The Moroccan street: No to violence, no to Western disrespect

From taxi drivers to professors, Moroccans weigh in on the cartoon controversy.

By Mark MacNamara
Published February 9, 2006 12:16PM (EST)

The Mohammed cartoons are the talk of Ifrane, a town of 10,000 one hour's drive from Fez up into the Middle Atlas Mountains. They are the talk in the marché, where Berbers and Arabs, academics and shepherds, women veiled and not, come to shop and chat; in sidewalk cafes, where TVs play soccer matches and burning embassies; in small apartments in back streets, where women stand at the stove and men mull over the many rumors; and in mosques, where Friday prayers also serve as a community gathering.

"You can insult me, my mother, my father, but not the Prophet," my friend Abdelghanni tells me, going on to explain the heart of the matter. He's 45, an Arabic teacher in an English-language high school. "If you draw a picture of the Prophet, you will make a mistake. It will be false. We already have his description from the Koran: his eyes, his nose, his face, his hair, and so we don't draw him because we don't need to and because we don't want" -- he searches for the word -- "to pollute our image."

If nothing else, the Mohammed cartoons, first published last September in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, have highlighted a great mystery about the Muslim world: how the mere depiction of Mohammed -- much less cartoons portraying him as a terrorist -- could be such an invasion of privacy, such a violation of one's contact and contract with God. Perhaps one revelation to come out of all this may be that by drawing Mohammed down to such an earthly plane, you're fooling with the hope mechanism of millions of believers, just at a time when modernity has never seemed more oppressive and, in many places, the pain of feeling backward has never been stronger.

In Morocco, which is nearly 100 percent Muslim, the reaction to the cartoons has been muted, which is the nature of the country, and which, some would say, reflects its distance from Israel and Palestine. Still, with this incident you can hear all the old cacophonies, all the old questions: Why isn't such a once glorious civilization more advanced, and can the state ever be separated from faith in an Islamic society? And will the fear ever go away?

In the past few days, I've talked to a variety of Moroccans whose views stretch from conservative to liberal. They are tradesmen, academics, officials, students and journalists. The consensus, contrary to the apocalypse on television, is that the cartoons are highly disrespectful, but violence is neither warranted nor part of Islam. The consensus has become a unifying force.

But on the question of what significance this event has, and who should apologize, and how much, and whether other measures should be taken, such as drawing the United Nations into the matter, the answers are more diverse. Many Moroccans lay the uproar at the feet of the European press, but I didn't speak to anyone who advocated burning buildings or flags, or even honoring a boycott. Regardless, all the Muslims I met say they feel locked in a cold war between the East and West with no key in sight.

Mohammed, a young taxi driver I've gotten to know in the last year and a half, tells me what he thinks about the cartoons. He's studied law; his father is a shepherd. Like a lot of other people, Mohammed can't find a better-paying job. "It shows great disrespect," he replies and shakes his head. "But better not to make too much out of it. And anyway, history is not going to change."

Ifrane lies on the edge of a forest and at the foot of an ancient volcano. The town is atypical of Morocco, not least because of its red-tile chalet-style architecture, a legacy of the colonial period, when in the 1930s the French fashioned tree-lined streets, lakes and elaborate parks as a reminder of home. The town is also atypical because it rides along on a tourist economy, winter and summer, and because it is home to Al Akhawayn University of Ifrane, a small, select, American-style school of 1,200 students.

Last Friday, the imam at the university gave his Friday khutbah, or sermon, and addressed the issue of the cartoons. "I was afraid he might put more gas on the fire and trigger protests," says Bouziane Zaid, an associate professor of communications. "But he didn't do that at all. He gave a message of love and peace and said simply that the best way to defend the Prophet is to obey him, follow his example, and be kind to others."

Zaid adds that the imam also mentioned something Zaid and many people he knows have come to believe -- that these cartoons are all part of a war against Islam, which has greatly intensified since 9/11.

In Morocco, the Friday sermons are orchestrated. This is in keeping with the patriarchal nature of the country. Each week, every imam receives the same talking points from the Ministry of Religious Affairs, and these points form the basis of the Friday khutbah. This is not only a way to influence public opinion on worldly matters but also a way to tune the country theologically to what the highest-ranking religious leaders think is most significant.

The official line in Morocco regarding the Mohammed cartoons was delivered last weekend by Le Conseil Supérieur des Oulemas, the supreme council of imams, which is presided over by King Mohammed VI himself. A council statement condemned the cartoons and exhorted "les sages et les décideurs" to protect liberty and moral values from the menaces of irresponsibility, hatred, rancor, perfidy and bad taste. That reference to the "wise ones and decision makers" to maintain official standards is no doubt a diktat to the media. In Morocco, there is no divide between the government and the press.

In 2003, a journalist was given a three-year prison sentence for insulting the king with satirical cartoons and articles. Reporters Without Borders, an international watchdog group, states that TelQuel, one of Morocco's only publications that does in-depth reporting, faces continual harassment from Moroccan courts.

Ali Bouzerda, a spokesman for the government station TVM, puts the cartoon controversy this way. He says he is speaking only for himself. "The government is saying we cannot accept this, and we want to send a signal to the Western media that freedom of the press is OK, and we understand that the Danish government can't dictate to newspapers, but people in authority need to consider the effects of irresponsibility and hatred.

"At the heart of this discussion is the feeling that America is trying to divide the world into two parts, Christian and Islamic, and now mythologies are being spread, so that everything that is part of Islam is bad, and every Muslim is a terrorist. This is the West's caricature of the Middle East."

I speak to several men from Ifrane and the surrounding area, all professionals. One is an architect; another, a contractor; and a third, a former muqaddim, that odd civic player first developed by the French as an informer, who serves as an intermediary between the local government and the people. His job is to know everyone in a town or district, resolve small problems, and report suspicious activities to the governor, who may then make a report to the Ministry of the Interior in the capital.

The men ask not to be identified. That's typical of people in all professions, including academia. There is a fear of being noticed and identified with a viewpoint, and perhaps questioned by police, a legacy of les années de plomb, when, between 1956 and 1999, some 50,000 people were imprisoned, detained, murdered or raped, or simply disappeared. Even with a truth commission, old habits of fear linger.

The men all agree that it is critical for Muslims to react to the insulting cartoons so that in the future the West might think more in terms of responsibilities than rights. They wouldn't go so far as the Lebanese cleric who suggested that had the fatwa against author Salman Rushdie been carried out, this would all never have happened. But, they say, "a warning shot is required."

They say the only way to resolve the situation is for the Scandanavian countries, where the cartoons first appeared, to apologize. As for the separation between government and the press, one of the men replies, "It is like you have a family with four children, and one of them is bad and one day he does some damage to a neighbor. The only way to resolve that is for the father and the three good children to go and apologize. You see, the father is like the government, and the press is like the errant boy."

One man explains that in the Sunnah, the second most authoritative source after the Koran, the hadith says that if the Prophet is profaned, the perpetrator must apologize or be killed. "It's like this," he says. "It can't be changed."

In Rabat, the capital, a friend who travels in diplomatic circles comments that in the last few days Arabic-language newspapers were reporting that more and more cellphone text messages were carrying the product codes of Danish products, as Muslims were trading information about which Danish products to boycott. Diplomats in Rabat express amazement that things have gone so far, and the general feeling is that there's not going to be an easy way out of this. That view is based on the notion that extremists all over the region seem intent on one-upping each other in violence.

At the same time, there's a sense the real damage may not only be that negative stereotypes of Arabs are reinforced but that the West will lose heart in promoting positive change. Says a friend, "There comes a point when you've got to handle your problems yourself -- you can't go on forever blaming poverty and colonialism and relying on your image as a victim."

I ask Driss Ksikes, editor in chief at TelQuel, a well-respected journalist in Morocco, what he thinks about the cartoons. "I have no red line as a liberal person, but there is a question of politics, particularly the way this [issue] has been used by fundamentalists to say 'We shouldn't talk about certain things,'" he says. "This also comes at a particular moment -- the Hamas victory, the situations in Iran and Egypt. It makes you wonder: Islamists are getting more and more power around the world, and they're trying to use whatever weapon they can against liberal thinking. Above all, they want to show that Islam is a victim of the West. But we should not yield to this type of lobbying."

"I hope this type of incident may help people reconsider who think there is no war of civilizations," Ksikes continues. "It has dramatized what could become a reality, if more and more extremists determine the political agenda."

At Al Akhawayn University, and at the high school associated with it, the cartoons are a hot topic. Most of the students, particularly at the high school level, come from wealthy, if not well-educated, families.

"If their faith was strong enough," says Sarah, 17, referring to the violent protesters in Iran and Lebanon, "an image wouldn't bother them. But these are uneducated mobs. They need justification for feeling put down, so this gives them a concrete image of being put down."

"I was pleased and deceived at the same time," says a 21-year-old woman, "because I believe in freedom of speech. I believe in any form of freedom, but freedom means respect. I only saw provocation. But this shows how much these [Danes] are afraid. Maybe they're just becoming aware of what crimes they've supported."

Alia Lahlou, 17, says: "One of our neighbors says every Muslim should be demonstrating because Western papers print these cartoons but they don't talk about the Palestinians dying every day. I disagree. I think these demonstrations feed the image of violent Arabs. You see these signs at the demonstration: 'Europe, your 9/11 is coming.' The West accuses Arabs of being terrorists, and then Arabs act like it."

Professors are equally caught up. I sit with two political scientists, each with opposing views. They share the same office and are so angry at the other's position that each walks out while the other is speaking. One, a Muslim who graduated from the University of California-Santa Cruz, says the cartoons raise the "big" question: "What are the inherent contradictions of a liberal democracy, and what are the limits?"

The other, an Armenian-American, scowls. "The Jyllands-Posten may be a right-wing rag, and the material is clearly offensive, but the problem is, if we restrict its right to demonize, then we're going in totally the wrong direction. The only solution is to have more free speech."

Another academic, Nancy Hottel, is the daughter of a Presbyterian minister. She grew up in Virginia, obtained a Ph.D. from the University of Texas, married a Moroccan, and has converted to Islam. She has twin daughters, wears a veil but not across her face, and teaches comparative rhetoric.

She remembers the time 30 years ago, during a cross-cultural workshop for teachers of Southeast Asians, when an American told a joke as an analogy to show how offensive jokes about religion could be. The joke was, "Do you know why they crucified Jesus? Because an electric chair wouldn't look good at the top of a steeple."

"Not funny, is it?" says Hottel. "I was deeply offended just to hear it cast as an example. Well, that's roughly the effect on Muslims of these cartoons. And can you imagine if the situation were reversed, if this had been someone outside the religion making jokes about Judaism? You better bet there would have been the same reaction."

Another professor insists on going off the record so he can speak with urgency. The great danger, he says, is that journalists keep referring to the furor over the cartoons as a clash of civilizations. "It's true, there is a clash, but every time you say it, every time people hear it, it becomes more of a reality." Once the mold is set, he says, more people act from that perception. Stereotypes harden, fear increases, and possibilities narrow.

Mark MacNamara

Mark MacNamara is a freelance writer living in Morocco.

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