An Islamic university on the Internet

Faith & Reason: Dr Akbar Ahmed, a fellow of Selwyn College, Cambridge, argues that Morocco is more tolerant and civilised than France.
Click to follow
The Independent Online
In Britain, many Muslims struggle with the attempt to balance their own identity within a larger British one. Their struggle reflects the larger difficulty that both Islam and Western modernity have in coming to terms; and one of the most interesting and important developments in this field is taking place in Morocco.

In Morocco there is little of the stridency or the holier-than-thou attitude of the British Muslims. Muslims here are confident of their Islam. The President of the Al Akhawayn University, like most of the Muslim staff, is devout, a regular visitor to the mosque. Like his staff he fasts during the month of Ramadan. He is planning a church and a synagogue on the campus.

The story of the birth of the university is out of the Arabian Nights. When offered $50m as assistance by the King of Saudi Arabia, the King of Morocco, not being able to use the money, wished to return it. The Saudi king insisted he keep it. The Moroccan king decided to open a world- class university. He called it Al Akhawayn, the two brothers, to reflect the source of funding.

At the physical core of the university is the mosque and adjacent to it an impressive library echoing Islamic tradition. The Greek amphitheatre and the American sports complex with its Olympic- sized swimming pool reflect cultural synthesis. The Internet and state-of-the-art electronic communications link its hilltop village of Ifrane to the world. Women account for over 50 per cent of the students. About 30 per cent of the faculty is foreign.

At my lecture I was grilled on Islam and women by a young Moroccan woman, reflecting both a boldness because of the presence of the senior faculty and an awareness that was encouraging. The foreign women were too discreet to touch the subject. The Moroccan felt that Islam is being used to deny her certain rights given to her by her religion. It was a question that echoes throughout the Muslim world.

I replied that we needed to look at Islamic civilisation as a whole. Islam gave more rights to women than any other religion in the world. Unfortunately some men in Islam either denied the women those rights or ignorance prevented them from obtaining them. They needed to fight for their legitimate rights.

The significance of an English- language university cannot be overestimated. The Moroccan elite speaks French fluently but the younger generation is switching to English.

Some European diplomats were unimpressed. This is a waste of money, elitist, they grumbled. Others whispered that it is megalomania, like the other brainchild of the King, the new mosque at Casablanca which will be the largest in Africa.

But for the Pakistani Ambassador, on his third posting in a Muslim country, this is one of the great centres of learning in the Muslim world. It proclaims Islam's confidence in its past and vision of the future.

The Crown Prince of Morocco in private audience explained the essence of his society. Jews, Christians and Muslins all believe in the same God, all are essentially the same. This was not just rhetoric. In Morocco the chief adviser to the king on economic affairs is a Jew. There are still over 20,000 Jews in Morocco, in spite of the half-million who migrated to Israel. The story circulates of the time the Crown Prince's grandfather was king during the Second World War. He was asked by Marshal Petain of France to hand over Morocco's Jews for the Nazi gas chambers (Morocco was a European Protectorate). The King refused, saying every single Jew was his responsibility. Neither Muslims nor Jews have forgotten that answer.

Morocco reflects the great Andalusian civilisation that flourished almost a thousand years ago and linked Spain with North Africa. It produced intellectual giants such as the Jewish scholar Maimonides and the Muslim Ibn Arabi.

The contrast in tolerance is sharp with the French, who threw out Muslim schoolgirls from their schools because they wore scarves. No Europeans have been thrown out of schools here for not wearing a scarf. Perhaps Morocco, in spite of its African setting, has something to teach contemporary Europe. For a multi-cultural society like Britain we need to learn that different cultures can co-exist and even enrich each other if they are mutually respectful and tolerant.