Morocco and the Islamists

I was in Casablanca in early 1971 ( following one of the hippy trails of the early seventies) when there was a failed coup and an attempt on King Hassan II's life. This had a rather bizarre consequence for me and my fellow hippies, some of whom were from Pinole in California. But that is another story ; you will have to wait and read my autobiography in twenty years time to find out what happened.

Many Moroccans felt that progress would only come once the monarchy was done away with, at least once Hassan II was eliminated. Hassan II has indeed gone (died 23 July, 1999) after thirty eight long years in power, and his son has taken over, as King Muhammad VI. Even more importantly, the new king is determined to modernize and liberalize his country. But will the ever-threatening bearded fanatics let him ?

Muhammad VI, or as he is known in Morocco, M6 (a reference to the French television station, M6), has already shown that he wants to introduce democratic reforms, and put his father’s authoritarian regime behind him. His first step was to release 8000 prisoners, and appoint a commission to investigate 4000 cases of political injustice and repression, even compensating the victims and their relatives . He is pushing through reforms in education and justice. But the reform that is likely to be the most difficult to put into effect is that of raising the legal and social status of women, because of the opposition of traditional Muslims, and the fundamentalists. The reforms were concerned with improving the rights’ of women in education and employment, but also even more controversially, with raising the minimum age of marriage for a woman from 15 to 18, with outlawing a husband’s repudiation of his wife as an accepted form of divorce, and giving divorced women equal rights to property, and abolishing polygamy.

Polygamy is still allowed but increasingly rare, only 150 authorisations were issued in Rabat and its suburbs in 1999. Repudiation is however increasing. A magistrate explained : «  A husband can always repudiate his wife in front of two court officials, on the grounds that they are temperamentally unsuitable or that the two families-in-law are at loggerheads. The husband doesnot need to justify his act of repudiation, and the court cannot oppose it, though it can delay the process.But some magistrates deal with each case in three minutes, just long enough to decide how much alimony the husband should pay if there are children. ». Islamist groups such as the Justice and Development Party are against the reforms, branding feminists as «  ungodly  », while, surprisingly, another Islamist group, The Justice and Spirituality Association, have agreed that the promotion of women is necessary, «  so long as it is based on our own culture  ».

More than 200 000 Muslim fundamentalists took to the streets of Casablanca showing their dispproval of the projects for reform of the status of women. This was a show of force that has sent shivers down the back of most reformers and democratically inclined ordinary citizens. Are we going to witness another slide into violence and civil war à la Algeria ? Will the young King succeed in pushing through the reforms that are essential if the country is to advance ? We can only wait and see, anxious but quietly optimistic.


Capital : Rabat ( 1.4 million )

  • Population : 27 020 350
  • Life expectancy :65.18
  • Religion : Islam :98.7 %, Christian, 1.1%, Jewish, 0.2%
  • Languages :Arabic, Berber ( 33%) Hassania, French, Spanish
  • Monarchy : King nominates the Prime Minister
  • House of Representatives : 333 members elected by people for 5 years ;
  • House of Counsellors : elected for 9 years.
  • 4 million still live on a dollar a day.
  • Unemployment rate : 20%
  • Illiteracy : 45%

The Moroccan Journal, Le Reporter, confirms what many ( for example, Ernest Gellner ) have argued for years that the extreme religious movements in Morocco have not succeeded in imposing their ideology on the rural world. The countryside refuses the fundamentalist discourse because the rural community has never abandoned the austere but religiously tolerant ( with its cult of saints ) life of their ancestors and thinks that they do not need lectures from dissolute urban fanatics.