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Islamism and Democracy 1

Not long ago, I had the chance to talk with some young activists from the USFP, Morocco’s largest socialist party, who are involved in the party at the national level. Because I had a friend with me who was clearly bored with their political talk, I posed a deliberately provocative question. “What do you say to those young people who insist that nothing you’re doing here matters, because politics is just a game for the elites, and all the decisions are made by a small group in any case?”

One of the activists confessed that the leaders of his party have largely sold out, in order to obtain the privileges that come with proximity to power. Still, he insisted that society needs a political framework to develop, and he defended his own role as an attempt to revitalize his party from within. Yet he admitted, “Politics is dead in Morocco; there are no ideologies, no political discourse, no dominant program and its opponents; nothing but total anarchy.” Comparing the Makhzen to the Cosa Nostra he said, “At least the Cosa Nostra had discipline in what they were doing, but our political elite doesn’t even have that. There’s no one running things in Morocco. It’s just a mess.” He added plaintively, “I’m 27 years old, still a young man, and look at the country in which I find myself. I have to live another forty years in this shithole!”

I asked if it would be possible to deblock the situation by forming an alliance between the Left and progressive forces within the Islamist movement. The activists hotly denied that there was any such thing as progressive Islamism and said, “Are you asking us to make an alliance with people who want to throw us in jail for drinking alcohol or going out with our girlfriends?” They brought up the example of Iran, in which the Left allied itself with religious conservatives to force out the Shah, only to find themselves betrayed and even massacred once the revolution succeeded. Other examples, mostly negative ones, were raised of religion mixing in politics, and they warned me, “For these groups, elections are only a means to achieve power. Their real goal is to impose divine law.” One of them added, “The king’s constitutional role as Commander of the Faithful actually protects me in this case. Without him, it would be extremist imams who speak for Islam in this country.”

When I proposed that democracy requires recognizing the will of the people even when the majority support an Islamist program, the activists accused me of trying to impose a naive Western worldview on Morocco. In Europe, they pointed out, democracy came only after a long process that began with an intellectual rebellion against the doctrines of the Church, and continued through the Industrial Revolution and the ideological struggles of the 20th century before developing into secular democracy as we know it today. “So Morocco isn’t ready for democracy?” I asked. They replied that Morocco isn’t ready for Islamist groups to take power. As one of them put it, Morocco is an Islamic culture, and he himself is a Muslim, so he sees nothing wrong with people acting on their personal religious beliefs. But he draws the line at movements whose goal is to inject religion into the political sphere. “Religion is a personal matter, and it should stay private, between yourself and God.” As soon as it becomes a political program, he is against it.

I pointed out that there are many sincere young people in Morocco who long for democratic reform, are open minded and tolerant and would never seek to impose their personal beliefs on others, yet who see Islam as the axis of their lives and are drawn to the PJD because they see it as the party of clean government, the one least tarnished by proximity to power. What does the USFP have to say to them? How to include them in the political discourse? Surely they shouldn’t be written off as extremists? I’m not sure if the activists answered my question, or if I even expressed it clearly, but I imagine they would insist that the PJD has no program to develop the nation, provide jobs, improve the educational system and so forth; so if these young people are serious about laying the foundation for a democratic future in Morocco, they should ask themselves if the PJD is really the right place to look.

A few days later I met with the friend who had taken me to meet the group of activists. I returned to something that had been bothering me from our previous conversation. The activists had characterized the PJD as extremists, and accused me of Western naiveté for imagining it was possible to form an alliance with groups like them. But are the PJD really extremists? I asked. How are they different from the Christian Democratic parties of Europe, or the governing party of Turkey, or any other party founded on religious values, which then develops a practical program for governing a secular, democratic nation? Wasn’t it an exaggeration to say that if the PJD were to one day take power, they would refuse to respect the democratic process and install divine law instead? Most importantly, doesn’t characterizing the PJD as extremists play into the hands of the Makhzen, since the Makhzen present themselves as the only force capable of protecting Morocco from a future of religious intolerance?

I mentioned the case of Ahmed Reza Benchemsi, the editor of Nichane, who wrote an editorial criticizing the king for, on the one hand, labeling as “nihilists” those who wonder if politics is an empty game in Morocco and the elections just for show; while on the other hand, in the same speech, insisting that he alone has the authority to decide the broad political program of the nation. Benchemsi was right to call out the king for his contradictions, and he got in trouble for it and risked going to jail; but then, just a few months later, following an incident in which a YouTube video of a “gay marriage ceremony” at Ksar al-Kebir provoked a mob to attack the man’s house and seek to drag him into the street, Benchemsi circulated a petition calling on the state to use the full force of its authority to protect personal liberties from the dangers of extremist mobs. Wasn’t it hypocritical, I asked my activist friend, for Benchemsi to oppose state power when it went against the interests of his secular, educated group; only to support it when he imagined those same interests were under threat? By inflating a single incident into a threat to the entire Moroccan social order, wasn’t he appealing for protection to the same arbitrary authority he claimed to oppose?

My friend rejected my interpretation of the event, saying that he’d been among the first to sign Benchemsi’s petition. Benchemsi had done nothing more than call on the state to do its job and protect the social order, and the threat from Islamist mobs was real. “They really did attack that man’s house, and if he’d been there, he would have been killed.” I replied that gays are sometimes killed in the U.S. for their sexual orientation, but we don’t condemn religious movements as such for the acts of a few violent men. Where was the proof that this was the fault of Islamist movements, rather than an isolated case where a mob of hotheads got out of control? I won’t be attacked on the streets of Casablanca for coming out of a bar, or for walking with my girlfriend.

My friend replied that all I had to do was read the words of the Islamists themselves, and watch what they did, to understand their hatred for modern liberties. “That’s all they’re concerned with, shutting down bars, protesting festivals, imposing their morality on others. They have no positive program for Morocco. Where is their program to build roads, provide jobs, improve public health? The only thing they want to build are mosques. If they talk about judicial reform, it’s to bring the our laws into conformance with the Qur’an. If they talk about educational reform, it’s because we need more Islamic training in schools.”

I replied that any political party has its hotheads, and some of them even make it into elective office, but a party or movement can’t be judged by its most extreme members. “I won’t accept that the PJD, if they ever gain power, would refuse to play by the rules of the game. First of all, Moroccans would never accept having their personal freedoms taken away. Second, the PJD will be judged on their ability to improve people’s lives, not their religious rhetoric. Third, Morocco isn’t an island, it has relations with the rest of the world. Any governing party will have to preserve those relations. All of those factors will force the PJD to rein in its hotheads and govern in a modern, secular context.”

My friend assured me that in any case the PJD will never take power, because the Moroccan political scene is too splintered for them to gain a majority. And he insisted that he has no problem accepting the PJD as legitimate political rivals, but it’s another thing entirely to ask him to form an alliance with them. “I have my principles. I’ve dedicated my life to democracy, economic development, personal liberties and human rights. I won’t compromise those principles to work with a group that doesn’t share them.” He concluded by saying, “Some people claim that to be against Islamism is to be with the Makhzen. Others claim that to be against the Makhzen is to be with the Islamists. But they’re both wrong, and I won’t accept that false choice. There is a third way.”

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