When two Moroccan women were accused of gross indecency earlier this month, for wearing clothing deemed “too tight” as they walked through a market in Inezgane, near the southern city of Agadir in Morocco, the headlines were focused on yet another Muslim country’s seeming obsession with women’s sartorial choices.
In an indication of the inflammatory nature of such issues, rallies in support of the two women were held in both Agadir and Casablanca, while hundreds of lawyers offered their services in defence of the women.
Certainly the issue of what women can – or can’t – wear in Morocco continues to cause debate, whether on the streets where women, whether in the traditional djelaba or in short skirts, invariably experience some form of sexual harassment, or on the pages of the nation’s dailies. And although the question is tied into a broader struggle for women’s greater autonomy and individual freedom in a deeply patriarchal context, the debate also speaks to a much deeper, underlying question over the very nature of Moroccan society, and who gets to define it.
But the issues at stake are far wider than women’s hems.
In particular, Moroccan law in the form of Article 483 of the penal code, carries a penalty of up to two years in jail for anyone found guilty of committing an act of “public obscenity”. In recent years, women’s groups in particular have sought to challenge what they perceive as undue restrictions on women’s choices enshrined in law, as well as a lack of legal protection for women in cases such as marital rape or domestic violence more broadly, among a range of other issues.
Just last month, one of Morocco’s most critically acclaimed film directors, Nabil Ayouch, was summoned to court on charges of “pornography, indecency and inciting minors to debauchery” for his portrayal of the Moroccan prostitution industry, in his latest film Much Loved (“Zine Li Fik” in Moroccan Arabic). Thousands called for the film to be banned and the Minister of Communication Mustapha al-Khalfi, from the Islamist-inclined Justice and Development Party (PJD), decried the film as undermining “the moral values and dignity of Moroccan women”.
And in June, two Moroccan gay men were sentenced to jail in another case which caused uproar, after they were arrested as they posed for a photograph in the political capital of Rabat. One of the country’s most provocative, French-speaking publications, Tel Quel, regularly enflames such debates by featuring nudity and sex in its pages, and most recently, an editorial describing “consensual love between two adults” as “not a crime,” despite homosexuality remaining illegal in the kingdom.
Such incidents are merely the fault lines of an ongoing struggle between old and aspiring elites over the cultural references which should delineate the contours of Moroccan society, particularly as related to issues of morality – itself at the heart of the question of identity.
For Islamists and social conservatives more broadly, preserving and enhancing Morocco’s Islamic identity is key to reasserting an independent national identity, free of the legacy of colonial influence, while their opponents regard the use of religion in the political sphere as a tool of social control, which unduly restricts individual choices.
Although the women involved were acquitted, the case sent ripples through Moroccan society, where a petition supporting them garnered over 27,000 signatures and debates were reignited over the limits of personal freedom in a conservative society, in which Islam is the constitutionally established religion of the state.
The case is the second such scandal relating to morality and women’s clothing in the kingdom of late, with American singer Jennifer Lopez’s performance at the Mawazine festival in Rabat in May, currently the subject of an investigation ordered by the Prime Minister Abdelillah Benkirane, after it was aired on Morocco’s public TV network, 2M.
Benkirane, also from the Party for the Justice and Development (PJD), deemed the show “sexually suggestive” and thus in violation of the country’s audio-visual laws, describing the decision to air as “indecent and provocative to the religious and moral values of Moroccan society”.
From a working-class socially conservative background himself, Benkirane regularly denounces the gulf he perceives between the social mores of the Moroccan elites and the sensibilities of the masses and believes in upholding existing limits which preserve Morocco’s conservative customs, rather than seeking to reform them. In this view, he is challenged by campaigners such as Fouzia Assouli, head of the LDDF women’s rights organisation, who lauded the acquittal of the women and whose organisation campaigns for Article 483 of the penal code to be revised.
While the case has largely been described as one of divisions over women’s freedom of choice, Amnesty International condemned the trial as “part of a pattern of discriminatory laws and practices” in the country, pointing out that “The case has all the hallmarks of a discriminatory use of the law against women”. While the rallies in support of the women were often interpreted as being solely about the right to choose one’s clothing, they reflect an increasing vocality among a range of Moroccan women, from religious conservatives to more liberal voices, over discriminatory practises against women, despite the kingdom having enacted a number of progressive reforms to the country’s “moudawana” (the official family code) and having signed up to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) .
The envisaged solutions to women’s problems, however, invariably differ. With the growth in popularity of the Islamist political party, the party for Justice and Development from 2002 onwards, public debates have increasingly reflected a schism between two visions of Morocco, one in which the Islamic heritage of the modern state should increasingly define its outlook and parameters, and those for who favour a more secular nature of both state and society.
Women’s clothing is often a lightning rod issue in post-colonial Muslim societies, where differing views on the primacy of individual freedom versus socially conservative social mores reflect a broader divide over the very nature of the society aspired to. In Morocco, issues of personal freedom, from the right to have sex outside of marriage, to the right to break the Muslim fast openly during the month of Ramadan, or the right to publicly identify as gay in a country in which homosexuality remains illegal, all regularly spark national conversations, dividing those who wish to see the monarchy, headed by a king who doubles as a religious leader, bearing the weighty title of “leader of the believers,” maintain a conservative religious ethos, and those who would like to see Morocco move closer to a European style liberal democracy in which the monarchy itself would take on a far more symbolic role.
In evidence of the deep roots of current debates, the arrest of the gay men was met by demonstrations in front of the French embassy in Rabat, where protestors chanted “This is Rabat, not Paris,” in reference to suspicion the men had been taking their cues from French Femen protestors who’d been deported after kissing as part of a topless protest.
The reference to French influence reflects an underlying divide over the continuing legacy of colonial influence over the form and direction of contemporary Morocco. For some, liberal mores and practises, including secular principles, reflect an ongoing colonial legacy which conflicts with a presumed essential “Islamic” nature of Moroccan society, in a glorified reimagining of pre-colonial Morocco. But the divide is itself complex, with Westernised elites identified with a corrupt, exclusive cast which continues to enrich itself at the expense of an impoverished majority, for whom Islamic principles reflect a call to social and economic justice expressed in the idiom of the masses.
Disputes over clothing and the polarising impact they appear to have should therefore be assessed within the broader struggle within Moroccan society over the nature of the state and society and specifically, which cultural references – those of a francophone elite, or a more traditional majority, get to assert the ethical parameters of not only the Moroccan state, but more critically, Moroccan identity.
You can read the original article here
Myriam Francois Cerrah gives Middle East Eye her rundown of the implications of David Cameron’s new strategy to combat extremism for Middle East Eye’s Blink News:
New Statesman: State-sanctioned prejudice is at the heart of David Cameron’s approach to countering extremism
Last year, Olive Tree Primary School in Blackburn was being investigatedbecause a teaching assistant had allegedly discussed, “stoning for gay people” and “condemned music and clapping as satanic”.
As a consequence, Olive Tree primary, as well as other schools within the Islamic trust, Tauheedul Education, were visited by Ofsted. Although no evidence of extremism was found, suspicion here – like elsewhere in the case of schools affected by the so-called Trojan Horse scandal – has lingered.
Unlike the front page headlines parading schools as hotbeds of Islamic extremism, news that Olive Tree primary and three other schools run by the trust have since been classed as “outstanding” in every category by Ofsted has been much less prominent.
Yet accusations of extremism have seen schools struggle to recruit and retain staff – a reality that Sir Mike Tomlinson, Birmingham’s Education Commissioner, has described as “the biggest issue facing schools” in the area.
Cameron’s decision to deliver his big address on how to tackle extremism from within a school in Birmingham was entirely calculated to set the stage for schools as the battleground for counter-extremism.
The choice of location speaks to the recent so-called Trojan Horse scandal in Birmingham, which, despite being debunked by at least five official investigations that found “no evidence of a conspiracy” nor of “a sustained plot”, continues to be used as the basis for seemingly never-ending state encroachment into the private sphere of Muslim citizens – now including Muslim children.
All this is despite a huge backlash from educationalists, teachers, as well asacademics against the increasing securitisation of education and the perils this poses to the very objectives of education – namely, a frank exploration of knowledge, within a trust-based environment.
David Lundie, a senior lecturer in Education Studies at Liverpool Hope university, who has actively opposed the new powers of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, points out that the statutory duty now incumbent on teachers to report suspected “extremism” did not apply to educators in the prison system in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles, when educators understood the importance of open dialogue in “de-radicalising” the adherents of violent ideology.
But learning lessons from the past isn’t this government’s forte.
The Prime Minister’s address this week was meant to set out a new vision for counter-extremism, but for keen observers of the government’s befuddled strategy (or lack thereof) it sounded decidedly familiar.
But there were a few caveats – the saving graces of an otherwise patronising and ill-advised speech. For a start, the PM recognised the “profound contribution Muslims from all backgrounds and denominations” “in every sphere of our society” and, most significantly, recognised that extremism is a threat first and foremost to Muslims – to Muslims in regions where they hold sway and those in the UK who may be targeted for grooming, or who may come under attack from far-right extremists.
The reality of the latter situation is stark, what with a bomb being left outside mosques as recently as last month, and an Asian man recently hacked at with a machete by a man shouting white power slogans.
Acknowledging Muslims as partners, not a “swamp” harbouring terrorist crocodiles, to paraphrase the rather gauche Michael Gove, is certainly progress.
Some of the initiatives laid out for countering the appeal of Daesh – such as giving a platform to its victims or empowering those communities most affected to speak out – are important in countering its propaganda.
Tackling segregation and discrimination, improving social mobility, and even the proposal to establish a new community engagement forum are constructive ideas.
But while there was some encouraging talk of working with communities, the government’s key failure has been its inability to identify extremism and its causes correctly, a misgiving that can be more than partially attributed to its selective hearing.
Cameron has once again laid out – as in Bratislava last month, and Munich before – a definition of the threat being faced that perpetuates the same tired, misplaced and critically, unsubstantiated notion that “what we are fighting, in Islamist extremism, is an ideology”.
Ideology – or ideas – do not exist in a vacuum. They are the product of material factors, which, when ignored, reduce the battle against extremism to a cosmic battle of ideas. This is exactly the terrain upon which the terrorists would like it to be played out, rather than in the real world circumstances producing anger and disaffection.
Ideology plays its part; it is the packaging of political concepts to render them accessible and attractive. But it’s hardly the core.
The issue of defining the nature of extremism has been a longstanding government struggle. Most recently, a working definition was set out, the brilliant irony of which was typified by a now classic interview with Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, who, when asked to provide an example of the kind of behaviour from a pupil that should trigger an anti-extremism intervention, wriggled nervously before responding – homophobia.
Her intervention might of course have proven more compelling had she not voted against gay marriage twice herself, at least on one occasion in reference to her own religious views as a Christian.
And why not? There are plenty of folk whose views, religious or otherwise, might prompt them to vote against gay marriage, but to suggest this is the basis upon which children – and let’s be honest, Muslim children specifically – ought to be investigated is where comical policy blunder switches to dangerous criminalisation of children.
The speech also reiterated the notion that some ideas, although not calls to violence, are too subversive to be allowed expression. Think carefully about that statement. There are ideas which need criminalising.
Now, I write as someone who frequently denounces what I regard to be institutionalised forms of prejudice – racism. But I have never once suggested that racists should be jailed, unless, of course, they are inciting violence.
I do, however, believe communities and society as a whole have a responsibility to challenge prejudice. Anti-Semitic jokes aren’t funny. Sexist innuendos don’t deserve lockdown, but they should be shut down. The suggestion that we should regard the expression of critical views of anything from liberal democracy to foreign policy as harbingers of extremism should make us all shudder.
In a free society, citizens must be able to express unpalatable views: subversive ideas, counter-cultural perspectives that contribute to challenging the status quo. Shutting down the fringes is counterproductive at every level – it forces such voices underground, limits free speech and fosters a climate of fear in which certain ideas are deemed not simply bad taste, but worthy of police intervention.
The great hypocrisy of Cameron’s speech is of course that the far-right has for generations expressed the sorts of ideas that bear considerable continuity with those who then go on to attack minorities. But groups from Britain First and the EDL, far from being shut down, are permitted to march through some of our most diverse cities in an act of clear provocation.
The parallels being drawn between Muslim extremists and far-right extremists are themselves questionable, not least because Muslim extremists – the limelight-aspiring Al-Muhajiroun aside – don’t tend to be very public. They function underground, often online and, contrary to popular belief, out of sight of the community that has shown itself prepared to ban speakers from premises and flag violent concerns from co-religionists to the police.
The ideals of violent Muslim extremists are not tolerated in your local mosque, nor are they accepted in schools or local community associations. Their voices are not regular contributors to flagship programmes that shape public opinion, such as that of Douglas Murray, from the Henry Jackson Society, who puts a plummy twist on a fascist classic with his view that “all immigration into Europe from Muslim countries must stop” and who has previously argued that the EDL should be “given the benefit of doubt”.
This brings me to the next trope in Cameron’s woolly speech: the idea that Muslims are somehow in the grip of mad conspiracy theories. Who are the overpaid incompetents who convinced the PM that conspiracy theories should top the list of concerns regarding British Muslims? And why only Muslims? Is David Ike about to become a banned entity?
And how about the decision to throw in a host of social ills with no connection to extremism – from FGM to religious councils to forced marriages – none of which are the exclusive purview of the Muslim community.
Nor do they have any discernible link to radicalisation, unless you count the far-right trope that Muslim communities bring with them an array of “problems” – a stereotyping and essentialising of Muslims for which Tommy Robinson himself couldn’t have dreamt up a more prominent platform.
But the most galling aspect of David’s monologue was the attempt to undermine the most academically-grounded, widely-recognised notion that foreign policy grievances play a significant role in motivating attacks by Muslim extremists; what he attempts to recast as “the grievance justification”.
He spoke as if anger at the death of innocent men, women and children in invasions of sovereign nations, or support for brutal autocracies, could simply be rebranded as an “excuse” to cover up that the true source of anger – recast as “hate” – is something within Islam itself.
Cameron also seeks to undermine the very significant concept of alienation, with attendant concepts such as relative poverty, or the disconnect between aspirations and real world expectations. This feeling can, in fact, be greater in highly-qualified individuals who fail to see their hopes matched by reality, and are consequently more open to counter-cultural messages of self-assertion. A Western education and a flat screen TV are hardly a preserve against a sense of discrimination or thwarted dreams.
It is a sad indictment of the government’s attempts to tackle extremism properly that it continues to peddle the same, unsubstantiated, widely-debunked and frankly self-serving “conveyor belt” theory of extremism. This theory somehow holds that anyone with socially conservative views is merely a few steps away from blowing us all up.
The truth is, the profile of those engaging in terrorist activists, those orderingIslam for Dummies online, is less befitting of the notion of pious devotees, and much closer to the classic model of a political radical enamoured by the latest articulation of subversion.
The notion bandied about in Cameron’s speech that “the extremist world view is the gateway, and violence is the ultimate destination” would be true if the definition of extremism wasn’t so broad as to encompass opponents to gay marriage, monarchists, anarchists, communists, Nigel Farage – we’ve now reached a stage where it is no longer possible not to be a liberal within a liberal democracy. Or, more accurately, it is no longer possible to be a socially conservative Muslim within liberal Britain.
Cameron of course would deny that the policies outlined are Muslim-specific, even if, as the Tory insider Paul Goodman clearly indicates on his blog, the speech was “mainly addressed to Britain’s Muslims”.
It is Muslim children being targeted through intrusive questionnaires. It is Muslim majority schools that have become the focus of a witch hunt dressed up as a “neutral” Ofsted inspection. It is Muslims who are primarily affected by our decision to sign away some of our most cherished civil liberties, under the guise of the protection of “British values”, all the while upbraiding those who challenge their “suspension” – the stripping of British citizens of their nationality, the introduction of secret courts, undermining open justice, and a raft of proposals under the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 that civil liberties campaign group Liberty describes as “as unsafe as they are unfair”.
The PM spoke of establishing a “community engagement forum” to marginalise “non-violent extremists” and allow “moderate” voices to be heard, which seems like a perfect antidote if the government weren’t determined to engineer the nature of the discussion by selecting only the types of voices likely not to rock the boat.
We need not look too far back in recent political history to recall the disastrous attempt by Hazel Blears, then Tony Blair’s Communities Secretary, to set up various groups with the intent of socially engineering a politically acceptable form of Islam.
We definitely don’t need more of that, thanks.
For all the berating of community leaders as little more than “professional Muslims”, the fact is their replacement with Whitehall-manufactured voices, dressed up for the sake of legitimacy in half-baked think tanks, is no improvement. Bring back the Mr Khans, I say. At least they actually know where the community centre is.
The notion that government is going to “actively encourage the reforming and moderate Muslim voices” should make any self-respecting secularist shudder. Why is the state meddling in the religious practices of its citizens? And do we really aspire to a state that seeks to dictate the nature of “correct” religious praxis?
This sounds less liberal democracy and more religious autocracy. Unless you’re not Muslim of course, in which case your religious freedom isn’t under threat. And that, I believe, is quite possibly the definition of state-sanctioned prejudice.
“This extremist ideology is not true Islam,” added Cameron – a statement that might have been met with relief were the implication of it not that the government is somehow beholden to the meaning of “true Islam” and prepared to try and enforce it.
“We can’t stand neutral in this battle of ideas. We have to back those who share our values,” he continued. But standing neutral is exactly what the secular state should do.
You can read the original piece on the New statesman website, here
There’s something about Srebrenica. Much like when I visited Auschwitz in the 1990s, there is a sense of something profoundly awful having happened there, which stains the very air you breath.
Twenty years have passed since around eight thousand men and boys were systematically killed, dumped in mass graves and then subsequently dug up to be reburied in secondary and even tertiary grave sites, in an effort to the cover up the crimes. To this day, bodies are still being discovered and in many cases, families are left to bury only a few bones, the last remaining evidence of a life lost.
In February, I travelled with the BBC to the site of the killings to make a documentary, A Deadly Warning: Srebrenica Revisited, about what impact learning about the events might have on a group of young people, born in the same year as the genocide.
The young people were part of a delegation organised by the group Remembering Srebrenica, a British organisation that takes people to learn about the tragedy.
We followed the group as they learnt about the siege of Sarajevo, the genocide at Srebrenica, the painstaking work of the International Commission on Missing Persons in trying to identify remains. And although the delegations do not usually meet Serb officials, the group accompanied me to speak with Milos Milovanovic, the Bosnian Serb Chair of the Municipal Assembly in the town of Srebrenica itself, who refuses to use the term “genocide”.
Although Serbia has condemned the events as a “horrible crime”, it and many Bosnian Serbs refuse to accept the verdicts of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Court of Justice, both of which have called the events a genocide. In the context of Bosnia, the genocide was part of a broader process of ethnic cleansing, one aspect of a project of Bosnian Serbian extreme nationalism which sought to create an ethnically and religiously homogenous “Greater Serbia” in lieu of a diverse, integrated society.
Before I travelled to Bosnia-Herzegovina, my knowledge of what had happened at Srebrenica was limited to what I’d acquired within the Muslim community in the UK. The genocide at Srebrenica isn’t taught in British schools, something the young people featured in the BBC documentary felt was a serious omission. I began researching the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia and was particularly interested in better understanding how closely the narrative I’d acquired about Bosnia tallied with the facts.
There was – and to some extent there still is – a sense among British Muslims that Bosnia was “our” genocide, unrecognised, and moreover a symptom of a tacit anti-Muslim prejudice, which spilt over into politics, locally and internationally.
As with most narratives, there are undeniable elements of truth, but I also came to feel deeply uncomfortable with the “religification” and appropriation of the events.
Among the core arguments in the narrative is the view that Bosnian Muslims were left to slaughter because “Muslim blood is cheap”. Certainly, the evidence now suggests that western powers were much more aware than previously thought of events on the ground.
In a recent op-ed, former Bosnian foreign minister and ambassador to the UN Muhamed Sacirbey decried that “nowhere in official sanitised accounts has Washington, London or Paris acknowledged its role in leaving Srebrenica naked”, a reference to Nato’s failure to provide air support to Dutch peace keepers despite repeated requests and despite new evidence that American spy planes had images of the killings underway.
Mr Sacirbey also hints at what has become apparent since, that anti-Muslim stereotypes did play their part, with then-French president Francois Mitterrand objecting to a “Muslim-led unified Bosnia” and former US President Bill Clinton acknowledging in his memoir that “some European leaders were not eager to have a Muslim state in the heart of the Balkans”. Did such prejudice contribute to political considerations? It was certainly there.
According to a report in The Guardian, “British, American and French governments accepted – and sometimes argued – that Srebrenica and two other UN-protected safe areas were ‘untenable’ long before the Serb commander Ratko Mladic took the town”. They agreed to sacrifice Srebrenica to leave a political map amenable to the Serb leader Slobodan Miloševic.
Numerous books now indicate a strange affinity among some western leaders with the Serb leadership. But even with this, it is difficult to claim anti-Muslim prejudice specifically drove those decisions, rather than cold, political calculations over whom western powers felt could best manage the disintegrating region.
Part of the sense of injustice felt in connection to Srebrenica for many Muslims lies in the power equation involved.
Far from a “civil war”, as the broader conflict was often depicted, Srebrenica was an assault by a modern, strongly armed Bosnian Serb army against a UN safe zone in which male fighters had been convinced to give up their weapons.
The defenceless nature of the civilians who’d placed their trust in international institutions, only to be handed over to be executed, has cemented a sense that international organisations have long served only the interests of western powers and often failed – as in Rwanda – to protect those whose lives are deemed less worthy.
But to view these events outside of their broader context plays into a depiction of the conflict in the Balkans as the product of ancient hatreds, a view that former aide to Mr Clinton, Richard Holbrook, bemoans as a strategic failure that cemented a sense that the ethnic strife was too ancient and ingrained to be prevented by outsiders.
This perception of the broader conflict as pitting Serbs against Bosnian Muslims ignored the reality that, as Brendan Simms points out in his book Unfinest Hour, the Bosnian government forces, in some theatres “included substantial Catholic Croat and Orthodox Serb contingents” despite being routinely described in the media as “the Muslims”.
This vision was itself internalised by many Muslims, who saw in the conflict an assault on Islam itself, rather than a supremacist Serb nationalism that sought to divide integrated communities along lines that had until then been perceived as broadly indiscernible.
The Muslim identity was one of those lines and the long term consequence of identifying Bosnian Muslims as Muslims first and foremost has been a renewed sense of themselves in religious terms.
To paint the genocide at Srebrenica as the product of pure anti-Muslim hate reduces the events to the inevitable outpouring of age-old hatreds, rather than acknowledging root causes and political failures. The Bosnian people’s suffering shouldn’t be appropriated. Ultimately, it remains a disservice to the victims not to truly seek to understand what led to this tragedy.
Myriam Francois is a journalist and broadcaster. She presented the BBC1 documentary A Deadly Warning: Srebrenica Revisited
You can read the original piece on The National website here
Srebrenica massacre – Explained in under two minutes
In July 1995, Bosnian Serb forces killed more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims who were meant to be under UN protection.
Sian Williams and guests discuss stems cells donations, extremism in schools and genocide.
(available for a week)
Journalist Myriam Francois-Cerrah travels to Bosnia to mark the twentieth anniversary of one of the worst atrocities in Europe since World War II.
You can watch the BBC1 documentary on BBC i player for the next week:http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b061v968/a-deadly-warning-srebrenica-revisited