Morocco: The quiet revolution

Der Spiegel
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?
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.

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.

Religion is making a comeback in Morocco, and more and more young, well-educated Moroccans are devouring the Koran. 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.

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 Suprieur des Oulmas, 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.

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.

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 Jos Luis Rodrguez Zapatero, praised the course that the government of Prime Minister Driss Jetou has taken under the king's leadership.

Feminism Islam-style

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. 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 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.

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.

"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.

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. 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."

Women are particularly strong in Islamist grassroots organizations and the Justice and Development Party. 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Fighting Extremism

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.

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.

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.

Mohammed Sghir Janjar, publisher of a literary publication and Minister Taoufiq's representative in the Foundation for Islamic Studies and Human Sciences in Casablanca, is pleased about what's happening in Rabat, calling it "a small, quiet revolution." Using Harvard University as a model, the best students will be encouraged to enter a doctoral program in the university's Department of Theology -- for a monthly stipend of 200, a princely sum in Morocco, where a quarter of university graduates are unemployed.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

DER SPIEGEL 2/2006 - January 9, 2006
By Helene Zuber
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan