How to Define ISIS and How Morocco is Fighting It

How to Define ISIS and How Morocco is Fighting It
(Jack Rusenko, July 6, 2016)

Transcript available below

ISIS is a cult – a very specific type of cult

The media and the current U.S. administration have struggled since 2014 to define ISIS. Some have said they are not Islamic at all, which, while well-meaning, seems to fail on its face as ISIS draws upon Islamic texts to justify their actions. ISIS is an apocalyptic, genocidal, Islamic cult. We must address and combat ISIS as a cult to defeat it. The media and the current U.S. administration have struggled since 2014 to define ISIS. Some have said it is not Islamic at all, which, while well-meaning, seems to fail on its face as ISIS draws upon Islamic texts to justify its actions. ISIS is an apocalyptic, genocidal, Islamic cult. We must address and combat ISIS as a cult to defeat it.

About the speaker

Jack Rusenko has lived and worked the majority of his adult life in the Arab world, 18 years of which were in Morocco where he focused on educational projects.

In 1993, he initiated a committee to bring the Internet to Morocco, and in 1998 he founded the largest American school in the region: George Washington Academy. During his years in Morocco he did extensive work on interfaith dialogue as a lay leader of the Anglican church, working with religious and governmental leaders. He is personally acquainted with the Moroccan Muslim intellectuals who have taken the lead in fighting Islamist ideology. He is intimately familiar with the Moroccan government’s counter-radicalization efforts. Jack currently resides in Northern Virginia where he leads the George Washington Amity Series, working with Muslim and Evangelical Christian Communities.

Jack brings a wealth of experience to the subject through the many years he lived and worked with business, government and religious leaders in a Muslim-majority context. He holds degrees in Petroleum and Natural Gas Engineering from the Pennsylvania State University; French Language and Civilization from the Sorbonne in Paris, and Arabic from the University of Tunis.


Robert R. Reilly:

Now, tonight we are very happy to have with us Jack Rusenko, particularly because of his extensive experience in the Arab world, his mastery of several languages in the country in which he lived for 18 years, in both French and Arabic, and his astonishing achievement during those years of establishing a[n] extremely successful school titled the George Washington Academy, which continues today and I believe Jack is up to 700 students… 800… 850 students in the George Washington Academy in Morocco.

During Jack’s years in Morocco, he did extensive work on interfaith dialogue as a lay leader of the Anglican church, working with religious and government leaders. And this is going to be another particularly interesting thing to hear about tonight is Mr. Rusenko’s acquaintance with leaders in Morocco and that includes government-sponsored leaders who are trying to detoxify the radical Islamist strain of Islam.

So without… no, I will not go without further ado for a moment because you should know that he holds degrees in petroleum and natural gas engineering from Pennsylvania State and French language and Civilization from the Sorbonne in Paris and Arabic from the University of Tunis. Please join me in welcoming Jack Rusenko on the subject, “How to Define ISIS and How Morocco is Fighting It.”

Jack Rusenko:

Thank you very much. It is a pleasure to be with you and I have enjoyed so much all the different times I have been here for the different events that you have. I am glad you are turning off your cell phones. I remember once watching on TV- When you live in a kingdom, the King is a quite central figure. And to meet the King is a big thing. I met King Hassan II once.

And you see on the nightly news people walk up and see the King and I remember the day that one of the cabinet ministers was getting appointed and he walked up to see the King and as he was shaking hands his cell phone rang. And they should have a picture of the guy’s face it was like, oh no, I am dead, I am so dead. You know? Anyway.

I would like to start to wish our Muslim friends Eid Mubarak. Today is the fast for the end of Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr, and Eid al-Saghir, the small one that they have so it is an important day for them. This is- I use this as a backdrop and then I realized, ‘Oh no, I do not want to correlate this with ISIS’ in any way. This is Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem… in the Dome of the Rock, the third holiest place in Islam. It was built by Omar in 705.

So I want to talk tonight about how we- first how we define ISIS and then- so really, it is two separate parts; how we define ISIS and then secondly what Morocco’s been doing to fight ISIS. It has been frustrating for me to hear in the press how people have defined ISIS and talked about it. There are different ways, different things that you see, and I will explain them.

The first, we will start with the Arabic one, Daesh. In Arabic, it is ad-Dawlah al-ʻIraq al-Islāmiyah, Islamic State in Araq wa Sham, in Iraq and Sham. And the media says Iraq and Syria. [It] does not mean Syria. There is nobody in their world that ever says Syria.

But Sham is the Levant, which is the eastern Mediterranean, Lebanon and Syria but also Jordan, Israel, and Palestine so when they say the Sham, the Levant, they are claiming immediately that whole eastern Mediterranean area. Then of course ISIL is the English translation, Iraq and Levant and ISIS would mean Iraq and Sham, so that is half-Arabic, half-English.

The Obama administration and many others have affirmed that ISIS is not Islamic at all. There is nothing Islamic about ISIS. I think people can understand that there is. They can differentiate [between them] and I think it is a good thing. The kind of idea behind it, that we [do] not offend Muslims and claim that or try to say that all Muslims are like ISIS or something like that, that is a good thing. We should I think constantly affirm that, but people can differentiate between a mainstream and a twisted deformation of that, I believe.

So… the other thing that I noticed is political leaders, ours in particular right now, are saying that ISIS is not Islamic at all, but as I have gotten to know Muslim theologians and Muslim scholars, I have never met a Muslim scholar that says ISIS is not Islamic at all, so I think in the case of religious things it would be better to stick with theologians and not the politicians. I think they would know a little bit more in this area, and so the other thing that I think is that I think we have to be careful when saying this is that we do not lose credibility.

So when you live in the state and this was pretty much the whole Arab world up until- most of the Arab world up until 2011, and there is no independent media, what you have- is you have the official truth, that is what the government tells you, and then everybody else knows there is the real truth. And if you have an independent media, that is good, that gap will close very quickly, but if you do not, you will have the state organs out there, saying this is what is happening, this is the truth, and everybody knows that is not right.

So, what happens is the media says that, but the people say no, that is not right. You know what is really happening here, so I think that we run the risk of losing credibility. If we are saying something and the people [are not, we lose credibility]. I have not met Muslims [who say that]. I have met Muslims that say [this], and the King of Jordan said it is so far from what I believe, I cannot even recognize it as Islam, so I can understand that, but to say that there is nothing Islamic about it I think is a little bit too much.

The other thing is that some say that ISIS actually are the true Muslims, and if you are really a good Muslim, you will end up like ISIS. They really do interpret the text literally in a direct way and so there they have the proper way to interpret Islam. And what I would like to note here is that they interpret literally to be sure, but they do not interpret it contextually. It is a disjoint[ed] interpretation and that is a big difference. And it saddens me to hear Christian leaders and people here in the United States that think, well, we interpret the Bible in a straightforward literal way, and they do that with ISIS, and so if I were a Muslim, I would end up like that.

Again, the difference is it is not contextual. An example would be if you were reading in the Old Testament Book of Judges and the Israelites are told to dispossess the people, take over the land of Canaan, and God says go and basically chase these people out and who is ever left kill every living thing that is left, right? Now, the ISIS interpretation of that would be if I am a pastor here in McLean and I get up on a Sunday and say, well, we are going to apply that verse today and we are going over there to Alexandria and we are going to kill everybody.

Well, no Christian would ever say that. Well, no. There are actually… no… It reminds me because actually in Rwanda some people said that. Some Christians were saying this is, you know the two tribes, and the other tribe we are going to dispossess so not that it has not happened, but we would not certainly say that because it is not contextual. It is totally out of the context. I do not think that we should give them the upper hand to say that they have a good interpretation of the Quran and the holy books.

Morocco’s effort, that I will get to in the second part of the talk, is basically saying no, ISIS does not have true Islam, and we are going to show you why they do not, so they are not ceding that ground and telling them. Another example is much-quoted Surah Al-Baqarah, where you probably heard somewhere it says slay them wherever they may be found, and ISIS quotes this quite a bit. Well, the verse right before says do not aggress upon them, but if they fight you, then go and slay them where they may be found.

So, we have the same passage, and you have ISIS saying kill whoever is in our way, and then you have most Muslims saying no, no, no, it says, basically, it is a self-defense thing. [It says] if they attack you, then you can defend yourself and kill them, which I think we would agree with, right? So you see how it is so much out of context that opposite sides use the same passage to prove the opposite thing, and I do not think ISIS’ way is the right way.

ISIS’ Barbarism is By No Means Unique

Then the other thing I want to say is some have said that ISIS is unique in their barbarity, and because they are so brutal and barbaric that they could not be anything to do with the religion, and the problem here is that what the Qur’an is saying, these stories from the Hadith and the Qur’an, that was kind of par for the course in the seventh century and warfare in the Dark Ages. Europe was in the Dark Ages at the time. That was not anything especially brutal or shocking, that is the way things happened in the seventh century.

The problem with ISIS is they want to then bring that into the twenty-first century, and make that the norm for the twenty-first century, which is then very shocking to us. The point I am trying to make is I do not think ISIS has a corner on brutality. They are very brutal, and I am not saying they are not, but if we take a quick survey of the twentieth century, we have millions of Jews being killed by the Nazis, we have Stalin and Mao killing millions in their countries, we have Rwanda (that I cited) [with] hundreds of thousands if not millions of people [killed].

And then you have in World War II, the Japanese [who engaged in] terrible brutality. Forty percent of U.S. P.O.W.s died in Japanese prisoner of war camps, many if not most of them being beheaded, so very brutal, even beheading, which is what ISIS does as well, in our not-too-distant past. Maybe there are some veterans here from World War II. The point I do want to make is the core problem is not an ideology. I think it shows that there is an across-the-board condition of the human heart, that man is capable of doing very evil things, and nobody has a corner on that.

So then how should we define ISIS?

Defining ISIS

Well, I would like to propose that ISIS is a cult, and there are three adjectives that I would like to use to describe it. The first one is they are apocalyptic, and actually many if not most cults are apocalyptic. There are non-violent ones that say – I met a guy a couple years ago, 2012, who said the world is ending, everybody sell your things, the end is coming – this is a very common theme for cults. ISIS is particularly so.

ISIS is Eschatological

Their recruiting magazine is called Dabiq. Dabiq is a town in northern Syria near the Turkish border, and Islamic eschatology, if you will, says that Muslims will defeat the invaders, Christians and others, in a battle somewhat similar to Armageddon in this city in Syria, and so they use that to say the end is near, the end is coming, rally around, come, and we are going to bring the end of the ages in. And that is one of the strategies they use, so ISIS is clearly that.

ISIS is Genocidal

The second is genocidal, and I do not think this needs much supporting data to show. On March 17th, the State Department finally declared that yes, they are genocidal. They do not discriminate. They kill Christians, Yazidis, Shiites, and then non-Salafist Sunnis, so they kill across-the-board anybody who does not agree with their way of thinking.

ISIS is Islamic

And the last one is Islamic, I think because they came from Islam. Obviously, the sources they draw from are Islam, but I do think that people can differentiate. I am a Christian, and if somebody tells me they are a Christian cult, it would not offend me as a Christian. I think I would not take that as a slight against my faith because I would understand they are some weird deviation from normal Christianity, so to say it is also an Islamic cult I do not think is something that would offend the majority of Muslims. The Muslim leaders who I have talked to said no, that would not offend them.


Muslims are using a word, Khawarij, in Arabic also to describe them. Now, kharij in Arabic just means the verb to leave. In Arabic, if you have an exit sign by a door, it is khoorooj. And then if you have the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it would be wizarat alshuyuwn alkharijia. So in that sense, it is foreign, or the others that have left are not of us, the outsiders if you will.

So this term Khawarij came from a group that opposed the fourth caliph, Ali, and Ali was in a battle in a little town on the Euphrates in Syria, and he was fighting a guy named Muawiyah. Siffin is the name of that town. And so as they were fighting, Ali decided – it was a long battle, years, and he decided they would negotiate terms. And there was a group, the Khawarij, that said no, you are the head guy, you are the Caliph, you should not be negotiating, you should have victory. And they turned into what is known as the Khawarij.

[I mentioned] the town in Syria, Siffin. Does anybody know what town that is today in the same place? It is a town called Raqqa. You have heard of that, I think, in Syria. That is where the Khawarij came from, and I think maybe they are still there.


They believed in extreme doctrines. One is takfir. They started the doctrine of takfir, which says that as a Muslim they can declare another self-proclaimed Muslim [to] not [be] a Muslim. [This is how they justify] killing Shi’ites and other Sunnis that do not agree with them. The funny thing is in a kind of an ironic way when our administration says that ISIS, which is [made up of] self-proclaimed Muslims, are actually not Muslims, they have adopted some elements of the takfir doctrine. I do not think anybody has tried to do that, but when I realized that one day, I thought that is really ironic. So basically, I would say that if they say they are Muslims, I would not say they are not [Muslims].

Bukhari, who was a guy that collected many of the hadiths, talked about them, and he said they recite the Qur’an, but it will not go past their throats. So he said basically that these are guys who do not really get it. They are very superficial. This word Khawarij is used by Muslim leaders here, the former Grand Mufti of Egypt, journalists, and other people. And it is kind of a dynamic equivalent of a cult. It is people that were among us but have left, so I think in the Arab world there are some people moving to this definition.

Characteristics of Cults

Let us look quickly at characteristics of a cult to see if ISIS fits. There are several [characteristics]. These are the main ones. The first one is you have an authoritarian, charismatic leader who demands total obedience and respect. And I would propose that Baghdadi fills this role fairly well. He can say whatever he wants, and people have to obey him.

The second one [is] a claim to holding exclusive truth. So if I am a Christian cult, I am the only Christian who is right, and all of the other billion and a half Christians in the world are wrong. In their case, they are a Muslim cult, and all of the other Muslims are wrong except for them, so I think that fits.

The third one is dissent is discouraged and punished. We see this clearly with ISIS. Here it would be some ostracism or different things like that. The fourth one [is] very high control of the adherents, what they think and there is what certain people call brainwashing, indoctrination of some sort, and then also what they do. Even in the United States, cults [control] who you marry, what job you have, how often you do [things], what you read, what you do not read, all of those things, very, very high control. And the last is ostracism, and punishment in the case of ISIS is death of adherents who choose to leave the cult, so I think that these characteristics [apply to ISIS]. ISIS fits these characteristics well.

Violent “Christian” Cults

I would like to look at again some other cults on our side of the ocean. And I put Christian really in quotes. It is not a good direct comparison in a lot of ways because there are so many differences, but these are ones that we are familiar with or we have known about in the United States, so I put that there. I think you have known about them all. The People’s Temple, Jim Jones in ’78 [in a] mass suicide, [Jones] killed a thousand people, [including] Congressman Ryan from California because, again, in that case they believed the end of the world was coming and that led them to this mass suicide.

David Koresh, who changed his name to Koresh after Cyrus the Great of Persia, [was another cult leader. In] ’93, the ATF raided their compound. They were preparing for the end of the world with weapons and arms. Ninety of them were killed. Then two years later on the same day of that siege, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols cited this when they blew up the Oklahoma City Federal Building.

And then [there is] Charles Manson. I hesitated to put him on the list here. Maybe you would say he had the LSD hermeneutics of Christianity, but the whole thing of the Helter Skelter was the apocalyptic end that they wanted to bring about, so it was apocalyptic and drawing themes from the Bible, but they were not [true] Christians. I have put in there just for that, so again, there were differences. ISIS is more purposely violent and that is part of their core, but we have seen cults, I guess I would say, become violent. Although there were differences, there are those similarities.

Background History on Morocco

So I would like to talk now, to transition to, what is Morocco doing to fight it, fight them. And I would like to start with a background to Morocco just to give you a one-minute history lesson so you kind of situate who Morocco is. Morocco has been ruled by the ‘Alawi dynasty for 400 years. The man who came was a descendant of Fāṭima al-Zahrāʾ, who was Muhammad’s daughter, and Ali, who was the fourth caliph. In the July 1787, Congress ratified the first treaty between the United States and any other country. It was with Morocco [and it was] the treaty of Friendship and Amity, which means friendship in French. They lived under a protectorate of France for 44 years until 1956.

They had independence. King Mohammed V was king for a short time. Then his son, Hassan II, [ruled] from ’61 to ’99. In ’71 [and] ’72, they had two coup attempts. His own closest people tried to kill him. He became very iron fisted, they say, after that. It would be a little hard [not to become iron fisted] when your close friends tried to kill you, but he did, and then he died in 1999, actually, on my 40th birthday, July 23rd of 1999. That was an interesting birthday for me.

The interesting thing also is [in] those years there was a socialist/communist threat, and it was really the nationalistic Arabs that wanted to kind of take over, and so Hasan as well as others supported the Islamists, the Salafists, if you will, the Wahhabis, the strict Muslims, and they did it for political reasons in order to counter the socialists, who were more liberal/atheistic. And they thought this is the way we will counter them. The United States did that. Europe did that. Even Israel did that to some extent because the threat was from a different place. So I just want to note here that this threat is somewhat of our own making.

Morocco After 9/11

And one look at three events in the last 15 years that shaped these efforts of what Morocco is doing. The first one is September 16, the Sunday after September 11th in Morocco. This is me up here [with] the Archbishop, the King’s counselor, the Grand Rabbi, the Papal Nuncio [Domenico De Luca] seated in behind him, the Minister of Islamic Affairs [Abdelkebir Alaoui M’Daghri]. On the other side is Ambassador [Margaret D.] Tutwiler. Prime Minister [Abderrahmane] Youssoufi is next to her. Foreign Minister [Mohamed] Benaissa sat next to him. The rest of the cabinet [sat] behind him. The Joint Chiefs, [Maj. Gen. Abdelhaq] Kadiri and General [Housni] Benslimane, the diplomatic corps, all the advisors to the king and the palace [sat there].

And you know we wanted to do a ceremony just to mourn, and the people in the palace found out about it, and said, basically, we want to mourn with you. Now, Morocco [had been a] French protectorate. General [Hubert] Lyautey, who ran the Morocco for those years, made a policy that no Christians could go into a mosque. If you go to Egypt or Turkey, you could walk into a mosque. If you go to Morocco, you cannot. And then Muslims cannot go into churches. And he thought that is how we will keep the peace. I will just keep them apart. It is not Islamic law, although most Moroccans think it is.

However, on this day you could see they threw tradition to the wind. They were criticized. The Prime Minister, [Abderrahmane] Youssoufi, [for] the rest of the week [his critics depicted him with] a Pope’s mitre on him, saying Pope [Abderrahmane] Youssoufi is now in a church, so they, [the ruling political party], kind of took a hit politically. But basically, they said America is our friend and we want to mourn with America, and that is what they did.

2003 Casablanca Bombings

Well, the next thing was [on] May 16, 2003, five bombs [were detonated] in Casablanca. We lived near in town in Casablanca at that time. It was in the evening, a Friday evening. We lived close to a military Air Force Base, and they would shoot off cannons. And I thought, oh, they are shooting a cannon at this side, that is funny. And I went out on the porch, and then I heard another boom, and it did not seem like it was coming from that direction, and then another one.

This is the Spanish Cultural Club, if you will, restaurant. That is where most of the people died. They blew up a hotel with a kind of a disco nightclub in the main street of downtown, also an Italian restaurant owned by a Jewish Moroccan, and then the Jewish cemetery, and the Jewish social club. And it was Friday night, [so] there was not anybody [there]. [In the] cemetery, nobody alive was there, and I think that was not the cleverest thing. But [at] the Jewish social club, nobody was hurt.


Moroccans immediately thought these are foreigners. They are Saudis or somebody has come here to do this to us, and then they realized it was a dozen young guys from Sidi Moumen, a poor slum area of Casablanca, and they were shocked. They were terribly shocked. And you know they had homemade chemistry set bombs in their backpacks. I went to the restaurant the next day, and there was no crater even in the street, so it was not that powerful. It was homemade.

I do not know if you ever go and ride taxis. Taxi drivers sometimes have the most amazing wisdom. I remember after that, riding in a taxi in Casablanca, and the taxi driver said, you know, nobody ever thought you could blow up the Pentagon, and then they did. We never thought you could blow up Casablanca, and then they did, so they obviously took this as just a shock to their system.

The public reacted very strongly. So this was a Friday, not the next Sunday, but a week from that, on May 25th. You had they say maybe a million people, certainly hundreds of thousands of people, marching against terrorism. Down here they had the [slogan], wa matkiche bladi, do not touch my country. There was the thing in France, “do not touch my friend,” and this became a slogan.

You had the Prime Minister, [Driss] Jettou, leading the march and most of the cabinet with Jewish leaders, other religious leaders, government and civil leaders. They started at the hotel that got blown up, [and marched] all the way through the main streets in town. Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people [marched together].

I remember being somewhere shortly after that, and I saw this guy, and his face was kind of funny white. I mean much whiter than the rest of his skin. And you know, I thought this is kind of funny, and then I asked somebody, what is up with that? And they said, oh, the Brotherhood guys, you know, they have the big beards. They were all shaving them off because they were getting beat up on the street. If you went on the street with a beard, they would beat you up, and people would just gather up. Some other people with beards tried to join the march, and they kind of beat them up. People were so mad, [so] upset with them.

Critical Reforms Arose from May 16

So then as a result of that, they enacted these reforms that came about from that. The first one is, and I am not sure if this predated 2003, I am not 100 percent sure of when, but the King declared that Islam in Morocco is Sunni, Maliki, Ashari [aqida, and Junaidi] Sufi. Sunni is one of the two branches [of Islam]. Maliki is a madhab, the legal jurisprudence. Ashari is the theology.

The Moroccans claim that Sufis are kind of the mystics if you will, the people [whose] goal is to get to know God, experience God, again, in a very, very, very loose way, something like a charismatic Christian. They are looking for an experience, which is the opposite of what al-Qaeda is. They would be the fundamentalist, legalistic Pharisees, the law, eye for an eye, very legalistic. So the Sufis are the opposite end of the spectrum within Islam. The king and many others are Sufis.

Now, in Iran and other countries they would punish the Sufis if not kill them in some countries. Certainly, ISIS would [kill them], but they declared this is who we are. They reformed the mudawana, which is the family law. And the family law [is] in many of the countries that have the Sharia to some extent, but not fully. A majority of many of the Muslim countries hold on to the family law, marriage, divorce, inheritance, these types of things. And so when you reform that, you have to be very clever because it is drawn directly from the Qur’an. That is the only part in Morocco that is Islamic. The rest is Napoleonic civil law.

So since ’93, King Hassan did some small reforms, and then on March 3rd, his throne day, he would give a state of the union speech, and he would always say, ‘And we are reforming, my commission as reforming the family law, the mudawana, we are working on this, working on this, working on this.’ King Mohammed VI comes in, and [the message is still], ‘We are working on this. We are working on this.’

Well, lo and behold, not more than a month and a half or two months after these bombings, the King announces the Commission has given this final report and we have now reformed this law, which gives more rights to women, makes divorce more difficult, different things like that within the context of Islam. For instance, if you want to marry a second wife, they did not forbid it, but you have to have the permission of your first wife in writing.

You can see that is a little a little decrease in how often that happens, right? It was a very clever way, so I thought these guys are smart. They are very smart. If you keep in power for four hundred years, there is some brain power there. And they thought this is the low moment for the fundamentalist Muslims, and took advantage of it, and said we are going to do this reform that they have been waiting for over ten years to do. And so that was one thing.

The second thing is they reformed the security and legal [apparatuses in a fashion] somewhat similar to the Patriot Act. They made an office, the centralized Bureau of Judicial Investigation, which is again somewhat like what happened with DHS, with us, the Homeland Security [Department]. They regrouped these different ones to focus on counterterrorism. They made a law that it is illegal to join or attempt to join a terrorist group, receiving terrorist training, or recruiting terrorists. So [they implemented] these different reforms, and they are part of the coalition against ISIL. And they have been a military ally of the United States for a long time.

They also, very interestingly, started reforms in the prison [system], and they sent their imams into the prison [system] to interact with they estimate about one percent of the prisoners, about six hundred, [who] are the Islamist, political fundamentalist Muslims. So instead of letting them have free rein in the prison, they send their imams into the prison to kind of get the upper hand and say no, and not let them recruit other people in the prison. I think other countries could learn from that.

[They have] also developed a curriculum for teaching imams. [They] created an educational branch of the Islamic Affairs [Ministry. They] reviewed laws governing mosques. [They] started a literacy program in Arabic literacy. There is a fairly high rural illiteracy rate, and they thought we will use the mosque to teach people to read [and] write that do not know how to do that, and to use the mosque, again, for a positive thing.

So again, if you will, ISIS [and] al-Qaeda are the legalistic fundamentalists, and the Sufis are the other end of the extreme, and so they said we are not going to let you take the philosophical upper ground and claim it. We are going to go out there and philosophically fight against you and show that what we believe in Islam is not only much better but more accurate than what you do.

They did media and youth strategies. In 2005 a driver, Abdurraheem Mualim, was famous in Morocco. He was kidnapped at the Baghdad Embassy of Morocco. This is one [where] the U.S. had already been there, nothing happened to Morocco. This driver gets kidnapped by al-Qaeda. And they had Islamic theologians go on TV numerous times, I think [for] weeks, basically, and they did what they call deconstructing al Qaeda, showing from the Qur’an and the hadith that what they are saying is wrong and this is why, so they are fighting them on a philosophical level.

They also looked at all the textbooks. The textbooks have been given from Saudi Arabia as a gift for many years. And at that time, [they] thought, well, it comes from Saudi Arabia, who is going to even check it? I mean that is the homeland of Islam. Well, they started actually read and study a lot of this, and they were pretty shocked. They threw them all out, got their own textbooks, and basically, they do not teach anything that would lead to violence as something that is Islamic. And the syllabi that they have as well [is also nonviolent].

They also started cartoon books and things for youth, promoting virtues that they want to promote, and then rap music as well, promoting virtues. And they have now social media programs. The State Department I know works with them on those different ones.

Religious Reforms

Mohammedian League of Religious Scholars

And I want to conclude with [the fact that] out of this came really two main reforms. The last one is fairly recent, and it is called the Mohammedian League of Religious Scholars. So this was established in 2006. It is religious scholars that are appointed by the king. Now, they have a Minister of Islamic Affairs and a Director of Islamic Affairs, a whole ministry, so these are people that report directly to the king. And it serves a function somewhat like a Board of Directors would for a corporation. They do not do the operations, but they do the direction setting and planning the curriculum, the discourse on deconstructing al Qaeda and ISIS.


They came up with something that is very interesting called Islamicity, how Islamic a country is, and so they basically say, well, al Qaeda says we are the true Muslims and our government, the Islamic state, is the true, most fundamental, pure Islamic state. So they said, well, let us look at the values, the belief system, the laws, the policies, the mechanisms of governance, traditions, a comprehensive picture, and also comprehensive within Islam. And not surprisingly, when you look at the bigger, comprehensive picture, ISIS comes out very low and not very Islamic because of how they distort and do things. So again, it is a very clever way to use their own text and their own beliefs in demonstrating that ISIS does not have the upper hand at all.

Muhammad VI Institute for Training of Imams

Then the second one is the Muhammad VI Institute for Training of Imams. An Imam is the man that leads the Friday prayer in the mosque. Mosques are not like churches. Imams are not generally pastors. They are kind of like the hired preacher. The mosques around here have a board of directors that runs things, and the imam comes in and he preaches, and the other functions are done elsewhere.

They have Morchidines and Morchidates. In Arabic, Morchid is a counselor or a guide, in this case, a spiritual guide. If you had a degree in counseling, you would be a more Morchid. Morchid is the masculine, Morchidines is the plural of that, and Morchida is the feminine, and Morchidates is the plural of that, so that is [male and female] spiritual guides.

[This is] very revolutionary. They started in 2006 with 250 students, 40 percent of whom are women, 150 men and a hundred women. And the person who started this is Dr. Ahmed Abadi, who I had the privilege of getting to know. [The thinking was] half of the Muslims are women, and so we should have some people trained to work with women as well. In Morocco, they allow a woman to preach in the mosque.

During Ramadan, they have Conférences Religieuses, religious discussions, in the main mosques at the end of the time of fasting, so just before you eat the dinner. And all of the leaders of the country will be there. They always have several women teaching, and there are examples from the Qur’an that women were teaching at the time of Muhammad. He did not forbid that. What they do forbid is women leading men in the weekly prayers, but these Morchidates could do basically everything else except that, so it is a model not dissimilar to how a Christian church is run.

They now have students from Ivory Coast, France, Guinea, Mali, Tunisia, and they signed an agreement with Russia to bring students from Russia there. The Moroccans do it for one year, the Africans for two, and the French for three because they have to learn Arabic fluently. They must read Arabic before they [graduate]. The curriculum that they learn is classic things that any imam would learn, Qur’anic interpretation, Islamic law, but also studying humanities, history, geography, philosophy, [and] sociology.

You have to understand that philosophy has been forbidden to be taught in Cairo in Al Azhar for a thousand years, and so this is a really revolutionary thing. And their thinking is we want to prepare these people for the challenges of modern society. We do not want to prepare them for the 7th century. We want to prepare them for the 21st century, and we are going to make it curriculum to do that.

And as we get more of these people, they also started an official registry of imams so that the government basically [can] vet who is teaching and being an imam. This next Fall, I believe they will have 1400 students, and so I think [it is] a very good program. And I know personally cases of other West African countries that want this. This is, again, a way to counter the extremists.

Mohammed VI Foundation of the Oulema

Then the last one is the Mohammed VI Foundation of the Oulema, supporting scholars in promoting religious tolerance and moderation. And their vision is to, again, take the philosophical upper hand, to not let the extremists, al-Qaeda, and ISIS have that. To say no, we know what Islam is, this is what it is, and promote basically tolerant views, encouraging people to get to know God and not be a legalistic fundamentalist Pharisee, if you will. So I think they have done a very good job. The people that I know I am very impressed with, and I think they should be encouraged for that. So I have time. I think we could do questions.


Audience member:

Does Morocco have diplomats in all of the other Islamic countries?

Jack Rusenko:

Sure, I mean all the Islamic countries, yes, of course. I remember when my friend was on television, deconstructing al-Qaeda around 2005 or ’06, and he was asked to lead the delegation to do the Hajj. And I said, you know, you just kind of tore apart their whole theology here, and now you are gone to Saudi Arabia. What are you thinking about that? And he said, you know, this is what we need to do. [He was] very brave, [and he said] this is what we need to do, so we are doing it.

Audience member:

Thank you very much for your remarks. It amazes me how little we have heard of this and in general how little we hear about Islamic moderation. And it is really quite remarkable because Obama stresses it all of the time. It is a really important thing that we need to do. Again, he has no relationships worth noting with Abdullah II or the Emirati Foreign Minister. And not only that, but he is hostile to them whenever he has the choice, towards the Ayatollahs, and then there was the dispute over Mubarak, for example.

Whenever he has the choice, [Obama is hostile to Arab leaders], and I really do not understand why he would be motivated in that direction and why there is not more pause and relationship building across the spectrum of serious thinkers. Al Sisi gave remarks at Cairo University, and he is on Obama’s unacceptable list. I really, honestly do not understand. I am not just bringing this up to criticize Obama, although I welcome the opportunity. I really, honestly do not understand.

Jack Rusenko:

Well, I mean I do not understand. What I could say is that my experience is that our foreign policy tends to be very short-term focused, and this policy is very long-term, right? I mean you are not going to choose these things in a week or a year, but probably over five to ten years, and make a big impact. And it does not seem like I see us doing these kinds of things. And we want to put the whole thing with Iran, why they seem to favor [them]. I mean that seemed very short-sighted to me, so I do not know, but I agree with that, yes.

Audience member:

I had one related question. When we talk about what should we call it, you were talking about that, what would they have us call it? I always wondered that. Why not ask our moderate Muslim friends? They obviously want us to join them on their side of the dispute. Do you hear anyone from that side, in Morocco or elsewhere, ever say that they would be offended by hearing us describe ISIS or Al Qaeda as Islamic?

Jack Rusenko:

I was with some Muslim leaders a month or two ago, and I shared this idea with them. And they were very encouraged. They supported it. And one of them says he calls them a cult of terror, and it is a cult of something. It is a little different. It does not have a necessarily religious connotation, but they all thought this was a great idea, to call them an apocalyptic, genocidal Islamic cult. I get the idea that it is easy for people to mix them all together and lump them together, but instead of just saying they are not Islamic, and these are the Muslims, I think people are intelligent enough to say this is a Muslim deviation here, an Islamic deviation.

And I do think [there is a risk of] losing credibility when we stand up and say they are not Islamic at all. I put myself in a Muslim’s shoes, and they know they, [ISIS], are [Islamic]. After 9/11 in Morocco, people would come up to me and say I do not know what they guys, Al Qaeda, are, [but] they are nothing to do with what I believe.

So I do get that feeling. They feel like they are totally different. And I think the Obama administration wants to convey that, so they went way off the reservation in saying they are not even Islamic at all. So I think there is some place where you could say they are an Islamic deviation or something like that.

But the other thing is there is the issue of shame for Muslims. They are very ashamed of the terrible things that ISIS is doing. So through our interactions, I think we can comfort them and say I understand. On a human level, yes, I get that, that is important, but the other issue is, and I think some of the speakers here said this before, that if we do not at all acknowledge there is anything Islamic [about ISIS], that kind of punts down the road them grappling themselves with the issue, what are they really, and how are they different, and why they have they deviated so much.

Audience member:

Hello, I have a question. Let me point out that whatever criticisms of Obama and his policies that are warranted, I am not going to dispute what was said, the U.S. relationship with Morocco is very strong. Michelle Obama was there last week. They announced another $100 billion dollars in aid. The U.S. is deeply involved in counterterrorism and deradicalization cooperation in Morocco, so we should not leave ourselves after your question with this impression. A lot of it has to do with the disconnect between what the U.S. government does and what the American population knows about what it does. There are massive [efforts by the] State Department, where I used to work, [which the] population has no clue about.

There are many reasons for this. It is Cold War laws that prevent diplomats from speaking about finances, but there are a lot of reasons why the U.S. does not know the good things that are going on in this [relationship]. Let me also add in addition to what you said earlier, that ESESCO is based in Morocco. ESESCO is deeply engaged in this conversation. But my question is why Morocco? And I thought about why Morocco is much better, and one was less influence of the French, so less calamitous interference, less influence of the Ottoman Empire, the monarchy. And I was wonderingcwhy they are doing so much better.

Jack Rusenko:

Yeah, there are a couple of reasons. Moroccans are very fearful of what happened in Algeria. It is their next-door neighbor. You had this terrible war in the ’90s, a civil war, very bloody. Of course, you had the French war there in the ’50s, very bloody, very nasty. The Moroccans have this constant thing that we do not want that. It is next-door. We do not want that to come here. You had Algerians under the communist Soviet influence and Morocco under American influence, so [they were] very different. I think that is one thing.

They are very proud that they have a tolerant brand of Islam, which they had historically. You have Jordan and Morocco in a somewhat similar thing. The kings provide this counterweight, this stability, that these other countries do not have. [They] get their legitimacy from being descendants from Muhammad. After 2011, the uprisings across the region, in February that year there were uprisings in Morocco.

And they are very astute politically, so what did they do? The only country, again, [to respond astutely]. Within two weeks of the uprisings, the demonstrations, not massive but demonstrations kind of escalating, the King came along and said I have heard you, and I have now appointed a commission to modify the constitution. Okay, you do not see other guys [doing this]. Mubarak did not do that. I mean it would have been different I think if he had [done that], right?

Okay, well, that is kind of like wow, the king is listening, now what to do we do? Well, it deflated the momentum, and I think it took three months. I think it was June or July. By June or July, Libya was in chaos, Syria was in chaos, Egypt was in chaos, Yemen was in chaos, Bahrain was almost [in chaos], across the region [there was chaos]. And the King came out. They did not substantive but some modifications and by that time people thought hey, you know, better the King than what is over there in Egypt. We do not want that.

So I mean they are also very smart. There is this group of people around the King that are very smart and kind of the number one unspoken rule of Moroccan politics is preserve the monarchy. And when you understand that, you understand why things I think happen in Morocco, so I think that is one reason why, some reasons.

Audience member:

You mentioned Moroccan efforts to do textbook reforms, syllabi reforms, to change the tenor of some of the preaching and teaching in mosques and madrassahs. It is pretty well known that radical Saudi materials are distributed in mosques in this country as well. Obviously, [there is] a different relationship between government and the mosques here, which is Morocco. How might the U.S. government go about trying to cause those radical materials not to be used or to be screened somehow without trampling all over the First Amendment?

Jack Rusenko:

Here in this country or there [in Morocco]?

Audience member:


Jack Rusenko:

Boy, I do not know that I could answer that. I do not know because I do not know the legal border of violence and promoting violence. Again, in Morocco there were mosques in basements and [there were] Salafists, so they basically said, hey, look, you have to be approved by us now. Like an order of lawyers there was a similar thing for imams, so they kind of brought that under their wing. But here, I do not know. It is a police issue and a legal issue.

One of the titles, maybe the primary title, of the king is Amir al-Mu’minin (أَمِير ٱلْمُؤْمِنِين), the protector of the faithful, and so he is descended from Muhammad. People have this huge respect [for him], so when he speaks on Islamic issues officially or his counselors, it has a lot of weight. But I do not know. I am sorry, I do not know here what we could do for that.

Audience member:

I have a thought that I need clarification, and that is do Muslims agree to their own interpretation of the Qur’an, or are they committed to what the imam tells them?

Jack Rusenko:

If you talk to imams even here, in many countries, and you [say], well, what seminary did you go to, traditionally, there is no seminary. Traditionally, it is a guy that generally memorized the Qur’an, and he is a man of character that is respected. So there is no clear route. So when Morocco did what they did, it was a huge step. I mean before they would either get imams from Saudi [Arabia] or send their imams to Saudi [Arabia]. And they said yeah, we do not know that that is the best thing, maybe we will kind of do this more in-house.

The mosques operate maybe something like Congregationalists, like a Baptist. It is that little group. They hire the guy. Somebody builds a mosque, and they hire the guy. They can fire him. The one issue with the Arab world, one of the problems I think, is that there is no free, independent clergy. You can understand why, I mean the potential for problems. It is a huge security issue.

So on one hand, you can kind of understand that from a security perspective. On the other hand, from a purely religious perspective it is kind of difficult. If the imams are not free to be and say what they think, [their credibility is diminished]. I do not know if I have an answer for that, but you just have to understand that tension that is there.

An imam here told me that he thought that was one of the key fundamental issues in the Arab world, that there is not an independent clergy. You had Muammar Qaddafhi telling the imams what the sermon [could be], and how to preach, and what to think, and what they could say and what they could not say because by and large in all of those countries the central government pays them their salary. And Morocco is the same. It is just that what they are promoting is a lot better than what some of the other guys promote.

Audience member:

To answer your [earlier] question, about a couple of years ago in Springfield there was a controversy over a textbook that the Saudis were using, and it got into the press, and it got all the way up to the State Department. The State Department called the Saudi government envoy and said you will not be providing this type of material to our children, indoctrinating hate and violence, etc. Usually, where something snuck out or displayed to the public or the press or something ends up taking care of that textbook issue.

Jack Rusenko:

They stopped using them?

Audience member:

Yeah, they stopped using them. They changed textbooks and provided an example of what that school was using. Someone has to sneak something.

Robert R. Reilly:

I think your suggestion of President Obama as a takfiri is delicious.

Jack Rusenko:

Was that malicious or delicious?

Robert R. Reilly:

Well, that is open to interpretation.

I have two questions, Jack. One is: amongst the Muslims of whom you are speaking, how did they receive President Obama’s pro-Muslim Brotherhood foreign policy? And then the second question, somewhat related, is one thing you have not touched upon, [which] is the political reforms in Morocco, the composition of the legislature, whether they successfully coopted the Ikhwan-leaning folks in Morocco through political participation in that legislature. Thank you.

Jack Rusenko:

Yeah, I, again, do not understand. I have never worked for any branch of the U.S. government, so I am a private citizen. I just heard the Anglican Bishop of Cairo, Egypt, an Egyptian man, [who] said that he was shocked and dumbfounded when he talked to Hillary Clinton back when she was Secretary of State, meeting with Christian leaders.

And she told them that the U.S. government was supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. And they all shook their heads and said we were like what are you doing? And they said, well, we want to support democracy. I made a comment that we are not so long-term thinking. Maybe we have a depth problem, as well. I do not know. Again, I do not mean to say anything bad.

Morocco on the other hand, I think is a very good example – and I do not have the exact year. I think it was in 2007 that they had elections and one of the results of the invasion of Iraq in Morocco was it scared the beans out of many people in Morocco because they thought wow, we have got to clean up our act. I mean I heard this from people in the parliament.

And in 2007, they had what is widely acknowledged as the first independent, good election if you will. I mean the previous elections were on a Friday, and the Saturday paper published all of the details by voting and precinct. It gets shipped on eleven o’clock on Friday to get out there, so it had all the details. And I would [say to] Moroccans, you guys, this is amazing. [And they would tell me], oh, we are very efficient, very efficient.

Well, that did not happen in 2007. What happened was the PJD, the Brotherhood party, if you will, of Morocco won a whole bunch of seats. I think they were second in number. The King approves the cabinet. They got some posts but not all.

Again, one of the other advantages of having a king is they were fighting for weeks or months. They did not establish a cabinet because the two are very close, and they each wanted [power], and they were fighting. And the King went on the news one day and he said I told you, you better get a cabinet, and you have not, so boom, here it is. There is the cabinet. And he appointed technocrats. He appointed guys who were from neither party. And they were very good people that were very competent, very well respected, so that is good. So they got the upper hand.

I think the King’s closest friend, [Fouad Ali El Himma], started a party called PAM, the Authenticity and Modernity Party (حزب الأصالة والمعاصرة). And the next elections were municipal elections. And they just did old-fashioned campaigning. And they understood – it became apparent after those elections – that the Islamists’, the Brotherhood guys’, really only strength was in the inner cities. In the rural areas they had nobody, so lo and behold, the PAM Party wins the vast majority. They won the whole rural area, and so I thought this is pretty smart. These guys [are smart].

Then after in November 2011, they had another election, [which] the Muslim Brotherhood party did win. They won a majority, so now they actually have a cohabitation thing with a Muslim Brotherhood prime minister and then a mixture of cabinet seats throughout. The root if you will of the Muslim Brotherhood party was underground and the leader was in jail for a number of years during [the reign of King] Hassan. Then when King Mohamad came along, he kind of did a truce with them, and said we will let you out, but you have to promise not to overthrow the king and not to be violent. [They] made some concessions to kind of move it forward, and that is what happened. Anyway, so they seem to have a way of organizing these things.

Let me say one last point. I forgot to put this slide up. There is an article that [echoes] pretty much what I said about ISIS. It was just in Providence Magazine. It is a foreign affairs magazine. [It is also available] on my website. If you want to read that, you could go and [read that]. Okay, wonderful. Okay, thank you, very good.

Robert R. Reilly:

Thank you very much.