February 12, 2006
Morocco: Democracy, Facile Journo Idiocy on Moderation and Islamism
As a general matter, English language materials on the Maghreb almost never fail to annoy me. Here The Washington Post manages to do so: Feud With King Tests Freedoms In Morocco.
Having long had ... how to put it? Contact? Yes, contact with the group in question (long story, goes back a long ways), Adl wal Ihsane and been familiar with the Yassines, I have rather mixed feelings about the conflict described in the article. On one hand, being generally in favour of bringing Islamist groups into politics, I am generally in favour of engagement with Adl wa Ihsane. On the other hand, this particular dispute and the disingenous spin the Yassines are using rather annoys - well more the gullible lapping up of the same in certain anglophone quarters rather annoys.
Some commentary then:
Feud With King Tests Freedoms In Morocco
By Craig Whitlock
The monarchy in this North African country dates back 1,200 years and has survived foreign invaders, civil wars and communist plots. Now it is confronted by a new threat: a grandmother who preaches nonviolence and democracy.
I would hardly call her little campaign a 'threat' to the monarchy. A threat to Mohammed IV's image in some quarters, but to the Monarchy?
(We'll leave aside the Communist plot idiocy. Arab Nationalist plots are hardly communist.)
This week, Moroccan prosecutors are scheduled to resume a criminal trial against Nadia Yassine, a leader of Justice and Charity, an underground Islamic movement that has become increasingly aggressive in testing the rule of King Mohammed VI. Yassine, 47, was charged last June with publicly criticizing the monarchy after she stated in a newspaper interview that the country would be better off as a republic than as a kingdom.
"I don't think we'll die if we no longer have a king," Yassine said then. She could be sentenced to three to five years in prison and receive a stiff fine if she is convicted.
Although Yassine's comments echoed remarks she had made many times, her statement struck a nerve in the royal palace, which, like the leadership of many other Muslim countries, is struggling to maintain its grip on power in the face of pressure to embrace democracy.
Struggling to maintain its grip on power?
Oh come on.
Overblown journalistic boilerplate.
The Monarchy at present is probably in its strongest position in a decade. Certainly better positioned than the Monarchy was in the face of massive unrest in the early 90s. I have semi-fond memories of being in the country at the same time Algeria went to hell. Seeing the gendarmie in the streets was ordinary. And Hassan II was... well not loved.
At present M6 as people genuinely fondly refer to him is in a strong position, and memories are still strong of the old system.
Struggling to maintain its grip is gross exageration and pure pre-digested biolerplate (Mid East regimes are struggling....)
The difference is Nadia in her little attention seeking antics finally pissed off one too many officials.
Since ascending the throne in 1999, Mohammed has transformed his country by approving parliamentary elections, a robust press and equal rights for women, giving Moroccans more freedom than most of their Arab neighbors in North Africa and the Middle East. Those changes have also given new life to long-suppressed opposition groups that are demanding more concessions from the king but do not necessarily believe in a Western-style democracy.
As a result, Moroccans are watching to see who wins the latest battle between Mohammed and Yassine, whose families have feuded and dominated the nation's politics for decades.
A fair resume.
Yassine has shown no signs of backing down. When she appeared for her arraignment last summer in Rabat, the capital, she marched to the courthouse with a piece of adhesive tape over her mouth, emblazoned with a red "X." A huge crowd of supporters followed along. More than 150 lawyers volunteered to defend her right to freedom of speech.
Since then, she has set up a Web site, which is posted in three languages, French, English and Arabic. People who know her say she's almost eager to risk jail time to become a political martyr for her cause.
"I refuse the taboo of silence," she said in an interview last month at her home here in Sale, a city of 400,000 across the Bou Regreg River from Rabat. "I refuse to pay with my freedom."
Of course, she's quite media savvy. Indeed she is very modern in her approach to media relations and far more skilled than many of the King's advisors - above all the old guard. What in Morocco is called l-Makhzen.
The old school idiots have zero PR skills.
The Moroccan constitution makes it illegal to criticize or insult the king, who traces his lineage to the prophet Muhammad. Authorities said they had long tolerated Yassine's outbursts but that this time she went too far.
"In certain countries, you can talk about republican values," said Nabil Benabdallah, Morocco's minister of communications. "Here, we have monarchic values, and she is transgressing these values."
Example A of bad PR skills. Nabil Benabdallah. Of course, his reference is to French rhetoric, republican values and all that.
While the trial has attracted international attention as a test of Morocco's commitment to free speech and democracy, it has shed less light on Yassine, a complicated figure whose dedication to individual rights is questioned by many people here.She has cast herself as a feminist and a champion of democracy whose Justice and Charity movement has sworn to remain nonviolent. But Justice and Charity also favors the establishment of a strict Islamic state and has strongly opposed many of the democratic changes that have taken place under Mohammed, such as a new family code that gives more rights to women.
First, I agree, most commentary has lapped up the 'dedication to free speech and democracy' angle in a most simple minded fashion, and rather left out the extremely superficial 'commitment' of the Yassines to the same.
Now, I have no small sympathy for why many people joined Justice and Charity in the Hassan II era. At the same time, the organisation is profoundly neo-Salafi in my opinion and has largely been highly retrograde in its social positions. The opposition to the new Moudaouna, family code, was emblamattic. The new code gave Moroccan women improved rights in the area of divorce -effectively leveling the divorce playing field a bit. Justice and Charity was completely out-of-bounds in its rhetoric opposing the changes. Feminist? Eh.
FurtherJustice and Charity was founded by Yassine's father, Abdessalam Yassine, a cleric who adheres to Islam's Sufi branch and who has spoken admiringly of the Iranian revolution and has been called Morocco's version of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The movement is banned from participation in national politics, but its existence is tolerated by the government and it is considered perhaps the most potent popular force in the country.
"Islam's Sufi branch"? Bloody idiots.
Yassine was a member of a Sufi tariqa (path=organisation), yes. However Sufism is not a "branch" - it is an approach at best (although I grant in the East some Sufi turuq got so far out there they ended up being only vaguely compatible with the islam of the ulema. That is not general however). Of course, it's not particularly clear Yassine remains associated with the tariqa.
Leaving aside this pet peeve (as well as the description "cleric" - he's not a fucking "cleric").Many democracy activists in Morocco say they fear the Yassines have no intention of participating in a multiparty democracy. Among Morocco's secular elite, worries are widespread that if Justice and Charity came to power it would immediately ban alcohol, force women to cover themselves with veils and crack down on some of the other freedoms that make the country one of the most moderate in the Arab world.
Well, on one hand frankly the Maghrebine secular elites standards are far too French and divorced from the masses to be a standard for the development of Moroccan or Tunisian society (leaving the basket case that is Algeria out of this), on the other hand it is not only the secular elite that distrusts Adl wal Ihsane. Taking my contacts in the country in what I would call the pious middle as anectdotal evidence, there is plenty of distrust even among the non-secular. The Algerian example seeded deep distrust of Islamism in those quarters not already part of it.
This being said, I find the journo's rather typical and lazy use of alcohol and some women wearing some cloth over the hair as markers of "moderation" to be irritating.
No wonder "moderation' a la Western journos and general Western commentary isn't necessarily all that attractive to pious, practicing yet moderate Muslims. If the standard of moderation is not properly practicing one's religion, then it certainly will not seem attractive (perhaps merely being tolerant is fine, but I can't help but come away with the sensation that for most commentators moderation is drinking... understandable on a certain level as my scummy expat life may emphasize, but I try not to be so stupid as to mistake my sins as 'moderation' as opposed to indulgences I like) . The classic error of mistaking the familiar for the good.Some who have fought hard for Morocco's emerging democracy said they have had to grit their teeth as Yassine's trial has unfolded."This is really infuriating for people who have fought for women's rights and democracy," said Latifah Jbabdi, president of the Union for Feminist Action, a Rabat-based group that has tangled with Justice and Charity. "She knows the new king is moving toward democracy, but that's not where the fundamentalists want to go. The bottom line is that they want an Islamic state. They want ayatollah power in Morocco. We cannot go there."
Leaving aside the fact the Jbabdi represents a somewhat spoiled Rbati elite, I agree with her. The amount of movement since 1999 towards real, practical building of civil society is impressive. Nothing like the Morocco I first came to know back when the Soviets still existed.Another person with mixed feelings is Abdelaziz Koukas, the editor of al-Ousbouia al-Jadida, who interviewed Yassine last year and printed the comments that got both of them in trouble with the law. He is a co-defendant in Yassine's case.At an interview at a bar in Casablanca, he said he did not regret giving Yassine space to express her views in print. "They are fundamentalists, but democracy is supposed to bring all opinions to light," he said. "It's more dangerous to suppress opinions."Koukas looked into his glass of beer as he mulled the prospects of an Islamic movement coming to power. "If Sheik Yassine was the king, we couldn't come here," he said. "We couldn't look at girls. If the fundamentalists get into power, we as journalists will lose our freedoms."
True enough, however, the rules about calling into question the Monarchy are clear. Are such rules liberal? No. Is is democracy? Not really. However the space given for taking whacks at the Government in general and just about everything but the King is pretty large. My opinion is one takes things step by step.
Siting the interview in a bar, I should say, I find to be stupid.
But then that proves he's a "moderate" right?
Superficial idiots.Even leaders of Morocco's officially sanctioned Islamic party are dubious about Justice and Charity.Abdelkader Amara, a parliamentary leader of the Justice and Development Party, said Yassine and her movement have avoided working within Morocco's increasingly democratic system."People want to know what their agenda is," Amara said. "To be honest, in the religious field, I'm from the same house. But up to now, I don't really understand what they want to do."
Precisely, and the PJD as it is known, has gotten real traction.
Is there a good reason to be illegal now in Morocco? I don't think so. Not unless your agenda is something profoundly undemocratic.The Yassines have been challenging Moroccan kings for more than 30 years.In 1974, Abdessalam Yassine committed the brazen act of writing a 120-page public letter to King Hassan II, questioning the legitimacy of his claim to the throne and warning him of a coming Islamic "deluge" that would sweep him from power.The challenge was considered so outlandish that Hassan, known for using torture and repression to hold on to power, had Yassine declared insane and committed to an asylum. Yassine stayed locked up or under house arrest for most of the next quarter-century.
Well, the man of iron took no guff. Not after the coups against him.
In the final analysis, I have to say, it was better Hassan than some Algerian style corrupt generals.After Hassan died in 1999, Mohammed pardoned several well-known political prisoners and ordered Yassine released. If Yassine was grateful, he did not show it. Instead, he put pen to paper again and sent another letter to the palace. "To whom it may concern," it began, before accusing Hassan of having stolen $50 billion from the Moroccan people and demanding that the new king pay it back.
Well, the stealing thing was probably spot on, but one can hardly accuse Yassine of being constructive in engaging people, but then his thinking comes close to being takfiri in my opinion.Mohammed ignored the letter and instead collected accolades from home and abroad for encouraging a new political openness, including the creation of a commission that investigated human-rights abuses during his father's reign. But the show of tolerance didn't quiet the Yassines, who have kept up their criticism, with Nadia Yassine becoming the public face of Justice and Charity."My father never had any personal fight with Hassan II. The problem was with our Muslim history," Nadia Yassine explained at her home. "The monarchs under which we live represent the autocracy we are fighting. Our problem is with their political philosophy. It has nothing to do with them personally."
Well, the last line is not terribly accurate.
It's pretty well known that the Alaoui family are not the most pious in the world, and it is equally well known that the Yassine camp feel that (reasonably on some level) gross impeity on the part of the Commander of the Faithful is a no-no.Since her trial began, Yassine has drawn support from some unexpected corners.Morocco has long been one of the most reliable U.S. allies in the Islamic world. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackings, U.S. and Moroccan counterterrorism agencies have become close partners, and the two nations signed a free-trade agreement that took effect last month. However, the State Department rebuked the Moroccan government after Yassine was first prosecuted. It released a statement saying that it was "troubled" by the case, adding, "This move contradicts many of the important advances Morocco is making in promoting human rights."Gregory W. Sullivan, spokesman for the State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, said the agency was closely monitoring the case. "We still have concerns about what Nadia Yassine's arrest represents for the future of reform and the freedoms of press and speech in Morocco," he said.
To be fair to the US State diplos, in order to maintain standards, rather has to take that position.Yassine has found another ally in the king's cousin, Prince Moulay Hicham, a Princeton graduate who is second in line to the throne. In an open letter, he proclaimed his "full solidarity" with her defense, although he disagreed with her political views. "The survival of the monarchy itself will ultimately depend on its capacity to weather adverse opinion, however extreme it might be," he wrote.
Kha, Moulay Hicham.....
Moulay Hicham has a lot of irons in the fire.
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Interesting commentary. I sometimes wish I could get the Washington Post more reliably out this way - despite its flaws it seems to do a much better job of covering the ME/NA than any of the papers out here on the left coast and I don't like reading news online ( I'm old fashioned that way ). I'll admit to my ignorance on this one - I've never heard of the Yassines ( or at any rate if I have, I've forgotten them ) and it would be nice to see this sort of article locally once in awhile.
That said I appreciate your nitpickery on "Sufi branch of Islam" which is a description that always annoys me slightly, especially since it is such a fundamental error ( or sloppy semantics, whichever ).
I'll add another one, less relevant and vastly more pedantic, but...well, Morocco's monarchy is old, alright. Much older than the USA. But to say it stretches back "1,200 years" really isn't all that accurate in its implication. Yeah, some sort of regional monarchy has been around in some parts of Morocco for around 1200 years, going back to at least the Idrisids and Midrarids. However the tradition of a uniquely Moroccan unitary monarchy is not anywhere near as ancient. You can probably start it with the Sa'dids in the 16th century. The current dynasty has its origins in the 17th. Still plenty old for the WP to make its point, but I just dislike that kind of fudging.
But allow me to be completely inconsistent and disagree a bit about the use of the word "cleric." Yeah, technically it isn't strictly applicable to Islam as it implies a slightly different paradigm, but I think it is useful enough shorthand for Western audiences that bastardizing the definition a bit to encompass ulema et al is a reasonable compromise.
Posted by: Tamerlane at February 12, 2006 07:30 PM
Yeah, WP does seem to do a better job on MENA coverage.
Re the age of the Monarchy, quite right, I had thought about that but forgot to bitch about that.
Of course, the current dynasty does make a great deal out of the Idrisids in its own propaganda, so in general Moroccan education formed perceptions....
I nevertheless dislike the term 'cleric' - I suppose for a full timer like Yassine it's okay, but becomes ridiculous in many instances. For example, my JV partner's father is an Imam at the local mosque. Retired civil servant, he has the time. Calling him a cleric seems bizarre at the very least.
It irritates me as a general matter. Of course perhaps I am ignorant of usage in Xian terms, I might be unfair.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at February 12, 2006 08:13 PM