Women figure prominently in efforts vs violent extremism targeting youth

Arlene Burgos, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Oct 20 2017 09:20 PM | Updated as of Oct 20 2017 10:59 PM

(Second of 2 parts)

MANILA - As the Philippines worries about some of its youth getting lured by violent extremism, certain efforts elsewhere in the world have women actively participating against terrorist recruitment especially of the young. 
 

In Muslim-majority Morocco, halfway around the globe from the Philippines, a proactive program involving women was started by the state after its largest city, Casablanca, suffered terrorist attacks in May 2003. 

This is complemented by a counterterrorism and de-radicalization program for those detained and imprisoned over charges of involvement in violent extremism. 

In the United States, intelligence officials have been reaching out to communities in Minnesota where terrorist recruitment was recorded to have happened. But the more lasting and value-forming interactions may be happening in environments like schools for Muslim children where educators are consciously trying to distance students from radical teachings by offering beefed-up curriculum. 

The ‘Morchidat’

After more than 40 died and dozens were wounded in the Casablanca attacks of 2003, the Morocco government decided to reform religious affairs and the leadership structure of the country's mosques. A key reform was the training of women who were to be assigned to mosques throughout the capital city of Rabat to carry out their mission: answering religious questions, improving literacy programs, and providing practical guidance on the reformed family law that grants women equal rights in marriage, divorce, and the ownership of property. 

The documentary ‘Casablanca Calling’ is an intimate portrait of three ‘morchidat’ (female spiritual leaders) and how they try to do their work in Morocco.

Called “morchidat”, the women are university graduates who have mastered classical Arabic and have deep knowledge of Islamic law, and have been empowered to do everything the male clergy does, except lead Friday prayers. 

The wisdom of the program is still rooted in the youth: women can be a moderating voice in their families, including the youth, who are then introduced to a tolerant and mainstream version of Islam at a young age. 

Some activists and observers say conservative Morocco still has a long way to go in terms of protecting or promoting women empowerment. Yet the establishment of the morchidat program is generally seen as a step to protect its people, especially the youth, against extremism. 

 ‘Reconciliation with self, with religion, with society’ 

In terms of corrective measures, Morocco has adopted a de-radicalization process that involves a rehabilitation program to allow those charged and convicted of involvement in violent extremism activities to reform and try their hand at getting back to mainstream society. 

Mohamed Salah Tamek, director general of Morocco’s Penitentiary and Reintegration Administration, said the principle is to allow a person to reconcile with himself, with his religion, and with society.
 
The program includes a literacy campaign in vocational schools, inviting preachers to talk inside prisons to correct misinterpretations of religious teachings, and training and employment of prisoners.
 
Tamek said reintegration into society is important to discourage repeat of offenses. Exclusion from mainstream society will have bad repercussions as the offenders might take revenge, he said. There has been no record of recidivism among those who have gone through the program.
 
The program has sifted through 900 people jailed over terrorism-linked charges, 400 of whom have been convicted. Of these, 25 have qualified for the program because of the status of their case, and their good behavior. Prisoners are invited to the program and asked about their willingness to participate. 

Tamek said an analysis of the profile of the prisoners reveals they had ‘’false religious concept,’’ felt there was social injustice, had limited access to education, and looked at the violent extremist groups as giver or source of a sense of purpose. 

This profile is not very different from the profiles of people who have been reported to be vulnerable to violent extremism in the Philippines. 

 Fighting extremism in schools 

It was not as easy to peg to a type the profile of young persons recruited to join the Islamic State group in Minnesota where three men in a batch of nine arrested in 2014 were found guilty in 2016 of plotting to join the Islamic State or ISIS and committing murder overseas. 
 
Their trial “opened a window onto ISIS' sophisticated propaganda and recruiting techniques” done via social media. 

The case was considered a milestone because it spotlighted a new form of cross-border recruitment: kids who have gone out of Minnesota to join violent extremism reach back to contacts and convince old friends to join the cause. The issue also placed pressure on the biggest Somali population in the US, numbering to about 100,000 in Minnesota. 

Twin Cities investigators on the recruitment drive have tried to reach out to the community about the issue, but the relationship has not been fruitful. 

The only other spaces for articulation and discourse on one’s faith and society outside of places of worship may be in the community centers or schools. 

A poster in the Al-Amal School in Minnesota. Photo by Arlene Burgos, ABS-CBN News

Take, for instance, the Al-Amal School where the initiative appears to be succeeding. 

Established in 1994, the Al-Amal is an accredited private Islamic school from preschool through 12th grade located in the suburbs of the Twin Cities area. 

Audrey Zarah Williams explains the operating principles behind the school she put up 27 years ago. Photo by Arlene Burgos, ABS-CBN News

There are nearly 400 students this year, and the school founder and principal, Audrey Zahra Williams, said they provide a full academic curriculum comparable to public schools in Minnesota in addition to offering Arabic, Islamic Studies, and Quran Memorization courses. 

The school further provides after-school sports activities and an Islamic environment for both students and staff.

“We are pretty serious about continuous improvement,” said Williams. 

Her school’s 2017 batch graduated from 12th grade not just with a high school diploma but with a Michigan University Associate's Degree in Islamic Studies as well, thanks to teachers who are accredited to offer these subjects. 

Teacher Omar Ali says they are confident about the quality of their school's graduates. Photo by Arlene Burgos, ABS-CBN News 

Omar Ali recognizes there is "garbage information online about everything.” He said his aim as a teacher is to provide “solid foundation of Islamic understanding so nobody can easily mislead (students) to something else.”

“That’s why we raise the level of Islamic education throughout college level and the class is a normal university-level Islamic education, well-developed by higher education committees,” he said. 

His courses cover everything from prayers to purifying one’s self, to business, marriage, and divorce. In the last four years, Al-Amal has finished 64 college-level credits, and their students graduate as young scholars. 

“By the time the students leave here, we are very comfortable that they wouldn’t be hijacked by somebody who's misusing their religion and they won’t be easily be intimidated by somebody who's attacking their religion just because they don’t like it,” Ali said. 

(Editor's note: The author was a participant of the East-West Center's 2017 Senior Journalists' Program held in the United States, the Philippines, and Morocco.)