January 25, 2006
Maghreb & Islamic Liberalism: Superficialities & Hope for a Liberalising State, Islamic Feminism, etc
Returning to commentary, although forewarning this is post chemo and may lack a certain clarity:
Via Daniel Drezner's post on That's some interesting Islam in Morocco, I found this article from Der Spiegel on Morocco - one of my favourite countries in the MENA region - discussing Mohammed VI's efforts to modernise the socio-political culture:
Compare, by the way, to this article from almost six years ago:
An interesting, but rather flawed article I would say.
Commenting on the article in full, then:
The thesis is clear enough from the opening paragraph:
"Moroccan King Mohammed VI is using a tolerant interpretation of the Koran in an attempt to modernize his country. Will it become a model state for a democratic version of Islam?
The first part of the thesis is right without much discussion, M6 is leveraging his Commander of the Faithful position in a more clever manner than did his iron-fisted father (who nevertheless should get credit for creating a modern state rather than a collection of regional interests).
The second part, well, "democratic version of Islam?" - that strikes me as a foolish way to put the issue or even the challenge.
Perhaps, and here I am adopting Zakaria's point of view, as expressed in The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, but it strikes me the best (and perhaps actual) near term goal is modestly maintaining a liberalisation of society, and building local roots for that, which means roots in Islam.
In the late afternoon, Moroccans push their way into the narrow foyer at the Casa Port train station. When the express train to Rabat arrives, the gates are finally opened and the crowd surges forward to the railcars.
The two first class compartments fill up especially quickly at this hour. Many commuters work in the glass and steel high-rises of modern business center Casablanca and live an hour away by train in the quieter capital city Rabat, or in one of the rapidly growing communities along the route. Just before the whistle blows and the express train begins moving again, a tall man in his early thirties settles into one of the plush red seats. Judging by his expensive suit and tie, he probably works in the city. He pulls an inconspicuous black case from his briefcase, unzips it and, murmuring to himself, quickly becomes engrossed in his pocket Koran.
Oh the surprise!
I mean really now, this is nothing new.
I note a rather more subtle, however, lesson one may take away from this naively written paragraph. The Rabat-Casablanca commute. An jour or so, plus the commute onwards from Agdal station to the villa. This is not really "bedroom communities" in the US style, or even European style. It has far more to do with the educated elite that staff the modern economy having family ties in the Makhzen. The commuters I know, say in the financial sector, are not Casaouiene who've moved to Ribat. No, they're Ribatine who've taken jobs in the private sector, and that largely means Casa, not Ribat - which is the city of the Makhzen, the rentier wealth of the Administration, the queer hybrid of ancient Moroccan clientelism with modern French Administrative clientelism from the colonial period.
Ride around Ribat's suburbs and you see lots of fine villas. You see the visible evidence of rent extraction and outright corruption.
The well-educated children of Ribat's ridjal al-Makhzen (who no longer see opportunities in the Makhzen, at least not without some private experience) have been taking jobs in the private sector. Their parents often were pulled into the system without priviledge per se, and became something in that manner. Now, the children, ecudated abroad or at the very best technical schools, seem to be reorienting.
It is unclear what that means.
A girl wearing jeans, makeup and headphones over her uncovered hair sits across from the man in the suit. But instead of rock or rap, she's listening to delicate oriental tunes and melodious recitations of the holy scriptures.
Faux contrast. Nothing that would surprise me.
Religion is making a comeback in Morocco, and more and more young, well-educated Moroccans are devouring the Koran.
This is news? This has been true since effectively the 1980s.
Perhaps Quran reading has penetrated liberal talk to foreign journo quarters more, I'm certainly not under that impression.
The new piety, no longer limited to the mosque or prayers at home, is evident in full public view. More and more women are wearing headscarves, even in Casablanca's western fashion enclaves and Rabat's gleaming shopping centers. The designers of expensive caftans -- creations of brocade and silk, embellished with gold thread -- are now selling their products as luxury couture for the next party, and their clientele is no longer limited to wealthy tourists.
New piety is the old piety.
However, women wearing qaftans is not a sign of peity per se, its as much style as anything.
Women wearing eastern style 'abayas, that's a sign. Wearing Moroccan/Maghrebine styles tells you nothing at all, despite the continuous empty-headed simplistic Journo and others convention "dress like us = like us."
I've said again and again, it's utterly wrong headed and gets just plain wrong conclusions. Certain kinds of dress are strong identity signals. Others, much less so. The fancy Qaftan, often made to order and available even to the relatively modest, isn't a sign of peity by any stretch of the imagination, its a sign the whole marketing of the thing is doing well.
A New Take on an Old Religion
Morocco's 42-year-old King Mohammed VI has discovered religion as a means of modernizing his society -- and progress through piety seems to be the order of the day. By granting new rights to women and strengthening civil liberties, the ruler of this country of 30 million on Africa's northern edge, which is 99 percent Muslim, plans to democratize Morocco through a tolerant interpretation of the Koran.
Morocco's 350-year-old dynasty, the world's oldest next to the Japanese imperial dynasty, claims to be directly descended from the prophet Mohammed. And as "Amir al-Muminin," or leader of the faithful, the country's ruler enjoys absolute authority.
The Conseil Supérieur des Oulémas, or council of religious scholars, which the king installed a year and a half ago, has been issuing fatwas on the most pressing questions of the 21st century -- and, surprisingly, they've been well-received by both young people and hardened Islamists. If the king's reform plan succeeds, Morocco could become a model of democratic Islam.
As a point of fact, the Conseil was created in 1981, although apparently did little.
As for M6 discovering Islam as a tool to modernise his society, eh.... I should rather think he noticed Amir al Muminine was a useful tool to tackel certain problems.
As for Morocco become a model of "democratic Islam" - that is not likely to happen at all in the context of closed Conseils and the legitimacy of the the Amir al Muminine.
Now, liberal and recovering some of its ancient liberalism, well that is quite possible - probable I would not say, possible yes. Depends how the tightrope is walked. Merely trying to throw cover over the government's latest fads and fancies is to walk the Egyptian path and lose to real democratic, but illiberal Islam, the Islam of the angry mob (as the satisfied mob tends not to push for anything, and indeed, not be a mob at all).
Five decades after his country declared its independence from its French and Spanish colonial rulers and six years after the death of his father, Hassan II, Mohammed VI is trying to achieve a delicate balance between thousands of years of Islamic tradition and the demands of a globalized world.
That's a fair cop.
Eight weeks ago Mohammed VI, as Morocco's "citizen king" and "first servant," addressed his "dear people" during festivities to celebrate the anniversary of his grandfather's return from exile. "The path we have irrevocably chosen," said Mohammed, "is to strengthen civil rights for the benefit of all Moroccans - whom I view as equals, regardless of their status." The foreign dignitaries in attendance, French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, praised the course that the government of Prime Minister Driss Jetou has taken under the king's leadership.
Ah yes, the controversial anniversary celebrations - somewhat overshadowed by the idiocy of the surprise declaration of the week long holiday (costing the private sector much money) and the identification of an al-Qaeda type network.
Interesting comments, but they're in tension with illiberal action on the front of the press.
Now, personally I find some of the repression of the press understandable; there are good reasons at this stage to leave the King alone in terms of critcism if that gives one the space to go to town on just about anyone else in the govenment. If that's the rule of the game, it's a fair trade off for the current situtation, and a decent point from which decent critical journalism can be learned and play a liberal role in dissolving much corruptoin in the Makhzen. Much, but not all.
The Jettou government, though is in trouble and may not last much longer.
Soumia Benkhaldoun, 42, is also enthusiastic about her king. An engineer with a doctorate in computer systems, Benkhaldoun is one of the six women representing the Islamist "Justice and Development Party" at the country's opulent parliament building in Rabat. Although her party's true objective is to preserve a devout and god-fearing lifestyle in Morocco, the Islamists are also very pleased with the reforms of family law that began in the fall of 2003.
Eh, very pleased?
No, keeping their bloody heads downs in terms of public commentary, you gullible journo git.
It's clear from under-current commentary that the old school is most displeased with the new family law (al-moudaouana), although its 'non-effective application' mitigates their displeasure.
The public debate in Morocco currently revolves around ways to reconcile the demands of feminists with the Islamists' concept of family. Should women be permitted to go to the beach in a bikini? Should they be able to hold high-ranking public office? Do illegitimate children receive the mother's citizenship? The answers to these and other questions, in Morocco and in other Arab countries, will likely reveal whether the Islamic world is even capable of reform.
The last sentence is idiotic, truly idiotic. Women going to the beach in bikinis, while enjoyable, are hardly up there on my lists of indicating of "freedom" as such. Not in anything but a trivial fly into a foreign country and look around to see how much it looks just like yours-sort of way. (I note for the record one can go to pure Moroccan beaches where nary a tourist is seen, nor even upper class Moroccans, and see a whole gamut of bathing wear, right up to the latest French ones - that's inter-Moroccan).
Holding higher office is not all that much a novelty in MENA and even more so in the wider Islamic world. The hard-core conservatives hate the idea, but the Islamists seem to be fine with in, on their own terms. Plenty of women leaders in the modern Islamist movement.
The question of illegit children is a fairly marginal one. Yeah, it tugs on heart strings and represents an injustice, but it's marginal.
"The king has taken our concerns into account," says Professor Benkhaldoun, and a proud smile darts across her girlish face under her white headscarf. Indeed, Mohammed VI has managed to incorporate Morocco's only Islamist party into his reform agenda. The progressive king and the pious member of parliament from Kenitra, a woman so devout that she even fasts once a week when it isn't Ramadan, both base their reasoning on the same source: Sharia, or Islamic law.
So pious she fasts once a week outside of Ramadan? Queer, benaissaouiea?
I am not sure M6 has genuinely managed to incorporate the PJD into his projects. They're going along. Incorporated?
The Islamist party has also taken up the cause of this form of family law derived from the scriptures of Islam. Whether it's the issue of polygamy (which, though not prohibited, has become the exception), arranged marriage (which is no longer mandatory, but still possible), or divorce based on the principle of fault (now women are also eligible to file for divorce) -- the devout parliamentarian believes that the core issue is "the stability of the family." Only well-established family structures, says Benkhaldoun, can protect a society facing high unemployment and widespread poverty from collapse.
Correction: Women were always eligible to file for divorce, although the backwards ass legal system made it extraordinarily hard. Of course, it makes everything extraordinarily hard, out of principle. Look at my bloody JV project, 7 fucking months.
"Morocco's future lies in the hands of women"
Despite the popularity of the new family law, the monarch had to step in himself after the parliament failed to ratify the new legislation. Mohammed told the members of both houses of parliament, to whom -- in another unprecedented move -- he presented the law for ratification. The new version of the "Mudawwana" was then unanimously approved. The law is an historic compromise, one that is compatible with both the International Bill of Human Rights and Sharia.
Obviously our journo was lapping up what the Palace people were feeding her. Uncritically.
Re the popularity of the new law, that's not clear at all.
It is hardly unprecedented for the Monarch to present legislation, indeed the Parliament largely exists as a rubber stamp (after discussion and sometimes modification) of laws deriving from the Government / Palace - although there has been feisty opposition that has forced change (e.g. the original Moudaouana reform had to be shelved). The Unanious passage, however much it may make the simple minded fool of a German reporter happy in her superficial feminism, was more a sign of Royal power than democracy.
Now all Moroccan women, even those who are illiterate, know that they are protected by law, says civil rights professor Fatna Sarehane, who is working on a study about the implementation of the new law.
Well, all who've been watching the promo campaign on domestic TV.
Although many jurisdictions still lack family courts, says the Casablanca attorney, the new legislation is an enormous step forward. For the first time in the country's history, discrimination against women is as punishable an offence as sexual harassment. Even if the Islamists come into power one day, says Sarehane, it's a step that can "no longer be reversed."
The problem with liberals in the Arab world, and feminists. Their naive belief in law as a medium of change.
Obviously it can be reversed, just convince M6. Or a coup d'etat.
Women are particularly strong in Islamist grassroots organizations and the Justice and Development Party.
That is true, however. Amazingly present.
Academic Benkhaldoun, who always wears a strictly conservative, floor-length robe when not at home, has fought for women's rights in the Islamic world for the past 20 years. In her lectures, she attempts to prove that, according to the Koran, women are entitled to participate in government. Political involvement seems to run in the family: Benkhaldoun's mother, as a member of the Istiklal Party, fought for Moroccan independence.
For context Istiqlal (or Istiklal in typical franco-maghrebine transcription) was the more conservative of the two main anti-colonial parties.
Until recently, Benkhaldoun headed the parliament's Defense and Foreign Policy Committee. She takes her job seriously, preparing conscientiously for debates. She often doesn't come home to her husband and children until after evening prayers, for which parliamentary sessions are interrupted.
Well, that at least has some novelty value, given most of the legislators do not take their jobs seriously.
But on the other hand it also illustrates the attraction of the Islamist parties.
As compared with the "secular" parties, they are far less parties of factions, and much more odern, hard working political parties.
I often observe in the region that were I a "meat and potatoes" voter in the MENA region, I'd vote for the Islamists. They're usually more competent (although when the ideologues have gotten higher level power, they seem to get, well, ideological and start to piss away this advantage for grand political idiocies).
The king's newest initiative, which calls for allowing women to be trained as imams in the future, has also met with the Islamists' approval.
I bloody well doubt that, will have to check this.
Traditionally women are not permitted to speak out during prayer, so as not to "provoke" the men, explains Fatima al-Kabbaj, a graduate of the time-honored Islamic theological University of Karaouine in Fez and the first woman in the 16-member Council of Religious Scholars. Kabbaj instructed the king and his siblings in the laws of faith. She says that the monarch has recognized that women are better able to gain the trust of the illiterate, most of whom are also women. Besides, says Kabbaj, devout women are also more effective with the rural population and Morocco's four million poor than inaccessible imams.
Interesting assertion. I am not sure what I think of it.
Gaining the people's trust is a difficult proposition in the poor neighborhoods of Casablanca, a city of almost four million. The young suicide bombers who blew themselves up on May 16, 2003, killing 45 people in the process, came from these neighborhoods. Since then, security forces have arrested thousands of alleged members of the radical Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group. In late November, Moroccan authorities cracked down on a cell consisting of 17 fundamentalists suspected of having planned attacks on behalf of the al-Qaida terrorist organization.
Yeah, this coincided with the 50th anniversary events, themselves queerly publicised at the last minute.
Draw your own conclusions.
On behalf of the king, Minister of Religious Affairs and liberal historian Ahmen Taoufiq is battling the influences of inflammatory Wahhabism, which usually comes from Saudi Arabia. Some of his methods include keeping a closer eye on the country's 35,000 mosques, closing illegal prayer rooms and prohibiting the sale of audio cassettes by imams spouting hate speech. "We want to prevent our young people from being led astray," explains Fatima al-Kabbaj, who greets visitors in her green living room on the outskirts of the capital sheathed in an elegant gray caftan, her head covered with a light scarf.
Well, of course the Wahhabism (inflammatory or merely tedious) really has not that much to do with the indigenous neo-Salafi movement, nor has, to my knowledge, Saudi financing been particularly large.
But le's be clear, Taoufiq is using police state methods here.
Good or bad, this is not democracy, nor is is liberal.
However, at the same time, it probably is necessary and could be helpful if it is done right - not by an enforced vision of secular Liberal Islam that non-Muslims with axes to grind like to imagine (think Irshad Manji) - but simply keeping the Takfiris out of bounds.
Serving peppermint tea and homemade sweets, Kabbaj says that the terrorists "have failed to comprehend our tolerant religion." To "fill the void" and prevent "dark men" from gaining power, the people ought to be more thoroughly instructed in the form of Sufism practiced in Morocco, says Kabbaj.
Interesting comment. I wonder what she means. The Sufi tariqa were quite capable of generating takfiri though in the past, but I guess the appeal to Sufi for the Western gets the right image.
Plus the Sufi is now opposed to the neo-Salafis.
In a reflection of that effort, 50 women, known as Murshidat, joined 150 young men for the first time last spring when they began their studies in Dar al-Hadith al-Hassania, the university's theology department in Rabat. The men will go on to lead Friday prayers in mosques, while the women will give religious instruction there. Their academic program also includes the history of other religions, psychology and languages, such as Hebrew, Greek or German. Fluency in English and French is a prerequisite.
Well, for all my skepticism so far, this sounds like an interesting and useful plan. They sound like people who are capable of giving advice resolving the modren with the ancient, bridging advice, which in the context of the urban fringes of the coastal cities, pulling in the rural and the small-towner, is very useful.
An Islamic grounding in tolerant but not bent over backward religious teaching is a good place to start at building liberalism - certainly more like to put down roots than utterly alien liberalism from Europe, the end product of a similar evolution.
A Religious Democracy
Janjar is convinced that once they have obtained their doctorates, the graduates of the program "will bring a new debate over the Koran into society." The king, he believes, wants to "transform religious governance into democracy." For this reason, those who are entrusted with promulgating the king's message must have certain freedoms; otherwise they would lack credibility.
On the last, see Egypt.
But can the plan succeed? Can the Moroccan king control the interpretation of the Koran in a country where anyone can gain access to competing foreign views on the internet? The palace, at any rate, is willing to try anything. It's even set up a website that will enable the faithful to chat with religious scholars at 1,000 key mosques. In addition, Radio Coranique Mohammed VI has been broadcasting religious programming for more than a year. And during the last fasting period, the king not only had a woman lead the traditional religious discussion panel at the palace, but also inaugurated an Islamic satellite TV station.
I think yes. The Monarchy has just enough underlying legitimacy that this might float. Not a sure winner, but it could well work.
Another tool in Mohammed's battle for the souls of his subjects is the "National Initiative for Development." Although officially more than half of the government's budget is spent on social projects, Morocco is still ranked 124th on the United Nations Human Development Index. With a budget of just under €25 million in immediate aid and another billion euros between 2006 and 2010, the government hopes to reduce poverty by half within the next five years.
Well, here is where we get to what really is the core of social problems in the Maghreb. Poor economic growth.
I'd rather less of the royal initiative in cash and more of it in liberalising domestic rules on such things as creating corporations, etc. There is far more to do there.
Still, what is actually being done is not without value, but remains far too much in the French statist tradition.
If the king has his way, Moroccans will liberate themselves from the slogans and handouts of radical Islamist preachers. Although they may represent a threat to Mohammed VI's reform policies, the only Islamist party seen as capable of succeeding in next year's parliamentary election is the Justice and Development Party.
This is a stupid statement. PJD is the only actually allowed to run and win.
The party's young leaders are using the Turkish ruling party, AKP, and the German Christian Democrats as their model. In the eight cities controlled by the Islamists, they have already dispensed with prohibitions on serving alcohol, Western films and provocative swimwear -- knowing full well that Morocco's economy depends on tourism.
Well, the real power in the cities is the Royal Wali. There is no way a Wali is going to allow the PJD to outlaw the sale of alcohol etc. just like that. Another dumb comment.
Voters could put the reformed Islamists in the majority in the parliament, provided they are allowed to run for office throughout the entire country. That's why Soumia Benkhaldoun and her fellow party members look for candidates close to the people, using grass-roots voting. They have understood the king. They've even understood many other men. Translated form the German by Christopher Sultan
Majority is bloody well unlikely given the way Parliament is set up, but largest single voting bloc, yes.
Posted by The Lounsbury at January 25, 2006 07:06 PM
Filed Under: Economic Development , Economic Policy , Foreign Policy & MENA , Gender Issues , Islam & Politics , Islam General , Islamism , North Africa , Op-Ed
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"The problem with liberals in the Arab world, and feminists. Their naive belief in law as a medium of change."
Get back on chemo, so you won't notice when I plagiarize the hell out of those sentences.
Posted by: matthew hogan at January 26, 2006 11:00 AM
Feel free. If I can not generate quotable quotes, or phrases to be lifted, what good am I?
Posted by: The Lounsbury at January 26, 2006 01:03 PM