Saturday, January 06, 2007

Saddam Execution & Recent Events: A Moroccan Perspective

The casual reader of Tel Quel, a trendy francophone Moroccan weekly, or, to a lesser extent, of Le Journal hebdomadaire, might be forgiven for thinking that the average Moroccan is more interested in the depenalisation of cannabis, the right to convert to Southern Baptism or whether algebra will be taught in Tamazight than in events in the Middle East. One Tel Quel journalist wrote "Je n’aime pas le Hezbollah" ("I don't like Hezbollah"), thus showing how disconnected this magazine is from the broad strands of Moroccan public opinion - fiercely pro-Palestinian, pro-Hezbollah and anti-US.
There's of course nothing wrong in being in a minority, especially in political matters, nor is it a merit per se. In the present case, it probably reflects on the Moroccan elites' exposure to French politics and culture, with its consequent effects. Thus, stating "I don't like Hezbollah" should not be interpreted as "I don't like the way Hezbollah has allied itself with Emile Lahoud and Michel Aoun," but more as "I'm a clever & civilized Arab, not that like those bearded thugs in dishdashas and flip-flops burning Danish flags or shooting katyushas at Israel."
While those airing these kind of views tend to be a minority, they usually share with the majority an abysmal ignorance of the nitty-gritty of the situation in Lebanon or Iraq. MSK's interesting piece about Sunni and Shi'i names prompted me to comment that "the distinction between sunnis and shi'i is about as clear in the mind of the average Moroccan as the distinction between jacobites and melkites in the mind of the average Swede". Except for the not-so-rare Al Jazeera addict, most would not know Nasrallah Sfeïr from seyyed Hassan Nasrallah nor Walid Jumblatt from his father. The existence of Christian Arabs is a puzzle to most Moroccans, for whom "Arab" and "Muslim" are generally synonyms - oblivious to the fact that quite a few Moroccan Arabs used to be Jews. As for the Druze, Alaouites, Kurds, Circassians, Armenians, Assyrians and Copts...
One of my favorite anecdotes in this regard takes place in Brussels, where the large Moroccan community (around 10% of voters are of Moroccan extraction) has drawn attention from candidates of all political shades. One of them, then socialist candidate Abdallah Boustani, was very popular around the different Moroccan mosques he assiduously visited during the 2004 regional elections campaign. He would turn up at the gates for Friday prayers and address the worshipers in his eloquent Lebanese Arabic about Palestine and other Middle Eastern subjects close to the hearts and minds of Moroccans, whether in Morocco or in Belgium. Naturally, being a Maronite, one could also find him at the Notre Dame du Liban church on Chaussée de Boondael every Sunday morning. Of course, most of the Moroccans involved couldn't imagine that one could be an Arab named Abdallah and still be Christian...
Interestingly enough, the fact that Moroccans are not terribly well-versed in the intricacies of the ethnic make-up of the Middle East nor in the internal politics of each country is of little importance when considering the average Moroccan's support for Arab states, leaders or political movements perceived as being at the receiving end of US or Israeli policies in the region. I can only recall four demonstrations coming close to or exceeding the one million participants-mark in Morocco since independence (excluding funerals for the deceased kings Mohammed V and Hassan II) - one, in 2000, initiated by Islamists, gathered several hundred thousands opponents to proposed reforms to women's legal status (which nonetheless went ahead), whereas the other three all concerned events in the Middle East: the protests against the US-led attack on Iraqi occupation forces in Kuwait in 1991, Israel's bloody repression of Palestinians in 2002 and the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The very vocal but proportionally marginal Berber activists have, in isolated incidents, taken a view on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict diametrically opposed to the majority of Moroccan general opinion - Le Journal hebdomadaire revealed for instance that a Berber association wanted to reach out to Israelis in a fashion too provocative even for the majority of Berber activists:
"we feel no animosity towards the State of Israel. The conflict concerns first and foremost Israeli and Palestinians. This war takes place thousands of kilometres away from this country. It does not interest us"
Le Journal hebdomadaire however noted that
"A majority of Berber activists has already made clear its opposition to any initiative which might harm the interests of the Palestinian people"
As for the recent hanging of Saddam Hussein, or lynching to be more honest, I can only write about the reactions seen and heard around me, here in Morocco. These are very far from the more complex set of reactions in Middle Eastern countries with a Sunni/Shi'i sectarian divide. [Full disclosure: I am a bourgeois francophone earning many dozens of times the average revenue per capita in Morocco. None of my relatives, close or distant, could be described as pauperised. My colleagues are well-off indeed.] Despite these factors, which should theoretically favor political moderation, the reactions I encountered were disgust and outrage at what was best described as a lynching. The general public, already negative in the extreme to the US (7% of Moroccans polled by Zogby International had a favorable opinion on the US), were reacting to a perceived moral indignity - executing someone on the day of the Aïd el kebir. My wife, usually more interested in more mundane matters, went ballistic during a family discussion on the issue - I could also add that the the hanging of Saddam Hussein was spontaneously discussed by everyone, at home and at work, after the first formal Aïd greetings.
It is interesting to note how the Iraqi government has undeservedly escaped its substantial part of blame - the US government attracts hostlity as dung attracts flies. It could be put on the Moroccan public's sketchy understanding of the Iraqi situation, but it would appear that Morocco is not alone in this. A point worth reflecting on since Morocco is probably the most westernized of all Arab countries, along with Tunisia and Algeria.

No comments: