Morocco: it’s complicated

The rapid-fire events in Tunisia and Egypt have caught people everywhere by surprise. That’s especially true in the neighborhood (North … Continued

The rapid-fire events in Tunisia and Egypt have caught people everywhere by surprise. That’s especially true in the neighborhood (North Africa and the Middle East). As I headed for Morocco for a weekend conference, I hoped to emerge with a far clearer understanding, both of what sparked these popular upheavals now, and what might lie ahead. What I found were people torn between a euphoric hope, especially at the unleashing of freedom of speech, and uncertainty laced with fear for the future. It’s very complicated and the tale is far from over.

We rehearsed the familiar explanations for discontent: failures of leadership, repression of dissent, human rights abuses, massive and visible corruption – a political science litany. The geopolitics of it all are played out hour by hour in public statements and contradictions, so open and fast-moving that new events may best be seen on Facebook. The general wisdom seems to be that the best course for great powers (and especially the United States) now is to back off. But is that feasible?

There are the social realities: the combustible mix of a large youth bulge as the largest ever generation of young people have grown to maturity; high unemployment; flawed education systems. A graphic comparison of basic statistics by the Guardian among countries in North Africa highlights the common thread of high unemployment, albeit with significant differences in size and wealth among the countries. In Morocco, with some two million migrants working in neighboring Europe, close ties to that continent are part of the economic reality. People talk with concern about growing inequalities between the very rich and the poor (strikingly, Morocco’s gini coefficient, a measure of inequality, is almost exactly the same as the United States).

The role of religion, which means Islam, remains a puzzle, both in terms of how belief is driving activism, and the roles that specific religious leaders and movements are playing. The early face of the protests are hailed as secular, a basic human urge for democracy and voice that has nothing to do with a specific culture and religion. But the fear of extremism and fundamentalism is very present, and there are good reasons for concern, with fresh memories, in the region, of violent incidents and harsh rhetoric.

One theme that comes out again and again is respect. To some degree this is tied to both the culture and to religion. The cultural part is the emphasis on a common (and especially male) sense of dignity: that’s an explanation for the self-immolation of the young Tunisian after, it is said, a woman policeman slapped him. But it also echoes the strong theme in poll after poll: that Muslims feel a lack of respect for their commitment to faith, and for the faith itself. I heard again and again that it was this breach of respect and dignity that brings the crowds to the street.

Most analysts are confident that Morocco will continue to be the exception, affected by events further east but strong and stable enough that major uprisings and challenges to the regime will not develop. Morocco shares many of the same challenges as Tunisia and Egypt–high unemployment, deep problems with the public education system, and perceptions of growing corruption (Wikileaks has already brushed Morocco with stories about corruption). Palace intrigue is the stuff of daily speculation, mostly but not entirely out of the public press. Yet Morocco has progressed, with decent economic growth that has cut into poverty. Telling statistics include an increase in life expectancy from 55 years in 1970 to 73 in 2009. Births per woman have declined sharply, from 6.3 to 2.3.

Morocco’s political system is indeed different. It is a constitutional monarchy, stable (the monarchy has reigned for over 300 years), with active politics at work. King Mohammed VI (who has ruled for 11 years) is seen as truly committed to the welfare of his people. He has pushed reforms, of the economy, education, and women’s rights (notably the path-breaking Moudawana, which, despite slow implementation, is seen as uniquely forward-looking in the Muslim world). Morocco is actively engaged in dialogue across many cultures; the meeting I attended, a “Global Visioning effort” led by the King’s Religious Council and a Japanese Buddhist organization (Toda Institute) was one of many such activities. Next week will see the next stage of a dialogue with American evangelicals about climate change and other topics.

A part of Morocco’s confidence in its uniqueness is its distinctive religious qualities. The King is the nation’s religious leader, termed the Commander of the Faithful, and traces his descent to the prophet of Islam, Sidna Mohammed, via the prophet’s daughter Lalla Fatima Zohra. The Royal family settled in Sijilmasa, in the Moroccan South, in the middle of the 13th century. Morocco is giving a new and vibrant meaning to the rather maligned term “moderate Islam.” Lively public debates about the role and meaning of religion take place every day. Morocco’s Sufi-inspired, deeply held faith gives many there hope that, as the region navigates the exciting but also dangerous upheavals of 2011, this country will change also but in ways that link its culture, religion, and history with the best of democracy and modern life.

Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, a Visiting Professor, and Executive Director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue.

By Katherine Marshall | 
February 7, 2011; 7:44 PM ET

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Faith in Action


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  • Germelou

    Decent analysis but as always with seekers of exoticism and academic explanations, we forget that humans are humans with the same aspirations. At the end of the day Moroccans want the same for themselves and their kids as anyone else. The King’s title as commander of the faithful carries no weight but in the exaggerated orientalist (think Laurence of Arabia fantasies) imaginations of pundits. Islam is clear on the centrality of equality of rights, justice and on the danger of corruption and cronyism. The King will have to get rid off the nepotistic mafias surrounding him led by the Majidi and Elhimma clubs. We can try to explain things through religion all we want but what we are facing now are the remnants of dynamics dating back to colonialism and the cold war and that have kept wonderful people in Morocco and elsewhere subjugated to thugs and blackmailers who draw their power from the support of other countries rather than their own people.

  • Germelou

    Decent analysis but as always with seekers of exoticism and academic explanations, we forget that humans are humans with the same aspirations. At the end of the day Moroccans want the same for themselves and their kids as anyone else. The King’s title as commander of the faithful carries no weight but in the exaggerated orientalist (think Laurence of Arabia fantasies) imaginations of pundits. Islam is clear on the centrality of equality of rights, justice and on the danger of corruption and cronyism. The King will have to get rid off the nepotistic mafias surrounding him led by the Majidi and Elhimma clubs. We can try to explain things through religion all we want but what we are facing now are the remnants of dynamics dating back to colonialism and the cold war and that have kept wonderful people in Morocco and elsewhere subjugated to thugs and blackmailers who draw their power from the support of other countries rather than their own people.

  • jenaimar76

    Dear journalist, In the other hand all moroccan are really really really tired of the regime :I may agree with y that morocco is quite stable now but in the medium term I’am really not sure because moroccan people are like others : they want DEMOCRACY. The same that y’re enjoying dear journalist.God bless Morocco, God bless the King and hope that God will stop this mafia around the King ! Amen.

  • abrahamhab1

    This is an oligarchy that is no different that the other oligarchies of the Arabs since the time of their prophet. A ruling family that gets its “legitimacy” by claiming family ties with the Arab prophet’s family or more recently through military coups. The ruling family and a minority elite that are adopted by the rulers form an oligarchy that considers the country as their inheritance. They have plenty of scriptural verses that commands the ruled to accept the status quo as something ordained by Allah. “Obey Allah, His prophet and your rulers” is a common refrain in their holy texts. How truly convenient! It used to be that only monarchies passed on their countries as an inheritance. Nowadays-even rulers of so-called non-Monarchies pass on their “stewardship” as an inheritance to their children.

  • jjedif

    Morocco is an absolute dictatorship ruled by a despot. However, as is the case in most dictatorships (including in predominantly Christian countries), the despot and the main religious group sleep in the same bed since they both want the same thing: to suppress all opposition to their power and to maintain their sources of income.What is different about Morocco is that the Moroccans I have met inside Morocco seem to be genuinely convinced that Islam really is the true religion…in spite of Morocco’s myriad of problems, including grinding poverty for most of its citizens.

  • sullidav

    Katherine – It would be interesting to hear your take on Morocco’s expulsions of Christians for proselytizing, and how that is seen, locally, by different communities. See, e.g.:Thanks.

  • A_afaris

    Mr Gabriel , with all due respect your article is way biased That only the misinformed would find acceptable.

  • bgw2581

    Thank you Moroccan readers for quickly and succinctly calling out this dribble from Marshall for the fantasy that it is. I draw a direct parallel to how whites and other elites in america fantasized for years about the happy Negroes in the south and in the ghettos throughout this country. Please take note that civil rights in this country for Blacks did not come about until the atrocities of america started to be broadcast to the world via television in the 1960s. This allowed the world to see the truth about america for themselves. Now it is another technology, the Internet, that allows people in Morocco and elsewhere to rise above the shackles that america and europe have happily enabled their despotic rulers to enforce for decades. Your fight for dignity and freedom will be costly and deadly and it will be hindered at every step by the blatherings of americans like Marshall.

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