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Is Morocco a Closed Society?

This question came up a few days ago, when Yahia introduced me to some Europeans who were visiting Tangier for the first time. They were artists, so we discussed why there aren’t more venues for contemporary culture in Morocco, such as theatres, galleries and concert halls. A Polish woman in the group suggested that one reason might be that Morocco is a “closed society,” by which she meant conservative, tradition-minded, suspicious of individual expression. I told her that this depends on how one defines “closed.” Morocco may seem closed to her, but that could just be her reaction to it, based on a superficial response to outward forms like the hejab or the mosque that seem to exclude her. In fact many Moroccans, even most, are quite willing to engage with foreigners and exchange ideas with them, despite belonging to a social system, rooted in Islam, whose inner coherence depends on setting frontiers between believers and unbelievers. In any case, Morocco’s version of Islam has always been tolerant, allowing for great cultural diversity; and Moroccan society is increasingly porous in modern times.

Yahia pointed out that there is a “hard core” in Morocco that feels like its identity is under threat from the changes brought about by modern life. Like all modernizing societies, Morocco is atomizing. Individualism is on the rise, and this threatens the traditional social cohesion based on group identity: family, tribe, and the Islamic community. A minority are prepared to react violently, trying to preserve what is threatened even with force. Yet it’s clear to me that the vast majority, even of tradition-minded people, are on the side of greater openness. They want its benefits and understand its necessity. What needs to follow is a frank discussion among Moroccans about the right balance between traditional identity and a “new Morocco” of individual rights and responsibilities. This conversation, however primitively begun, is already taking place.

One sign of this is the debate between editors Rachid Nini and Ahmed Reza Benchemsi. Nini is the editor of Al Masae, an independent journal which, in the short time it has existed, has leapt ahead of the pack to become Morocco’s most widely read newspaper by far. His opponents call him a populist demagogue, and even most of his supporters would call him a conservative force, a defender of Morocco’s traditional Arab, Islamic identity. Yet he is also known for exposing corruption and abuse of power, and as an advocate for transparent, rational government. From all evidence I would call him a democrat, not an apologist for the way things are. His role is to give Morocco’s “silent majority” a voice in the public forum, and that’s already a plus. Benchemsi is the editor of Nichane and Tel Quel, sister magazines that delight in stirring up controversy, usually by attacking some aspect of Moroccan social conservatism. He is a defender of individual liberty and secularism against the traditional social contract, which is based on Islamic values. He has defended gay rights, prostitution and the legalization of hashish, and has criticized the compulsory nature of the Ramadan fast. At times he seems to take his positions to extremes, as if seeking attention though the most controversial stance. Like Nini, he criticizes the monopolistic nature of the Moroccan state, its arbitrariness and lack of transparency. However, his critics say that he speaks mainly to a small, Westernized elite, since the liberties he defends mean little to Morocco’s impoverished majority, still mired in economic necessity.

Both Nini and Benchemsi have pushed the limits of expression in their respective journals, and both have found themselves in trouble with the law as a result. Both are expanding the bounds of public discourse compared to what went before, and both are reformers and modernizers in their own way. Yet far from being allies, a bitter rivalry has broken out between them, with each attacking the other in his columns with invective and insults. Nini loves to point out that Benchemsi gets a large part of his financial support from foreign investors, and accuses Benchemsi’s project of being fundamentally anti-Moroccan. Benchemsi retorts that Nini plays on the ignorance of his readers, stoking their fears of change into a sort of lynch mob mentality. Indeed, the readers of Nini and Benchemsi seem divided into two camps, and it is rare to find someone who admires and defends them both. However, the point for me is that despite the crudity of the debate—which shows the limits of public discourse in Morocco, and how far it has yet to evolve—the fact that it is happening is a positive sign. Morocco is far from being a fully open society in the sense of the advanced industrial democracies, but it is far from a closed one either. The diversity of views and the passions they arouse are testimony to that.

I was witness to something similar when Yahia and I rode a public bus in Tangier. The bus was half full when we got on, and the driver, an orthodox Muslim with a beard, was playing an Islamic sermon over the radio. Even without knowing the sense of the words, the tone of the imam’s voice struck me as angry, aggressive. The sermon was at full volume, making conversation impossible, so all the passengers were sitting silently. Perhaps some approved, others not; but those who didn’t weren’t saying so. Yahia sat down and opened a novel he had with him, but soon decided to get up and speak to the driver. “This is going to be a long ride, and I can’t deal with this for the next twenty minutes.” He went to the front of the bus and asked the driver to turn off the radio so he could read. The driver disapproved, but said with a smile, “I’ll do it, if you tell me what your book is about when we get to the end of the route.” So we finished the trip in silence, and once the driver had parked the bus and we were the only ones left, he beckoned Yahia to take a seat beside him. “Now tell me about your book.” Yahia had just started reading the novel, so he summarized the action so far. The driver wasn’t impressed and admonished him, “By asking me to turn off the sermon, you may have prevented my passengers from being saved from Satan. What importance can your book have, compared with the Qur’an? You can read all the books you want, but it doesn’t matter if you’re ignorant of the book that matters most, which is the word of God.”

Despite these harsh words, the conversation was friendly, and it went on for several minutes before concluding with smiles and a handshake. But when I asked Yahia to describe it to me in detail, he said it wasn’t worth it. For him it was the same old story: a question of trying to be an individual, with individual interests and tastes, in a society where ideological attachment to Islam is all too common. For him, the bearded driver was simply a representative of a general type that keeps trying to impose its one-sided views on him. But later, with distance, he came to see the exchange in a more positive light. In my view, Yahia’s decision to ask the driver to turn off the sermon was courageous. Others in the bus may have felt the same way, but he was the only one who spoke up. And the driver met him halfway, granting his request but turning it into a friendly challenge, an exchange of ideas. So each got something he wanted, and the most important thing is that the conversation took place at all, in a friendly way. That is the democratic spirit, an exchange of widely diverse views on equal ground. It shows that even if Morocco hasn’t yet found the right balance between traditional values and individual liberty, between its communal past and a more open future, nevertheless it has, within itself, the means to get there.


Comment from magician
Time: September 30, 2009, 00:19

This is a positive view of both the limitations and the possibilities existing in Moroccan society. Respectful conversation and willingness to listen to another’s point of view is the basis of intellectual interaction.

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