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When All Roads Lead to Morocco

An Interfaith Friendly Muslim Country 

When All Roads Lead to Morocco

by Ruth Broyde Sharone

In a quest to uncover and promote interfaith engagement around the globe, many roads have led me – unexpectedly – to Morocco, a monarchy ruled by a young king. One of the most liberal Muslim countries in the Middle East, Morocco reflects a unique culture of Arabindigenous Berber, Sub-Saharan African, and European influences and simultaneously supports a refreshing integration of ancient traditions with a modern outlook.

In fact, Morocco could turn out to be the perfect setting for a significant world interfaith gathering.

Situated on the northeastern tip of Africa, it is home to women in full abayas (traditional Muslim head-to-toe covering) as well as women in miniskirts. It is home to French-tinged Arabic and Arabic-tinged French, and can claim an intellectual and cultural openness one rarely finds in other countries, Muslim or otherwise.

My first encounter with Morocco actually took place in the United States, not Africa. At the conclusion of an interfaith event I helped organize at the Embassy of Bangladesh in 2006 in Washington DC, I was approached by a member of the Moroccan embassy and encouraged to meet with their ambassador, known to be an advocate for interfaith engagement.

  Moroccan Ambassador Aziz Mekouar (c.l.) and Rabbi Marc Gopin (c.r.) surrounded by students from George Mason University who helped to plan the Interfaith Dinner – Photo: RS

Moroccan Ambassador Aziz Mekouar (c.l.) and Rabbi Marc Gopin (c.r.) surrounded by students from George Mason University who helped to plan the Interfaith Dinner – Photo: RS

Meeting Ambassador Aziz Mekouar personally was a great boon. It led to organizing an interfaith dinner he hosted in his home in the fall of 2009, orchestrated with Rabbi Marc Gopin and his students at George Mason University’s Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution. Dinner guests included Muslims, Christians, Jews as well as members of the non-Abrahamic interfaith community. I grew intrigued by the idea of launching a major interfaith gathering in Morocco itself, an idea I shared with the ambassador. “Think of what it could mean today if a Muslim country became a home for major interfaith events.”

“It’s a delicate situation,” the ambassador explained, “because Morocco is a monarchy and it would take considerable persistence to navigate the hierarchy. But it’s possible,” he concurred.

Experiencing Morocco

In the spring of 2009 I traveled to Morocco, participating in a music tour sponsored by the Yuval Ron Interfaith Ensemble. They had been invited to perform at the annual World Sacred Music Festival in Fez. Following the concert, we traveled by bus to remote areas to meet local Sufi musicians whose distinctive music, rhythms, and instruments have endured and thrived for centuries. The Sufis are known to be the purveyors of the mystical side of Islam. Sufi philosophy is grounded in the idea of universal understanding and a keen respect for other religions.

In Marrakesh I was introduced to André Azoulay, King Mohammed VI’s Jewish senior advisor. We met inside a fairy-tale mansion, owned by a Sufi man and his Hindu wife. For that occasion, the entryway had been elaborately hand-lit with 10,000 candles, an unforgettable image of welcome.

  Nomadic Berber, “blue man,” in Morocco – Photo:  Wikimedia

Nomadic Berber, “blue man,” in Morocco – Photo: Wikimedia

A few days later, under a vaulted blue-black, star-studded sky, deep in the interior of the country, I bounced precariously on a camel and braved the steep, undulating sand dunes, zealously guarded by Berber men in blue turbans. Our group spent the night in a tent, watched over by the “blue men,” who wanted to make sure we knew they were Berbers and had their own language and customs. Their interior nationalism did not go unnoticed.

In Casablanca I visited historic and iconic mosques and multiple neighborhood synagogues, reminded by the inhabitants that in Morocco Jews have enjoyed many periods of interfaith harmony with their Muslim neighbors. And in Rabat, Morocco’s capital, letters of introduction from the Moroccan Ambassador to the U.S. helped me enter the corridors of power to confer with leading Islamic clerics and government officials.

Could a “citizen diplomat” actually convince the Moroccan government to become the first Muslim country to host a major international interfaith conference? Could Muslim Moroccans become international interfaith leaders?

Morocco is a historically prominent regional power with a population of about 34 million, 99 percent of them Muslim. Over the centuries the country has enjoyed a history of independence – not shared by its neighbors. Indeed, it was the only North African country to avoid Ottoman occupation. More recently it has resisted the influence of Wahhabism and Salafism, the most conservative interpretations of Islam, with King Mohammed VI promoting a more moderate, interfaith-friendly culture.

  University of Al-Karaouine Photo:  Wikipedia

University of Al-Karaouine Photo: Wikipedia

But there is more, if you study Moroccan history. I reminded the officials in Rabat that the first university in the Middle East, Al-Karaouine, was founded in Fez in 859 by a woman, Fatima al-Fihri. She invited professors of three Abrahamic religions to teach side by side, with equal status. In fact, in medieval times, the University of Al-Karaouine played a leading role in the cultural exchange and transfer of knowledge between Muslims and Europeans. Just 11 years ago Morocco was also the first Muslim country to institute a course for women to learn to become imams.

For all the good discussion that ensued back then, my vision did not materialize, although the annual World Sacred Music festival in Fez, attended by thousands, continues strong in its 24th year. In my heart, though, I never gave up the vision of international interfaith activities finding a natural home in this African, Muslim land.

Starting to Come True

  Photo:  Vimeo

Photo: Vimeo

Years have passed since then, though I continue to encounter enthusiastic interfaith activists from Morocco… at an interfaith conference in 2014 in Rome, sponsored by the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy; in 2016 at a mosque in Los Angeles. Last month I invited a Moroccan woman I met in New York at a Marianne Williamson Lecture to the fourth annual conference of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, a national organization that pairs Muslim and Jewish Women for dialogue.

Sanaa, 39, was a perfect candidate: her mother has Jewish roots, and her father is Muslim and today both of her parents have embraced Sufism.

An industrial engineer with Masters in management, Sanaa is also pursuing a Sufi spiritual path. She personifies the generous open-hearted modern Moroccan, comfortable adapting to a “live and let live” culture, actively searching for avenues to achieve interfaith harmony and a unity of faiths.

Born in Casablanca and educated in French schools, Sanaa describes being raised “in a secular, open environment, without emphasis on either the Jewish or Muslim traditions.” Her father worked for the airlines and her mother was a teacher and business woman. A self-described “seeker,” Sanaa embarked on her own spiritual journey in search of the Divine when she was 22. She traveled to Montreal, became involved in a Hindu community and learned to chant mantras. Later she was drawn to the Naqshbandi Sufi order, led by a sheikh from Cyprus, where the emphasis on heart-centered meditation became her daily practice.

“As a Moroccan of mixed religious background," Sanaa said, "I want to spread the message of unity that goes beyond dogma, to build bridges of respect and understanding, and wake up to the Truth that unites us all.”

With so many Moroccans willing to promote interfaith engagement, perhaps more of us will find ourselves on a road to Morocco. When that happens, I want to be there!

Header Photo: The way to the Jebel Toubkal from Imlil, Morocco, Atlas Mountains – Photo: Antonio Cinotti, C.c. 2.0 nc nd