In Barack Obama's speech to the Muslim world in Egypt, he spoke at great length about the importance of America's role in reaching peace in the Middle East between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The sentiment is no doubt genuine, but it's unclear to many Americans and Muslims alike just how he plans to get there. Whatever road his administration plans to take, it should go through Morocco.
While Obama was in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, I was traveling in Casablanca, Marrakech, Rabat and the Western Sahara with the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, meeting with Muslim and Moroccan religious and political leaders, and speaking with average citizens about their expectations of Obama in easing tensions between the West and Muslims abroad. While it was clear Muslims there have a great respect for Obama, and look to him to advance a foreign policy that benefits the Muslim world, they were also skeptical of his rhetoric, which many considered to be lacking in detail.
Dr. Ahmed Abaddi, the Secretary General of the Oulema council and head of the government commission of Islamic scholars for the Rabat region, admitted the issues facing Muslims everywhere are complex and serious. Offering "respect," he said, was symbolic. The time has come for real leadership and action.
Morocco can play a significant role in brokering peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, if Obama is willing to give it a microphone. A progressive Muslim country with both African and European influences, it is strategically located to be a centerpiece of Western-Muslim dialogue.
King Mohammed VI, at only 46, represents the kind of moderate and progressive world views on which Obama and the Western world should capitalize and promote as a formidable and open-minded new brand of Islam. Under Mohammed VI, Morocco has become increasingly more democratic. It is a safe haven for religious freedom, the likes of which most Arab countries have never seen. In 2000 he was awarded an honorary degree by George Washington University for his promotion of democracy in Morocco.
The King has significantly advanced the causes of women's rights, freedom of the press and the rule of law. In Morocco, women can vote, drive, obtain a divorce, and hold positions of authority, thanks largely to a new family code, the Mudawana, which was initiated by the King. The Mourchidat at the Dar al-Hadith al-Hassania in Rabat are the Islamic world's only female clerics, a program started by the King in 2004 that its director Muhammad Mahfudh calls a "rare experiment in the Muslim world."But most importantly, the King holds unique authority among both Israelis and Palestinians as a credible and honest broker in engaging a dialogue between the two. As a direct descendent of the Prophet -- along with Jordan's King Abdullah II he is one of only two world leaders in Muhammad's lineage -- he possesses an authenticity within the Muslim world that sets him apart as a fairly unimpeachable conduit of Islam. Because of this lineage, Palestinians trust and respect him, even despite his efforts to promote a more liberal Muslim democracy, which has earned him the condemnation of more radical Islamic fundamentalists.
And as an advocate for security in Israel, he's earned the favor of many Jewish leaders who see him as perhaps one of the only moderate Arab leaders who recognize its legitimacy. As Joe Grieboski, president of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy said, "The King has an intimate relationship with Israel, politically, culturally, historically and demographically. His father, King Hassan II, called for Israel to be a part of the Arab League and partners in the peace negotiations. He has Israel's respect."
As King he is Commander of the Faithful, but King Mohammed VI has positioned himself as commander of all faiths, and not just Islam, which signals to Christians and Jews (and Morocco itself has a decent population of both) that he is open-minded and a natural conduit between the three faiths. "His position is clear," said Grieboski. "He wants security for Israel and dignity for the Palestinians. If the West focuses on these two principles, as he has, the mission has a useful clarity and direction."
And there are other measures, according to Grieboski, that President Obama could and should take to show -- and not just talk about -- respect for the Islamic world. By installing a special envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference, as President George W. Bush did, and making it statutory, he would signal America's ongoing commitment to engaging in useful dialogue, as well as give the US a forum in which to lay forth our own goals.
Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both met with Mohammed VI during their terms to gain insight into the Middle East crisis, and Bush in particular relied on Morocco to promote a more democratic and progressive brand of Islam to the rest of the Arab world. When Barack Obama took office, King Mohammed VI wrote him a letter, suggesting the ways in which the president could help to communicate better with the Muslim world. As of yet, there's been no response. After chiding the US on its poor listening skills, to the dismay of many thoughtful leaders before him, it seems the perfect opportunity to seek the advice of someone better qualified than he is to navigate through the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In his speech in Cairo, Obama rightly pointed out that Morocco was the first country to recognize America as an independent nation. Perhaps Obama would be wise to repay the favor, and recognize Morocco as an important delegate in advancing Middle East peace.