18 February 2007
A step backward in Moroccan freedoms
By Anna Mahjar-Barducci
While the world is busy watching the developing crises in the Middle East, Morocco is independently moving toward modernization, but not without obstacles. Freedom is still a privilege for only a few in the country, though the monarchy presents itself as a promoter of civil rights.
In recent weeks, the "Nichane case" has polarized attention in Morocco. Last December, Moroccan Prime Minister Driss Jettou announced the banning of the weekly magazine Nichane for publishing a report on popular jokes about Islam, sex and politics in the country. The report, which meant to disclose how popular humor reflected prevalent opinions in Moroccan society, immediately prompted harsh criticism from Islamists and, subsequently, from the government.
The staff of Nichane - which promotes articles in Moroccan dialect over those in classical Arabic - received death threats. A Kuwaiti cleric issued a fatwa against the magazine after publication of the jokes. The Moroccan authorities behaved little differently. The magazine, which began in 2006 and is highly appreciated by youths for its independence, was accused by the government of not respecting the Moroccan press code because it had attacked "holy values." Driss Ksikes, the publisher and director, and a reporter, Sanaa al-Aji, were charged with denigrating Islam under Article 41 of the Press and Publication Law of 2002.
The situation became unexpectedly dangerous for the two journalists when the court ruled they should be sentenced to three years in prison. However, last January the sentence was suspended by a Casablanca judge, and the magazine will be reopened in a few months.
However, the reaction of the Moroccan government still represented a blow for freedom of the press. A Nichane communique stated that the government's decision to accuse the magazine of harming "public morale" was a "dangerous and illegal precedent." Nevertheless, the magazine will from now on have to bow down and respect the society's "red lines."
Aboubakr Jamai, editor of Le Journal Hebdomadaire, was not as lucky as the Nichane journalists. He recently had to resign and leave the country to shield the magazine from a fine he was ordered to pay last year in a controversial defamation suit. A Casablanca court ruled that Jamai should pay $354,000 in damages to Claude Moniquet, the head of the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center. Moniquet claimed the magazine had defamed him by publishing criticism that questioned the independence of the center's report on the disputed Western Sahara. Moniquet's report was favorable to the Moroccan position.
The Moroccan government now has to make a crucial decision. The kingdom claims to be a beacon of reform in the region. However, if it continues to persecute journalists, Morocco will be no better than other Arab countries where there is little space for free debate.
Yet Morocco can legitimately aspire to be part of the modern world. A few weeks ago in Washington, I met Andre Azoulay, an adviser to King Mohammad VI, who came to the United States for a series of conferences organized by the American Moroccan Institute. Azoulay, no matter what your political position, is one of those people who makes Moroccans proud. He is the only Jew to serve as adviser to a leader in the region. Every year, he organizes a music festival in his hometown of Essaouira, in which Muslims sing in Hebrew. He did not hesitate to condemn the recent Holocaust-denial conference in Tehran, though unfortunately the contest for the best satiric cartoon there was won by a Moroccan.
In the West, the Arab world is often perceived as monolithic. It is seen as a place overwhelmed by Islamists, whose stigmatization of others is legitimized by a majority of people. But Morocco - the country where teens went crazy over the film "Marock," a love story between a Jew and a Muslim, the country where Nichane has called for freedom of religion, is different. The kingdom can actually be proud of its pluralism.
Azoulay embodies this phenomenon. He describes himself as "an Arab Jew," and believes that the "pluralistic spirit of Andalusia" is still alive in Morocco. However, we don't need go so far back for examples of coexistence between Muslims and Jews. Many Moroccan Muslims saved Jews from persecution by the Vichy French during World War II. In the same spirit, Moroccan Jews living in the diaspora remain nostalgic for their native land and the years in which they coexisted with Muslims.
Something has indeed changed since those years. As Azoulay noted: "Nowadays our religions are falling into the trap of fundamentalists." The Moroccan government, by condemning Nichane and other publications, is merely doing a favor to Islamists, who cannot seem to laugh at jokes and who would not accept a Jew as an adviser. By condemning journalists, the government only deepens the gap between Morocco and modernity.
Anna Mahjar-Barducci is a Moroccan-Italian journalist. She was correspondent in the Occupied Territories during the second intifada. Her commentaries are regularly published in the Italian daily Il Foglio. She wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.