Controversial Feminist and Atheist Ibtissam Lachgar Arrested in Rabat

Moroccan feminist and atheist activist Ibtissam Lachgar — known for activism on behalf of abortion rights and LBGTQ equality — was arrested in Rabat on August 17, 2018, allegedly for public drinking, according to the Washington Post.

The arrest is eerily reminiscent of that of the Hirak leadership and the sentencing of Nasser Zefzafi for allegedly disturbing the peace and undermining state security after interrupting an imam during a prayers.

There are few more fundamental political rights than freedom of expression, and the Kingdom would be well-served to respect it. It is fundamental to any sound decisions regarding public policy, and a prerequisite to being able to justly and properly resolve other fundamental questions regarding the rights of gay people, women, and the LGBTQ community. What cannot be discussed cannot be decided, and what cannot be criticized cannot be reformed. Ms. Lachgar is unquestionably a controversial figure in Morocco, but it is precisely speech that people find objectionable that most needs to be protected.

Is the Rif Rising?

The Rif is not the Morocco I know. Al Hoceima was a sleepy beach resort when I stopped by for a couple of days, and I spent an overnight in Chefchauen, but I never got to know the people. The time I spent among the Amazigh was in the Middle Atlas, and even then I learned only three words of Tamazight – aghram (bread), aman (water), and tarbet (girl). The guys would tell me that these were the essentials of life. The language I learned was colloquial Arabic,and my acquaintance with Shilha culture was incidental.

Al Hoceima

The Rif, however, was legendary. The Roueffa were “wayr” — tough, and people would ask me whether I knew about Abdelkrim El Khattabi and the revolt against the Spanish. It was well-known that the Rif was one of the largest cannabis growing and hashish — kif — producing regions in the world, and we were warned against venturing into the mountains lest we be kidnapped and held for ransom. The Rif had a mystique and a mystery.

Those of us acquainted with the history of the Rif in even a cursory sense are aware that the Rif was isolated and neglected by the late King, Hassan II; the regime was wary of the region’s intransigence, which had served it well as successive waves of invaders broke on the mountains over the centuries. The Rif was to Morocco as Scotland had been to England, with the exception that the independent spirit of the Rif had survived far more intact than a broken Scotland after the infamous Highland Clearances.

As a result, it is with both fascination and concern that I see the growing protest in the Rif, ignited by the gruesome death of a street vendor crushed by a garbage truck after the police threw in his meager stock. Coverage in the American press has been sporadic, but a recent article in the Nation magazine chronicles both growing unrest and a ham-handed and counterproductive response by the regime, consisting of propaganda through the mosques and arrests of the leadership, who are reported to have been beaten by the state police, on dubious charges. The trial of protest leader Nasser Zefzafi is shortly set to begin, and the world will be watching.

I would think a more constructive approach would be a mix of engagement, conciliation, dialogue, development, and further liberalization of the regime’s attitude toward Amazigh culture, which is not what is being reported. When one is dealing with a keg of dynamite, it makes sense to defuse it. After we have seen one Arab government after another swept away by popular resentment and their country’s convulse in the aftermath, I don’t think anyone would want to see Morocco thrown into chaos by its own delayed Arab Spring, despite the hopeful example set by its neighbor in the Maghreb, Tunisia.

At least among many of my friends, there has long been a consensus that the way for the monarchy to survive ultimately is to devolve power to the Parliament along the lines of the British constitutional monarchy. Whether a government characterized by dictatorial power, concentration of wealth, and widespread corruption can achieve such a transition remains an open question, but current events in the Rif would appear to lend a certain urgency to finding an answer.

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.

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.

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.