Undoubtedly, the question of the Sahara remains a part of the major friction factors that doom any attempt to operate a rapprochement between Spain and Morocco to failure.
New York – In fact, more than any other contentious issue, the Sahara is the major example that illustrates the lack of communication, as well as the gap of misunderstanding that set apart not only the political leaders of the two countries, but also their intellectuals, their media and civil societies.
As regards the Moroccan and Spanish governments, it should be noted that since the Tripartite agreement of Madrid (agreement signed on November , 1975 after the Green March by means of which Morocco regained control and de facto sovereignty over the Sahara), the Sahara issue has been at the center of the subjects with greater negative impact on these relations. Many events, which have strained the relations between Morocco and Spain over the last decade illustrates this state of affairs, exacerbating the sharp disagreement between the two countries.
As regards the civil societies of both countries, one has just to read some of the headlines published in each country, in recent years and in recent days, on the subject to realize the divorce between the two countries and the incompatibility of their viewpoints on this issue. Indeed, while Spanish public opinion views Morocco as a colonial country ” disrespectful of international law and a violator of the rights of the Sahrawi”, to the extent that it denies to the Sahrawi’s their “right to self-determination”, the Moroccan public opinion is convinced of the legitimacy of the Moroccan cause and the right of Morocco to recover a part of its territory that was stripped from it by Spanish colonialism.
Taking into account that the Sahara issue is one of the problems that hinder the economic development of Morocco, to the extent that the daily maintenance of the more than 150,000 Moroccan soldiers, representing 60% of the Armed Forces Moroccan-involves many expenses for the coffers of the Moroccan State, which could be invested in projects to promote the Moroccan economic should this dispute not exist, the Moroccan interpret the overt hostility of the Spanish public opinion to the Moroccan approaches and the reluctance of Spanish government to support the Moroccan thesis, as an unspoken desire to keep destabilizing their country. Moroccan public opinion views, indeed, with much frustration that a in country that faces the destabilizing effects of the Basque separatism, the overwhelming majority of Spanish unconditionally supports the cause of the Saharawi without taking into account the historical rights of Morocco over this territory.
It is this lack of understanding that led, on 17 July, 2005, the Moroccan intellectuals to publish in the pages of the newspaper El Pais, a joint letter directed to the Spanish intellectuals to express the incomprehension and frustration of the Moroccan public opinion with the hostile attitude of the Spaniards to the Moroccan approaches on the Sahara, and blame their lack of support for a solution favorable to the Moroccan interests.
The response, a week later, by Spanish intellectuals constituted a conclusive evidence of the gap of misunderstanding that sets apart the intellectuals of both countries, which shows once again, that both countries and their respective public opinion and civil societies, still have a long way to go before reaching a common ground on this issue. While they rejected the approach of the Moroccan intellectuals, Spanish intellectuals denounced, in their response, the “invasion of Sahara by Morocco”, reiterated their support for the Saharawi thesis, the right of the Sahrawis to self-determination, and emphasized the fact The Tripartite Agreements of Madrid “were merely the expression of pacts between dictatorships that the United Nations declared null and void”. Accordingly, they invited the Spanish government to take its responsibility to resolve this matter in accordance with international legality.
Spanish Media reporting on the events of Layoune: the difficulty of Spanish media to dispose of its centuries-old hatred of Morocco
Once again, the Spanish media failed to discharge their duty to illuminate the public opinion and report even-handedly about Morocco. Over the past decades, it was an unspoken rule among Spanish media to provide a distorted reporting about Morocco in a host of issues, be they immigration, drugs trafficking, respect of human rights and democracy in Morocco, and most of all the question of Sahara. This time a milestone has been crossed in that they totally disregarded the minimum required of ethical or professional rules.
On Monday 8 November, the Moroccan authorities moved to dismantle an illegal camp of about 12,000 people (20,000 according to the Polisario and Spanish Media) who had been protesting the deterioration of their living conditions and the lack of housing, an event that was politicized by Spanish media and presented as protestation by the population of Layoune against Moroccan rule in the Sahara.
As expected in any country, this decision met with a fierce opposition by certain elements who infiltrated the camps, and were bent on putting up a fight against the Moroccan law enforcement officers, who received instructions not to open fire and to dismantle the camp in a peaceful way. Unfortunately, this operation caused violent clashes between the Moroccan police and some protesters, which resulted in a number of casualties.
In the midst of this confusion, as is always the case in these situations, no one can tell exactly the number of casualties on the ground, with both sides (the Polisario Front and Morocco) presenting their account of the events. In similar situation, the role of the media is to give an even-handed and impartial reading of the events while making sure not to favor the views of any of the parties involved, as any inclination in favor of one party would go against professional ethics and harm their credibility.
Yet to the dismay of Moroccans, Spanish media chose not to abide by any ethical or professional rules while reporting the recent events in Layoune. Bent on sully the image of Morocco, exacerbating the feelings of hatred and indignation and attempting to convince Spain’s public opinion, once again, of the “barbarity of the Moroccan government” in its dealing with the Saharawis, the daily newspapers El Pais and ABC, as well as the Spanish news Agency EFE and the TV channel Antena 3 circulated the picture of two children wounded during one of the Israeli attacks on Gaza in June 2006, fallaciously presenting them as victims of the dismantling of the camp and the supposedly barbaric behavior of the Moroccan police.
This brazen reporting of the Spanish media did not stop at these false accusations. In fact, they went so far as to show the picture of a family of four who were murdered last January in Casablanca, claiming, once again, they were among the victims of the Moroccans in Layoune. While showing false pictures in an attempt to substantiate their allegations against Morocco, adding that several dozens were killed and more than four thousand wounded, the TV channel Antena 3 has not bothered to show a single picture of the Moroccan police officers who were slaughtered by some violent elements who infiltrated the camp to serve the political agenda of Algeria and those among the Spanish public opinion who strive to destabilize Morocco at all costs. Nor did they mention the number of the dead and wounded among law-enforcement officers who partook in the dismantling of the camp.
It is true that, after the outcry that these false allegations caused in Morocco, the Spanish news agency EFE, apologized for not verifying the sources of its information. But, could we give this agency the benefit of the doubt and assume that it was victim of a journalistic rush to provide public opinion with a scoop about the events taking place in Layoune? Or should we rather assume that the agency along with other Spanish news outlets presented these pictures with premeditation, and with the unspoken purpose of tarnishing Morocco’s image at the international level?
Taking into account the traditional bias which has characterized Spanish media coverage of Moroccan affairs (since Franco’s era), and the readiness of the Spanish public opinion to accept any allegation about Morocco at face value, I have no doubt that the latter assumption bears more truth than the former. In fact, the ultimate goal pursued by those who showed these images alleging that they were the result of the indiscriminate attack by the Moroccan police forces on the dwellers of the camp, was exactly to defame Morocco and portray it as a rogue state that has no regard or respect for human life. In fact, the authors of this pro-Polisario propaganda and misinformation campaign were well aware, that very few of those who heard the false allegations will change their mind after reading, hearing or seeing overwhelming evidence refuting them.
In this regard, it is worth pointing to the study conducted by researchers at Ohio State University entitled “Beliefs in rumors hard to dispel” (27 October 2010), about the false rumors concerning the establishment of a Muslim cultural center near Ground Zero in New York. Erik Nissbet and Kely Garrett, authors of the study, came to the conclusion that “fewer than one-third of people who had previously heard and believed one of the many rumors about the proposed center changed their minds after reading overwhelming evidence rejecting the rumor”.
As it has always been the case when it comes to reporting about Morocco, Spanish media had only one objective, namely to decry the Moroccan government, dismiss the Moroccan government as a totalitarian, repressive and dictatorial regime, and bring about broader solidarity by the international public opinion with the thesis of the Polisario Front. The apology was a trivial price that Spanish media were willing to pay in their unethical and dishonorable undertaking. Bering in mind the horrifying impact that these images were likely to cause in people’s mind and that recipient audiences will be left with these images regardless of any apologies, there is no doubt that Spanish media have reached the desired goal. Undoubtedly, fair and impartial journalism is, along with the Moroccan State, the biggest casualty of this smear campaign orchestrated by Spanish media. Yet, by the same token Spanish media showed to the world the extent of their lack of professional ethics and their brazen amateurishness in reporting about their southern neighbor.
The double standard of Spanish media: the case of Mustapha Salma Ouled Moulou versus Aminatou Haidar
What corroborates the blatant biases adopted by Spanish media with regard to Morocco, is their collective oblivion regarding the fate of Mustapha Ould Sidi Mouloud, Polisario Police Chief. After the latter stated, last August, during a family visit to his family in the Sahara, that the autonomy plan presented by Morocco was likely to put an end to the Sahara conflict, he was arrested by the Polisario on his way to rejoin his family in the Tindouf camps.
One can be struck by the deafening silence of Spanish media about this repressive attitude adopted by the Polisario leaders, which was denounced by many international NGO’s, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
This case stands in stark contrast with the aggressive way in which Spanish media reported about the case of Aminatou Haidar. In mid-November 2009, the latter was stripped of her Moroccan passport and deported to Las Palmas, after she stated at Layoune airport that she was not Moroccan and Morocco was “occupying” the Sahara. Immediately after this happened, Spanish media outlets have not spared any efforts in order to insist on the disrespect of human rights by Morocco in the Sahara and the illegality of its presence in this territory. Therefore, they called on the Spanish government and the international community to put pressure on Morocco in order to accept the unconditional return of Aminatou Haidar to Morocco and to abide by international law with regard to the Sahara conflict.
Historical reasons of the chronic misunderstanding between Morocco and Spain
Very few Moroccans find an explanation as to why there is so much solidarity with the Saharawi and why so many voices are raised daily to remind the Spanish officials of their moral debt to them and their duty to put pressure on Morocco to respect international law, while only few specialists denounce the legacy of Spanish colonialism in the north of Morocco and the dire consequences of the gassing of the Rif region by the Spanish military following its defeat at the Battle of Anual on 14 July 1921.
As several Spanish and foreign scholars, such as Maria Rosa de Madariaga and Sebastián Balfour, have pointed out, besides the fact that Spanish officials violated their international commitments on the ban of the use of poison gas, their gassing of the population of the Rif continues to have dire consequences on the population of the Rif, especially bearing in mind that this region has the highest rate of people suffering from cancer. This is explained by the fact that the mustard gas used by the Spanish military against a defenseless population contained substances that caused irreversible generic mutations, which resulted in the transmission of cancer from one generation to another.
Bearing in mind that there are over 200 associations that lend support to the Sahrawi population in Tindouf and that thousands of Spanish families host every summer about 10000 Saharawi children, the Moroccans wish the same spirit of solidarity with Saharawi’s were shown towards the descendants of victims of the gassing of the Rif. Moroccans wish, also, there were as many associations and Spanish NGOs advocating for the rehabilitation of victims of this war, putting pressure on their politicians to express, on behalf of their citizens, Spain’s mea culpa with regard to these tragic events. For Moroccans, the support given by the Spanish public opinion to a fictitious entity is a clear indication that the latter has not yet managed to get rid of its negative and unfriendly view of Morocco, nor has a desire that the two countries build a future marked by mutual respect and the elimination of the factors of friction and disagreements between their respective peoples.
How can we explain this lack of solidarity of the Spanish public opinion with the Moroccan position and the commitment of Spanish intellectuals to continue to regard Morocco as the only country capable of threatening Spain’s political and economic stability? Do those authors, who take advantage of every act of the Moroccan officials with regard to Spain to alert their readers about their treachery, build their judgment on reliable facts that attest to the veracity of their statements, or this only illustrates the difficulty for the Spaniards to dispose of their secular hatred and fear toward their “uncomfortable” southern neighbors?
To give an evidence-based answer to these questions requires us to inquire about the image being spread by the Spanish textbooks about the relations between Spain and Morocco and the influence of the latter on the historical development of the former, especially during the twentieth century. Only through analysis of this image, are we able to know the cause of the lack of solidarity of the Spanish people with their southern neighbors. As a matter of fact, the way in which Spanish textbooks treat the history of relations between Spain and Morocco could not be more distorted and full of omissions and untruths.
Indeed, as pointed out by the authors of the book El Islam en las aulas (Islam in classrooms) the authors of the Spanish textbooks provide a truncated and partial reading of the Moroccan-Spanish relations during the last century. It is a truncated reading to the extent that the few textbooks addressing this question do not even make an allusion to the use of poison gas by the Spanish military against the people of the Rif. In addition, a blind eye is turned to the period between 1927, date of the end of the so-called “pacification campaign”, and the independence of Morocco. By this omission, the authors of textbooks avoid to emphasize the fact that the defenseless population of the area under Spanish influence was victim of ill treatment by the Spanish military, as well as of the terror and intimidation policy they applied, in an indiscriminate manner, against this population in order to obliterate its resistance to Spanish military presence.
These textbooks also overlook teaching to young Spaniards that the overwhelming Moroccans who took part in the fratricidal conflict in 1936 were forced to sacrifice their life and defend a cause that was not theirs. What is worse, and reflects the commitment of the Spanish intelligentsia to inculcate young Spanish untruths and show the purported altruistic and selfless nature of the Spanish presence in Morocco, is the fact that some authors of textbooks are so devoid of professional ethics that they do not hesitate in presenting facts that are in stark contradictions with historical reality.
In one textbook it is claimed that it was Spain which, out of its own initiative, decided to end its presence in Morocco, forcing France to do likewise in its corresponding protectorate zone. An excerpt of this textbook reads: “In the most serious moments of Moroccans struggle for independence, the attitude of the Spanish government was of respect for the people it protected; that is why it did not approve the removal of King Mohamed V by France (1953 ), which held the protectorate over the rest of Moroccan territory, on the contrary, three years later it gave independence to its zone. This decision forced also France to abandon its protectorate in Morocco”.
Given this biased reading of the history of Spanish-Moroccan relations and the fact that Moroccans are always presented as the cause of the worst traumas that marked the Spanish collective memory- as was the case during the War of the Rif and the Civil War- and never as victims of the imperialist designs of Spanish politicians, in addition to the fact that Morocco is the country that has allegedly inflicted more political setbacks on Spain, as in the case of the Sahara, it is not surprising that the overwhelming majority of Spanish public opinion continues to show its hostility to the Moroccan approaches with regard to this conflict and that any position of the Spanish officials in favor of the Moroccan thesis arouses disapproval.
In order to start once and for all a process of reconciliation between Moroccan and Spaniards and to build a relationship based on mutual respect, understanding and non-interference of each country, it is time that Spanish media and textbooks stop stocking hatred on their public opinion against Morocco and exacerbate their hostility against its people and its strategic interests. Instead, they should rather insist on facts like those mentioned above to make Spanish people more aware of the misdeeds committed by the officials of their country against a defenseless population that did nothing but defend its land and its culture, showing that the Moroccans have been, not so long ago, the victims of the barbarity, narrow-mindedness and shortsightedness of Spanish politicians.
Last but not least, the initiative launched by Spanish Prime Minister, Rodriguez Zapatero, in September 2004 with regard to the establishment of an Alliance of Civilizations (co-sponsored with Turkish Prime Minister Recip Erdogan), is without a doubt a commendable step towards the bridging of the cultural gap that sets apart Muslims and Westerners. That being said, for this Alliance of Civilizations not to remain an empty shell, and for the Spanish government to be credible in its efforts in spearheading a rapprochement between the components of both civilizations, it should first and foremost, make sure to bring about a debate aimed at rethinking the way its intelligentsia, its educational system and its media industry view the immediate representative of Muslim civilization south of the Mediterranean. Did not the three Conferences held so far by the Alliance of Civilizations’ Group of Friends insist on the fact that one of the most important steps to take in order to build a future of understanding and mutual respect between Westerners and Muslims, consist of combating stereotyping and the vilification of one side by another. Undoubtedly, the way in which the Spanish media, for that matter continues to portray Morocco stands in stark contrast with this objective.