Compulsory Military Service in Morocco — Mistake or Masterstroke?

Morocco has moved forward with a plan to conscript both men and women for compulsory military service in a bill expected to be approved by the Parliament in October 2018 with mixed reactions from the public, with some news outlets suggesting widespread approval and others citing marked dissent on social media.

Although reinstatement of the draft in the United States following its abolition after the Vietnam War is periodically a topic of discussion, it is clear that for the time, at least, the world’s most formidable military power remains firmly committed to an all-volunteer force. Forced military service is not only generally unpopular with the public, but the all-volunteer force is also cited as producing a better trained, higher quality cadre of professional soldiers than short-term service based on a draft. Moreover, part of the unpopularity of the draft also dates back to the widespread exemptions during Vietnam that resulted in a highly unfair application of the system. In contrast, proponents of the draft assert that it would more evenly distribute the burden of service and discourage America’s persistent military adventurism.

However, perhaps the global military behemoth fielded by the United States is not the most suitable model for a nation of 37 million people like Morocco, which cannot deploy the same level of population, economic, and technological resources as the United States. More apt models might be countries of comparable size such as Israel (population 9 million) or Switzerland (population 9 million). Both nations generally seems to field an effective military with broad popular support for national service.

Perhaps equally noteworthy is that by at least one ranking, Moroccan military strength lags far behind its most likely military rival — Algeria, particularly with regard to military budget (3 to 1 in Algeria’s favor), external debt (4 to 1 in Algeria’s favor), and active military personnel (5 to 1 in Algeria’s favor). Algeria also appears to have a decisive advantage in quantity of military hardware. Quality is difficult to assess, although it is perhaps worth noting that Algeria is largely supplied by Russia, whereas Morocco appears to have greater access to weaponry made in the United States. It appears open to question how much difference this might make.

Happy Eid el Adha — to everyone! عيد الاضحى مبارك للجميع

Today is Eid el Adha, the most significant holiday in the Muslim calendar, traditionally marked by the slaughter of a sheep in honor of God’s first ordering the sacrifice of Ishmael and then sparing him and substituting a sheep. (Yes, that is correct. The Jewish/Christian version of the story in Genesis 22 refers to Isaac; the variation in the Qur’an refers to Ishmael.) It is also known as Eid el Kbir — the big holiday.

It is common, and I suppose customary, to wish a happy Eid to all Muslims, and I do wish a happy Eid to all those celebrating the holiday. One thing I noticed while I was in Morocco, however, is how inclusive the holiday was. I was always made to feel that I was part of the feast (outsider though I was) and pressed to eat more mutton than I could possibly consume, from the head to the hooves. In that spirit, I would like to wish a happy Eid to everyone, Muslim or not, meaning no disrespect.

I realize, of course, that the Eid is not without its critics, whether because of concerns for animal welfare or the financial burden that purchasing an animal to sacrifice places on the poor, who are nevertheless faced with enormous social pressure to participate in Muslim countries such as Morocco. And yet, and yet, it is hard to deny the fellow-feeling I experienced while I was there. We should always be mindful of the less fortunate — and come to their aid in their time of need — and yet it seems it would be a shame to abandon every festive occasion on account of its cost. (It is hard to imagine a more wasteful holiday than Christmas!) Or as Shakespeare put it, “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”

Happy Eid, every one.

Project Soar Morocco in the News

Empowering girls through education, Project Soar Morocco has rapidly expanded from its original village — Douar Laadam in Marrakesh — to twenty-one sites across Morocco, serving hundreds of girls, according to the New York Times. The project aims to keep girls in school, enhance their education, inform them about developmental changes in their bodies as they mature (including providing them with hygienic menstruation kits so they don’t drop out of school), and encourage them to become leaders in Moroccan society, passing on what they have learned in the process.

Maryam Montague, the founder and director of Project Soar, has been a resident of Morocco since 2006 and is the proprietor of the Peacock Pavilions boutique hotel in Marrakesh. Project Soar is not only a way for her to give back to her adopted home, but also a way to fill a critical need to support girls as they become young women and enter into society. Long an icon of the Marrakesh fashion and design scene, as chronicled in her popular blog My Marrakesh and her book Marrakesh by Design, Maryam nevertheless has a core commitment to bettering the lives of those around her.

While Morocco has been the staging ground for the launch of Project Soar, Maryam has wider ambitions to expand the Project to other countries. The program — Project Soar in a Box — is designed to be easily replicated by trained volunteers and groups of girls, allowing not only for rapid and effective expansion but also sustainable development beyond the confines of Project Soar itself.

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.

The Long Shadow of the First World War on the Middle East

A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall Of The Ottoman Empire And The Creation Of The Modern Middle EastA Peace to End All Peace: The Fall Of The Ottoman Empire And The Creation Of The Modern Middle East by David Fromkin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

David Fromkin’s a Peace to End All Peace repays reading at least a second time. It is perhaps somewhat old fashioned in its sweeping historical narrative, but it offers a keen analysis of the final collapse of the Ottoman Empire during World War I and the subsequent disastrous settlement of 1922, seen from a British perspective and centered around the career of Winston Churchill. Largely absent is the perspective of the Arabs caught between the anvil of Ottoman Rule and the hammer of the British invasion. For all that, it provides a fascinating and insightful perspective into the motivations that drove the Allies in their campaign to destroy the the Ottoman Empire and assume control of its Arab provinces.

The exhausted postwar allies, primarily Britain and France, bickered amongst themselves as they carved up the Arab Middle East into arbitrary territories governed by weak puppets. Ironically, it was the champion of the British Empire, Winston Churchill, who argued that the British Empire was badly overextended in the Middle East, even as he laid plans to maintain order with a series of air bases in the absence of the British Army which he was demobilizing.

In the midst of the horrific carnage of the first World War, one hardly knows what to make of the “sideshow to a sideshow,” as T.E. Lawrence put it, a tragedy and a farce that has caused so much grief in the modern world, most of all to the Arab people whom Britain was supposedly “liberating” from the domination of the Turks. The biggest blindspots of the British, according to Fromkin, were the British assumptions that Turkey and Russia were dominated by a worldwide Jewish conspiracy — to which the creation of a Jewish homeland was in part a sop — that the Middle East would rally around a “caliph” handpicked by Britain, which chose the marginal Hussein of Mecca to fulfill the role, and that the Arabs had an interest in trading rule by Muslim Turks for Christian Englishman.

In their rush to create a new imperial order in the Middle East, both to maintain a buffer between Russia and India and to control a region than increasingly appeared to contain petroleum reserves essential to the British Navy, the British promised everything to everyone. They assumed that everything could be sorted out after they won they won the war, but the result was a series of messy compromises and subterfuges with the coming of the various armistices with the Central Powers. Having spilled so much blood in the war in the East, particularly in the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign, by the war’s end Britain was not only the only power left standing, but also felt an enormous sense of entitlement to its territorial gains. As a result, it went back on its promises to divide the region with the French and set up a series of weak Hashemite rulers in the hope of maintaining indirect control. Meanwhile, even in Egypt, which they had promised independence during the war, the British were confronted with a restive populace, and throughout the region were continually contending with unanticipated insurgencies. In addition, they were faced with a hostile Bolshevik Russia and a resurgent Turkey under the leadership of Mustapha Kemal (later Ataturk).

In the end, Fromkin presents us with a farrago of cynical manipulation, imperial greed, bumbling ignorance and incompetence, and naive good intentions which would be comic were the consequences not so tragic. In one sense, the modern Middle East is simply one more casualty of a war which as of that time constituted the most catastrophic event in human history; its tragedy is that the wounds have not healed to this day.

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Women in the Fantasia

Not a new story, but a good one from BBC Africa. Moroccan women beat the men at their own game by taking part in the Fantasia, the most dramatic of Moroccan holiday spectacles. Men or women, I just love to watch the horses charge and the guns fire.