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May 4, 2018 12:19 pm

Imams in Morocco Learn Jewish Culture as Part of Training — and Bring Tolerance to France

avatar by Irina Tsukerman

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The Institute Mohammed VI de la Formation des Imams Mourchidens et Mourchidates. Photo: Provided by the author.

The 30 imams who have signed a letter against antisemitism and extremism in France are graduates of a special training program for imams in Morocco. Created in 2005, the Institute Mohammed VI de la Formation des Imams Mourchidens et Mourchidates now boasts of approximately 1,600 graduates — more than 1,000 male, and 800 female imams.

Indeed, while women imams may be a novelty in the United States, where many mosques are sponsored by states with Islamist ideology or Muslim Brotherhood-linked conservative organizations, the Moroccan training is focused on preserving the Moroccan tradition of tolerance. This training also focuses on streamlining the traditions of imams all over the country, as well as from Africa, and European countries, such as France.

During a recent trip to Morocco, I had a unique opportunity to visit the Institute, and interview Dr. Abdessalem Lazaar, the director of the Institute, and formerly, a French teacher — who, after many years in linguistic education, found his calling in theology and mentorship of aspiring young clergy.

The Institute was created to combat the rise of extremism throughout mosques, as well as to counter the increasing flow of foreign imams into Morocco, who had limited knowledge of Arabic, and a poor grasp of theology.

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So far, Morocco’s approach to countering religious extremism has been successful: the country has not had a terrorist attack since 2011. The three-pronged approach relies on surveillance of mosques, social integration and outreach, and education. The education of male and female imams ensures both the study of substantive theology interpreted in a moderate and tolerant way, which has been central to Morocco’s thousands of years of interreligious and interethnic coexistence. This education is combined with other disciplines that complement the religious courses and expand the worldviews of the students.

For instance, the Institute particularly encourages female imams, with the reasoning that they will then reach out to and educate other women in their communities and countries, thus combating the spread of extremism in countries where literacy is low, and women are frequently marginalized and easily manipulated by poorly educated religious authorities.

There are three tracks for all the students at the Institute — a year-long track for Moroccans, and 2/3 year tracks for other African and French students, who face tough competition and require nomination by a community or an organization to be considered for the program.

Men are required to learn the Koran by heart before they arrive; women are required to commit half to memory. All are taught an interpretation of the Koran specifically aimed at emphasizing moderation, good values, and tolerance for others. Men and women also receive training in various disciplines, such as sewing, the culinary arts, carpentry, and electronics, so that upon graduating, they — particularly African imams — would have career options in addition to religious duties, and could introduce an element of financial independence and skills that could help their communities.

Having work skills, the philosophy of the Institute posits, will give them an opportunity for a better future and make it less likely that they and their congregations will be c-oopted by extremists. They are also taught computer literacy and assorted tech skills, which make them both competitive for and integrated into the modern world.

The classes are taught by a mixture of male and female educators. Some classes are co-ed, while others are same sex. The disciplines that are taught to students to broaden their perspectives include psychology and other social studies, science, history, linguistics, and Jewish culture. Jewish culture is a significant part of Moroccan tradition; it is reflected in the country’s Constitution, adopted under Mohammed VI, which offers recognition to Morocco’s Arab, Amazigh, and Jewish traditions. For many centuries, Jewish and Muslim communities have lived peacefully side by side. Many of the Southern Amazigh tribes converted to Judaism under the influence of the ancient Jewish communities that settled in the area.

Spanish Jews fleeing the Inquisition have settled in Morocco since 1492, influencing the cuisine and adding to the country’s rich culture. Jewish influence can be found ubiquitously, although it is particularly prominent in the South, where Judaica can be found in random stores, with the young owners having no idea as to its origin.

The older generations of Moroccans have fond memories of living side by side with their Jewish neighbors, and celebrating life cycle events and cultural holidays, such as Mimouna, which marks the end of Passover with a feast of baked goods and lively music. Preserving these memories and traditions remains a central focus of the Moroccan government, and manifests in  a range of ways — from the King’s restoration of the 167 Jewish cemeteries in the country, to the basic understanding of and respect for the Jewish faith in the training of the imams.

Thus, the tradition of tolerance and acquaintance with the basic precepts of Judaism is being introduced into heavily Sunni countries where Jewish communities have been small or non-existent — and where in previous decades, knowledge of Jews has been either negligible or marked by conspiracy theories and bigotry spread by the media and ignorant, untrained clergy.

When the 30 imams drafted their response to the rising wave of antisemitism and religious extremism in France, I naturally asked myself whether this exceptional group had any connection to the Institute. In their letter, these imams denounced the hijacking of Islam by criminals and likewise criticized the ignorance and idleness that is pervasive in the young Muslim communities in France, which makes them easy prey for ideologues and manipulators.

That position seemed very reflective of the Institute’s philosophy. And given that Islamism and other religiously extreme doctrines have disproportionally affected Muslim communities and caused extreme pain and suffering in Muslim majority countries, the Institute’s paradigm seems a prime example of the important intrareligious discussion that King Mohammed VI has prioritized inside Morocco, and that is now slowly spreading elsewhere.

When I asked Dr. El-Lazaar whether the 30 imams who authored and signed the letter had any connection to his training, he proudly confirmed that they all have had at least six months of training in the Institute.

The Institute may not yet be well known in the West, but the actions of its graduates speak for themselves. The best kind of advertising for the success of an approach is in the effects and activities of those who have adopted it. If there was any question as to the efficacy of the Institute’s methods, the laudable example of the French imams, who stand against bigotry and extremism, is reason enough to support the Institute’s investment in future generations of educated, compassionate, Muslims, who are also good citizens of Morocco — or of any country where they reside.

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