Morocco: The price of anti-Americanism

It's what America wants: A moderate Muslim country moving toward democracy. But Bush's policies have so enraged Moroccans that urgently needed reforms are seen as a U.S. plot.


Craig Charney
January 8, 2005 1:58AM (UTC)

Recently, 50,000 Islamic fundamentalists from all over Morocco streamed into Rabat, the capital, to march. The women were a rainbow of pastel-colored head scarves; many men wore green headbands. They carried banners in Arabic, French and -- to make sure their point got across -- fractured English, denouncing "Americo-sionism," "US attacs on Iraq" and an upcoming democracy forum featuring Colin Powell.

A few nights later, in a club called Bodega, dark-haired hipsters in jeans and leather jackets sipped beer, flirted, heard live flamenco upstairs and swayed to techno downstairs. It might have been New York's East Village, but it was in Casablanca. The upstairs bar was decorated with flags of many countries -- Britain, Germany, Australia, Brazil, Canada and France, among others -- but one was conspicuously absent. A Moroccan friend shouted over the din, "Don't expect the U.S. flag here!"

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From Islamist traditionalists to urban sophisticates, hostility to America is now so commonplace among Moroccans that it dictates reactions to U.S. actions and symbols. In this pivotal north African country, historically moderate but now facing extremist threats (some linked to al-Qaida), a young king has put his throne on the line to back reform. After long supporting the status quo, America sides with the reformers. But there is so much ire over America's record on Iraq, Palestine and Morocco itself that Uncle Sam can't get a hearing. This is even true among the people who should be our friends and whose support our initiatives need.

The growth of anti-Americanism in countries like Morocco has real costs. Morocco's situation is a microcosm of the crisis facing much of the Muslim world: vast inequality, a sinking economy, political paralysis and rising Islamism. But the United States is losing influence with potential allies in such places, where its involvement could be a perhaps decisive factor favoring reform.

Casablanca is a modern, rectilinear city whose name fits: white shines everywhere. Near the sea, pedestrians swarm through the narrow lanes and tiny shop fronts of the walled medina, or old city, but the new city dominates. Laid out by the French in the 1930s, two decades before their colonial sway ended, it mixes Moorish, modern, and art deco styles, stylishly housing Western expatriates and the hard-working local middle class. The center city, in turn, is a world apart from the slums on its outskirts, where Islamist imams preach to a growing audience among the pious poor.

The urban elite and the rest of the country might be on different planets. Though the World Bank classifies Morocco as a middle-income country, it is so unequal that its social indicators -- like adult literacy and infant mortality -- are closer to those of basket cases like Bangladesh and Nicaragua. The majority of Morocco's adults cannot read or write, and almost 5 percent of its children die before their fifth birthday. The gaps between rich and poor in access to schools and clean water are among the greatest anywhere.

And things are getting worse, not better. Rural poverty is growing, while in the towns, unemployment is 20 percent and rising. Joblessness runs even higher among university graduates and the volatile young men on city streets, some of whom were involved in al-Qaida-linked bombings in May 2003 that killed 45 people in Casablanca.

During the Cold War, Morocco was America's staunch Middle East ally, its absolute monarch, Hassan II, a bulwark against communism. Hassan co-opted opponents who could be bought and repressed those who could not. His patronage networks also kept the illiterate, impoverished masses subservient to the monarch's retainers, or "makhzen" (storehouse/treasury). They held a near-monopoly on the distribution of goods and services and on the kingdom's most lucrative businesses. The king, who is commander of the faithful as well as head of state, built up Islamist groups as a counter to the left, as U.S-aligned governments did in other Muslim lands, including Egypt, Indonesia, and the Israeli-occupied territories. Since the end of the Cold War, the struggle against communism has given way to the struggle against Islamic terror. In Morocco, as elsewhere, that war is being fought in new ways, with development, democracy, and social reform on the one hand, but also with the harsh police tactics of the past, allegedly including torture, on the other.

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In the post-Cold War world, Hassan's legacies have become headaches for his son, the 41-year-old Mohammed VI, who became king on his father's death in 1999. An undereducated workforce attracts few investors -- and Morocco's schools remain north Africa's worst. (Its illiteracy rate is the region's highest, while college attendance is one-fourth that of booming Tunisia.) Trade liberalization, needed to tie the economy to the global market, threatens politically protected industries like textiles.

Mohammed has voiced hopes of leading a democratic transition, as Spain's King Juan Carlos I did across the Strait of Gibraltar, but it won't be easy. The king is squeezed between his father's makhzen allies, who are fighting to retain their privileges, and the growing Islamist movement. The Islamists aim to use the democratic space he has opened to check his modernizing policies and impose their notions of Islamic tradition. The democratic parties, after decades in the shadow of the palace and the police under Hassan, are too fragmented and weak to be effective allies for his successor. Parties compete more freely in elections now, but public interest remains low: The turnout in special elections for Parliament last year ran under 20 percent.

The conflicts, and ironies, flowing from the kingdom's political alignments were illustrated by the fate of plans to revise the family-law code to increase women's rights. After they were met with a huge Islamist rally even bigger than the recent one, the timorous reformist prime minister and cabinet backtracked. Mohammed eventually forced through a progressive revision of the code -- but only by royal fiat.

The contradictions -- and crisis -- in Morocco today are starker still regarding state security and human rights. The new king released most political prisoners and even compensated 6,000 victims of torture under his father. Yet after last year's al-Qaida attacks, some 7,000 suspected Islamic extremists were arrested and more than 2,000 convicted of security offenses, allegedly after widespread torture. There is something paradoxical about a state that compensates victims of past abuses even as it tortures new ones. Yet the large numbers detained also revealed the extensive infiltration of Morocco by militant organizations, to which the government had preferred to close its eyes.

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Despite the resistance and threats his government faces, Mohammed has fought tenaciously to impose reforms. He has freed the press, established free-trade agreements with the United States and the European Union, and taken steps to liberalize the economy. Recently he called on Parliament to pass political party and electoral laws, to help create two partisan blocs of right and left capable of forming a strong, cohesive and popular parliamentary majority and opposition.

The United States is trying to help. After largely ignoring Morocco in the 1990s, it is again offering development assistance. American-funded programs are improving job training, bettering teacher preparation, and combating illiteracy. American organizations are training political parties and members of Parliament. They are also helping to build civic organizations competing in the slums with Islamist groups, who provide social services to communities the state has neglected.

Yet America's image is so negative in Morocco today that U.S. initiatives receive a hostile reception, if their existence is even known. The lively, reform-minded press that has arisen under the new king enthusiastically exposes scandals and agitates for more democracy. But it also contains pages of articles that salute "the untamable rebels" fighting the United States in Iraq and that condemn U.S. and Israeli policy on the Palestinians.

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Positive coverage of U.S. assistance is rare. More typical is a cartoon mocking President Bush as a cowboy teaching a class called "democracy." He is firing pistols to stop Arab leaders begging to go to the bathroom from leaving -- even as they pee on the floor! An editorial in a leading weekly likened participating in Powell's democracy forum -- a showcase for U.S. regional initiatives -- to joining the royal makhzen. (Not surprisingly, in this atmosphere, only groups associated with parties already in Parliament said they would attend the conference, aborting hopes that Islamist groups could be drawn into a dialogue and into the democratic fold.)

Unfortunately, Moroccans echo their media's sentiments about the United States. In recent focus groups conducted by my polling firm for the Council on Foreign Relations, college-educated Casablancans rejected Bush administration positions on Iraq and Palestine out of hand and called America an arrogant bully. They were ignorant and cynical about U.S. aid programs for Morocco and developing nations in general. Although the educated elite is a key constituency for reform and vocally supported democratic change, they also feared that American efforts to promote democracy were intervention by another name. Surprisingly, many were warm to local Islamists, seeing them as moral voices in politics, and most of the women in the groups wore head scarves. Distressingly, even such educated Moroccans blamed their country's and region's problems on Americans, Jews and Zionists. (We did not study less educated Moroccans, but national surveys conducted in 2003 and 2004 by the Pew Global Attitudes Project and Zogby International found that Moroccans in general had similar negative opinions of the U.S.)

Yet the group results also offered an eye-opener for those who think that anti-Americanism is inevitable in Muslim countries like Morocco. While some participants in the groups criticized American mores, dress and culture, many more voiced nostalgia for the positive views of America they used to have and sadness that things had changed in recent years. Moroccans hate us not for who we are but for what they perceive we do.

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Does this matter? It does, enormously. What's happening in Morocco is typical of developments in many Muslim countries, where anti-Americanism has reached a level that interferes with America's ability to achieve its foreign-policy goals. After decades of backing local autocrats for stability's sake, we are finally doing the right thing, pushing political, economic and educational reforms to stem the despair that feeds Islamic militancy. Yet the rising hostility to America in Muslim lands is undermining our efforts to better their situation and our security. Unless we learn to listen, speak and act more wisely, the future face of Islam may be an angry one, in which the hipsters of Bodega are one with the demonstrators of Rabat.


Craig Charney

Craig Charney is president of Charney Research, a New York polling firm, and a consultant to the Council on Foreign Relations, for which he is conducting a study of anti-Americanism in Muslim countries.

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