Morocco is truly a land of striking contrasts and perplexing contradictions, this might sound like a common cliché found in travel books, but it is not. It is a caption that is intriguing and inviting for the lay tourist or traveler in search of exotic passions and fulfilling experiences; however, for the majority of the locals it is, at times, a painful truth and an unbearable reality of their everyday life that they would like to see changed once for all, especially in the political arena.
The country is ruled by one of the oldest monarchies of the world that goes back to the Idrissid dynasty founded in 788. It is very conservative in appearance and format, whereby the monarch is both a temporal leader: sultan/malik (king) and a spiritual chief: amir al-muminin (commander of the faithful), but, also, in alliance with the Christian West to fight the radical ISIS, which struggles to bring back the defunct Caliphate system of polity. The Moroccan monarchy has been a staunch ally of the US and Europe for centuries, a relationship characterized, of course, by ups and down but very firm. A relationship that is rewarding for the West, but hardly profitable for Morocco.
Unlike many countries of the MENA region, Morocco has surfed the Arab Spring tsunami waves successfully because, on one hand, though people are critical of the monarchy, yet they don’t reject it for its historical and religious legitimacies, on the other, the monarchy itself has always an ear on the grievances of the street and bends when there is need for that. A proof of this state of things is that at the height of the Arab uprisings, the king has proposed, for a national referendum, a more liberal constitution curtailing some of his massive traditional power, guaranteed by the time-old makhzen political system of governance.
As a follow up to the new constitution, the legislative elections brought to power the moderate Islamists of the Parti de Justice et du Développement-PJD, which unlike in other Arab countries are very respectful and supportive of the monarchy. Nevertheless, another Islamist party al-adl wa al-Ihsan, known commonly as jama3a, though extremely critical of the monarchy is, no doubt, the only respectable opposition in the country and has never called neither for the removal of the king nor he use of violence. They criticize openly the monarchy and deplore in, no uncertain terms, its predatory instincts and practices and call the king to redeem himself by giving up his personal wealth for the poor and adopting a Caliphate system of theocratic government. The late spiritual leader and founder of jama3a, Abdessalam Yassine, through the Internet, made this suggestion through “to whom it may concern” letter addressed to King Mohammed VI.
For the majority of Moroccans, jama3a is the only opposition in the country, because it is the only political institution that can call a spade a spade and tell the makhzen the truth in face without any fear or hypocrisy. People at large might not adopt their approach, wholeheartedly, but they respect them and respect their opinions, courage and their proverbial integrity.
Apart from the jama3a, the rest of the Moroccan political system is built on the concept of pretense and hypocrisy. The thirty or so political parties are all co-opted by the establishment. They pretend to defend the interests of the population and represent them in the official political institutions, and the state pretends to believe them, and as a result everyone gets what they want from “pretense politics”. Moroccan political parties are all modeled along the personality cult system, whereby leaders become zaim and if they play the game right may stay in the post for life, this is true for trade unions, too.
The parliament is another institution of political pretense; people get elected through either direct suffrage or quotas; by buying votes, or by the means of tribal allegiance, land ownership and wealth influence or central party benediction. Local parties exist but wield no influence; they are all supposed to be subservient to the central party leadership. Parliament membership is prized by rich and influential people because it gives them more influence and more wealth, with little investment on their part.
During the reign of the late King Hassan II, though the parliament was a mere rubber-stamp institution, he himself put together according to his political whim, yet he was in, no way, happy with its work and output. Unable to deal with the serious problems of the nation due to lack of freedom of action, the discussions, in this institution, turned into bouts of exchange of insults between the different political parties. Incensed by this turn of the events, Hassan II scorned his political creation by calling it: “a circus.”
Though the constitution of 2011 has curtailed some of the powers of the present monarch, yet the Islamist head of government Benkirane is shying away from using the prerogatives this constitution has granted him, in a show of respect to the monarchy and, of course, as an expression of political subservience, and, as such, it remains fully strong and executive. Whereas Islamists in the rest of the MENA region are claiming to be the only legitimate power, yet in Morocco they have entered in de facto alliance with the monarchy: quite a puzzling situation, indeed, which denotes the strength of the makhzen.
The constitution of 2011 recognizes, in its preamble, the multiple identities of present day Morocco, which are:
For the Amazigh, this is pure hypocrisy, though the constitution recognizes their language and culture, yet this is only a verbal statement that has no real effect on the culture of the concerned and their destinies. The Islamist government refuses, indirectly; to make the Berber language official. The Amazigh regions remain peripheral, underdeveloped and with the highest levels of illiteracy. The Amazigh activists, quite rightly, argue that both power and wealth are concentrated in the hands of the Arabs, making the native Berbers the underdogs of the country. So, the official recognition of their civilization is worthless and inconsequential, as it were.
Morocco is an Islamic country with a conservative way of life. Yet the country allows for so many practices that are in contradiction with the essence and the spirit of this religion:
Consumption of alcohol:
There are bars all over the country where locals can consume freely alcohol. They can, also, buy spirits, wine and beer in some licensed shops and in super markets, but if they misbehave under the effect of alcohol they will be arrested and brought to justice for illegal action and misdemeanor, quite a paradox.
Prostitution has always existed in Morocco in the past, it was discreet and the establishment has always tolerated it by looking the other way. However, two things have given it capital economic importance, nowadays: Gulf States increasing demand for sexual tourism and the development and sophistication of social networks. Now, it is a thriving “industry,” especially in the major touristic cities, not to forget also hundred of Moroccan young women migrating to Gulf States to offer sexual favors to rich locals on demand or as a live-in sex slaves. Prostitution has become such an important money-earning profession to the extent that, apparently, in poor rural areas, peasants encourage their daughters to go to the Middle East to earn money to sustain their poor families.
Morocco is one the world producers of cannabis known as “kif”. Indeed, it is the only crop grown in the northern part of the country. In the last three decades the government has been active in enlisting farmers, in this region, and helping them financially grow other crops, instead, but it is not an easy task because international drug dealers can always offer better deals to circumvent official efforts. On the other hand, Moroccan youth is very high on drugs and for many opposition voices, the government is not doing anything about it, to keep youth tame and docile, especially in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.
Religion has always been important in the lives of Moroccans throughout history, but it was always moderate. Jews have lived and thrived in Morocco for 2000 years, thanks to this moderation. When the Sephardic Jews were kicked out of Spain after the Reconquista in 1492, Morocco was one of the few countries that opened its door generously for them and since they dominated the Moroccan economy to the extent that they became the Sultan’s businessmen: tujjar as-sultan. The Jews also dominated, since then, Moroccan diplomacy and international trade.
Moroccan Islam, though Islamists who believe there is only one Islam with no local colorations reject this term flatly, is a mixture of Sufism and maraboutism. The Sufis came from the east around the 15th century and spread around the country, preaching a moderate Islam to uneducated farmers. On their death they were elevated to the rank of religious saints: marabout, and rural people built shrines on their tombs and gave them baraka “divine grace” attributes that allow healing powers. So, there are hundreds od saints around Morocco with different healing powers and whose baraka is celebrated every year at the end of the agricultural cycle (a pagan concept) by a moussem “festival,” organized by the entire tribe for days, reminiscent of ancient pagan rites.
After the rise of Islamism in the 1980s, Saudi Arabia, with the help of petrodollars, tried to export Wahabism to Morocco, with which it enjoyed excellent relations. This form of extreme religion, which aimed at the re-islamization of society, quickly developed into radical Islam (Salafist Jihad) that led to the painful terrorist attacks of 2003 in Casablanca.
Since, the establishment, which had always favored Sufi Islam, has further increased its support to religious lodges such as the powerful and popular Boutchichiya lodge based in Berkane, in eastern Morocco.
Realizing, that the fragmentation of the religious representation will make the imarat al-mu’minin (Commandership of the Faithful) stronger and more legitimate, the King has allowed the presence of Moroccan Shiites in the north of Morocco, under strict conditions of allegiance to the monarchy.
Life goes on
The contrasts and contradictions mentioned here above may be perplexing and baffling to the foreigners, but in reality they are the ingredients that make Morocco the fascinating mosaic that it is often portrayed in photographs, documentaries and travel literature, and people live happily with them, except in the case of politics, and consider them as part of their culture.
For many, Morocco is a “kingdom of thousand kingdoms”, a metaphor that delineates the following:
- Human diversity: Arabs, Amazigh, Jewish, and Saharans
- Geographical diversity: Mediterranean, Atlantic, Mountainous, desert
- Linguistic diversity: Arabic, Amazigh, and French
- Religious diversity: Islam (Sufi, Salafist and Shiite) and Judaism.
In Morocco, you can see at the beach a young lady wearing a bikini holding hand with her mother in total Hijab, a woman wearing a Moroccan Djallaba and a veil driving a motorcycle, a rural old man riding a donkey and talking on his smart phone, etc. In many ways these contradictions are the living spirit of modern Morocco that reconciles successfully the distant past and promising future.
Header Image Credit: ww.cdf.gov.eg