For about two centuries now, Moroccans, like the vast majority of Arabs and Muslims, have been searching for a magical formula that would allow them to stay true to their traditions and faith and, at the same time, catch up to the scientific, commercial, and political prowess of Europe and the West. Delegations were sent to France to check out the wonders of modern French civilization; individuals travelled and lived in European and American capitals; Western products fill the shelves of every Arab and Muslim supermarket, from Dubai to Casablanca; we get dressed in Western-style military uniforms and carry Western weapons; we proudly fly Western-style flags and recite national anthems at sports events; we use the Internet, cell phones, and every Western-made gadget to show that we are as capable as anyone else to live in the modern world; we travel the world in Western-made planes, fuelled by Western-extracted and processed technologies; we seek—no, demand—Western-style democracy and a long list of social and human rights, while condemning the West for its arrogance and gross materialistic culture; and we want anti-Makhzenian reform without questioning our religions, as Westerners have done in the last few centuries.
Abdellah Laroui, the great Moroccan historian, noted a long time ago that we are alienated (note that the word in Arabic, taghrib, is, etymologically, tied to the West, as if to be alienated is to be Westernized) between modernity and tradition. It is a fairly safe bet to expect that most of my fellow Moroccans reading this article are major consumers of Western products, but they most probably find refuge in an imagined past of upright ancestors, hazily pictured as ideal and wholesome, thanks to the sermons (khutab) that inundate our streets and souks, and stream through radio waves and the Internet. No Western-made medium exemplifies this schizophrenic state better than Al Jazeera television. A slick Western-style production, financed by a state that is deeply embedded in the global financial system, is keeping hundreds of millions of Arabs and Muslims stultified in front of their TV sets—raging at the West, but incapable of finding their way out to the freedom they have long sought.
As much as anything else, what we need in Morocco right now is to be what we choose. All Moroccans should have the right to live as they please and question and write about any subject that interests them. Moroccan artists and scientists should have absolute license to create and invent; men and women should pursue their dreams and desires however they imagine them; and businesspeople should have ironclad guarantees that their investments are protected by strong laws. If our model of freedom is France, Britain, or Canada, then we have no option but to enshrine these freedoms, which include the right to any opinion, however offensive it may be to tradition, without being harassed by self-appointed guardians of ancestral ways.
The new mudawwana (family law) and women’s right to share their Moroccan nationality with their children are gifts of secular policies, not religious ones. The committee that drafted Morocco’s new constitution was forced to make last-minute changes to the statement that Morocco is a “Muslim country” to one affirming that it is a “Muslim state.” Had the original statement remained, we would have been closer to a Western democracy, at least on this issue. But now, we are back to the Middle Ages, when religion ruled supreme in both Europe and the world of Islam. For one of the fundamental tenets of modern political systems is the separation of religion from politics. Technically, as the founders of democracy in ancient Greece knew, gods may be worshipped privately at home or in temples, but they have no place in a political, citizen-based system. Democracy, properly understood, and theology, do not mix well.
We may move, however slowly and frustratingly, toward more political accountability, but we will not make much progress if we don’t open our own selves to inquiry. Each of us, I am afraid, hosts a little tyrant inside. We have a hard time accepting differences in our midst. We want our friends and neighbors to share our beliefs; if they don’t, we hammer them with advice and what we call maw`idha. Few Muslim Moroccans have Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, or atheist Moroccan friends. We wake up and go to sleep in a vast ocean of sameness. We like the West for the liberties it offers, but we don’t do much to have them at home. This is why political revolutions are far easier to implement than cultural ones. Yet, without a solid cultural foundation that emancipates people from the fear of ghosts and spirits, we will remain mugharrabun, alienated between a future we desire and a past that pulls hard at our coattails and jellabas.
We may need another protest movement after the one known as “February 20th” does its work and recedes into the margins of Morocco’s new future. The democracies that are emerging now of the debris of war and turmoil—Iraq, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya—and regimes that seem to be on the verge of collapse—Yemen and Syria—are lessons for Moroccans to ponder. The non-Muslim people who have lived in Iraq since ancient times—including Jews and Christians—have either left the country for good or are in the process of doing so. Christian Arabs are threatened in most Muslim-majority nations. If we stay on this path, Arab states will more likely resemble the Iran of the ayatollahs than Spain or Switzerland. Is that what we want for our country?
A society, or nation, reaches its maximum potential when it allows its members to create and prosper without fear from cops or imams. If our political, social, and economic systems were to be well regulated—as the new constitution calls for—Moroccans could potentially unleash their intellectual and economic powers to create and share, invent and sell. The state could then collect more taxes to finance education, medical care, and major national projects. Poverty will diminish, prosperity could become more widespread, faith will be genuine, and more people will experience life at its fullest.
This is what freedom is all about. To me, it is less about what political parties do or don’t do, and more about maximizing the enrichment of human experience on earth. It is about equal opportunity and fulfilling work, whether one is white or black, Muslim or Christian, young or old, man or woman. We could still seek salvation through religion, but that won’t stop our society from developing and join more scientifically advanced nations. Let’s hope we get a taste of this new social order soon.