KUALA LUMPUR (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Very few places on earth offer you the chance to ski (on the slopes of the Atlas Mountains) and then trek through desert (the Western Sahara desert) in the same country on the same day!
Morocco, spanning the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean, is just such a place. The kingdom has spectacular scenery, amazing food, and most importantly, welcoming locals. Tourism, currently the second-largest foreign exchange earner after the phosphate industry, is fast becoming the No. 1 revenue earner.
My visit to this North African country was an eye-opener in more ways than one. Coming from a Muslim-majority country like Malaysia, it was interesting to see a similar constitutional monarchy, with an elected parliament but with a 99 per cent Muslim population.
The King, Mohammed VI, claims direct descent from the Prophet Muhammad and is head of state in this country of 35 million people. He is also head of Islam and, in that capacity, was instrumental in reforming the country's religious affairs and leadership structure. This was a slow process, but came after the terrorist attack in Casablanca in 2003 which claimed 45 lives.
For the kingdom, the bombings and the individuals who perpetrated them - native Moroccans from the city's slums - were a wake-up call. They provided concrete proof that, contrary to conventional wisdom among the country's elites, the nation was not immune to the radicalism plaguing the rest of the Middle East and North Africa.
"His Majesty realised that Morocco could only move forward with a tolerant and moderate version of Islam. The first thing he did was create the 'Murshidat' or female imam," Merieme Addou, a filmmaker, told me.
These days female imams are common, but in 2006, the normally all-male Madrasahs graduated their first class of Murshidats and this initial batch of 50 trained women were assigned to mosques throughout Rabat to carry out their mission: answering religious questions, improving literacy programmes and providing practical guidance on the reformed family law that grants women equal rights in marriage, divorce and the ownership of property.
"Women Murshidats are empowered to do everything the male clergy does, except lead Friday prayers," said Merieme, who is also producer of Casablanca Calling, a documentary about the Murshidats. She added that the number of female imams has grown in the last 10 years.
Part of the sweeping political and social changes that Morocco has undergone in the past decade under the king's leadership, the empowering of female spiritual guides represents an effort to democratise and curb extremism by reaching out to women, who can be a moderating voice in their families, and to youth, who are then introduced to a tolerant and mainstream version of Islam at a young age.
But by far the most important step in institutionalising moderate Islam and countering violent extremism in Morocco has been the setting up of the Mohammed VI Institute for Imam Training in Rabat. Inaugurated in 2015, its objective was to train Moroccan, African and European preachers, becoming a hub for moderate religious training and exporting its brand of Islam to West Africa and Europe.
"The programme's curriculum, incorporating Sunni Muslim teaching, is designed with input from the students' countries of origin and provides a diverse education that includes humanities, languages, psychology and jurisprudence," said Abdellatif Harraida, a professor at the International University of Rabat.
The Moroccan plan shows promise: the institute has so far trained a total of 447 imams and it has just signed a memorandum of understanding with Russia to train its imams. The curriculum is a year long for Moroccan students, two years for sub-Saharan African students and three years long for French students.
The facility, and the ideas it promotes, lies at the centre of the complex counter-terrorism effort that Morocco has erected over the past decade and a half - one that has put the North African state on the frontlines of the intellectual struggle against radical Islam.
But what of preachers who have already been radicalised? While Morocco has been spared the large number of Islamic State recruits that bedevil its neighbouring countries, many are still worried about the estimated 1,600 Moroccans who have gone to fight for IS in Syria. Mohamed Salah Tamek, the director-general of the country's prisons administration, believes he has the answer.
"Our reconciliation programme is in its infancy, but is already bearing fruit. This prisoner de-radicalisation process includes religious supervision, inclusion in the general prison population and reintegration into society," he said.
Mohamed said the programme was of paramount importance because Morocco had about 900 prisoners sentenced for terrorism activities. "Look at what's happened in other countries where recruitment for IS has taken place in the prisons themselves. We have to ensure this does not happen in Morocco," he said.
As part of the programme, imams from the Mohammed VI Institute are seconded to the prisons to help with the reconciliation process. So far, 25 prisoners have benefited and have been released back into society.
As "commander of the faithful", King Mohammed VI has managed to secure Morocco as an oasis of calm compared to its other North African neighbours. And he has done this by rejecting extremist views and ensuring that only a moderate, tolerant form of Islam is practised and nurtured in the kingdom.