On Wednesday, October 21, the Institute of Politics (IOP) hosted Rachad Bouhlal, Ambassador of Morocco to the United States, who spoke about the strategies Morocco has pioneered to de-radicalize jihadists in the region.
Ambassador Bouhlal, appointed on December 6, 2011, previously served as the senior advisor to the prime minister of Morocco and ambassador to Germany, the European Union, Belgium, and Luxembourg.
Bouhlal began by introducing the Moroccan government’s approach. “This is what we have been doing in Morocco: collecting data, studying and understanding what is happening, how to protect our youth, our population, [and] our citizens against this, how to prevent it, and at the end how to reintegrate these people in the society…you have to bring them back to normal behaviors. This is what we call de-radicalization,” Bouhlal said.
The government recently created the Higher Scholastic Council, which, according to Bouhlal, works to prevent mosques from becoming political centers. Additionally, the Council has established 15 research centers around Morocco to keep track of religious issues and work on improving educational programs.
Another major initiative is a mandatory training program for imams, established to ensure that the country’s spiritual leaders are qualified and politically moderate. There are currently 45,000 imams being trained in Morocco and after completing the program they will become part of the government’s Ministry of Religious Affairs. There is a similar training program in Morocco for women who wish to become spiritual leaders, and although women cannot lead prayers in mosques, Bouhlal said they share in the other responsibilities imams have.
Bouhlal pointed to an early mistake in Morocco’s policies as an example of progress over the last 10 years. Initially, extremists who were caught and imprisoned by the government were sent to prisons and rehabilitation programs that were separate from the “normal” prisoners. This, according to Bouhlal, was a mistake, because prisoners would become more radical in that confined environment. When they integrated the radical political prisoners into the regular prisons, they had much greater success in de-radicalizing them.
Bouhlal then took several questions from the audience. One man remarked that he was surprised to see the rise of radical Islam and thought the Muslim world was surprised too. Bouhlal replied that, while surprising, radicalism is a worldwide phenomenon, referencing the shooting in Charleston, South Carolina this past summer.
“They became violent, they [started] using the media, we didn’t see that coming… but there is another form of radicalism when you have a young man in South Carolina…go into a church and kill nine people,” Bouhlal said.
Bouhlal concluded by calling for continued cooperation with the West, saying he is “sure we will overcome this big challenge.”