In the middle of the hot debates over the results of the recent second chamber elections in Morocco, news spread about the prospective arrival of Saudi public speaker Mohammed Al-Arifi. Invited by the University of Casablanca to a conference on Qur’an reflection, his programme, which has possibly been cancelled, also included a number of public lectures. Immediately, social media, news websites and left-leaning, freedom-of-speech advocating civil society condemned the visit for several reasons. Al-Arifi was accused specifically of supporting terrorism and issuing religious opinions (“fatwas”) which allegedly denigrate women.
Part of the controversy over Al-Arifi’s visit was targeting a particular public lecture. This is his sixth visit to Morocco and, as he explains on his Facebook page, his earlier visits passed unnoticed. In this week’s visit, he was also expected to talk at several public events in different cities, after his participation in the Casablanca conference. Nevertheless, most objections pointed to his public appearance in Rabat. The Rabat chapter of the moderate Islamic “Movement for Unity and Reform” (MUR) expected to host Al-Arifi on 25 October to talk about “the Role of the Qur’an in the Making of the Human Being”.
A number of incentives explain the focus on the MUR event in Rabat. The main one is the strategic alliance between MUR and the government-leading PJD. Al-Arifi’s visit occurs straight after local and regional elections that have led the PJD today to govern all key cities in Morocco. Also, between the elections and Al-Arifi’s slated visit, regional authorities in Casablanca had to axe the first beer festival that MUR condemned. The criticism levelled at the PJD and MUR is that their moderate discourse and interpretation of Islam contradict with that of Al-Arifi, as if difference means total paradox.
Left-leaning civil society groups which seized the opportunity of Al-Arifi’s visit to retaliate neglect two key issues. The first is that in the public mind they have been linked to defending freedom of speech, and the current objection will project an image of their double-dealing too. Their opponents base the double-standards argument on the fact that the same people objecting to Al-Arifi’s visit hosted the Egyptian writer Sayed Qimani last Ramadan when he openly spoke negatively about religious principles and he rejected any links between Islam and politics in Morocco or anywhere else. The second is that by politicising Al-Arifi’s visit, objectors equally overlook that the recent local and regional election results suggest that the more Islamists are attacked, the more popular they become.
Moreover, in a number of instances, anti-Arifi activists were caught fabricating allegations and accusations. While they accused him of supporting Daesh, other videos spread online in which he denies encouraging youth to join factions in Syria, explains that some allegations resulted from misunderstanding, or that he has abandoned some of his earlier ideas. In other words, his current stance on the problematic interpretations he was accused of producing has been marginalised to justify banning him from setting foot in Morocco.
On the other hand, the controversy and virtual debate on Al-Arifi’s visits eclipses two important escalations that relate to human rights advocacy. The first is the situation in Palestine. Moroccans from all walks of life are known for their ongoing support for Palestine, especially when Zionist assaults escalate. Left-leaning civil society has been reluctant to denounce Israeli violence against the Palestinians, while Islamist-led sit-ins have started timidly this week and a march is expected in Casablanca next week. None have questioned whether the 30 Jewish soldiers from Morocco which Israel trained last summer have joined the IDF in the current escalations.
The second is the banning of Professor Maati Mounjib, a historian and president of the human rights group Freedom Now, from travelling outside Morocco. More advocacy for his cause, especially from his fellow freedom-of-speech defending leftists, would have mitigated the prospects of curbing freedom of movement and ensured his academic participations against mass surveillance. More importantly, advocacy for Moujib from all Moroccan politicians would have recognised his previous efforts to bring secularists and Islamists together. His argument was that ideological differences were not the main problem in Moroccan politics but rather despotism and corruption that different ideologies could fight together.
To be understood from the virtual activism against the Saudi preacher was that certain politicians are interested neither in Al-Arifi nor Qimani, but rather in dragging public attention away from their inability to meet the current public aspirations for more democratisation and less corruption and despotism.
Both public speakers, notwithstanding the apparent difference in their tendencies or perspectives, have been utilised to portray Morocco as a culture-war-torn country. The fact is that the war Morocco is undergoing is between corruption, despotism, ignorance and regression on one side and the rule of law, democratisation, commitment to public interest and respect of the public will on the other. Parties, labour unions, NGOs and social groups that represent different ideological tendencies or social projects exist in both camps. What Morocco needs is for democratisation to be taken as a platform upon which both Islamists and secularists can meet and cooperate, or at least share mutual respect and consolidate social cohesion.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.