06/05/2014 10:42 am ET Updated Aug 05, 2014

Moderation and Modernity: Challenges for Moroccan Islam

"We need passionately moderate Muslims", argues former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Moderates, yes, but not tepid or vacillating moderates; instead, moderates with vim, ready to engage and to bring about change. I was with such a passionate moderate this week, who adds to passion and moderation a sweeping vision of what's happening to modern human society and what it demands of religious communities, one and all.

Ahmed Abbadi is a man with a bold mission. He's also a man of many parts. A theologian and religious leader, he dresses one day in an elegant suit, the next in a djellebah, slippers and fez. He believes deeply in scholarship, and immerses himself in complex reflections on what the Koranic texts tell us about life. But he also spent two years as a young man bumming across the United States, including a spell shucking oysters in Mississippi. He deals with the daily challenges of education in a dynamic society but also with the urgent dangers that both extremist religious teachings and terrorist organizations present to his country and the world. He's widely sought after as a moderate voice in global forums, but is usually too swamped with urgent matters to attend.

Dr. Abbadi's day job is Secretary General of the Moroccan Rabita Mohammadia of Ulamas. Every country with a large Muslim population has a distinctive set of organizations that support or engage on religious matters, but Morocco's is especially distinctive. It has emerged over a long and continuous history. Dr. Abbadi describes five pillars. Morocco's King, Mohammed VI, traces his lineage to the Prophet Muhamed and is, by tradition and by the constitution, Commander of the Faithful (that, Abbadi insists, also includes Morocco's ancient Jewish population). The King's role is to watch closely over religious matters but also to ensure freedom of expression, acting through a high council. Then there is the formal religious institutions and hierarchy: the Ministry responsible for religious affairs and the Council of Scholars and Ulemas. This hierarchy is in constant contact with citizens, through 80 local councils that oversee the roughly 50,000 imams, the mosques, and structures associated with them. The Rabita (which Abbadi heads) is to provide intellectual leadership, with a network of 15 research centers and a mandate of diffusion. A body responsible for religious education oversees both Koranic schools and education touching on religion in the public school and university systems. And finally, there is the Sufi "fabric" of Moroccan society and religion, a broad set of organizations and traditions, of scholarship, music, and other arts. Sufism is integrally part of Morocco's character and permeates all aspects.

Morocco has had serious brushes with Muslim extremists and terrorism, notably suicide bombings in 2003 and 2004. It is not far from the Maghrebian and Saharan terrorist networks. Perhaps more important, restless youth, especially, in the teeming cities, are attracted to the teachings of salafists, easily available through the ubiquitous satellite networks. Abbadi believes that there is no substitute to dialogue, and it is unrealistic to try to ban religion and Islam from politics: It's always been there, as choices are made on social and political values, and it always will be. So what's needed is a rigorous, engaged, transparent and modern approach to religion, one that honors traditions and elders but that responds quickly to changing times and reaches out to young people.

This is profoundly important because the world, everywhere and including Morocco, is in the midst of seismic changes that leave nothing untouched. This passionate moderate argues forcefully for fundamental change to reshape approaches and institutions. Young people are natives in the new world of technology, transparency in what everyone does, and constant change. It is not surprising that they look askance at older teachers and parents who barely sense the changes, much less keep up. Education systems have hardly begun to respond to the new realities. Young people demand a new ethics and new forms of human rights. Addadi is convinced that the ancient traditions and teachings of Islam are dynamic guides to these changing times but they need sharp jolts and bold reforms of institutions and teachings.

I got a glimpse of what this jolt might involve at a conference in Rabat this week. Its bold title was "The Holy Koran and World Views." Participants were a diverse international group, almost all serious scholars of theology, from Egypt, Indonesia, Sudan, Mauritania, the United States, and other countries. Most people who attended were scholars from the Moroccan Rabita.

At one level this was a classic scholarly affair, with a steady succession of 20-30-minute presentations, most in Arabic (with English translation). They were pretty academic and very theological, many beyond my capacity to engage. Most interesting (to me) was a bold call to reexamine teachings and understandings on women's roles. And Dr. Abbadi himself stepped into the interpreters' booth to give that presentation a fluent English rendition.

My presentation, focused on human rights, equity, and development prospects, generated some sparks, positive ones I was assured. The very different "world view" that a presentation focused on global common values as expressed through the concepts of human rights, equity, and a capabilities approach was, it seems, challenging but at least sparked curiosity and reactions. The clearest point of engagement was education; a huge priority, though how to tackle the demands and problems is, to put it mildly, a work in progress.

But Abbadi's ambition for the conference went far beyond the formal agenda. He sees conference like this as the core of his mission: to push beyond a nudging support for moderation and moderates to an urgent call to come to terms with the fact that our world is changing, fast, and before our eyes and religious institutions must respond.

Dr. Abbadi smiled as he contemplated the challenges ahead but turned serious as he made clear that responding is a matter of both survival and any prospect for a successful society, for Morocco, for Muslims, and for humankind.

The path ahead will not be easy. After the presentation on women's rights within Islam, two men from the audience stood up, stating passionately that equality is impossible. "A man is a man, a woman is a woman", one asserted. Violence against women, a searing issue in the region, was not mentioned. So there is a long road ahead. The forces of tradition and the lure of simple, extreme ideologies, in religion and other parts of life, are also strong and they have a resonant voice. But it is exciting to see passionate moderates at work.