The PR machine has been very successful in burnishing the image of modern, moderate Morocco. Reality, however, is more in line with Sharia. “Right to religious freedom under fire in Morocco,” by Mohamed Amezian for Radio Netherlands, December 9 (thanks to Alexandre):
A group of five foreigners, was arrested last week in Morocco on suspicion of proselytising. The Christian missionaries – two South Africans, two Swiss and one Guatemalan – were expelled from the country for holding “undeclared meetings”, said police. This is not the first such incident. Proselytising (attempting to change someone’s religious or political beliefs) is a crime in Morocco, even though the constitution guarantees individual freedom.
Mohamad Reda Benkhaldoun, member of parliament for Morocco’s main opposition party, says the geopolitical location of Morocco between Africa and Europe makes it accessible to all ideas and movements. However, this regularly leads to friction. In theory, freedom of religion is guaranteed by the constitution and Islamic Sharia laws, but the MP says there are limitations:
“When missionaries proselytise among Moroccans, particularly among young people who have no resistance to certain ideas, the state has an obligation to take the necessary steps to prevent a sort of legal destabilisation of the Islamic faith in Morocco.”
Professor Mohamed Darif has found that Morocco not only penalises missionary zeal, but also has a long history of punishing Moroccan citizens for changing their religious beliefs. In the 1960s and 1980s a number of converts to the BahÃ¡’Ã faith was convicted. Morocco recently broke off diplomatic relations with Iran because of its alleged “spreading of the Shiite doctrine” among Moroccans. The government denies it wants to limit individual freedoms, and says it only wants to safeguard “social cohesion”.
Notably, the constitutional guarantee of individual freedoms is negated and contradicted by that same constitution. The king is the “Commander of the faithful”. As such, he is the protector of Islam but also of people of other faiths living in Morocco, including Jews and Christians. This means Morocco is not a secular state, as explicitly confirmed by King Mohammed VI (in the Spanish paper El Pais in January 2005). Mohamed Darif, an expert on political Islam, said the king’s message was loud and clear:
“Freedom of religion can be openly and fiercely discussed in the framework of a secular state which draws a clear line between religion and politics. However, in a non-secular state the subject is approached with great reserve”.
Morocco often sends messages of religious tolerance to the West, and a not particularly perceptive tourist travelling through Morocco may arrive at the conclusion that is indeed the case in the country. However, human rights activists, independent journalists and Islamists often face repression under the guise of maintaining the unity of Sunni doctrine, or the prevention of social unrest.
In the past month, a plea for the right to be an atheist seriously embarrassed the Moroccan government. A group of young journalists announced they wanted to hold an ‘open’ breakfast in a recreational park. The police and security services were quick to intervene. The Moroccan organiser of the event, a young woman working for a French-language magazine was arrested and was deported to France shortly afterwards. She now lives in Paris.