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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