April 17th, 2014  |  By Serenity Bolt

Thanks to all who attended the premier of “Willing to Break”

JP Keenan & Sutton Raphael at the Minneapolis St Paul International Film Festival after the premier of "Willing to Break"

JP Keenan & Sutton Raphael at the Minneapolis St Paul International Film Festival after the premier of “Willing to Break”

It was a sell-out theater for this and a slate of other short docs at the Minneapolis St Paul International Film Festival.  From the audience:  “What a fantastic film, kudos to the filmmakers.”  More from these young filmmakers soon and a huge shout out to their Moroccan journalism partner, Loubna Fouzar, and Prof. Khadija Zizi of the Institut Supérieur de l’Information et de la Communication in Rabat, Morocco.

It is through partnerships like this one with SIT Study Abroad that Round Earth is able to produce important news and information for top tier media around the world while mentoring next gen journalists.  More in our online magazine, Reporting Morocco.


April 2nd, 2014  |  By Serenity Bolt

Do Human Evolution and Islam Conflict in the Classroom?


This article was published on April 01, 2014 by Al Fanar Media, an online publication that covers higher education in the Arab world. It was presented there under an agreement with The Chronicle

Rabat, Morocco—Hanging outside of Professor Touria Benazzour’s office is a cut out of a magazine portrait of Charles Darwin.

Benazzour put it up when she began teaching human evolution 25 years ago, one of the first professors to introduce the sensitive and controversial topic in a Moroccan classroom. Today, Benazzour teaches in the Master’s degree program at Mohammad V University, the capital’s oldest higher-education public institution. She claims her semester-long course on evolution is still the only one of its kind at a public university.

Reflecting on her students, Benazzour said, “They do want to know more, but whether they believe in it or not, I really don’t know.”

In terms of even hearing about evolution, Benazzour’s students are the exception. Most Moroccans today complete high school and college without coming across the name “Darwin” or the term “natural selection.” The avoidance of evolution, underscores a tension between Islam and science in one of the most liberal Muslim countries.

Science books in Morocco generally begin with invocations to Allah, or God, and say little about evolutionary biology’s breakthrough with Darwin’s publication of “The Origin of Species.” Attempts to avoid the topic are evident in Moroccan syllabi: A handful of textbooks and lectures refer to natural selection, but only in the context of plants and other animals.

Acceptance of evolution among Western scientists, on the other hand, is essentially universal. Evolutionary science drives genetics, which is the centerpiece of many of the latest developments in medicine—including the ability to tailor treatments to individuals.

In Morocco, for a nation insistent upon painting a moderate picture of Islam to the West, a trait King Mohammad VI is especially credited for, its institutional practices don’t match up.

“In most cases it is up to the professors,” said Dr. Mohamad Melouk, professor of education at the Faculty of Education in Irfane, Rabat.  Students who learn about evolution during school years, then, tend to do so indirectly: Through the web, popular TV shows and documentaries, or friends.

Loubna Ryani, for example, recalls how her high-school science teacher brought in supplementary material to the class about human evolution. But Ryani, 22, went to a private high school, whose curriculum differs from its public-school counterparts. “He [the professor] talked about a lot of other things not included in the syllabus,” Ryani added. Similarly, students who go to private French high schools like Lycée Descartes in Rabat, have a different level of exposure. Human evolution, not taboo there, is commonly taught.

But for the average public institution, Benazzour attributes the absence of “controversial” ideas to the new Islamic government.  According to her, the Moroccan education system originally included some mention of Darwinism, when remnants of French and Spanish influence still prevailed. But in recent years, the king’s Higher Council of Religious Scholars (CSO) has exerted greater control over educational norms, and the original references to Darwin have been removed.

Interestingly, these actions appear out of step with the beliefs of many in the country. In 2013, a Pew Research Center study of Muslim nations found Morocco to be one of the more liberal, where 63 percent of Moroccans believe humans and other living things have evolved over time. This implies little correlation between what people believe and what is taught in the classroom.

Other Arab countries are often similarly conflicted. An Egyptian professor familiar with science education said  the teaching of Darwinian evolution is forbidden in Yemen, Oman, and Iraq. In Palestine, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Lebanon, where textbooks are often from or influenced by the United Kingdom or Europe, the subject  tends to be taught in university-level biology classes only. Even then it is often treated as theory, not fact.

In 2009, Nidhal Guessoum, a professor of physics and astronomy at the American University of Sharjah, in the UAE, conducted a poll at the university which found that 62 percent of Muslim professors and students believed evolution to be an “unproven theory.” Only 10 percent of non-Muslim professors and students felt the same way.

Morocco, of course, has long been a country of contrasts. Cities boast century-old medinas, but moving further, the landscape switches to modern villas, sprawling parks and air-conditioned tramways. Over a third of the country’s multilingual populace speaks French, and each year, more than a million tourists flood the country’s beach-towns and bustling markets.

Remnants of the decades of French and Spanish colonization, before the Islamic monarchy took over in 1956, are evident everywhere. Today, Morocco’s 32 million people form a melting pot of European, Araband African influences, possibly making it easier for Westerners to identify with it than with some other Muslim nations. The name Morocco itself is apt: its Arabic equivalent, “Maghreb” means “the West.”

Lachen Sguenfle, president of the local Islamic council in Temara, a small town near Rabat, details the common explanation of why some Muslims reject human evolution: the Quran explicitly states humans came from mud and water. In sum, the theory of evolution must be false.

“At any given time a theory can become something everyone talks about, but then another theory comes along and the old one dies. This is how science goes,” said Sguenfle, pointing out the belief among some Muslims that unlike books written by humans, the Quran is a perfect volume that will remain forever unchanged.

But while Sguenfle believes that evolution and Islam are incompatible, some students and professors are actively seeking reconciliation between the two. These Darwin supporters are quick to argue how evolution is not only accepted by Islam, but is in fact validated by it.

“People should try to read the Quran to understand evolution,” said Yasmine Chouihat, a 19-year-old a biology student at Mohammad V University. She repeated Sguenfle’s point: the Quran and evolution both say life came from water, but for her, this simply bolsters the Quran’s authority, since it is in agreement with evolutionary principles.

Laila Sbabou, a 36-year-old professor of molecular biology and bioinformatics at Mohammad V, says that belief or disbelief in human evolution has no bearing on her work.

She was first introduced to human evolution in one of Benazzour’s classes as an undergraduate. While she hesitates to accept it still—“When you start talking about chimps and monkeys, I’m not so sure”—Sbabou does not oppose teaching human evolution in classes, as long as it is presented as a concept that could change later as scientists learn more.

Most Muslims have no problem with microbial and even animal evolution, according to Salman Hameed, an astronomy professor at Hampshire College, in the United States, and director of The Center for the Study of Science in Muslim Societies.

“Human evolution, the idea that humans share a common lineage with other animals, has more resistance amongst Muslims,” he said.

Hameed, who has been conducting interdisciplinary research on Muslims’ attitudes towards modern science, and towards creationism and Darwinism, believes individuals can seek inspiration to learn about the universe from the Quran.

“The whole science and religion issue is related to the questions of origins,” he said. “Religious answers are about meaning and the ultimate cause of things. Scientific answers are about immediate evidence and do not address issues of meaning.” For him, the approaches do not have to contradict.

It makes sense then, that the Pew research also reported that most Muslims do not see a conflict between science and religion. The point of intersection is often called “Islamic science”: the art of interpreting Quranic verses to validate scientific theories, and to prove Islam’s supremacy over scientists, in everything from evolution to the speed of light. It is an example of Islam grappling with modernity, and a way for the religiously inclined to assert Islam’s authority. In this spirit, Mohammad V University hosted a conference called “Science, Evolution and Islam” in 2012. The conference featured experts and Muslim scholars, who inform their scientific research with Quranic verses. But it also featured the controversial Turkish writer Harun Yahya, who uses Islam not to reconcile with evolution, but to debunk it.

Professor Benazzour, who attended, said the speakers resorted to forced interpretations of scientific facts. While Benazzour herself encourages students to find common ground between religion and human evolution, she feels it should not be at the cost of harming either Islam or the scientific method. The conflict could risk the growth of science in the Arab world.  “If evolutionary biology becomes a politically charged topic—as it is in Turkey, or if its teaching is banned—as it is in Saudi Arabia, then yes, it will impact the growth of biological sciences in the Muslim world,” Hameed said. Evolutionary biology is taught in Malaysia, Iran, Pakistan and Turkey, and stem cell research in the Muslim world is also thriving. But with the exception of Iran, human evolution is often ignored in these countries’ curricula.

Benazzour, who is set to retire this May, doesn’t foresee any change, at least in the Moroccan classroom. With a new teaching program being established at Mohammad V, Benazzour’s unique course will be eliminated. “My current classes in the Master’s program are the last,” she noted dryly, “There is no evolution in it.”

Sadia Khatri, a student at Mount Holyoke College, in the United States, spent several months in Morocco on an SIT Study Abroad program and produced this story in association with Round Earth Media, a nonprofit organization that mentors aspiring international journalists. Tarik Elbarakah, who studies at Institut Superieur de l’Information et de la Communication, in Rabat, contributed to reporting.


March 10th, 2014  |  By Serenity Bolt

Snail Soup? Camel Spleen? It’s Morocco’s Fab Street Food


With more than 9,000 small, cobbled streets, the Fez medina is a labyrinth. As dusk falls, shoppers grab a few last-minute items near Bab Bou Jeloud, or the Blue Gate. Credit: ­Serenity Bolt


This story was published by Zester Daily on March 3, 2014.

FEZ, Morocco– We’ve all heard the warnings that travelers should avoid street food. But doing so means missing the real food culture — the simple, fresh delicacies prepared for locals. With a little common sense, it’s easy to leave your fear of the unknown (or of getting sick) behind and reap one of the greatest rewards of travel.

Moroccan culture buzzes in the ancient medina of Fez al-Bali, the world’s largest car-free area, where Gail Leonard, a British ex-pat, offers street food tasting tours through her company, Plan-It Fez.

For more than three hours, she introduces travelers to the likes of snail soup and cow’s tongue while donkeys trundle along the medina’s narrow, medieval streets, adding their own steady rhythm to the tintinnabulation of men banging copper pots into shape, playing children and the conversational din of the souks, or markets.

Tourists who avoid the food on these cobbled, labyrinthine streets are not only forgoing a culinary experience, but also something intangible, Leonard said. “Vendors are thrilled that you want to taste what they’ve produced. Anyone that doesn’t want to do that misses out on many levels of experience that aren’t just about taste buds.”

Dinner in Morocco is served around 9 or 10 p.m., so street carts are essential to tide Moroccans over between meals. Street food also suits economy-minded travelers. “We were just out of money, so we bought some sandwiches from a cart,” said Bostonian Paige Stockman, 24, gesturing with a thick piece of fresh khubz (bread) stuffed with smoky, slightly charred chicken skewers from a vendor in the Achabine area — prime territory for Leonard’s food tours.

Street food made by lovely hands

Some Moroccans do avoid street food, but not for the reasons you might imagine. Faical Lebbar, owner of Barcelona Café in Fez, abhors the idea of eating standing up. “My father taught me, you eat, you need to sit.” Comparing his restaurant to street food, he added, “The food is the same. It just costs more.”

The higher price may buy the closed doors of a restaurant kitchen, but not necessarily a more skilled chef. And there’s pleasure in connecting directly with the person making your food.

“When food is made by lovely hands, it doesn’t matter whether you got it in the street or in a restaurant — its value is determined by something deeper than price,” said Amine Mansouri, 25, a local who has lived all his life surrounded by the daily rhythms of the Fez medina. The hand that takes your 5 dirhams reaches through time and tradition, inviting you to taste the food that sustains a culture.

What if you can’t afford a tour but want to sample the world of street food? Leonard offers a few recommendations:

1. Look for the busiest carts because they have the most turnover.

2. Be confident. Don’t hesitate to leave and go to another vendor if the food doesn’t look fresh.

3. Make sure the food is piping hot — learn the word for “hot” in the local language so you can ask for a longer cooking time.

4. Ask for a taste to see if you like the food. Vendors will just be excited you’re trying it.

5. Don’t be afraid to say “no thanks.” If you feel awkward, learn some “get out” phrases in the local language, such as, “I’ll come back later.”

6. Eat with your hands, or use bread. You can even bring your own cutlery and cup. Always carry a bottle of hand sanitizer.

If you do run into digestive trouble, Leonard advises cumin. “That’s what Moroccans will do for an upset stomach,” she said. “It has anti-parasitical properties. Just take a spoonful, knock it back with water, and your stomach’s sorted.”

When in Fez, widely considered to be Morocco’s culinary capital, head to the Achabine and try these Leonard-tested delicacies: tehal, camel spleen stuffed with camel meat, olives and preserved lemons (baked like a gigantic sausage, then sliced and fried); makkouda, spicy potato cakes mashed with cumin and other spices and then delicately fried; and cow’s tongue steamed to a brisket-like tenderness.

A must-have is ghoulal, or snail soup. An infusion of more than 15  spices gives the broth a kick that complements its almost earthy, mushroomy flavor. Just look for the beaconing clouds of steam. You’ll soon find ghoulal in a huge silvery pot, boiling away atop a wooden cart manned in the medina by the soup-maker himself.

Just make sure to ask for it extra hot — “skhoun bzef!”

This story was produced in association with Round Earth Media, which is mentoring the next generation of global correspondents while producing untold stories for top tier media around the world.


February 27th, 2014  |  By Round Earth Media

What it means to be ‘Amazigh’ in Morocco

kourkoudawomen01By JP KEENAN

This story was published by Global Post on January 24, 2014.

The ethnic group indigenous to North Africa calls for national observance of their new year, and many say recent reforms haven’t reached rural communities.

RABAT, Morocco — Berbers young and old clenched balloons and flags last week as they gathered outside Parliament calling for a national observance of their new year.

The Berbers, an ethnic group indigenous to North Africa also referred to as the Amazigh, predate the Arabs of Morocco, but historically they have been left out of the political process. Jan. 13 marked the first day of year 2964 on the Berber calendar.

“For those who fight for Amazigh rights, [national observance of the new year] would mean a lot. It would mean our Amazigh identity would be more accepted by our country,” said Salma Idraïs, 20, a Berber journalism student studying in Rabat.

Read more of this story in Global Post.

JP Keenan spent several months in Morocco on an SIT Study Abroad program and produced this story in association with Round Earth Media, a nonprofit organization that mentors the next generation of international journalists. Rim Boudkir contributed reporting. 

December 14th, 2013  |  By Round Earth Media

For African refugees in Morocco, a perilous path to asylum

Omar, a 19-year-old Moroccan, adjusts a Moroccan flag in the border area separating Melilla from Morocco, Aug. 18, 2010. Many undocumented migrants travel through Morocco hoping to reach Melilla, a Spanish enclave on the coast.
Jon Nazca/Reuters

At Round Earth Media, we teach students to produce great journalism about important global issues. But that’s not all. When a student story is exceptionally good, we help students publish and broadcast their stories and photographs in top-tier media – like this story by student JacobAxelrad, which was published in  The Christian Science Monitor.

Our pioneering program in Morocco, in partnership with SIT Study Abroad, resulted in student stories placed in major media outlets in the United States. Proof positive that undergraduate students can produce journalism of the highest professional and ethical standards, while receiving a powerful experience in cross-cultural learning.

| By Jacob Axelrad

On the main drag in Oujda, a border city that most Moroccans have never visited, a neon sign hanging from a balcony reads “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas.”

But for thousands of migrants who wash up here, life is anything but fabulous. One of them, a Ghanian who calls himself Afro, sits in a restaurant called Mr. Smith, under the neon sign. Sipping water, he talks about life as an undocumented migrant in Morocco.

“Without any documents my life here is broke,” he says. “If the police pull you, the first thing he will ask is, ‘Where are your papers?’ But I don’t have any papers. So I can be attacked by the Moroccan authorities.”

Afro, whose tight curls poked out from beneath a red New York Yankees cap, says he left his home village at 18 to flee extreme poverty and tribal warfare. He now lives in a makeshift migrant camp in a forest outside Oujda, where hundreds of migrants squat beneath plastic tarps for shelter. He asked to be identified only by his nickname for fear for his safety.

Like thousands of sub-Saharan Africans in Morocco, Afro has no legal status, making jobs and medical services nearly impossible to access. When not looking for work, begging for money or charging his cell phone at an Internet café, Afro spends his days playing soccer, singing traditional Ghanaian music and rapping. But he lives in fear of police raids on his forest camp, which are a constant hazard and can result in abuses and deportations, according to human rights organizations.

“We look to God,” Afro says. “Only God can help us.”

Undocumented migrants in Morocco dream of receiving asylum status that would give them some form of protection from the routine violence that they say they face. Morocco has ratified the international conventions on the rights and status of refugees, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has a presence here. However, it recognizes just 10 percent of all asylum requests, according to Marc Fawe, external relations director for UNHCR in Rabat.

The office has recently seen a spike in asylum applications. “It has been multiplying by four,” Mr. Fawe said. “This is a direct consequence of more people approaching UNHCR because of the raids, identity checks, deportations – much more of those in 2012.”

Most migrants hope that UN refugee status can be a stepping stone to living in Europe, but the numerous obstacles involved in making that trip mean that many stay on in Morocco. And even for them, official refugee status is by no means a guarantee of being able to legally integrate, find a job or receive medical treatment at a hospital.

Hopeful signs

There are signs that such harsh conditions may begin to improve. This June, Morocco signed a joint declaration with the European Union to establish a “mobility partnership” that would better regulate the movement of people between Morocco and EU member states. 

In July Morocco’s National Human Rights Council published a report recognizing the need for a national policy to protect the rights of asylum seekers and economic migrants. And in September the Moroccan government opened the Office for Refugees and Stateless Persons, which will work with UNHCR to examine asylum requests with an eye to legally integrating refugees.

In recent weeks, the Moroccan government has agreed to grant national residency to 509 refugees recognized by UNHCR, giving them access to jobs and social services.

Yet many aid organizations are still prevented from working in Oujda. A city isolated from the rest of the country, it remains the main entry point for undocumented migrants hoping to reach Melilla, a Spanish enclave on the coast. Most notably, UNHCR is limited to operating out of Morocco’s capital city, Rabat — too far a journey for most asylum seekers.

UNHCR’s absence from Oujda is the main reason why many migrants there can’t obtain refugee status, said Christopher Eades, who until recently was director of legal programming at the Africa and Middle East Refugee Assistance. The organization provides legal aid to asylum seekers and refugees in Egypt – a country that like Morocco attracts a stream of sub-Saharan Africans fleeing conflict and seeking passage to Europe.

To be of maximum assistance for people in need, “you have to go out into communities, let people know what you’re doing, who you are, what services you provide,” Mr. Eades said. “And you gradually, over a period of time, win trust.”

The situation of refugees in Morocco was “absolutely shocking” compared to Egypt, a country with a refugee recognition rate of around 70 percent, he added.

Long road ahead

Refugee work in Morocco remains difficult where it is most critical.

Until recently, the aid agency Doctors without Borders (known by its French acronym, MSF) had been providing assistance to migrant camps near Oujda. But MSF pulled out of Morocco in March to protest the abuse suffered by sub-Saharan African migrants.

“That was the best [organization] for medical treatment, for everything,” says Afro, the migrant from Ghana. “They gave you blankets; they gave you everything that you needed. But now they are no more in Oujda. Now the situation is very terrible.”

Before leaving Morocco, MSF published a report documenting repeated cases of physical, psychological and sexual abuse against migrants and refugees. Between 2010 and 2012, MSF provided medical and psychological care to 697 survivors of sexual violence in Oujda and Rabat, the report said.

One of those people was Juliette, a woman identified in the report as a 46-year-old migrant. “Each one of us was raped by six men,” she told MSF researchers. “As soon as one finished another one started […] I’m like a child now, even though I am old. My life is over. I want to go home but I don’t have the money.”

In response, the Moroccan Interior Ministry issued a statement that contested MSF’s allegations, denying that widespread abuse or mass deportations were taking place, and stating that migrants were subject only to “voluntary returns, which respect [their] rights and dignity.”

Earlier this year on a midweek morning, a crowd of men, women and children waited outside the UNHCR office in Rabat, hoping to apply for asylum or receive a refugee card, which many say is their only guarantee against police brutality. A man who fled the civil war in the Ivory Coast and asked to remain anonymous, waited with his three young nephews who he said had yet to receive protection.

“I was deported to Oujda three times in the year and a half that I’ve been in Morocco,” he said, as his nephews joined the crowd clamoring around the office door. “When I had the [asylum seeker’s] certificate, the police would rip it up and throw it out. But now that I have the refugee card, I feel protected.”

Jacob Axelrad spent several months in Morocco on an SIT Study Abroad program and produced this story in association with Round Earth Media, a non-profit organization that mentors the next generation of international journalists.

Nouha Afif and Walid Elaouni contributed reporting.


December 14th, 2013  |  By Round Earth Media

Women Provide “Spiritual Security” In Morocco

Moroccan women walk past the Hassan II mosque in Casablanca February 24, 2011. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

At Round Earth Media, we teach students to produce great journalism about important global issues. But that’s not all. When a student story is exceptionally good, we help students publish and broadcast their stories and photographs in top-tier media – like this story by student Samantha Harrington, which was published by Reuters.

Our pioneering program in Morocco, in partnership with SIT Study Abroad, resulted in student stories placed in major media outlets in the United States. Proof positive that undergraduate students can produce journalism of the highest professional and ethical standards, while receiving a powerful experience in cross-cultural learning.

| By Samantha Harrington

Boots on the ground, drones in the skies, and government surveillance of electronic communications have become standard American tools for warding off extremist violence. The Kingdom of Morocco has armed itself with a dramatically different weapon: using the soft power of religious women to quell violence before it happens. They call it “spiritual security.”

After 9/11 shook the world, Moroccan leaders began to think, “It could happen here,” and it did. In 2003, a dozen suicide bombers with ties to al-Qaida blew themselves up in Casablanca, Morocco’s economic center. Now the country knew firsthand the trauma of terrorism.

In response, Moroccan leaders came up with an idea dedicated to foiling religion-based violence by using religion itself. In 2006, under the leadership of the Moroccan Ministry of Islamic Affairs, the mourchidat program was born.

Sanae Elmarouani, 23, already holds a Master’s degree in Islamic studies.  But she’s happy being back in class at Dar al Hadith al Hassania, studying in a prestigious program to prepare her for a vocation in religious service as a spiritual guide.  Her school is a small, ornately decorated building in Morocco’s capital city of Rabat where men train to become imams, Islamic priests, and now ––since 2006 –– women prepare to become their female counterparts, mourchidat.

The setting for this unique school, its high ceilings intricately carved and tiled, is rich in Moroccan tradition.  The goal of the program is similar. When asked how women with religion as their only weapon can possibly expect to beat back the forces of radicalism, Sanae is confident.

“Our religion in general forbids extremism. So the program is like a representation of Islam. The role of mourchidat is to unify the constants of the Moroccan nation.” She cites the guiding principles as honoring the King, who is commander of the faithful, and adherence to the Maliki doctrine and Ashaarit creed, approved by the Islamic Ministry and taught at her school.

The daughter of an imam, Sanae was a teacher in a mosque when she heard of the mourchidat program. She moved quickly to get her application in and felt lucky when she was accepted.

The program is meant to promote women’s rights, giving Moroccan women unprecedented opportunity and authority.  Their work takes them to all parts of the community.

“We work in mosques,” Sanae says.  “We work in prisons, hospitals, and we teach and lead women in all parts of their lives.”


She and her peers at Dar al Hadith were selected from a large applicant pool. The program is selective. In order to be admitted, women must hold university degrees and be able to recite sections of the Qur’an from memory. Students take a variety of courses, with the main focus on religious training. But in the real world, helping people deal with anger, disappointment and pain, their classes in communication and psychology will be useful. “I’ll use body language first,” Sanae says.

After graduating, Sanae will likely be placed in one of the many mosques that dot Morocco’s cities and countryside. She will use the Islam that she has learned at Dar al Hadith in all aspects of her work, teaching values of respect and tolerance and diffusing extremist thought.  She will lead circle discussions and answer questions about faith but she will not be allowed to lead men in prayer.

In some ways, mourchidat can be compared to Catholic nuns. Both are religious women connected to organized groups. Both start from a place of personal spiritual commitment and apply their advanced studies to the needs of their faith communities.  But since they are women practicing in male-dominated cultures both have limits to their religious leadership. Religious orders of nuns are subject to Church hierarchy and Catholic women are denied access to the priesthood. Mourchidat –– although trained to perform the same duties as imams –– are not allowed to lead men in prayer.

Sanae Elmarouani is one of 50 women in her program. Another 150 participants are men studying to be imams in a parallel program.  Mourchidat take an additional course which focuses on women’s issues like marriage and dress. Using this broad portfolio, the mourchidat bring traditional Islamic values to their duties at the mosque. Program creators see their presence as a way of keeping radical forces at bay and providing “spiritual security.”

“[Spiritual security] simply refers to saving people from the different currents that may end up…throwing them into the hands of the people they’re not supposed to deal with,” says Khalid Saqi, Assistant Director of Dar Al Hadith Al Hassania.

The extremists Saqi speaks of, the ones that people are “not supposed to deal with,” are those whose unbending ideologies morph into social destruction and who bring others along with them. Before the 2003 suicide bombings, religious extremism wasn’t a prominent cause for concern in Morocco. But after Casablanca, the government began to take preventive action.

“We were dealing with a kind of people, a kind of ideology …that in some cases we were not even aware of and then all of a sudden they surged out of nowhere and we were facing a phenomenon that had to be dealt with,” said Saqi.

Farah Cherif D’Ouezzan, Founder and Director of the Center for Cross Cultural Learning in Rabat, says that the program is effective in promoting the “spiritual security” Saqi speaks of and directing ideological power away from fundamentalist sects.

“I think it’s filling that gap that only Wahhabis and Salafis were filling—the gap that people needed someone to explain religion to them –– especially in a country with so much illiteracy and where religion is such an important part of culture. In the past you either had to follow the Wahhabis or Salafis or you were not Islamic,” said Cherif.

Both the Wahhabi and Salafi movements practice strict, uncompromising forms of Islam which have often brought them into conflict with Western values. While these strands of Islam are not always violent, the intolerance they practice can lead in that direction. The 2003 Casablanca suicide bombers were self-procalimed Salafis linked to al-Qaida. Another violent attack, this one in 2011 in Marrakech, “was not connected to any organized terrorist groups,” the US State Department’s 2012 Country Reports on Terror states, but the Moroccan Ministry of the Interior described [the bomber] as a Salafist and an admirer of al-Qa’ida.”

In the official Islam of Morocco, the King is the commander of the faithful and moderation is the style of religious expression. The preferred religious code is the Maliki School of Jurisprudence which is also practiced in many nearby countries with positive relationships with Europe and the US. The Maliki school takes a traditional approach to Islam and is heavily based in the lives and actions of those who lived close to the Prophet Muhammad. The mourchidat are trained to use the official Maliki Islam.


While the mourchidat program is well liked, it does have critics. Skeptics of the counterterrorism aspects of the program point out that the 2011 bombing in Marrakech occurred well after this program had been established. Other critics are women’s rights proponents who claim that the mourchidat program hasn’t fulfilled its promise of improving the lot of women—that it doesn’t go far enough.

Asmae Lamrabet, one of Morocco’s leading female Islamic scholars, voices those concerns. She is the Director of the Center for Women’s Studies in Islam in Rabat which is associated with the Rabita Mohammadia, Morocco’s main organization of Islamic scholars. Lamrabet recognizes that the program has benefits, but has not yet seen real gains being made for women in Moroccan society.  Islamic tradition holds that men and women are equal, she says. But where is the equality in Morocco today?

To make her point, Lamrabet cites a seventh century Islamic scholar— Aisha, the Prophet Muhammad’s youngest wife –– one of the most respected Islamic scholars in the years following Muhammad’s death. Aisha was integral in spreading Islamic thought and unafraid to speak out.  She publicly disagreed with misogynistic teachings of the powerful Calif Omar. Her example endures to this day. Lamrabet says Aisha’s courageous voice is heard as a powerful call to  Islamic feminists across the world.

Lamrabet calls the Islam that mourchidat are taught at Dar Al Hadith Al Hassania “very official, traditional, classical and orthodox, there is no progressive ideal in this kind of speech.” To achieve its goal of expanding women’s rights, Lamrabet wants the program to encourage women to think independently rather than strictly follow government teachings.

“[The mourchidat] are going to transmit all the patriarchal messages –– the same message, the same traditionalist message. Yes, we have women in the mosque now, but it’s not a very big deal. We have to do more.”

While its achievements may not seem enough to Lamrabet and other critics, the program is popular. It provides a way for educated women to contribute to social change, for themselves and the communities they serve. Although only 50 women are admitted each year, applications have increased dramatically. In 2009, according to the US Embassy in Rabat, 800 women applied for the 50 seats.


Other Arab countries are getting interested as well. Moroccan mourchidat have traveled to the United Arab Emirates to help train Emirati mourchidat, and Saqi has heard reports that an Algerian mourchidat program is in the works.

Even as the model it provides is being replicated elsewhere, the effectiveness of the mourchidat program has not yet been documented.  No research has been conducted to collect data on its real impact.  The US State Department, however, has bought into its anecdotal success, using supportive language in its 2009 Country Report on Terrorism. In that document, Morocco was commended for continuing, “the pioneering experiment…of training and using women as spiritual guides.”

Sanae Elmarouani, looking at the upheaval in the world, particularly in nearby countries of the Middle East, understands the expectations that she and other mourchidat will carry on their shoulders. But she has faith, education, and the role model of her late father, the imam, to guide her. She is optimistic and self-assured.

“I adore my job because it has two gains: one for life and one for an afterlife with God,” she says.

Khadija Boukharfane contributed reporting.


December 1st, 2013  |  By Round Earth Media

U of M, Morocco renewing connections forged in Minnesota Project

sadiki in office

Courtesy of Mohammed Sadiki
Mohammed Sadiki, secretary general of Morocco’s
Ministry of Agriculture and Maritime Fishing


RABAT, Morocco — The University of Minnesota produced pioneering agronomist Norman Borlaug, Medtronic founder Earl Bakken, journalist David Carr, astronaut Deke Slayton – and Mohammed Sadiki, secretary general of Morocco’s Ministry of Agriculture and Maritime Fishing.

Sadiki is one of hundreds of students trained under a 20-year partnership between university agronomists and Morocco in the 1970s through 1990s. Now plans are in the works to revive the program and plant a new generation of U of M-trained farming experts in this North African country.

Sadiki credits the University of Minnesota for much of his success as a scientist, professor and now second-in-command at the ministry. Many other high-profile Moroccan agronomists can claim the same. Nearly all of the professors at the Hassan II Agronomy and Veterinary Institute (IAV) – Morocco’s agricultural university – were educated through the partnership with the U of M, which grew out of early cooperation with a Belgian agronomist working at IAV who spent a sabbatical studying soil science in Minnesota. The program brought young, bright Moroccans to the United States to study agriculture and then return to their home country to apply their knowledge.

“My experience in Minnesota, it’s every day in my memory, every day present,” Sadiki says from his spacious office in Rabat’s administrative district.

Read more of this story by Round Earth next gen journalist Alice Urban in MinnPost.

June 4th, 2013  |  By Mary Stucky

Morocco Slow on Women’s Rights: More from Round Earth’s NextGen Journalists

The offices of the women’s advocacy group Al Amane in Marrakesh. Observers say that any changes will not mean much as long as there is not an independent judiciary to apply the law. Photo: Alice Urban

The girl at the police station in Marrakesh said she was not sure how old she was, 13 or maybe 14. Sitting on a chair in the unit that processes youth cases, she told a chilling account of being gang raped, and said she had no relatives willing to shelter her.

That’s the reality for many women in Morocco, according to a story in The New York Times produced in collaboration with Round Earth Media.  Grad student and Round Earth Media NextGen American reporter, Alice Urban, contributed reporting to this important untold story, written and reported by Moroccan reporter Aida Alami, another NextGen journalist affiliated with Round Earth.

It’s partnerships like that between Alice and Aida – mentored by Round Earth’s veteran reporters — that define our mission and our work.

”I think that true partnership adds a great integrity, understanding, and cooperation to producing a quality piece of journalism,” said Urban.

Here’s another story of special interest to our Minnesota friends, written by Alice with mentoring from Round Earth’s veteran journalists.

February 22nd, 2013  |  By Mary Stucky

Soultana: ‘The Voice of Women’ Raps in Morocco

Soultana in concert. PHOTO: Shalea Harris

This week marks the two-year anniversary of Morocco’s version of the so-called Arab Spring. It didn’t unseat a dictator. But, tens of thousands of Moroccans took to the streets demanding democracy. Morocco’s powerful King diffused the protest by offering a few reforms. But little has changed for most Moroccans – especially the country’s young people. Many have found their voice in rap music.  From Morocco on The World, with stunning photos by student photojournalist Shalea Harris.  The latest from Round Earth Media’s groundbreaking collaboration with SIT Study Abroad.   Click HERE to listen and view the photos.

November 21st, 2012  |  By Mary Stucky

Youth Dialogue and Debate in Morocco | By Karis Hustad

About one hundred Moroccan and American young people attended the symposium. Photo: Devdharm Khalsa

Throughout North Africa and the Middle East, young people have been at the forefront of revolution and political change. In Morocco, thousands took to the streets last year raising their voices, calling for reforms and demanding to be heard. That demand was in full force at a recent symposium in Rabat, Morocco’s capital.

“I think it is time to have this conversation,” said Yousef El Miadi, a cultural studies student at University of Mohamed V in Rabat, Morocco.  “Not from older to younger, but from man-to-man.”

The October 22 symposium, “Youth & Civil Society,” sparked dialogue and debate. One hundred Moroccans and Americans, most of them students, crowded into a meeting room at the University of Mohamed V for the symposium which was sponsored by World Learning, the parent organization of SIT Study Abroad which runs three programs for American students in Rabat including a journalism program in collaboration with Round Earth Media.  Moroccan academics and researchers presented their findings on subjects ranging from youth civil service to religious education to the uses of social media in bringing about political change.

“For right or for wrong, your generation is going to inherit a number of really vexing, very challenging critical global issues,” said Adam Weinberg, president and CEO of World Learning, who addressed the gathering.


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