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Is Morocco edging towards a culture war?

Even though the current Islamist-led government includes parties from across the political-ideological spectrum, Morocco has witnessed an unprecedented "assault" recently on its religious values and social cohesion, triggering reactions from public policies and social activism. Politically, for example, hot debates have surrounded the abortion law. The rift ended with royal mediation, though it is expected to continue in social, political and cultural venues. A series of events then took place which suggest mounting tension over social values, the rule of law and the ability of public policies to maintain cultural stability.

Most of these events have shifted social struggle towards the domains of media and culture. Immediately after the cancellation of the proposed visit to Marrakech by Shimon Peres in early May, clips from a drama film about prostitution in Marrakech, Much Loved, were leaked. The film director, known for his advertising expertise and sensitive movies that aim to shock public opinion, asked commentators not to judge the movie upon the leaked clips. Surprisingly, he did not denounce the leaks themselves. In fact, the clips were among the most shocking in the whole movie. The choice of which clips to leak was far from arbitrary or accidental. Consequently, and following a social uproar, the movie was banned in Morocco for its sensual content and for degrading the dignity of women. The director and main actress are also being sued for pornography, copyright law infringement and child abuse.

Soon after, Jennifer Lopez performed in skimpy outfits at the annual Mawazine World Rhythms International Music Festival. The concert aired on Moroccan TV, leading to another uproar on social media and in the streets. The backlash urged the head of the government to send a letter to media authorities to uphold the law. An education group has also filed a lawsuit against the nudity-suggesting performance.

Meanwhile, two Femen protestors filmed themselves kissing while topless in front of Hassan Tower in Rabat. The visit of the two French activists known for their nudity seemed to be de-contextualised to most Moroccan activists and commentators, though both claimed to be supporting gay rights. It was understood, possibly mistakenly, as an attention-shifter from the other attacks on Morocco's social fabric.

On the next day, a band used a rainbow-decorated guitar at another Mawazine concert, with pro-gay signs protesting against the forthcoming Moroccan penal code. Placebo bassist Stefan Olsdal wrote a crossed "489" on his naked chest, in defiance of Article 489 in the proposed penal code that criminalises homosexuality.

These orchestrated gestures managed to shift public focus partially towards identity politics. Yet, the law-violating actors expected violent reactions that would have diverted attention from sustaining the nascent and fragile democratic experience towards fighting extremism and terrorism. So far, no violent reactions have taken place. When a group called "We Won't Fast", which seeks the right to eat in public during the day during Ramadan, shared a photo of one of its members drinking water, with Hassan Tower in the background, it claimed that it was shot in the capital one day in the fasting month; there was no proof that it was legitimate. Most of the group's activism this year has been on social media. A news item that the water-drinking activist was attacked proved baseless.

One explanation for these sequential events is that political conflicts get harsher in an election year. The week when identity-belittlement events peaked also witnessed trade union elections. Many observers linked the two, in an attempt to reshuffle the socio-political scenery upon the ideological conservative-leftist dimensions. The government experience clearly demonstrates that ideologically-different parties can cooperate on national agendas. The same holds true for unions and civil society groups. Instead of deepening social rifts, only the solidifying of democracy, reinforcing the rule of law and respecting political institutions will generate more care for the public interest and guarantee mutual respect.

Another possible link is a between the recent events and the cancellation of the former Israeli President Peres's visit to Morocco in early May. Activists understood that Israel would react to the cancellation, especially through its proxies inside Morocco, although they also expected foreign pressure to manifest itself otherwise, and tried to find links between the Femen protests and Israel. The Tunisian Femen protester Amina Sboui left the group following accusations against it of Islamophobia and lack of funding transparency; she feared that topless protests were funded by Israel. It seems that US billionaire George Soros stopped funding Femen when it decided to launch a branch in Israel, suggesting that he had backed topless protests when they were expected in some way to benefit Israel.

In dealing with these provocations, Moroccan civil society and public policies have demonstrated considerable maturity. It is understood that the problem in Morocco today is not the divide between public policies and identity politics, but rather the prospects for fighting corruption and despotism. The current government is an outcome of the freest public expression via the ballot box in modern Morocco, but public expectations are too high in terms of mitigating corruption and despotism rather than identity politics. Civil society and grassroots movements are aware that the 2011 constitution allows them to partake in decision-making. For them, instead of rash reactions, defending identity is better maintained via the rule of law and tolerance of ideological diversity as far as this does not seriously jeopardise social cohesion. Violence would only serve corruption and despotism, which are the really serious threat to the present and future of Morocco.

The writer is a Morocco-based researcher in media, cultural policy and MENA affairs.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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