The New York Times

Give moderate Islam a chance

LONDON — In the 1942 film "Road to Morocco," Bob Hope's character famously rendered the North African kingdom as the place "where they empty all the old hourglasses."

But following a dramatic surge in terrorism last month in North Africa, Morocco - long dismissed as an exotic place bounded by the Sahara and suspended in time - is now the last Arab frontier in the effort to stop the spread of global terrorism.

The barrage of recent attacks has included three terrorist assaults in Casablanca, a shootout in Tunisia between terrorists and police officers, and coordinated suicide bombings in Algeria, which killed 33 people.

How Morocco, the most liberal of Arab states, responds to Al Qaeda's forays in the region might provide answers to one of the key questions of our day: Can Islamist extremism be countered with Islamist moderation?

The wider world began paying closer attention to Al Qaeda's presence in Morocco after an Algerian-based terrorist organization, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, announced in January that it would rename itself Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. At first, many observers dismissed the significance of the change, seeing it as a sign that the group was scrambling for new relevance in an Algeria tired of bloodshed.

But Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has now established ties with local groups in both Morocco and Tunisia. It also has managed to accomplish what the French colonial powers never could achieve - bridge the fates and policies of three historically distinctive and often sparring nations.

Morocco, a constitutional monarchy that grants the king strong executive powers - including control over the military and the authority to disband Parliament - has long been considered the model for reform in the region. The government also has offered a blueprint (at least on paper) for Arab counterterrorism measures that combine security and intelligence efforts with measures to preserve Islam from extremism.

Morocco's movement toward a moderate, Sufi-inspired Islam has included the establishment of Islamic Web sites, television and radio programs, the training of female clerics, and the redesign of old Koranic schools.

Yet much more is needed. It is time to encourage Morocco's other experiment - the political inclusion of a moderate Islamist party as an antidote to extremism. In elections scheduled for September, Morocco can provide a model of Islamic democracy by allowing the moderate Party of Justice and Development the opportunity to do what neighboring Algerian Islamists were never allowed to do: form an Islamist-led government.

Although skeptics question whether so-called moderate Islamists even exist, events on the ground demand new approaches. The debate should be reframed to reflect the urgent need to combat terror. An individual group's firm commitment to nonviolence - and its willingness to help fight extremism - should be the most important factor determining its acceptability.

Morocco, with its young reform-minded king, Mohammed VI, who is able to reign in the Islamists if necessary, offers the ideal test case.

The Justice and Development party, expected to post large gains when Moroccans head to the polls, is a rare Islamist party. Modeled after Germany's Christian Democrats, it focuses on political and economic reform over divisive social and religious issues. Most important, in contrast to groups like Hamas, it condemns violence and campaigns on an anti-extremist, anti-terrorism platform.
Some critics assert that moderate Islamists in North Africa have done little to stop terror, but these groups have never really been given the chance.

Following terrorist attacks in Casablanca in 2003, the Justice and Development party faced a major backlash. But four years later, the party, which has been running a sophisticated election campaign against a tired, less-organized amalgamation of secular parties, has managed to convince voters that it can help fight terror, and that its leadership would combat radicalism, not give rise to it.

Many Moroccans, frustrated with the inability of the government to stop terrorism, may be willing to take a chance on the party. And while the king - who has the ultimate authority to appoint the next prime minister - might be tempted to maintain the governing secular coalition, the prospect of Islamist-managed counterterrorism is now too compelling to dismiss.

A.M. Spiegel, an American Institute of Maghreb Studies fellow at St. Antony's College, Oxford, served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco. He is currently at work on a book on Islam and politics in Morocco. 


Send in the Peace Corps

By Avi M. Spiegel

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's dreams of a leaner and meaner military, a smaller yet more modernized force, are in jeopardy. Faced with continued resistance in Iraq and peacekeeping duties in Afghanistan, Pentagon officials are now considering proposals to expand and restructure American forces amid fears that longer deployments will result in an overextended military.

Their focus may be misplaced. The question of how to reorganize the armed forces should be turned on its head: instead of making the military better at humanitarian assignments (in Iraq, Afghanistan and perhaps Liberia), humanitarian groups should strive to become more comfortable in military situations.

The Peace Corps, America's oldest overseas volunteer program, should equip itself to enter regions it now deems too dangerous. A force of trained and educated volunteers could improve its cooperation with the military and learn how to conduct itself in such settings.

With Congress debating spending on the Peace Corps and Americorps, it is time to update the Peace Corps' mission. Even in the face of mounting budgetary concerns, neither the military nor the Peace Corps is likely to react well to calls for a more active, less gun-shy Peace Corps.
Indeed, most humanitarian organizations cling to their independence and worry that any semblance of cooperation with the military might jeopardize their credibility. In postwar Iraq, on the other hand, the military was slow to allow international humanitarian workers into the country because of concerns over their protection, and volunteer organizations complained about lack of access.

The lessons are telling: there are humanitarian workers who are capable of entering dangerous situations, and better relations with the military just might allow them better access.

Even journalists in Iraq gave up reservations about being ''embedded'' in the military. No one is suggesting Peace Corps volunteers answer to the military. But isn't providing humanitarian assistance at least as important as reporting the news?

Amid tales of declining troop morale or of soldiers assuming draining humanitarian duties, America's volunteer humanitarian force -- the Peace Corps -- has been notably absent in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The reluctance to send volunteers into potentially dangerous situations might have been understandable in the past. The agency was formed in 1961, during the cold war, when the battle against Communism shaped United States foreign policy. Peace Corps volunteers were frequently withdrawn from any country in which the political situation became unstable.

Today the war on terror guides America's foreign policy, and it is all-encompassing. No nation is totally immune from danger. If it only allowed its volunteers in safe, stable countries, the Peace Corps would risk being shut out of too much of the world. The security situations in these countries may not change, but the Peace Corps can.

Four years ago I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco. Today I simply would not have that option. The Peace Corps withdrew earlier this year from its lone outposts in the Arab world, Morocco and Jordan. (The organization announced yesterday that it would return to Jordan next year.) Meanwhile, the Pentagon is planning to expand its military presence in the region.

Unfortunately, the Peace Corps removes its volunteers just when they are needed the most: when anti-Americanism is running unchecked and the need for contact with ordinary American citizens is greatest. Volunteers who have just graduated from college may not be prepared to serve in these challenging settings. But there are surely Americans, given the right amount of training and experience, who would relish the chance.

From North Africa to the Persian Gulf, the sole face of America is too often the face of a soldier. American citizens deserve the chance to change that image -- for their own good and for the good of their country.

Spiegel, a student at Harvard Divinity School and the New York University School of Law, was a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco from 1998 to 2000.


Peace Corps Is Vital

To the Editor:

As a returned Peace Corps volunteer who heeded President John F. Kennedy's call to service, I applaud the appeal by Senators John McCain and Evan Bayh for expanded national service programs (Op-Ed, Nov. 6). But when they speak of service abroad, why no mention of civil service in addition to the military service they mention? 

Overseas service programs like the Peace Corps accomplish unheralded amounts to foster both cultural understanding and good will toward America: two elements needed in today's conflict. 

Cambridge, Mass., Nov. 6, 2001

No comments:

Post a Comment