Wednesday, July 26, 2006

What is Going on in Morocco?

This article from The Sunday Times in the UK makes me cringe - what is going on? A quote (most of the article, actually):

Locals are up in arms over a wall that Bernard-Henri Lévy, the writer and philosopher, and Arielle Dombasle, his actress wife, have erected around their sumptuous clifftop villa in Tangiers. It partially blocks the view of the bay from the terrace of a famous cafe next door.

The view of the Straits of Gibraltar and Bay of Tangiers was said to have inspired writers such as Jean Genet and Tennessee Williams, once regulars at the Hafa cafe. Rachid Taferssiti, a Tangiers writer, referred to Lévy’s wall of of breeze blocks as an example of the “ransacking of the countryside”.

Sensitive to local concerns, Lévy is said to have put up his wall to shelter the shapely Dombasle from public gaze as she suns herself by the swimming pool of the villa. The spectacle of women sunbathing topless plays into the hands of a growing Islamist movement striving to turn Morocco, one of the more liberal countries in the Muslim world, into a strict theocracy.

At first it was only super-rich foreigners who came to live in Morocco, among them Yves Saint Laurent, the French couturier, and the late magazine magnate Malcolm Forbes, who flew in 800 friends from all over the world, including Elizabeth Taylor, for his 70th birthday party at his palace in Tangiers in 1989.

Since then, having tired of the south of France, the Who’s Who? of French society has taken up residence in Morocco, from sportsmen and politicians to captains of industry. Morocco has also been attracting more ordinary tourists, becoming a haven for westerners in search of exotic thrills just a few hours by air from London or Paris.

The bombings in Casablanca in 2003, in which 45 people were killed, do not appear to have harmed that traffic. Yet the rise of the Party for Justice and Development, as the Islamist organisation is known, could cast a shadow on the horizon if, as some predict, it becomes the dominant force in parliament after elections next May.

After it first gained seats in parliament, the party was associated with a campaign against the Miss Morocco contest, which it regarded as “pornographic”. All of those involved were denounced as “un-Islamic” and the competition had to be held in secret.

The group favours sharia, which would enforce a widely ignored prohibition on the sale of alcohol and oblige all women to wear the veil. It has won a big following among a Muslim population depressed by the spectacle of young men and women — and sometimes even children — prostituting themselves to foreign “sex tourists”.

An Islamist newspaper warned recently that the tsunami that devastated parts of Thailand and Indonesia was God’s punishment for immoral behaviour and that Morocco risked a similar disaster unless it mended its ways. Partly in response to such pressure the government of Mohamed VI, the modernising monarch, recently launched a crackdown on vice.

Dozens of women have been rounded up in raids on bars in Marrakesh and other Moroccan cities this month on suspicion of prostitution. Several bar owners have been thrown into jail.

At the same time, the authorities decided to make an example of Jack-Henri Soumère, a well-known French opera director who has been visiting Morocco for three decades.

He was given a four-month suspended prison sentence and fined £500 for homosexuality — which is illegal in Morocco — and possession of cannabis.

Aniko Boehler, the co-ordinator of Hands Off My Child, the organisation that brought the case against him, said many foreign visitors to Morocco seemed to think they were in Marbella. Their “neo-colonial attitudes”, she added, were disrespectful to local customs.

Yet it was not just the immoral behaviour of foreigners that was fuelling the indignation of conservatives and the ranks of Islamist supporters.

“The children of the Moroccan elite are just as bad,” she said. “For them, Marrakesh is just as much of a playground. They go there to use and abuse.”
I'm sorry, but is the country going insane? At least this article points out the roots of the Islamicist backlash - idiotic, careless, spoiled Westerners with no regard for how their actions will affect society. I mean, seriously, why would you go to a Muslim country and sunbathe topless?

Morocco does have a serious problem with the sex trade. And Westerners who shamelessly take advantage of it should not be surprised of such a backlash. Islamicism may be be destructive, restrictive, and - dare I say it - unmodern, but sometimes people in the Arab World see no other way to protect themselves from Western decadence. The Western media likes to say that the Orient is afraid of McDonald's and Hollywood, but it's more than that. It's the disrespect that comparitively rich - and therefore powerful - visitors to Islamic countries show the residents' culture there that poses the greatest hazard.

The far majority of the tourists in Beirut are benign - they check out the clubs, the restaurants, and the museums. They buy hookahs and rugs and go home. But there is the tiny percent that tries to buy and sell the local population that causes an extreme amount of damage. You can see the same, to a greater extent, in Morocco, and to an infamous extent, in Thailand.

When there is a backlash, it hurts much more than just the Westerners who tour Islamic countries. It hurts all aspects of liberalism - gay rights, womens' rights, economic freedom, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, etc. Westerners who cause the problems can then just stay home or go somewhere else, leavng the residents to deal with the consequences.


Anonymous homais said...

One of the most fascinating things about travel is the way we're drawn to a place because it has some hint or feeling of what we don't have in our own country, but when we arrive, we find that our ingrained way of life is stronger than we thought it is. We - not always consciously - try to turn our new destination into something that's more familiar to us, tame it maybe, even though it's the familiar that we're supposed to be escaping from. This is just as true of Saudis in London as French in Tangier. Even non-wealthy travellers do it.

Though, I do take issue with blaming the Islamist reaction on the decadence of westerners. Aside from the fact that all economic interactions will transform societies and we should be very wary of making common cause with reactionaries - even rhetorically - it strikes me that this is much more of an engineered moral panic on their part than anything else. Moral panics are the bread and butter of reactionaries, and I trust they would have found something else to tell people to be angry about, were it not this. So rather than make decisions and analyses out of fear of how the Islamists might react, it seems to make a good more sense to think in terms of costs and benefits to morocco, without walking on eggshells for the benefit of islamists.

July 26, 2006 9:32 PM  
Blogger Al-Fil said...

Dear homais,

You'r right, Islamist reaction is not only based out of fear of Westerners, but I believe it does have an influence.

I believe there are Islamists out there who live to stir up moral fear and anger inthe populace, and will find any way to do it. These people don't need Westerners' influence.

But I also believe there are Islamists who are drawn to Islamicism because they see horrible things happening in their society. Not everyone who arrives in bad places does it for a bad reason.

July 27, 2006 1:38 AM  
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