Morocco's fight against extremeism

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The World's Gerry Hadden reports on how Morocco is working to keep extremist activity under control. Some of the credit may go to a government program that encourages moderate Islam.

LISA MULLINS: Issues such as poverty and a lack of democracy often encourage extremism throughout the Arab world, and that's a concern in Morocco, for instance. But the North African kingdom hasn't suffered a major terrorist attack since 2003. Some credit for that may go to a government program that promotes moderate Islam. The World's Gerry Hadden has more now from Morocco's capital, Rabat.


GERRY HADDEN: Two men wander the crowded alleys of Rabat's sprawling medina, or old Arab quarter, singing and begging for change. They are among the legions of poor in Morocco, where the average wage is less than 400 dollars a month and half the country is illiterate. On the face of it, this might seem like fertile ground for extremist recruiters, but Morocco is virtually free of terrorist activities. One reason is a government crackdown on extremists. In 2003, after Al Qaeda killed 45 people with bombs in Casablanca, Moroccan authorities made sweeping arrests, they threw some five thousand people in jail. It was heavy handed, but King Mohammed the Sixth has since tried to compensate for the draconian reaction, says Mustafa Khalfi. Khalfi is a leader of one of Morocco's moderate Islamist political parties. He says far more effective was opening some political space for groups like his.

MUSTAFA KHALFI: The general policy of integration is still working in the country, and the policy of integration has some results. And among these results is giving a moderate channel, a chance for young people to work for reform and for change within the institutions. Other places, when we see a policy of eradication, we see it's easy for extremist groups to get young people and to push them to do some extremist attacks.

GERRY HADDEN: Khalfi is referring to neighboring Algeria. There, an organization once known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat has been fighting the government since the early 1990's, after Islamic radicals swept elections only to see the results annulled by the government. Three years ago, the Salafi group started calling itself Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, AQIM, and expanded beyond Algeria. Under heavy pressure from international security forces, AQIM has moved its base of operations south into a vast no man's land just across the Algerian border, into Mali and into Mauritania where an American was killed in June. To prevent Al Qaeda from expanding, the US is now training security forces in those countries in counter terrorism tactics. But Moroccan political analyst Mohammed Darif says he thinks Al Qaeda's strength in the region has been exaggerated. He says governments that cry Al Qaeda tend to get guns and money from foreign governments, and are allowed leeway at home to quell dissenters of all stripes.


GERRY HADDEN: He says, sometimes here in the Magrheb people look for ways to legitimize human rights abuse. The fight against terrorism takes precedence over democratic reforms and so on. Governments, he says, defend their despotic practices behind the argument that they're fighting terrorists.


GERRY HADDEN: On a recent afternoon on the outskirts of Rabat, honor students from an Islamic group called Justice and Spirituality are celebrating the end of the school year. The mood is cheerful in this suburban home but Justice and Spirituality's secretary general Abdelwahed Motawakil says his group is a victim of despotism. Justice and Spirituality does not recognize Morocco's monarchy, and Motawakil says it has paid a price. He says they're under constant police surveillance, and one of the group's leaders is now on trial for suggesting that Morocco would be better off as a Republic. Motawakil says as long as power rests in the hands of one person alone, Moroccans will not know real freedom, nor wipe out radicalism.

ABDELWAHED MOTAWAKIL: We are trying to be patient, and the only way is to communicate with the people. They are doing everything in all the world to put barriers between us and the people. But it is impossible despite harassment and restrictions.

GERRY HADDEN: Those ideas include non-violence and an emphasis on education. In fact, despite being marginalized Justice and Spirituality is credited with keeping thousands of young people from turning to extremism. Among them is 15-year-old student Ima Moncheet.


GERRY HADDEN: She says, not all our friends belong to Justice and Spirituality, but as long as we show a old example by behaving well and doing well in school, our classmates will affected and might even join us. Moncheet embodies a key contradiction of Morocco's, indeed all of the Magreb's. Governments are trying to promote moderate Islam but they've been much less successful in moving towards real democracy. For the World, I'm Gerry Hadden, Rabat, Morocco.