As Osama bin Laden and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continue to breathe their murderous threats against Christians and Jews, and attempt to incite Muslims around the world to annihilate the U.S. and Israel, another Muslim leader made the rounds in Washington last week offering a radically different vision.
Topping his agenda were under-the-radar peace talks with Israel, religious classes to teach Imams the history and virtues of the West, and dramatic new initiatives to build ties to Rabbis and evangelical Christians.
Were Dr. Ahmed Abaddi merely a soft-spoken, gentle-mannered professor of comparative religion in his native Morocco, his views would certainly be welcome, but not particularly newsworthy. However, Abaddi is actually in a position of some influence. As Morocco’s Director of Islamic Affairs and senior advisor to King Mohammed VI, he is responsible for overseeing his country’s 33,000 mosques. And he’s not just talking about a new approach to Muslim relations with the West. At the direction, and with the blessing, of his King, Abaddi has already taken a number of concrete–and controversial–steps.
Abaddi recounted to House and Senate leaders, Bush administration officials, journalists, and business leaders the changes he and his colleagues have brought about in recent years:
‐ They embarked upon a campaign of interviews, speeches, and sermons that condemn al Qaeda’s teachings and violence. This accelerated after 9/11 and a series of suicide bombings that ripped through Morocco’s Muslim- and Jewish-owned restaurants, as well as a bombing at a Jewish community center on May 16, 2003, that left some 45 dead and more than 100 wounded.
‐ They helped mobilize more than one million Moroccans to take to the streets of Casablanca in May 2003 to denounce radical Islamic terrorism–a march in which 1,000 Moroccan Jews openly participated and were warmly embraced by the Muslim community.
‐ They launched a theological training program for Imams to teach them how to promote moderation within Islam, to teach them more about Western history and the importance of Christianity and Judaism to Western social and political development, and to help them identify and oppose extremist forces and trends within Islam. Participants take 32 hours of instruction per week for a full year. The first class of 210 just graduated, and included 55 women.
‐ They helped organize the “World Congress of Rabbis and Imams for Peace” in Brussels (January 2005) and Seville (March 2006) where some 150 Muslim and Jewish leaders “sit beard to beard” to explore common ground, denounce extremists, and “write declarations of peace.”
‐ They launched an initiative to build a “bridge of friendship” to evangelical Christians in the U.S., including on-going dialogues with Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals, Rob Schenck of the National Clergy Council, and Josh McDowell of Campus Crusade for Christ, among others. Abaddi and his colleagues have also invited pastors and evangelical business leaders to Morocco for conferences and high-level inter-faith talks, and have even helped organize a series of concerts in Marrakesh where Christian and Muslim rock bands perform together for thousands of Moroccan young people.
‐ They published a book about the importance of encouraging religious freedom within Islam and even suggested that “Muslims have the right to change their religion” if they so desire.
Abaddi also confirmed rumors swirling about in the Arab press that his government is quietly laying the groundwork with Israeli and Palestinian leaders to hold a new round of high-level peace talks in the Kingdom in the near future. He noted that King Hassan II–the late-father of the current monarch–opened secret talks with the Israelis as far back as the early 1970s and that Morocco was the first Arab government after Egypt to welcome an Israeli Prime Minister for a public visit (Shimon Peres in July 1986).
“We need our people to know the real West…to understand that the West ain’t no angel, but it ain’t no demon either,” Abaddi said, attempting a Western accent, at a private dinner in a Washington, D.C., suburb last week. “[This effort] is not a luxury. We are not being pressured to do it. We are trying to train responsible people to live in dangerous times.”
“Our world is threatening to destroy itself,” he noted, citing apocalyptic rhetoric coming out of Tehran, Iran’s nuclear program, radical Islamic terrorism, AIDS, and severe global poverty. “Morocco can help bring about peace. I think the Moroccan model is practical and helpful. It communicates an entirely different concept of Islam to the rest of the world….I personally can’t sit back and do nothing. After all, there is an Arab proverb that says, ‘Don’t be a mute Satan.’ I feel compelled to do everything I can to make a better world.”
Abaddi’s refreshing vision notwithstanding, Morocco still has a way to go to insure religious liberty for all of its citizens. “The Government places certain restrictions on Christian religious materials and proselytizing,” noted the State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report 2005. “The Government permits the display and sale of Bibles in French, English, and Spanish, but it confiscates Arabic-language Bibles and refuses licenses for their importation and sale despite the absence of any law banning such books.” What’s more, in March 2005, “authorities expelled a South African pastor of a Protestant church in Marrakech for not having lucrative employment, although authorities had renewed his temporary residence permit annually for five years…The deportation followed a series of news and opinion articles in the local press concerning the presence of foreign Christian missionaries in the country [and] the Government’s invitation to American Christian leaders to visit and meet with political and religious officials.”
Still, the efforts by King Mohammed VI and advisors such as Abaddi are impressive, and should be encouraged by the administration and congressional leaders, as well as by Jewish and Christian leaders in the U.S., Israel, and elsewhere. Better still, the Moroccan model is being mirrored by Jordan’s King Abdullah II, who has consistently denounced sectarian violence, delivered the keynote address at the evangelical-organized National Prayer Breakfast in Washington in February, and just held the Iraqi Islamic Reconciliation Summit in Amman on April 22 to “call for an end to bloodshed and religious tension in Iraq” and “promote moderation and harmony among Muslims.”
The world needs more people who dream “God-sized dreams,” said Abaddi–dreams of peace and reconciliation, not just bigger houses and another Lexus. To that we should all say a hearty “Amen.”