Seeking peace through literacy

Marketplace Staff Jun 5, 2007

Seeking peace through literacy

Marketplace Staff Jun 5, 2007

Text of Story

KAI RYSSDAL: Counter-terrorism officials have been warning about a growing threat of Al Qaeda in North Africa. Bombings in Algeria and Morocco the past few months have been marked by tactics most often seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. Extremists are recruiting in the mosques and prayer rooms of cities like Casablanca, where unemployment and illiteracy are widespread.

But John Laurenson reports the Moroccan government has hit on a cheap and effective way to win the hearts and minds.

JOHN LAURENSON: I’ve just arrived at a mosque on the outskirts of Casablanca when a stone hits me on the back. A small one, thrown by a small and soon very sheepish boy.

But a reminder, perhaps, of the struggle the government of Morocco is engaged in here. Because inside this mosque, 50 women are sitting on the floor in front of a blackboard learning reading, writing and civics.

[SOUND: Women singing]

These are some of the 130,000 Moroccans who, thanks to an idea of King Mohammed the Sixth’s, attend literacy classes in mosques.

MOROCCAN GIRL (voice of interpreter): I want to be able to read the Koran, but also the signs on buses so I can know where they’re going, and the letters that come in the mail.

A timid girl comes to the blackboard and reads some words beginning with “W.” Forty percent of Moroccans are illiterate, and many more women than men can’t read and write. Add to this that many men are too proud to attend remedial classes and you can understand why 80 percent of the students who come to these lessons are women.

For them, it’s crucial that the classes take place in mosques.

STUDENT (voice of interpreter): My husband knows I’m in a pious place, a place of worship, so he’s not worried in the way he would be if the lessons were in a school.

Better still, these innovative classes are increasingly taught by another Moroccan innovation: women imams, or “mourchidate.” One of them, Mimouna Houchmine, says these lessons are reviving one of the mosque’s traditional roles.

MIMOUNA HOUCHMINE: Mosques aren’t only for praying. At the time of the Prophet, there weren’t any schools, so people went to the mosque to learn. And for the country to do well, to become a developed country, women — who are the bedrock of society — must be given an education.

But the classes are not to everyone’s taste. For instance, the monarchy’s Islamist opponents.

To seek out one of these critics, I’ve come to Salé, an old port just outside the capital Rabat. It’s a religious town — there’s not a single bar in Salé. And it’s headquarters to the largest Islamist political movement in Morocco, the non-violent but outspoken Al Adl Wal Ihsane — Justice and Spirituality.

Abdelwahed Moutawaquil is secretary general of Al Adl’s political directorate:

ABDELWAHED MOUTAWAQUIL: If you have just a quick glance at the manuals, you will find the stuff that is there, that it is used to spread a certain ideas which are in the interest of the regime. And that we should have confidence, we should not listen to other peoples who may say some negative things about our regime.

For the man in charge of the mosque teaching program at the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, the values taught in these classes are Islamic values, so it’s right and proper they should be promoted in mosques. He’s also aware of the economic benefits of making the workforce more literate and numerate.

But Abdelwahed Bendaoud freely admits that this is part of a political struggle:

ABDELWAHED BENDAOUD: We are aware that we are filling a void, meeting a thirst out there. The vast numbers of people turning up shows that there is this need. If we didn’t fill it, others would. And they might put forward a point of view that is less tolerant and open.

A quarter of a million people have now completed the one-year course at a total cost to the state of $10 million. Money well spent, says Mister Bendaoud, if it can help Morocco remain a relatively peaceful, liberal, pro-western country in the Muslim world.

In Casablanca, I’m John Laurenson for Marketplace.

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