By Said Temsamani
By Said Temsamani
Morocco World News
Washington, June 19, 2013
When the results of Morocco’s historic elections in 2011 were announced and the PJD (Justice and Development Party) leader, Abdelilah Benkirane, was appointed the country’s Prime Minister and Head of Government, some foreign critics and political analysts immediately assumed that Morocco would now be swamped by a Islamist tidal wave and see the recent reforms which had been so overwhelmingly endorsed in last July’s referendum replaced by Sharia law. What’s worse, some critics even speculated that Morocco would loosen its ties with Europe and the United States and lean heavily toward other more radical Islamic states.
Morocco, of course, is a Muslim country and Islam is the official state religion. Morocco’s King is not only the reigning monarch and a descendant of Mohammed. He is also Commander of the Faithful, the supreme Islamic religious leader in this diverse, and culturally rich country which, under its new constitution, recognizes and protects by law not just Islam, but all other religions.
For centuries, however, Moroccans themselves have not lacked for a religious identity. Year after year, ever since the first Sultan of the Alaouite Dynasty, have been eager to present their allegiance in full recognition of the religious authority of the king, reinforcing and confirming Islam as both the state religion and also a strong symbol of unity of its people.
Other Arab states in transition, such as Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, have never enjoyed Morocco’s religious legitimacy, but have endured under the domination of dictatorial rulers who seized power forcibly, often in violation of the basic tenets of Islam, no matter what those overthrown rulers may have claimed. This absence of a religious legitimacy makes it significantly easier for less moderate, even extremist factions of Islam to influence or take control of those countries, even against the will of the people.
King Mohammed VI has forged a new constitution that allows the largest party in parliament to form a government while keeping for himself control of national security and religious affairs. In Morocco, as in Egypt, an Islamist party has emerged as the winner of a recent election. But, unlike in Egypt, there is little fear of the dark of night of totalitarianism descending. That’s in part because Morocco’s Islamists, organized in the Justice and Development Party, are so moderate; they are primarily focused (or say they are) on fighting corruption and expanding services such as health care and schooling, not on banning alcohol or repressing women. But it’s also because the king serves as an effective check on their power.
To be sure, it’s easier for Mohammed to play this role than it would have been for Mubarak or Ben Ali because the king has far greater legitimacy as the heir to a well-established throne, as a descendent of the Prophet, and as “Commander of the Faithful.” But Mubarak or Ben Ali could have enhanced their own authorities if they had ceded a measure of political power years ago.
Morocco’s new Islamist government leaders have recognized the religious authority of the King and campaigned on improving education, reducing unemployment, and providing a brighter future for the majority of Moroccans who live under severe economic deprivation. “I am not concerned with how many centimeters a woman’s skirt must be above the knees,” Prime Minister Benkirane stated on election night. “I am much more concerned with eliminating illiteracy and putting our people to work.” Even the PJD party founder, late Dr. Al Khatib, has voiced unstinting support of the religious role of the King. We represent a political organization, he says, with a clear platform and a program which will benefit all Moroccans. Religious matters are reserved for the King to resolve, as he did when he reviewed and proceeded to reform Morocco’s Islamic Family Code.
No, Morocco will not end its process of democratization and will not move away from its friends and allies in the West. Morocco, as a strong, stable, and secure Islamic state will become a beacon for others and a model for those who choose to recognize the will of their people. Now, arguably for the first time in decades, there is an alternative to ideological repression in the Arab community. Morocco is not yet an exemplar of Jeffersonian liberalism, but it is on a path paved with democratic principles. Making the Berber language an official language of the nation along with Arabic is a symbolic gesture of extraordinary magnitude. It is recognition of universally agreed upon rights, including most significantly the rights of minorities.
But a constitution and an election, while essential building blocks for democracy, are not in themselves dispositive. What counts is where the leaders want to take this North African nation. Will it move inexorably to democracy? Or will it backslide with pressure from other Arab states?
There remain many unanswered questions, but on one matter there is not an open question: The reforms initiated by King Mohammed should be greeted with gratitude and respect. At long last there is another model for the Arab future, one that we in the United States should embrace wholeheartedly.
Said Temsamani, Senior Fellow at the Meridian International Center and former Senior Political Advisor, US Embassy, Morocco. Member of the National Press Club, Washington DC.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Morocco World News’ editorial policy