Islam and Politics

I just attended a very interesting lecture at the D.C. Rotary Club by Dr. Shadi Hamid, an author and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, on the interplay between Islam and politics.  His thesis is that Islam is “exceptional” owing to a fusion of religious and political consciousness.   He attributes this in part to the fact that the Prophet was not only a religious leader but an early head of state. In addition, he posits that Muslims subscribe to the belief that the Qu’ran is the words of God transmitted directly without human authorship or mediation, and that this gives the scripture unique moral and political authority. 

Dr. Hamid thinks that it is a mistake to overlook the religious motivation of Islamist organizations from the Muslim Brotherhood to even the Islamic State on the supposition that religion is simply a pretext for power politics.  He also suggests that Islamist organizations do not distinguish between religion and politics; a split between them is not cognizable within their religious worldview, since the aim of both is salvation.   

Dr. Hamid believes that, for good or ill, those who believe that Islam will go through “Reformation” and secularization analogous to the Reformation in the West are mistaken.  However, he does believe that Islamist and secular parties can advance their diametrically opposed agendas through peaceful political means in a state such as Tunisia’s fragile democracy, although he worries that corruption and lack of Western economic support may yet undermine the Tunisian experiment. He is also not optimistic that the monarchy in Morocco will be willling to relinquish power in order to promote constitutional government.

Dr. Hamid acknowledges the role that Western power politics play in the discrediting and undermining of democratic institutions in the Middle East,  but he also argues that the role of the West in shaping the Middle East should not obscure the role that religion plays in Muslim states.

For those interested, Dr. Hamid’s latest book is Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World.

Women Lead Protests Against Morocco’s Misguided Development Policy

© Paop | – Photo Credit

Women in Morocco are at the forefront of resistance to destruction of traditional practices of holding land in common, according to a recent article in the New York Times.  The Moroccan state is in the process of privatizing tribal common lands — known as Sulaliyyate — in the name of economic efficiency.  The Morocco Free Trade Agreement with the United States has accelerated the government’s privatization program as foreign investors seek to acquire land.  The trade off between social welfare and trade liberalization should be familiar to every American who has not been asleep in the 30 years since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect thirty years ago.

The women must fight on several fronts.  On the first, they are trying to defend against encroachment on their rights to hold and use land in common for agriculture and pasture. On the second, they are fighting to have their voice heard when it has historically been silenced. Finally, on the third, they are fighting for equal inheritance rights to a stake in the ownership of the land, which have traditionally been limited to men.

Souad Eddouada, a professor at the University of Kenitra who specializes in gender studies, said: “All over the country, women are at the forefront because they are less vulnerable to police brutality and incarceration. They became very successful in their fight. They had to leave their homes and were supported by the men.”

In a Fight for Land, a Women’s Movement Shakes Morocco, New York Times. The Times points out that the women’s activism is consistent with constitutional reforms codifying greater rights for women in a society where gender inequality is often stark, but they still face an uphill battle.

In a country where the monarchy worries about social stability and popular unrest, His Majesty might be well advised to review the history of the enclosure movement in early modern England. Large landowners acquired and enclosed common lands in the name of increased agricultural production, depriving the populace of their livelihoods and forcing them into urban slums. In Scotland, the “clearances,” in which Highlanders were driven off their land to make way for sheep, reached near genocidal proportions and impelled mass migration to the New World.

Not surprisingly, the efforts at enclosure met with popular resistance, including violence in some cases:

Commoners responded by organizing vigilante bands which committed ever more brazen acts of resistance. One masked gang, whose leader styled himself King John, on one morning in 1721, killed 11 deer out of the Bishop’s Park at Farnham and rode through Farnham market with them at 7 am in triumph. On another occasion when a certain Mr Wingfield started charging poor people for offcuts of felled timber which they had customarily had for free, King John and his merry men ring-barked a plantation belonging to Wingfield, leaving a note saying that if he didn’t return the money to the peasants, more trees would be destroyed. Wingfield paid up. King John could come and go as he pleased because he had local support — on one occasion, to refute a charge of Jacobinism, he called the 18th century equivalent of a press-conference near an inn on Waltham Chase. He turned up with 15 of his followers, and with 300 of the public assembled, the authorities made no attempt to apprehend him. He was never caught, and for all we know also eventually became a chief constable.

Simon Fairlie, A Short History of Enclosure in England. It was only through harsh repression in the form of the “Black Acts” that popular resistance was quelled. Equally significant for modern Morocco, where the bidonvilles are overflowing, is that the destruction of the commons created a large and restive underclass deprived of their former means of subsistence and absorbed only by the expansion of urban slums that provided a cheap source of labor in the form of their miserable inhabitants. In light of the relatively high level of unemployment in Morocco, it is doubtful that this safety valve exists.

It might behoove the kingdom to heed the voices of its women.

Fresh Impressions — Morocco Through the Eyes of Susan Davis

My friend Susan Davis recently traveled to Morocco on a cultural exchange tour sponsored by the United States Department of State. Ms. Davis — a poet and a broadcaster — recorded her candid impressions of the country in a series of dispatches home. What follows is a sample of her observations and photographs from her tour.


My first impressions of Rabat were hot, dry and salty. It smells a lot like coastal Israel. It’s green with palm trees, cypress, Jacaranda and Bougainvillea. The buildings are officious — it’s the Capital — and several parks are under construction. My hotel was once a palace and the public spaces were truly magnificent with intricate tile work and chandeliers, terraces with mature gardens and high-ceilinged dining rooms with marble floors and carved moulding. This morning I had a traditional Moroccan breakfast: fresh fruit, a mushroom omelet, a bowl of harira (a tomato based lentil soup that you squeeze lemon juice into) dates, a pastry of fried dough dipped in honey and covered with sesame seeds, three Moroccan pancakes served with butter and jam and several loaves of Moroccan bread which is shaped and used like pita but is made with barley flour and is doughy. Also, sweet black coffee and fresh orange juice.


Slippers in the Fes Medina

In Fes, we checked into our hotel, picked up a childhood friend of Loubna’s (she grew up in Fes) who works for the historic preservation trust there and headed to the Medina — the old, walled city. It’s a labyrinthine market and meeting place where you can find everything you need and everything everyone you love and must have. Spices, bread, sweets, vegetables, meat, fish, chickens, jewelry, beauty products, house wears, shoes, clothes, electronics, instruments, tiles, rugs, tea, and coffee. Fes is known for its leather goods and silver. The only thing I couldn’t find that I wanted to buy for Milo (and Aaron) was an actual Fez. I’m not kidding. I’ve been to a market like this in Jerusalem and in Cairo, but that was 30 years ago. This one is remarkably controlled given that it is pure chaos.

Fes Medina

Loubna’s friend got us access to several newly restored buildings, including a mosque and university from the 9th century, a hostel from the 12th century and a library from sometime in-between. It feels old but not ancient. Not like the Coliseum in Rome feels ancient. Maybe this is because its teeming RIGHT NOW. So much lifting and sniffing and fingering and wondering and considering and haggling and buying. And eating and drinking. Loubna’s FitBit said we walked more than 8,000 steps.

Before leaving Fes this morning we went back to the Medina to interview Hamza, an alumnus of the State Department’s social entrepreneurship exchange. He’s the youngest of five brothers. His parents don’t have a high school education, nor do his brothers. His father spent a decade training to be a master craftsman making silver and brass hand carved tea trays. Hamza got himself to college and through graduate school. He studied geometry and sacred arts. He published several books and taught at the university in Fes but wanted to do something that gave back, particularly to the community of craftsmen and tool makers he grew up around. While his brothers apprenticed with his father and eventually quit, Hamza started Craft Draft, a low profit company that offers workshops in leather bookbinding, weaving and metalwork. He trains Moroccans, trusts, kids, anyone interested in the preservation of handicrafts. He’s tremendously successful. He even brought his father out of retirement to return to the workshop and help teach. The last thing he said to me was, “if you send craftsmen to a desert island they will build a civilization. If you send engineers to a desert island they will starve to death because they can’t make tools, they can’t make a spoon.”

Fes is a man’s world. The cafes are brimming with men, only men. The women are in the park with the children. The division between the sexes is acute. There are no public displays of affection between men and women. However, men walk arm in arm and women walk hand in hand, and friends caress each other intimately but not sexually without thinking. It’s a touchy, feely, handsy place but the air is void of both sensuality and sexuality. It is dry. So, so dry. But warm, as full of human warmth as anywhere I’ve been. It smells of mint and orange blossoms, rose water and sandalwood. If I were going to be an old Muslim woman instead of an old Jewess, I’d retire here.


I was guest teaching a communications class in which the students were practicing their interview skills on me and these were the questions: (I’m not making this up.)

  • Why did you Americans choose Donald Trump to be president?
  • What can we do about misunderstandings of Islam?
  • Do you like Justin Trudeau?
  • Are you married?
  • Do you know any Muslims in America?
  • Why make podcasts when there is YouTube?

So, me/us/them/you.

Only afterward did I find out that we’ve dropped “the mother of all bombs” on Afghanistan. As Heather wrote to me — bombs have nothing to do with motherhood. Or, as I would put it: f*** that phrase.
About the cat calling. I thought one of the upsides to traveling in my dotage, in modest clothes, with dark hair, in a country where people have already spoken to me in Arabic, Spanish and Italian, would be a cat call free experience. But no. So, how do I explain this (at least to myself?) I think that what happens in a country with a majority religion is that it forces those of us not in the majority religion into the position of irrefutable other. And that’s dehumanizing and easy to objectify. (Yes, every feminist publishing between 1978 and 1992 already said this, but I had to comb through my menopausal, jet lagged brain and rethink it anyway so now you have to listen as well.) After we checked into our hotel in Casablanca, Loubna went to meet a friend and I took a walk. I wore sunglasses so as to avoid eye contact and yet the kissing noises and the invasion of personal space were relentless. I ducked into a few shops, bought some postcards (but couldn’t find stamps,) resisted more coffee, decided against getting lost in the Medina and headed back to the hotel. Just before crossing the  last street between me and air conditioned heaven, a young woman tapped me on the shoulder, and I was so balled up and tense and suspicious that I jumped, like in a cartoon and my “ Ah!!” was indeed audible. She smiled and handed me my hotel room keycard which had fallen out of my pocket when I took my phone out to use as a camera. I thanked her in English, Arabic and French. She then asked me, in French, if I spoke French, I said no, and then she said, in French, well, I don’t what she said, but I looked at her and said, “I should be careful, yes?” And she smiled and touched my hand and said “Oui!” and walked away. So that’s it for my good karma. Spent.


I drank copious amounts of delicious coffee at breakfast and we set off for Mrirt. There I interviewed Mounir, he runs a school for deaf kids. His childhood best friend Said went deaf after an illness and he was forced to drop out of school. Mounir was so dismayed by this that he learned sign language with Said and became Said’s advocate. Said went on to become the first deaf Moroccan to get a Ph.D. Mounir participated in a State Department sponsored exchange in Chicago where he networked with other educators of and advocates for children with special needs. He helped make signs for a protest, networked with other advocates and learned a ton about accessibility. Now, along with the school, he runs an NGO that helps train any and everybody in sign language. Mounir showed us the kid’s’s artwork and crafts and then they all wanted to take a picture with me and Loubna. Feeling humbled is now a daily, or twice daily experience.

We tried to eat lunch in Mrirt, but I was too much of a spectacle, so we drove the two hours on the curvy mountain roads to a different small town, where I was also a spectacle but accompanied by fewer hoots and whistles and we found a place with tajine with meat and veggies and homemade bread. The landscape from Mrirt to Casablanca fades from bright green to dried mint, the cedars grow closer to the ground and there are lipstick red poppies for miles. I alternated between marveling at the small stone substance houses with old women hand thrashing wheat in front and holding back my nausea.


Kasbah Ait Ben Haddou

Ouarzazate is a tourist attraction. It’s the desert, It’s flat and expansive and surrounded by mountains and dotted with oases — I hate to sound like one of those Americans who relate everything back to America BUT . . .  it’s a dead ringer for the Palm Springs area of California except for the ancient ruins and casbahs, camels, bedouins, and, oddly enough, campus sized movie studios. The town runs on the film industry and celebrates that history. They are most proud of Gladiator of late, but it is also where Ishtar was filmed and a bunch of other “it happened in Arabia” schlock. The place was swarming with people attached to a massive Chinese production and people working on something called “Desert Storm” which caused both Loudbna and me to visibly shudder when we saw that written on the side of the giant buses (that presumably move the crew around).


“The tomb of a woman whose beauty beguiled the sultan but whose piety caused her to refuse his marriage proposal. She went to jail for her insistence on her purity. When she was released her constant companions were birds. “

The first thing I did was go to a spa for a hammam, a traditional Moroccan bath. It involved an impossibly young and humidity resistant woman who spoke no English having me stand under a shower in an interior tiled room with small skylights, cushioned benches and a floor that sloped toward a center drain. Then she had me lie down, scrubbed me with eucalyptus goo, stood me up, poured alternating buckets of hot and  cold water on me, told me to lie down, oiled me up with argan, stood me up, washed my hair, had me lie down, rubbed me down with different goo, hosed me down, and finally wrapped me in a towel and robe and walked me to a room with a massage table and a middle aged woman who spent hours massaging me beginning with my feet and finishing with my scalp. Then I was led to a big cushy sitting room and  given sweet mint tea and allowed to take my time before returning to my own clothes and re-entering the city.

The synagogue was like a Riad with a garden and fountain in the courtyard. There was intricate blue and white tile work and a library of books in Hebrew and French.

So I was grateful for the refuge of the Riad. I hated to leave it early the next day for a guided walking tour of historic Marrakech with included the old Jewish section, the still-in-use synagogue and the tombs of the sultans and their families and servants.  I also saw the remnants of an early mosque and had the orientation and symbolism of the mosque that was put up in its place explained. I walked about 5 miles in 2.5 hours with my guide Ali who was full of good humor about the various myths of the saints, the folklore of the tombs and the size of the casbah gate. He was also eager to show off what he knew about the Jews of Marrakech and their historically Jewish neighborhood.  He seemed way more impressed with my Jewishness than I have ever been myself.

I recovered from the heat and the press of the Marrakech tourism tornado by finishing a novel on the roof of the Riad which is crowded with large planters spilling over with bougainvillea, chaise longues, shade umbrellas, hammocks and an orange and tabby cat who managed to follow the sun around the roof. I went out for dinner alone at a restaurant overlooking the  square that has the Moroccan equivalent of a mariachi band playing vague covers of Harry Belafonte and Sinatra on traditional Moroccan instruments. The surreality of this was made hilarious by the vat of pink wine that came with my lamb tajine. Also, the many opportunities to make people’s night by taking their pictures — an older couple from France who never smiled once, a set of young couples from the Netherlands who wouldn’t stop smiling and a family from Germany who tipped up their plates of berber style dessert crepes to match their we-were-somewhere-foreign expressions.  People either come for the chaos and embrace the diversity and color and constant motion (like the Dutch) or people get exhausted and offended and look for escape (the Indian couple) but no one feels neutral about Marrakech. It’s all up in your grill and you have to decide. Unless you manage a hammam and lamb tajine with pink wine in about 24 hours. Then you see the value of it all even as you feel the thundering waste and overcompensation.

Text and photos by Susan Davis

Press Freedom in Morocco — Not Quite There Yet

Human Rights Watch has released a new report on press freedom in Morocco. The report — The Red Lines Stay Red: Morocco’s Reforms of its Speech Laws — offers guarded praise of Morocco’s recent reforms to its press code, but notes that there are still potential harsh penalties, including jail time, for violation of the penal code. The new press code has reduced penalties for crossing the country’s famous red lines — disparagement of Islam, the King, or the status of the Sahara — given news outlets greater due process before publications can be seized, and made it easier to present evidence for the defense in defamation trials. Prison time is eliminated for defamation of individuals or foreign diplomats. Certainly this is an improvement over the prior 2002 press law, but clearly it does not go far enough to provide truly free speech.

In addition, sometimes what the right hand giveth, the left hand taketh away, and without reform of the penal code, many harsh penalties limiting freedom of expression remain on the books. Human Rights Watch notes that

The penal code, by contrast, in addition to the new provisions imposing prison or a fine as punishment for “red line” offenses, maintains prison terms for a range of other speech offenses. Those include defaming state institutions, insulting public agents who are performing their duties, praising terrorism, inciting hatred or discrimination, and denigrating court decisions with the intent to undermine the authority or independence of the judiciary. Many of these offenses are defined broadly, increasing the risk that judges will use them to suppress speech.

Of course, the extent to which the Moroccan population is ready for free speech, as the relatively recent film Much Loved demonstrated, may be open to question. The government banned the highly controversial film portraying Marrakesh prostitutes as a danger to morals and a disgrace to the country’s image, and the lead actress, Loubna Abidar, fled to France after being assaulted. (The fact that she went to France probably did not endear her further to the Moroccan population.) It is perhaps no surprise that many Moroccans were incensed by the film, but after all, the point of free speech is to tolerate all speech — including unpopular or insulting speech.

Americans preen themselves on the protection of speech afforded by the First Amendment to the Constitution and like to think that they are the world’s free speech champions: not so, Reporters Without Borders ranks us 43rd out of 180. (Sweden is first; North Korea is last.) Morocco is 133, not bad in the Arab World, but behind Mauritania (55) and Tunisia (97) and some of the smaller Gulf States, such as the Emirates (119).

Morocco is a long way from the Years of Lead, but she still has a long way to go.

Moroccan Wildlife on the Brink

The Barbary Macaque, unique to North Africa and most prevalent in Morocco, is in imminent danger of extinction, according to the Daily Mail. Although Moroccan conservation authorities are working to preserve and manage the remaining population, the monkeys face multiple threats from poachers, pet seekers, and tourists who feed the monkeys. Obesity and other illnesses not only threaten the health of the monkeys, but also result in reduced fertility. Chief among the threats, however, is deforestation and loss of habitat.

Morocco is home to a wide range of species endemic to the region and dating from Palearctic times. The species — both plants and animals — have evolved in relative isolation in the mountains, with the result, for example, that the Barbary Macaque is the only Macaque indigenous to Africa.

A combination of environmental factors, including but not limited to global warming, have put Morocco’s unique ecosystem in peril, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Morocco has lost 75 percent of its forests in the past century, which WWF attributes in large part to timber sales, clearance of land in order to grow kif, especially in the Rif, and changes in traditional modes of life. The WWF explains:

The collapse of the semi-nomadic Berber pastoral system has transformed summer camps in the high mountain grasslands into permanent human settlements. A large amount of firewood is collected, in many cases illegally. Intensive collection of cedar branches frequently kills the trees. Furthermore, the need for livestock fodder during winter gives rise to extensive overgrazing and soil degradation in the forest understory. Overgrazing and land conversion into agriculture is also an important human impact in the broadleaf forest area.

Deforestation has had devastating impact on the wildlife of the region, from the extinction of the Barbary Lion, near extinction of the Barbary Leopard, and the anticipated demise of the Barbary Macaque. Hundreds of species of trees are also threatened.

As the WWF points out, however, there is a clear downward spiral in which economic hardship fuels destruction of natural resources, and destruction of natural resources fuels economic hardship. While Morocco has taken more initiative and shouldered more responsibility than other Maghrebian countries, and in some cases has larger populations to preserve, there is a real question as to whether conservation measures are too little, too late.

Ben Jelloun to Le Pen Voters: Pack Your Bags

Famed Moroccan author Tahar Ben Jelloun, known particularly for his novels in French, had some sharp words for the 750 French expatriates in Morocco who voted for Marine le Pen: “it is time to leave.” Ben Jelloun writes, “Even though Morocco is above all a country that is hospitable, open, and generous, it otherwise demands respect.” Ben Jelloun has not forgotten that following a speech by Jean-Marie le Pen, blaming Moroccans for unemployment, a young Moroccan was thrown into the Seine. And he has not forgotten that after an admittedly horrible murder by a young Algerian man named Mohamed Merah, Marine le Pen’s comment was that “the boats, the airplanes, will soon arrive full of Mohamed Merahs.” Ben Jelloun denounces the Front National as “neither a party of the Left nor of the Right, but one that is at its base racist and violent and would have the French believe that solutions derive from barring foreigners from France.” For the sake of self-consistency, Ben Jelloun argues that people who hate Arabs and Muslims should not continue to benefit from living in Morocco. The taste must be particularly bitter when it comes from former colonizers living among the people they colonized. To paraphrase Mr. Talleyrand, they have learned nothing and forgotten nothing since 1956.

Ben Jelloun’s description of the Front National has an eerie familiarity to anyone who has been subjected to the racist ramblings of Donald Trump over everything from “bad hombres,” to building walls, to banning Muslims. It is the language of hatred and fascism. The same dynamic of blaming supposedly criminal immigrants for subverting society, stealing jobs, and committing crimes applies both here and in France.

And yet, loathsome as I find the le Pen’s Front National and Trump’s Republican Party, I am reluctant to call upon people to quit the country — recognizing that our situation and our history are not the same as Morocco’s. We have had too much of “love it or leave it” in this country. And we have too much of a tendency to apply our exclusionary instincts to the people to whom we should be most welcoming, whatever our fears. Supposedly, Syrian refugees “do not share our values.” This is not a sentiment or a paradigm we want to encourage.

We are are the nation that allowed the Nazis to march in Skokie, recognizing that they are the soul of evil and yet — for just so long as their demonstrations were peaceful and their conduct within the bounds of the law — giving them the same right to express their views — however hateful — as anyone else. The Republic will survive. We are in far more danger from those — like our current president — who would shut down free speech in this country and eviscerate the First Amendment.

I admire Mr. Ben Jelloun tremendously. He probably has more important things to worry about than 750 French Fascists disporting themselves in Morocco.

The Decline and Rightward Drift of Religion in America; Movement toward Tolerance in Morocco

As religion in America is churning, with growth largely limited to Evangelicals, Morocco seems to be inching toward greater religious tolerance, according to the Middle East Eye. The trend toward religious conservatism in the United States is disquieting, but Morocco’s nascent movement toward greater tolerance is a positive step.

I have no brief for the clandestine proselytizing by fundamentalist Christians in Morocco while I was there; it is a version of Christianity I find particularly distasteful. However, the state should remain neutral with respect to adherence to or propagation of religious views and protective of the rights of minorities.

Separation of “church” and state would be a tremendous leap for Morocco, where political stability is still bound up with religious orthodoxy, and the King styles himself Emir al Mu’minin — Commander of the Faithful.Proselytizing of Muslims is still a criminal offense.

We are still a long way from abandoning it in the United States, although there are legitimate concerns over the growth of right-wing Christianity, the increasing politicization of religion, and growing intolerance of Islam under the banner of “religious freedom” — an ironic code for intolerance. A civil society coupled with freedom of conscience is essential for any democratic state. If America is to remain a democracy, it must maintain it, and if Morocco is to become a democracy, it must embrace it.