The Buzz

Ten Percent of Western Recruits to ISIS are Women

During Couture’s visit to Morocco, she found similar efforts at women’s empowerment in terms of finance, employment, and education. She also found special efforts to improve the legal status of women and, most remarkably, their role in the religious leadership of the country. Against opposition from hardline Islamist factions, King Mohammed VI has instituted progressive revisions to the Moroccan family code (Mudawana), granting women their due divorce and inheritance rights as well as protections within the household. Since 2005, by order of the king, Morocco’s Islamic affairs ministry has begun certifying female Muslim preachers. Navigating the conservative precepts of Islamic legal tradition, the king introduced a new designation known as “Murshidat” (female religious guides), who share with the male imam in responsibility for administering a given mosque. In the course of their work, Murshidat serve to advance Islamic moderation and tolerance and curb radicalization. Couture writes, “This revolutionary development for the advancement of women in Morocco offered an opportunity for women to act as agents of positive change in their communities throughout Morocco.”

The institution of Murshidat is not easy to replicate in other countries: King Mohammed VI enjoys special latitude to innovate Islamic legal rulings through his status as the country’s supreme religious authority. That said, the king of Jordan enjoys a similar status in his country. Some governments in the Gulf have capacities of their own to introduce top-down religious reform via state institutions. Egypt’s venerated Al-Azhar Islamic seminary, a source of guidance and inspiration to Muslims worldwide, also has the requisite power to move the interpretation of Islamic legal precepts forward. Since all these countries have been sources of recruits to the likes of ISIS, and all share an interest in combating it, their respective leaders and institutions should examine the Moroccan model and consider adopting it in some form.

Female Islamic leadership has also been the subject of intense discussion among Muslims in the West. In 2005, American Muslim scholar Amina Wadud ignited a firestorm of controversy by leading Friday prayer for a congregation of about 60 women and 40 men. Though some quarters of the American Muslim community consider her actions a violation of Islamic law, she has also won a growing number of champions in her country as well as an Europe — and even begun to press her case inside the ancient heartlands of Islam. Between progressive efforts like Wadud’s in the West and the beginnings of similar reform in Morocco, it is possible to envision a new dynamic, whereby mainstream Muslim communal life offers an alternative role model to Muslim women — whether Muslim-born, or converts to the faith.

Greater international cooperation to advance all these efforts is an urgent matter in the struggle to defeat jihadists in Syria and Iraq, as well as the ideas they have been promulgating with alarming effectiveness, far and wide.

Ahmed Charai is publisher of the weekly Moroccan newspaper L'Observateur and president of MED Radio, a national broadcast network in Morocco, MEDTV network and chairman of the board of Al-Ahdath al-Maghrebiya Arabic daily newspaper. As an expert on Morocco and North Africa, he sits on the Board of Trustees of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He is a member of The National Interest's Advisory Council.

Middle East specialist Joseph Braude is the author, most recently, of The Honored Dead (Random House, 2011), and is now at work on a book about Arabic media.

Image: U.S. Army Flickr.