Aziz Mekouar (Photo: The Washington Diplomat)
Aziz Mekouar, the Moroccan ambassador to the United States, writes in today’s Washington Times of his country’s great strides with democracy. (Thanks to scooterdw.)
The times in which we live serve to direct the attention of many of the world’s governments and people toward the Middle East. But the intense focus on the Middle East has, unfortunately, often been accompanied by misunderstandings and prejudices concerning Islam. Some even suggest it is inherently at odds with democracy that true self-government simply cannot exist in Muslim societies.
But Morocco is quietly proving otherwise.
In the early 1990s, Morocco set out on a democratic, reform-minded path to which we have remained steadfast. Today our country is creating a free, democratic society on the foundation of self-government and democratic institutions. King Mohammed VI and parliament have enacted comprehensive reforms in the economic, social and political spheres reforms that are entirely consistent with the spirit and tradition of Islam. Despite opposition to change within our society and the wider Islamic world, as evidenced by a spate of suicide bombings in May 2003, our resolve remains strong, as does our commitment to an advanced and open society.
Among the elements of this unique Islamic democracy:
Gender equality: In January, both houses of parliament unanimously approved legislation that essentially establishes full equality between men and women in Morocco. The new Mudawana (family law), which draws its basic provisions from the Koran and the Hadith (the Prophet’s sayings and practices), was drafted through a long process of careful consultation with prominent Moroccan religious scholars.
The legislation also gained unequivocal support from all political parties, as well as human rights and women’s rights organizations, proving that Islam and modernity can go hand in hand. Under the new laws, obligations once solely enjoyed by the husband will now be shared by the husband and wife, as these new laws set an equal minimum age of marriage, establish equal prerogative to initiate divorce, and, in general, ensure better protection of women’s and children’s rights.
Unfortunately, the Ambassador’s bland assertion that these laws are compatible with Islam, and indeed derived from it, is a bit overstated. Indeed, Dominique Pettit noted in Middle East Online just last month that in Morocco “the status of women has become the subject of a pitched battle between modernisers and radical Islamists.”
Also, while the “prime mover” behind Morocco’s new law guaranteeing women’s rights “was King Mohammed VI, who has stressed it is in line with the tenets of Islam,” nevertheless “such a move would likely meet fierce resistance in many Muslim countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.” And this resistance would be on Islamic grounds.
I applaud the Moroccan King’s efforts to reform Islam, as that is just what is needed on a large scale, but the proof of the pudding will be the general acceptance of these women’s rights laws by Muslims in his own country, as well as their adoption as principles for reform by other Muslim countries. Instead, so far we have seen resistance, including suicide bombings.
The Ambassador also says that Morocco guarantees human rights for all:
Human Rights: In January 2003, King Mohammed VI formally inaugurated the Equity and Reconciliation Commission to ensure the protection of basic human rights for all Moroccans and make amends for past violations. The commission’s mandate institutionalizes a procedure previously led by an independent arbitration authority to provide just compensation to victims of past human-rights violations. This program has already provided tens of millions of dollars in reparations. Led by a former political prisoner, the new commission will make available to the public all government files from the past 40 years.
The process of reform and reconciliation that Morocco has been pursuing for more than a decade has enabled the country to make tangible gains in promoting economic, social and political modernization, facilitating our integration into the global community and building a society of hope and prosperity for our people. These reforms have been undertaken with the explicit purpose of improving the lives of all Moroccans and in a spirit inspired by an interpretation of Islam that combines a proper respect of Muslim traditions with a willing embrace of the opportunities and obligations for development offered by the modern world.
There is nothing in the Islamic faith inconsistent with human rights, democracy and the equality of men and women. Indeed, when King Mohammed VI proposed the new family law in a speech before parliament last autumn, he repeatedly invoked language from the Koran to provide a moral foundation for the reforms.
Great, but do these human rights include religious freedom? That is as yet unclear. The State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report for 2003 suggested that some old dhimmi laws still exert an influence in Morocco:
The Constitution provides that Islam is the official religion, and designates the King as “Commander of the Faithful” with the responsibility of ensuring “respect for Islam.” The Constitution also provides for freedom of religion; however, the Government places certain restrictions on Christian religious materials and proselytizing, and several small religious minorities are tolerated with varying degrees of official restrictions. . . .
Any attempt to induce a Muslim to convert is illegal. According to Article 220 of the Penal Code, any attempt to stop one or more persons from the exercise of their religious beliefs, or attendance at religious services, is unlawful and may be punished by 3 to 6 months’ imprisonment and a fine of $10 to $50 (115 to 575 dirhams). The Article applies the same penalty to “anyone who employs incitements in order to shake the faith of a Muslim or to convert him to another religion.” Foreign missionaries either limit their proselytizing to non-Muslims or conduct their work quietly. The Government cited the prohibition on conversion in the Penal Code in most cases in which courts expelled foreign missionaries. . . .
Citizens who convert to Christianity and other religions generally face social ostracism, and a small number of persons have faced short periods of questioning or detention by the authorities. Voluntary conversion is not a crime under the Criminal or Civil Codes; however, until 4 years ago, the authorities had jailed some converts on the basis of references to Islamic law. Christian citizens sometimes still are called in for questioning by the authorities. . . .
The Government permits the display and sale of Bibles in French, English, and Spanish, but confiscates Arabic-language Bibles and refuses licenses for their importation and sale, despite the absence of any law banning such books. Nevertheless Arabic Bibles have been sold in local bookstores.
Morocco seems to be a society in transition. I hope that in coming years we will read no more about such discrimination and restrictions on religious freedom and the freedom of conscience.