I was eating breakfast one morning when my father slapped down the New York Times Magazine in front of me. You might want to check out this article. I believe this is the town you will be studying Arabic in, he said, pointing to an article that chronicled the visit of a Times reporter to Tetouan, Morocco where she investigated six youth: five of whom went to Iraq under the pretext of holy war and another who was involved in the 2006 Madrid train bombings.
Tetouan, which means eyes in the local Berber language, is a modest town of over 300,000 people in northern Morocco. It is nestled between two mountains, which, if climbed on a clear day, reveal a commanding view of Mediterranean waters.
One month after the article was published, I was walking on the sprawling streets of the old city where pirated DVDs of the latest Western movies and traditional Moroccan sheepskins are sold side-by-side. Traditionally, Tetouan has been at the crossroads of European and Arab culture, a fact that makes the area culturally rich but has occasionally also resulted in tension. Many Moroccans watch as European neighbors, like those in Spain, attain higher standards of living while they continue to lag behind.
Militant religious leaders have tapped into the frustrated sentiments of youth who are trapped between a conservative society and the secular lifestyle seeping into their country.
During my stay, I was invited to dinner at a friend’s house. Over dinner, his mother asked me why I was in Morocco. I replied that as a student of international relations, I wanted to learn Arabic.
Americans come here and learn about us, she replied, but then they bomb the Middle East.
I was quick to refute the claim and we continued with dinner as if nothing controversial had been uttered.
Though Moroccans are famous for their hospitality toward Western visitors, it was apparent that many are frustrated by past Western imperialism and current American foreign policies.
Sipping Moroccan tea one evening with Zyad, the director of my language school, I asked him about the boys I’d read about. He said that he too had read The New York Times article and was alarmed by its implications. Zyad then pointed to a section of the city – the neighborhood where the militants came from. Very little light emanated from the area. In that particular neighborhood, poverty was pervasive, and many young men have been easily seduced by extremist religious leaders who promise them eternal glory by pursuing a militant form of Islam against Western forces.
Yet if so many Moroccans experience these same frustrations, why are they not propelled to the same type of violent extremism as the boys in the article?
One theory is that a variety of factors play a role. When specific ingredients are in place – socio-economic ills (a sense that their lives are going nowhere), aggressive religious sentiment (a way to give meaning to their lives), and political frustration (a symbol to rally against) – men and women may become more susceptible to engaging in violence.
Toward the end of my stay in Morocco, I began to wonder why we in the West focus on people, like the few young boys from Tetouan, who had chosen the path of violence, while most of the Moroccan people share the same hopes for peace as young people in the West.
Americans and Moroccans alike must pool knowledge and resources to find ways to jointly combat the various factors that can lead to violent extremism. If we make an effort to understand our global neighbors and help one another look for solutions, we can begin to take steps to resolve the problem of violent extremism.
A week earlier – on Christmas day – I had spoken to a class of Moroccan students. Many of them asked me why I came to Morocco. Instead of responding as usual, telling them about my desire to learn Arabic and enter the field of international relations, I became aware that my true mission was to serve as a civilian diplomat because there were many misunderstandings between our nations and cultures.
These students wished to learn more about my country, as I did of theirs. This desire to understand one another is a first step toward working together to find solutions to larger issues. In their eyes, I could see the same hope shared by my friends in America: to build peace across cultures in our lifetime.
Stephen Coulthartis a graduate student studying diplomacy and international affairs at the Whitehead School of Diplomacy at Seton Hall in New Jersey. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.