Last year, in July 2011, and just few days after the new Constitution was adopted, and before the sacred month of Ramadan started in early August, a video circulated on Facebook and some online newspapers in which Kasim Alghazali, a young ‘Moroccan Arab Atheist’ as he called himself, expressed his call for a collective day breakfast in Ramadan as a way of freedom of expression and belief. In the video, Alghazali called for the change of the old law (article 222) which criminalizes those who breakfast in public during Ramadan and penalizes them by imprisonment and fines. For Alghazali, this is against human rights Morocco seems to endorse both in the Constitution and in the international treaties and covenants it has signed. The video was also accompanied by another article by Mohamed Maqdissi who called the Moroccans on 29 July 2011 on ‘goud’ website to breakfast in Ramadan. This attempt follows two earlier events that took place in Mohammedia city (close to the Capital) last year and the year before (2009 and 2010). This first attempt was lead by ‘MALI Movement’ (The Alternative Movement for Personal Freedoms) and its leading activist Merieme Ghazaoui. The latter distanced herself and her movement MALI from such attempts in an interview published on 23 July 2011 on Hespress. She said that her movement changed its policy and it respects the Moroccan’s religiosity, and now she seeks more space for personal freedoms in peaceful activism and not in provocative ways. The Movement of 20 February has equally dissociated itself from such attempts of ‘collective day breakfast’ because the time is not ripe for that, nor is that a political priority, for at the end, for them, those who want to breakfast already do that in their houses, without provoking the public.
A year has elapsed since those events took place. Yet, it is not over yet. On 18 June 2012, some human rights activists have opened another debate that seems provocative in a country that has been in transition for some decades now. The president of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights, led by Khadija Rouissi, and supported by its vice-president and sociologist Abdelhamid Amin, besides few other public figures like Ahmed Assid, have called for annulling Article 490 of Criminal Law which criminalizes any relationship between a married man and woman not married, and may lead to imprisonment for one to two years. A relationship of the same kind between an adult man and woman not married is punishable by prison from one month to one year. Mokhtar Al-Ghazioui, director of Al-Ahdath Almaghribiya (Moroccan News) newspaper, joined these voices through a TV communication he delivered to Almayadin newly established TV Channel (launched on 11 June 2012, and based mainly in Cairo and Tunis). The part of the video that circulated most is that in which Al-Ghazioui expressed his views on individual freedoms and sexual liberty. More provocatively for a religious society were his words in which he expressed no objection if one of his family members (sister, mother, daughter, etc.) opted for a free sexual life outside marriage. The video became a debate on the media and Internet social networks, especially when a public preacher, Abdellah Enhari, expressed in a video harsh criticism to such voices, which were interpreted as a direct call for death to Al-Ghazioui. Enhari actually was quoting a Prophetic Hadith that disapproves of someone who allows his family members to practice prostitution or lead a free sexual life outside the community conservative norms, without the least protest against that. Reference was to being “cuckold” or “sexual fetish” (ديوث “dayouth” in Arabic) which is seen as abominable in a dominantly “conservative” and “religious” society. So, the question was raised again whether liberal calls for individual freedoms are Constitutional or not: the Constitution clearly protects individual freedoms, but at the same time the country is based on the monarchy whereby the monarch is the Commander of Believers. Are liberal voices of this kind antagonizing with the monarchical claim as such or are they simply calling for rights that the new Constitution of 2011 allows? Should the monarchy react to this debate which touches its foundation or should it leave that to the antagonizing voices in the country? This is the main question that the future will clarify when it comes to individual liberties.
This question of Islamic identity and public ethics was tense during the making of the new Constitution, and will for sure go on in the coming years of consolidating it. In brief, the issue is about tradition and modernity, which some hurry to classify as Islamic or non-Islamic, liberal or illiberal, secular or non-secular, Eastern or Western, while what it should be about, as moderates –Islamists and non-Islamists – claim, is a mid-way between tradition and modernity, where liberal and secular thought embraces some of the tradition, and where the latter opens up to the universal paradigm of thought. Morocco could in this sense be the epitome of this third space where the East and the West meet. Such a status was tempted after independence, and it has not found its clear way yet, and the new Constitution puts it clear that the way towards democracy as internationally known is the path to follow. This same path is full of “identity” challenges.
The challenge facing the Arab and Islamic world for the last two centuries has been whether to follow the Euro-Western model or not. Though economically bound to its hegemonic model, which international institutions (like the WB and IMF) foster, this part of the world still oscillates between two worldviews with an identity that seems in flux. Morocco is no exception in this matter. The only exception is that it struggles to keep its monarchy and religiosity despite the waves of change that are blowing in the Arab world. So, where is Morocco heading with its political system that reaches out to the West and still keeps its roots in the East? (Let’s use these terms for the sake of simplicity here, though such terms are vague and controversial). Will the new Constitution lead Morocco to join the Western models of constitutional monarchies like the UK where the monarch/queen is the head of the Anglican Church? Will the King(-dom) be silent about the religious changes that the new Constitution grants, i.e. individual freedoms? Or a new code of public conduct will follow as a way of preserving “conservative public etiquette” and allowing “in the private sphere individual freedoms that touch upon the identity of the country”? Does this make sense?
Article 3 of 2011 Constitution, for example, states that Islam is the religion of the country, and yet gives everyone the right of practicing their own religion. This article does not say it grants freedom of worship for the called non-religious practices, like same-sex tendencies and gatherings. Still, article 25 states that freedom of thought, opinion, and expression are fully granted. This means that the religious minorities, like the Jews, will be granted their rights, as has been the case in the previous Constitution. Still, again, one should dare to stop here and go so far as to raise this point for an Islamic context: the issue is not about religious minorities; the issue in this line of thought concerns minorities like the atheists and the homosexuals. It is not clear cut if one can call them non-religious because some of them claim to be religious despite their same-sex tendencies. It was common for the Moroccans to shyly read about atheists or pure secularists who strongly want religion out of politics; it was also shyly common to read or hear about homosexuals, though not in public media for instance; these were and still are taboos, though practiced behind the scenes here and there. Tel Quel mazagine (Nichane in its Arabic version) wrote a lot about these issues in both its French and Arabic versions, and it was not well received by the Moroccan conservative society, though it found good circulation among the readership for a while. The Gay Movement tried a number of times to organize some events in Marrakech but dropped the idea because that seemed very provocative; what the movement did was that it established itself in Spain and started an online page from there. Abdellah Taïa, a young writer based in Paris, is among the most spoken figures of the movement.
In all, there is a minority that speaks for freedom of public irreligiosity which openly confronts the majority that values public Islamic etiquette. More importantly, public irreligiousity – expressed for example by breakfasting publicly in Ramadan or establishing a movement or association for gays and lesbians could thus follow – provokes the Islamic aspect safeguarded by both the Constitution and the King, the Commander of the Faithful. That is where the challenge of “identity change” lies. Not to put too fine a point to it, with democratic change, identity and social structures witness a change, and that change in its initial phase is seen as a challenge that has to be faced, adopted, or adapted to, in a country some see as divided between the East and the West, while others want to see it identified in between the East and the West. The liberals and secularists who adopt modernity in its European format take such possible developments for granted, whereas the Islamists, who are in majority moderate in the country, take this with reservations. For terminology, by the Islamists I generally mean the moderate majority and not the tiny fundamentalists and salafists; this category finds sympathizers in all the folks of life and society classes. By the secular liberals I mean that small but influential part of society which is present either through political parties or strong business enterprises, or through the bourgeoisie that voices itself through some newspapers and human rights associations. For example, with February 20 Movement and the Constitutional debate that has followed it, the Movement of Citizenship Awakening is being founded (in progress) by human rights activists and liberal secularists to watch over the future implementation of the new Constitution and to curb any unconstitutional claims of the Islamists. By modernity in its European version, I briefly and simply mean that which gives full rule to reason over the divine, and to personal freedoms over community life preordained by sacred texts, and keeps faith as a personal matter not to be involved in political debates.
The wise politicians and civil society activists who are involved in the debate take into good consideration the Islamic tradition and are in constant evaluation of its compatibility with the internationally acclaimed human rights and liberties. With revisits of the Islamic tradition, they see no big antagonisms between human rights as pioneered by the European Enlightenment, and later on by the international treaties, and the Islamic discourse of human dignity and social justice. Yet, there is what is called “red lines” where “too much” is too much,” as a Moroccan saying goes. These “red lines” are the source of suspicion the liberals have on the Islamists, and are the source of ‘identity preservation’ for the latter. As in Judaism and Christianity, certain personal freedoms (like homosexuality, or gay marriages), are not allowed in Islamic orthodoxy, too. Still, how far can Islamic ethics stand in front of the liberal individual freedoms calls? How can the dilemma of a seemingly liberal Constitution work along with the religiosity of the State and Monarchy?
This said, I can outline four scenarios about this issue of individual freedoms in the Moroccan context. One, in this initial phase, penalty laws that concern breaking public religious codes may witness some changes towards more leniency, as a way of accommodating the democratic spirit of the new Constitution. This ‘little change’ causes the minority groups to ask for a wider scope of their personal freedoms. This is followed by provocations from some groups, to which the majority society responds with a defense of public ethics as a way of protecting the cultural and Islamic identity of the country. The higher authorities try to turn a blind eye to such provocations and protests. In a way, the taboos remain taboos, and their practice remains publicly uncommon, yet practiced and heard about here and there from time to time, as is the case now. It is a way of prolonging the status quo: respecting the religious majority, and the religious aspect of the Constitution. If this is not followed by a reformed educational system and sensitized civil society that is aware of identity changes, such a status quo may not last longer in front of these challenges, which many will see as a loss of Islamicity in the face of Western modernity. More than that, if this phase does not go as smooth as possible, many will read the new Constitution as a merely written text that does not in practice grant any concrete freedoms nor does it truly protect the ‘Islamic identity’ of the State.
Two, the minority groups keep pushing for full rights of associations and social activism. They may be supported by similar ongoing movements in the rest of the Arab world, which can also draw support from non-Arab associations, i.e. mostly European ones. This may happen at the time when the liberal secularists grow stronger at the expense of the Islamists who may be equally in a strong political opposition, supported by large masses, be they Islamist or merely culturally conservative. This scenario nurtures itself by the dichotomy of liberals versus Islamists, democrats versus fundamentalists, which is erroneous, for it prolongs the status quo, and keeps East versus West paradigm alive, and endangers the pluralist aspects of a democratic society. In this case, the Islamists are still seen as a threat to democracy, and the liberals as a threat to the national religious identity. (Such a scenario feeds itself also by the extremist and rightist discourses against the Muslim minority in Europe, and by any future hegemonic attempt the West tries again in some Islamic country, including in so many ways the repercussions of the issue of Palestine if not solved.)
Three, this scenario/model is simply like, say, the British model of a parliamentary monarchy where the monarch/the queen heads the Anglican Church. If the same thing goes in Morocco, the King turns into a symbolic figure without executive powers, and without in this case religious powers, in the medium-long run. In the foreseeable future, this does not plausible. Minorities can have their rights and the rest of society gets used to that as it moves ahead politically, socially, and culturally, and cares less about private matters. This scenario does not bring any newness that the Islamists claim; the historically long tradition of defense of ethics and morality in public space vanishes and the liberals see this as the culmination of their aspirations. The liberals, both Muslim and non-Muslim, can implicitly or explicitly say that the Western liberal model has always claimed to be the ‘end of history’ and this (possible scenario) just proves it. Historians can also claim that the historical antagonism between the land of Islam and the land of (post-)Christianity was a waste of time since at the end it all ends in the same way – i.e. in the Western model.
Four, in here, changes befall the secular liberals and the Islamists alike. Change occurs in society. The mindset becomes mature politically; the educational system matures as well; the cultural and the political develop into a more harmonious discourse where Islamic reformism and modernity thinking are seen as complementary; the universality aspects of human rights dominate over geographical distinctions; personal freedoms flourish, and community life does not vanish, but just becomes more regulated and respected as an aspect of difference, compared to the European model that seems to have lost the community spirit, which the Welfare State has replaced. The country, along with most changing Arab countries, develops a more accommodating cultural system that is rooted in the Islamic ethics and open to historical developments and human freedoms. Without losing much of its Islamicity, the country in this scenario safeguards its specificity and religiosity through an advanced educational system where religiosity is not seen as a burden or backwardness but a plus, a human spiritual capital, that nurtures the individual within the community, and does not imprison him within it. With such an educational system, both personal freedoms and Islamic public etiquette are recognized as values that do not antagonize but complement one another for the sake of stability and social justice. Modernity in this sense gets imbued with Islamic public ethics. A good educational system teaches such a compatibility; a good social system, a strong political structure, and a solid economy do enhance such a compatibility. Religion here takes a more individual aspect, and respect for others’ choices becomes a fact; yet, in this scenario, such individualism does not end up in non-religiosity or anti-religiosity. Rather, with an educational system that is pluralist and a political system that is just and democratic, religion remains manifest in public, and is not safeguarded by only the Islamists, but by most society ideologies and worldviews.
Scenario One, which is rooted in society now, will still prolong in the near future till real structural and institutional changes take place in the country, and till the illiteracy is erased and the population becomes better aware of its rights and duties. As long as this scenario is there, the country does not witness a real change. The second scenario can take place if the Arab Spring in general and the Moroccan current changes in particular are aborted (from inside or/and outside) before they make a real change in society. Scenario Two is regressive, and keeps the divide of liberals vs. Islamists, East vs. West strong. Scenario Three is a copy of the European model of constitutional monarchies where the religious has little space in public, since it is seen as a regressive element in society or as a threat to (liberal) democracy, or simply as a mere private matter. Scenario Four may be the one most Moroccans wish to see taking place; it is progressive, tolerant, and pluralist. It is, at the same time, the most demanding; it requires genuine efforts to come up with a genuine model that is neither purely religious nor purely liberal in the European sense of the term. This scenario, with its particular educational system that does not divorce religion from public life and the sciences, can be the example to follow by any State that tries to remain religious yet open. Otherwise said, this scenario learns from the non-pluralist Islamic models of countries like Iran, Sudan, and Afghanistan, as well as from the shortcomings of some secular-liberal and seemingly anti-religious European models. Without such a pluralist educational system, the country falls into the third scenario, which is a copy of the European existing model. It could be interpreted as a copy; or, it could still be seen as a historical development of socio-political structures; in this case it can be interpreted as universalist, and not merely Europeanist. The first scenario is realist but ambiguous; the second is regressive and antagonistic; the third is progressive but mimetic; only the fourth scenario, which may take decades of challenging work on all levels, can satisfy the religious/Islamic quest for reformism, democracy, and a genuine model of progress that does keep the sacred and the secular in harmony. Morocco’s democratic future oscillates between the last two scenarios, the third and the fourth, and it is up to the cultural and social changes the Moroccans experience to determine which scenario fits most.
Mohammed Hashas is a PhD Candidate at LUISS University of Rome. This article was originally written in August 2011 and updated in July 2012.