Morocco Embraces Modernization Without Shrugging Off Traditions

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In a rundown Moroccan pool hall, an elegantly framed picture of King Mohammed VI hangs on the walls alongside faded posters of pop singers like Avril Lavigne. Likewise, in the luxury Golden Tulip Farah hotel in Casablanca, the king’s picture stands in the gleaming lobby against a backdrop of plasma-screen televisions broadcasting CNN and the latest HBO shows.

Right up the road, old-fashioned cafés are mostly filled with old men smoking and sipping on mint tea, while a few blocks away, fashionable young women and men gather at ocean-side restaurants with names like Tahiti Beach Club. Some of the women are clad in flowing headscarves, while others don designer tops and jeans.

But in a Muslim nation such as Morocco, it’s not that modern-day women eschew the teachings of Islam. Rather, the North African nation of 34 million uses the Koran to preach a progressive brand of Islam — one that allows women to counsel in mosques or prisons, for instance. Likewise, King Mohammed VI uses his title as “commander of the faithful” to expressly protect all faiths, not only Muslims but also Christians and Jews, who’ve thrived in Morocco for centuries. At the same time, Mohammed VI is one of only two kings in the Muslim world to trace his lineage directly to the Prophet Muhammad (only Jordan’s King Abdullah shares that distinction), earning him a special place among the world’s 1.2 billion adherents of Islam.

This is Morocco, a moderate Muslim nation embracing modernity without shrugging off its valued traditions. It promotes women’s equality, human rights, religious tolerance and social liberalization — all while remaining true to its Islamic heritage. That unique mix has led many in the West to prop Morocco up as a model for the Muslim world, although Aziz Mekouar, Morocco’s man in Washington, cautions that this formula can’t necessarily be replicated throughout the region.

“It’s very difficult to say the country is a model because each country has its own realities, its own history…. Morocco is Morocco,” Mekouar told The Washington Diplomat.

The ambassador emphasized that this transformation has been 100 percent “made in Morocco” — a homegrown movement that’s tailor-made to the country’s religious beliefs and propelled by a forward-looking king. “In our case I think our society, our social and political fabric, allowed the country to open up.”

Indeed, over the centuries Morocco has opened itself up to an amalgamation of cultures that has shaped its multiethnic character. Located on the northwestern tip of Africa — a short ferry ride from Spain and less than an eight-hour flight from New York — Morocco’s Arab and Berber roots intermingle with European and African influences.

Though Western-friendly, Morocco is firmly ensconced in the sphere of Arabic-speaking nations in North Africa and the Middle East. But unlike some of its autocratic neighbors, hundreds of civil society groups operate freely in Morocco, some 600 independent newspapers and other publications abound, and recent local elections were widely considered free and fair by international observers.

But Morocco does not have a secular government. The Alaouite dynasty has ruled the kingdom since the 1600s, and today, King Mohammed VI wields absolute authority under Morocco’s constitutional monarchy. In fact, adherence to the king is almost a religion unto itself, with his portrait peppered throughout the country — including the ambassador’s office here in Washington.

“He is the ultimate custodian of institutions,” Mekouar said, describing the king as “a kind of referee” in the political process.

Yet Mekouar insists that authority doesn’t mean authoritarianism. Although Mohammed VI holds ultimate power, he’s clearly willing to share at least some of that power with an elected Parliament. The ambassador compared Morocco’s government to a European-style parliamentary system, whereby “the government needs a majority of the vote in Parliament, and obviously the majority is coming from the elections,” he said, noting that the Moroccan constitution resembles that of France, which was Morocco’s protectorate from 1912 until independence in 1956.

“It’s difficult for an American mind to understand that. For Europeans it’s easier. The monarchy gives a lot of stability. In fact, monarchies in the region tend to be more stable,” Mekouar explained, citing Jordan as an example. “The legitimacy of the monarchy gives huge stability to the country and allowed us to go through important reforms.”

And as for those reforms, Mekouar said “the king is the one who sets the long-term vision for the country.”

Fortunately, most Moroccans think he’s a pretty good guy.

This summer marked King Mohammed VI’s 10th anniversary on the throne, and his immense popularity has helped him usher in a wave of reforms that would have been unthinkable just a decade ago.

The ambassador noted that when the young king — who just turned 46 last month — delivered his first speech, he vowed to push democratization, human rights and gender equality. “And if you look at the last years of progress, he delivered,” said Mekouar, a polished, approachable diplomat who has served as ambassador to Italy, Portugal and Angola.

One of Mohammed VI’s most notable achievements has been supporting women’s rights, because “a country that doesn’t address 50 percent of its population can’t progress,” Mekouar said, echoing a statement often made by the king.

A major milestone was achieved in 2004 with the passage of a revamped family law, or Moudawana, that granted women extensive rights. Before the “imbalanced” code was revised, Mekouar said women could be entrepreneurs or ambassadors “but were not considered adults” in the eyes of the courts. “According to the new family law, the husband and wife are both head of the household,” he said, and as such, entitled to the same divorce, property, inheritance, custody and other rights.

Yet significantly, all of these legal changes were made according to Koranic text — part of a larger campaign to advance social liberalization within the confines of Islam. For example, women can teach Islam and counsel in mosques, schools and even prisons as mourchidates, or religious counselors, under a novel program that has underpinnings in the teachings of Prophet Muhammad. It’s feminism — Moroccan-style.

But Mekouar stressed that Morocco isn’t reinterpreting the Koran to justify new laws. “The family law was adopted by unanimity in Parliament, including the [Islamist] party, because they considered it perfectly compatible with Islam,” he said, noting that a commission of respected religious scholars, lawyers, women’s groups and others all had a hand in examining verses of the Koran.

“We showed there is no contradiction between Islam and equality,” he added. “This is because of the real will and real vision of the king, and because he put his legitimacy behind it.”

The king also single-handedly put his weight behind exposing human rights abuses perpetrated under the rule of his father, King Hassan II. Since then, the Arab world’s first “truth and reconciliation commission” has been the only such commission to actually pay out compensation on some 16,000 individual cases for a series of arrests, kidnappings, killings, forced exiles and “disappearances” from the 1960s to the 1980s. Compensation ranged from as much as 0,000 to no less than ,000 depending on the circumstances, along with social projects for 11 affected provinces, universal health care for victims and families, and the closure of all but roughly 100 missing persons cases. And although no perpetrators were ever named or brought to trial, the effort appears to have peacefully closed an ugly chapter while avoiding vengeful bloodshed.

On the democratic front, municipal elections went off without any major hitches in June, with the Party of Authenticity and Modernity (PAM), a new party closely aligned with the king, edging out the Islamist Party of Justice and Development.

Most experts agree that ironically, the power of the monarchy has enabled such democratic strides to take place.

“While it seems counterintuitive, the king of Morocco is the greatest driving force for democracy in the country,” said Joseph Grieboski, founder and president of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, a nonprofit in Washington that promotes religious freedom. “His majesty has supported and encouraged open and free elections, the establishment of new political parties, and a more open and free press. Something as simple as renaming the Ministry of Information to the Ministry of Communications is a demonstration of the devolution of power from the palace to the people.”

Yet not all is paradise in the Kingdom of Morocco. Some critics caution that the country’s reforms go no further than the palace’s door.

“While the king’s vision and support for these projects has been crucial to their success, the same appetite for reforms challenging the king’s authority or economic privileges has been lacking. Today, just over 10 years after Morocco’s experiment with political liberalization began, Morocco resembles an absolute monarchy much more than the democracy to which it rhetorically aspires,” Maati Monjib and James Liddell of the Brookings Institution recently wrote.

The authors accused the new PAM party of “influence peddling” to position itself “as a long-term stability buffer for the palace, capable of securing a majority in Parliament and marginalizing other parties.” They also cited the recent rejection by a Casablanca court of an appeal by two Moroccan news magazines whose weeklies were destroyed after they published opinion polls about the monarchy. Even though the poll showed an overwhelmingly positive response to the king’s 10-year reign, the court found that the country’s monarchy “cannot be the object of a debate.”

But the debate clearly doesn’t center on the king’s power, which most Moroccans respect. The poll in fact found that 91 percent of Moroccans thought well of Mohammed VI’s first 10 years in power, but they had “reservations on the king’s record in the fight against poverty and the promotion of women’s rights.”

Indeed, entrenched prejudices remain — delicately balancing the issue of polygamy, for instance, the king didn’t outlaw it but instead gave women the right to approve a husband’s request for more wives.

But even more so, the ambassador says it’s the economy that is the hands-down priority among average Moroccans. And it’s no surprise.

Morocco’s business-friendly environment has made it the top destination for foreign direct investment in North Africa (with FDI of .57 billion in 2007), contributing to GDP growth of nearly 6 percent last year — and expected growth of around 5.8 percent this year despite the global economic turmoil, according to the ambassador. Yet unemployment, poverty and illiteracy remain pervasive, especially in urban slums and rural areas. Mekouar admits the social inequity is palpable.

“When you travel to Morocco, you can see the first world and the third world,” he said. “There’s a tremendous social gap — it’s measured in terms of education, in terms of poverty, access to health care — and you can see it.”

But he credits another pillar of the king’s strategy for tackling the problem: the National Initiative for Human Development, a billion social development plan whose goal is “to make sure the economic growth trickles down to the poor,” according the ambassador.

“And you can see the results,” he said, citing a reduction in the national poverty rate from around 15 percent five years ago to 9 percent today (though it remains much higher in rural areas), along with a steady drop in unemployment from 19 percent six years ago to between 9 and 10 percent today.

Moreover, Mekouar says Morocco’s banks weren’t allowed to buy those toxic assets that crashed the world economy, so the country’s banking industry posted a healthy profit at the end of 2008. “We also had a budget surplus from 2007 to 2008 so that has given us some room to maneuver.”

But Morocco’s textile and automotive parts industries have taken a hit, as have the amount of remittances sent to the country. And unlike some of its neighbors, Morocco doesn’t have a cache of oil or gas supplies to rely on, making it vulnerable to outside energy shocks.

But an even bigger problem is making sure the country’s young people have jobs to keep them occupied — and away from terrorist recruiters. Mekouar says a “lack of knowledge and integration in society” among the country’s youth is particularly dangerous because “when you’re young you want to be a part of something bigger, you want to make the world better — and you have to show them that there are better ways of doing that than killing people.”

“You have to give them something,” he stressed. “You absolutely have to give young people a sense that they are needed by society, that they have a stake in society, and of course that means jobs, that means education.”

And education entails a frank discussion of Islam, not vitriolic hatred. “We must teach Islam as it should be taught — to young people who lack the knowledge of what real Islam is,” Mekouar said, explaining that the message must be in line with the Sunni Maliki school of Islam practiced by Moroccans that preaches coexistence with other faiths. “Islam is a tolerant religion and has been that way for ages.”

Yet Morocco’s own tolerance has made it a target. In 2003, suicide bombers set off at least five blasts in Casablanca, killing 45 people (including 13 of the bombers) in the country’s worst-ever terrorist attack.

Since then, periodic arrests have been made, but Mekouar says that ultimately prevention lies with the people. “Every now and then the government announces that it has dismantled some terrorist cells,” he said. “You have to fight the fight. But it’s the people who must reject terrorism, who must say, ‘This is not Moroccan.’ It’s the population working with the authorities that prevents terrorism.

“Real Muslims do not recognize extremists as Muslim. It’s just not understandable for normal Muslims to kill innocent people in the name of Islam. In Islam, if you kill one person, you kill all of humanity,” Mekouar added, noting that more than 1 million people marched for peace just after the Casablanca bombings — including members of Morocco’s vibrant Jewish community, which numbers around 5,000.

“Jews are a minority but they are not treated like a minority in Morocco,” Mekouar told The Diplomat. “They’re not Moroccan Jews — they’re just Moroccans, and always have been.”

Indeed, Morocco practices what it preaches, with a long tradition of coexistence that dates back to 1492, when Spain’s Ferdinand and Isabella began expelling Moors and Jews, many of whom jointly sought refuge in Morocco.

“Then during World War II, King Mohammed V — grandfather of the current king — told the Jewish community leadership that ‘nothing will happen to you that does not happen to me and my family’ when confronted by the possibility of Vichy French persecution of the Jewish community,” noted Grieboski of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy.

Today, grandson Mohammed VI has continued that tradition— one of his top advisors, Andre Azoulay, is Jewish, and the king has been one of the few Arab leaders to denounce the Holocaust, recently calling it “one of the most tragic chapters in modern history.”

“I think the king just recognized the reality and it’s not acceptable to deny reality,” said Mekouar, referring to Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has denied the Holocaust’s existence.

Morocco also enjoys cordial (though unofficial) relations with Israel, serving for instance as a secret meeting place for Israeli and Egyptian officials ahead of President Anwar Sadat’s groundbreaking journey to Jerusalem in 1977.

But the ambassador also pointed out that Morocco is equally committed to the Palestinian cause and resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on the so-called road map. “The solution is to end the hardship of the Palestinians, who should be living in their own state, side by side, with a secure Israel,” Mekouar said.

He praised President Barack Obama for taking on what he calls “a core issue in the Middle East,” saying the new American president is “doing the best he can in a difficult situation.”

“I think there is a genuine will of reaching out to the Muslim world. The speech in Cairo was very well received in the Muslim world, and it’s clear he’s trying his best to show a commonalities of views,” Mekouar said. “The Muslim world is watching but they also recognize that efforts are being made.”

Mekouar, who oversees an embassy of 12 diplomats, has seen many ups and downs in U.S. politics during his seven years in Washington. He was here when Morocco signed a free trade agreement with the United States in 2004, when Morocco became a major non-NATO ally of the United States, and when it received a 7.5 million Millennium Challenge Compact in 2007.

But outside of official bilateral politics, he’s been equally impressed by the American people. “The election of President Obama was a message sent directly by Americans themselves — you can’t say that you can’t make it here. Americans today are not the Americans of 30 years ago,” Mekouar said, adding that Morocco could learn from the nation’s “sense of solidarity, community service, even fundraising — in other countries it’s the governments that are relied on. Here it’s people doing things with their own money,” he said. “The big success of America as a country was made by people for themselves, people who had a sense of ownership.”


About the Author

Anna Gawel is the managing editor of The Washington Diplomat and news columnist for the Diplomatic Pouch.

Last Edited on July 7, 2014