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy who singled out the King of Morocco, Mohammed VI, as one of many who have boldly challenged the radicals.

He pointed out that the king’s condemnation took on even greater gravitas as he is regarded as a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed and has the title “Commander of the Faithful” responsible for the integrity and promotion of Islam, in particular the Maliki school with its strong Sufi texture and emphasis on inclusion, moderation, and peace.

The king spoke on the 63rd anniversary of the People’s Revolution, commemorating the resistance of Moroccans to the French occupation. Most Western media accounts highlighted his condemning terrorism, noting there is no heavenly reward for terrorists. It is reported that the Prophet Mohammed said “I guarantee a house in the surroundings of Paradise for those who give up arguing, even if they are in the right; and I guarantee a house in the middle of Paradise for those who abandon lying even when joking; and I guarantee a house in the highest part of Paradise for those who have good character and manners.” (Sunan Abu Daawood: 4800)

So when the King said that he wanted overseas Moroccans “to remain firmly committed to their religious values and to their time-honored traditions as they face up to this phenomenon which has nothing to do with their culture or background,” he was emphasizing that values lie at the heart of the practice of Islam and so to distort the rituals is to challenge the moral core of the religion.

In Islam, there is no eternal reward for passively living in the world. According to Anabulsi, a noted Muslim scholar, the Hadith “Religion is Conduct” [الدين المعاملة] means that “real worship does not consist only of establishing rituals, but it’s about exerting good conduct/behavior or applying good manners towards others.” This Hadith adds that “Ritual worship is not valid unless it’s largely supported by good conduct.” And further, “None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.” (Bukhari and Muslim)

This emphasis on good works is found throughout the Abrahamic faiths. It is no coincidence that in Islam, human behavior, from commercial transactions to how one treats family members, is guided by values that engender good conduct. In Islam, the link between behavior and prayer is reflected in Hadith such as “Through his manners and good conduct, the believer can attain the status of a person who frequently fasts and prays at night.” (Abu Dawoud)

The backstory to the king’s speech is that there is the explicit need for Muslims to act according to values that promote comity, respect, and dignity. We are in this world to do good, not evil, and that we should shun those who would tell us to hurt others. As the Imam Malik reported, “Mohammed, the Messenger of Allah, PBUH, said, I have been sent to perfect good character.” And “The best of you is the best among you in conduct.” (Al-Bukari and Muslim)

King Mohammed’s words echo the determination of King Abdullah II of Jordan who, like King Mohammed, has a unique historical role to both defend Islam and clarify its dynamic role in promoting harmony, justice, and respect within the human community.



Students Join Together to Challenge Extremists’ Messaging

Project Challenges Universities to Develop Counter-Narratives to ISIL Recruitment

University students from 23 countries recently took on a very interesting challenge – developing social media campaigns to reach populations vulnerable to recruitment by extremists. Called “P2P: Challenging Extremism,” the top three university teams competed for “the best creative media and social media campaigns to counter violent extremism” at the State Department on Thursday, June 4.

To develop, produce, and manage the competition, the State Department reached out to EdVenture Partners, whose founder Tony Sgro literally launched the concept of offering real-world marketing projects to colleges and universities for classroom credit. His company was behind the Brand Morocco project, which developed a profile on how US companies make international business decisions and their perceptions of doing business in Morocco. Then, using this information and their own research, business, communications, marketing, and advertising classes in North America and Morocco competed in presenting integrated marketing campaigns to promote specific sectors in Morocco.

What is critical in using real-world cases such as product launches, recruitment campaigns, or brand awareness studies is that faculty and students work with the clients to build actual solutions that can be implemented. This creative collaboration was evident in the students’ approach to the social media campaigns. They not only identified the issues; each team received a small budget to actually craft the projects they were recommending.

Building the social media platforms was not as simple as designing a website or Facebook page. Among the creative issues faced by the teams was answering critical questions such as who are the “vulnerable populations” who might be open to radicalization, what social media tools might best reach them, and how does one motivate a potential user to engage via social media.

Diverse Social Media Campaigns Proposed

The top three teams came from Mount Royal University in Calgary, Canada (four women, two men), Missouri State University in Springfield, Missouri (three women), and Curtin University in Perth, Australia (one woman, four men), and they faced similar hurdles. For example, how, in one semester do you gain sufficient understanding of how young Muslims communicate and about what issues, and then use that knowledge to develop a multifaceted media effort?


The Australian team had Muslim members and yet still went out and recruited Muslim faculty and community members as advisors. The Canadians reached out to Muslim members on campus for inputs and greater awareness of challenges facing Muslim youth. The US team engaged knowledgeable faculty and partner schools to refine their knowledge base.

The Canadian team, from the business school, presented first, identifying their three campaign goals as: creating a network of users through connection/inclusion, education, and understanding. Their efforts are targeted at vulnerable populations and the publics that impact them. For the team, it was about building relationships between marginalized members of the community and others to build support and solidarity.

They called their campaign the WANT (we are not them) Movement to give voice to those who feel isolated and impacted by negative stereotypes of Muslims. Their social media platform involves connecting the user with credible sources about Islam and its relevant teachings; giving them a sense of inclusion, respect, and belonging by creating a network of interactive users; educating users and the broader population about Islam and its practices; and providing opportunities for greater engagement within the target groups and the larger society. Their platform was launched in March with very positive results.

The Americans called their campaign “One95” reflecting their focus on individuals within the context of 195 countries. Their target is “generation Z” youth and their teachers. Their platform is very robust, covering 12 different apps, teaching materials, special web connections for teachers, and materials designed for ease of translation into other languages. Their goal is to “educate, empower, and connect” vulnerable populations to #endviolentextremism. Their initial test launch was highly successful in terms of measures of users and view counts, and their project was the top-rated in the competition.

The Australian effort was called 52 Jumaa (Friday, the holy day in the Muslim week), or 52 Saturday or 52 Sunday, depending on which audience is being addressed. The core feature of the platform is to create a community that is consciously committed to change through good works, drawing inspiration from on-line tools such as readings from the Quran that are sent to users weekly. They share how they are meeting the challenge to do good works with other users, keep a diary of their achievements where they can also see how they are doing compared to others, and receive daily affirmations via text. After very proactive media outreach in Perth to reach target populations, 52 Jumaa was launched in April and has already had measurable results and positive impact on its users. A social network is evolving that will enable the program to continue.

Tony Sgro is hopeful that the P2P competition will continue to build through the fall semester. Morocco participated in the first round, and the goal is to pair schools from the West with schools in Muslim-majority countries, providing an intensive creative experience. Also interesting is that the Moroccan team wrote its platform in Arabic, an added incentive to have joint presentations that benefit from a broad range of perspectives. One conclusion from the competition, as the three finalists demonstrated, is the power of young people to use technology to build creative and scalable platforms for communicating across cultures. It was a reaffirming experience to observe.

“Countering Violent Extremism” The Moroccan Way

Women playing a major role in counter-terrorism strategies

I have just finished reading “A Gendered Approach to Countering Violent Extremism – Lessons Learned from Women in Peacebuilding and Conflict Prevention Applied Successfully in Bangladesh and Morocco.” It was written by Krista London Couture of the National Counterterrorism Center and released by the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at Brookings. Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) is the latest acronym to join the list of references to conflict between state and non-state actors and the environments in which they persist.

Brookings study on women and counterterrorism

Brookings study on women and counterterrorism

The assumption of the study is that “an increase in women empowerment and gender equality has a positive effect on countering extremism.” She gathered data on 16 indicators to identify any linkages between women’s role in a society and its ability to counter extremism. , Ms. Couture claims that “violent extremism is most effectively countered through increased education, better critical thinking, and enhanced opportunities” for women and sets out to prove it in her study Ms. Couture chose Bangladesh and Morocco because of “their direct and indirect emphasis on women empowerment to fight terrorism and its perceived factors that drive recruitment and radicalization to violence.” In Morocco, she focuses on two programs – the Moudawana, the reform of the family law code in 2004; and the mourchidates program in which women are trained similarly to imams (prayer leaders) to act as community social workers and advisors to families.

Her research “focuses on identifying and assessing the ways in which women can and do commendably serve in the prevention role [not that of enabler or participant in terrorism or counterterrorism].” According to her account, “Research and policies indicate that female empowerment and gender equality indicators continue to be valuable gauges in peacebuilding and conflict prevention.”

When an indicator is a labeled a “gauge” it indicates to me that there may not be a causal link on which to build sustainable strategies. While the relationship may be important, even vital, there are no guarantees that improving the lives of women is more salient than other factors in preventing extremism. So how does her methodology provide more insights into how policy makers can assess prioritizing women’s empowerment over “hard” power solutions to terrorism?

Challenging Traditional Notions of Counterterrorism

Mourchidates have the same studies as imams - prayer leaders

Mourchidates have the same studies as imams – prayer leaders

As Fatima Nezza, a Moroccan mourchidate , remarked to Ms. Couture, “If you train a man, you train one person. If you train a woman, you train an entire community.” This remark echoes the observation that in Muslim-majority countries, as in most traditional societies, women are significant anchors to social stability and development. So the author’s 16 “Key Female Empowerment Indicators,” cover social, political, economic, and quality of life indicators as a baseline for assessing the status of women in a particular society. When women are valued and supported as credible voices for stability in a country, “Programs where women are active participants moderate the intent and action of extremism at varying stages of radicalization.”

The relationship between CVE and human development has been the subject of many studies since 9/11. It is clear that to Ms. Couture that “Investing in civilian populations is critical to the success of curbing violent extremism. An essential element of effective CVE programs mandates long-term stability.” In this context, a country’s level and extent of development is a crucial factor in CVE efforts. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the United Nations, and the US Department of State and Department of Homeland Security have issued reports on the role of women in countering extremism. “Strategists believe that when women are empowered socially, politically, and economically in culturally appropriate and relevant ways, they will become contributing members of society who hold the answers and solutions to complex aspects and issues inherent in CVE,” according to Ms. Couture.

The organization Sisters Against Violent Extremism (SAVE), has written “Women have a key role to play in funding and implementing new, alternative approaches to ending violent extremism. …their close proximity to potentially vulnerable youth through their roles as the main caretaker in most societies provides them with a unique point of view that can lead to vital insights into how to steer youth away from violence.”

Morocco’s CVE Offense

Three factors cited in the paper that influence the impact of Morocco’s CVE strategy are improvements in development indicators for women, their empowerment as a result of the Moudawana, and the targeted efforts of the mourchidates. Ms. Couture points to King Mohammed VI’s continuing reforms, the pace of social liberalization, and its effective counterterrorism regime as elements that set Morocco apart from other countries in the region. Morocco’s moderate form of Islam is also a crucial factor, and she notes “The Moroccan Government initiated a program of countering extremist views and interpretations of Islam by reaching the wider population with moderate Islamic narratives.”

Mourchidate working in community center

Mourchidate working in community center

She describes the mourchidates program in great detail and praises their “optimism and tireless efforts. By educating women and mothers, providing a safe and productive outlet and activity for youths, and providing positive alternatives and choices for prison inmates, female mourchidates are changing the tide of terrorism by blunting potential catalysts.” She recognizes that it will “take a generation of teaching moderate Islam and tolerance through education and communication within a community” to change radical views of Islam, and Morocco has made that commitment. Holistically, “Providing an education, fulfilling basic needs, and affording opportunities to women are what Morocco has deemed necessary to counter violent extremism effectively.”

Ms. Couture concludes her analysis by linking the CVE role of women to the notion of “smart” power promoted by Professor Joseph Nye as bridging the gap between soft and hard power. She believes that “Women, who typically invest more in their families, can be the best defense against ignorance, intolerance, and a lack of opportunities.”

Morocco has made its CVE strategy clear: promoting economic and human development, encouraging greater equity and political space, and supporting greater understanding and appreciation of the moderate principles of Islam are integrated into a cohesive program to advance stability and security in the country and the region. While more study needs to be done across a broader population, results to date indicate that Morocco has made a “smart” choice in its CVE strategy and the primary role of women in that regard.