The Fire This Time

The New York Times and others report that five Moroccan men set themselves on fire this week in protest over unemployment.  Modern technology did not fail to capture the moment, at once amplifying its impact and intensifying its ghoulish character.  What depth of despair can drive a person to an act that can only be viewed with horror and its perpetrator with pity?  Despair is too tame a word; such acts indicate a mind that is beyond despair.  Can we not lift our brethren up before they conclude there is no alternative but to torch themselves?

Counting Our Blessings

As we in the United States take stock of the year just past, not omitting the injustices we have suffered at home and those we have perpetrated abroad, it may behove us to reflect on this National Public Radio quotation from a Libyan rebel fighter being treated in Massachusetts:

In our culture we say one thing about the American nation: You live your heaven on Earth in the States.

The other observation he made was that he found it remarkable that there were no checkpoints and no one had asked for his identification.

Our liberties in this country are real, but very fragile, and they are under assault.  In the coming year, let us rededicate ourselves to their defense at home and their expansion abroad.  And let us strive to ensure that our national wealth is shared generously, both at home and abroad.

Moroccan American Law Personality of the Year

Morocco World News has recognized Washington lawyer Leila Hanafi as Moroccan American Law Personality of the Year.  Hanafi, currently pursuing a Master of Laws (LL.M.) degree at George Washington University Law School, has been a leader in advocating for international human rights and particularly rights for Moroccan women.

A Radical Agenda

I have not found it particularly easy to follow the progress of the "Arab Spring" these many months, particularly as concerns Morocco, where coverage has been somewhat muted by the more dramatic changes to the East.

As an American onlooker, however, I think we might be well advised to look to our own first principles, not the Constitution, but our more radical founding document, the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

I am not unmindful that these words were first penned by a Virginia slaveholder, but they nevertheless represent the worthiest expression of the American experiment.  Among the oft-forgotten footnotes to these words is the fact that Jefferson abandoned the usual formulation of "Life, Liberty, and Property."

We in America could do worse than to remember that once we too tasted tyranny, that our Arab brothers and sisters are our equals, that they have unalienable Rights, and that they too are entitled to a government that is founded upon their consent.


The Moorish Wanderer has a trenchant analysis of the disempowerment of the Moroccan people and particularly of Moroccan women.

The first part of his post analyzes the powerlessness of the organized political powers and the consequent alienation of the country's youth from the political process.

The second part of the post addresses the self-immolation of Fadoua Laroui in protest of the treatment she received as a young, unwed mother. Wanderer's sarcastic expression of outrage is painful to read, but it bears remembering that he is talking about a young woman who burned herself to death. In my own time in Morocco, I saw the consequences for children born out of wedlock who were cast aside in a Moroccan orphanage with very little hope of escape. And prostitution was commonplace, even in the conservative countryside where I initially least expected it. Women who did not strictly conform to traditional sexual mores paid a steep price in social ostracism, and prostitution was often the sole means of support available for women who had been branded unchaste.

I don't wish to shortchange the strides that Morocco has taken toward women's rights, or the deficiencies in my own culture's treatment of women. However, I think that Wanderer is right to identify the extreme actions taken by the late Ms. Laroui as the result of extreme disempowerment. Ms. Laroui, it seems, had no one to turn to. As I have written before, there is still an opportunity for H.M. the King to embrace and empower his people. I pray he avails himself of it before it is too late.

U.S. of Hate

One might think that a country whose longest standing treaty of friendship is with the Kingdom of Morocco would be free of the most virulent forms of anti-Muslim prejudice. If so, one would be mistaken, as recent events in Orange County, California, demonstrate. At a Muslim fundraiser for a homeless shelter, people flaunting American flags viciously taunted, berated, and intimidated men, women, and children attempting to enter the community center where the fundraiser was taking place. In attendance and addressing members of this hate rally against the fundraiser were Congressmen Ed Royce and Gary Miller.

Royce has since attempted to deflect criticism of his attendance and encouragement of the protesters by questioning the character of the speakers at the event, Sirraj Wahhaj and Amir Abdel Malik Ali. On the basis of a quick search, Wahhaj appears to be a respected Muslim cleric who has even given a prayer before the United States House of Representatives, although Royce insinuates that he was implicated by association in the first, failed attempt to bomb the World Trade Center. The second, Amir Abdel Malik Ali, is clearly a bit more controversial, and has been cited by the Southern Poverty Law Center for blatantly anti-Semitic fabrications about Jews. It is quite possible that Mr. Wahhaj and particularly Mr. Ali, as public figures who have expressed controversial views, are legitimate targets of protests. I find Mr. Ali's alleged statements about Jews particularly troubling. But I fail to see how a principled objection to the views of Mr. Wahhaj and Mr. Ali provides any justification for mobbing the people who came to hear them speak. Moreover, the language of the protesters had very little to do with the speakers and a great deal to do with the religious and ethnic identity of the attendees. This is shameful, and it ought not to be tolerated.

Clearly, especially in light of Snyder v. Phelps, the law will permit even the most hateful protests. It does not prevent other Americans from drawing conclusions about the characters of the protesters. It does not limit criticism, obloquy, and ostracism of the "protesters" and especially of the two Congressmen who egged them on. We may have to hear these heirs of the Westboro Baptist Church, but we are not prevented from answering them.

In the event anyone wishes to make their displeasure known to the Congressmen involved, the Capitol switchboard is (202) 225-3121.

Is there a future for Mohammed VI?

Amidst shocking carnage in Libya and Bahrain, the peaceful protests in Morocco for constitutional change, human rights, and economic reform (barring a few incidents of vandalism) have been somewhat overlooked. As one leader after another in the Arab world falls, the longterm survival of the Alouite dynasty also seems open to question.

Portrait of Louis XVI of France

Image via Wikipedia

For the present, news reports suggest that that the focus of the protests in Morocco is reform not revolution. So it appears that Mohammed VI is facing a Louis XVI moment. Confronted with popular demands for reform after the storming of the Bastille and the establishment of the National Assembly, Louis elected instead to attempt to flee France in search of Austrian support to reassert his absolute authority. From the moment he was captured and forced to return to Paris under a humiliating guard, the tide of history turned against him, leading to his ultimate execution.

Mohammed VI may still have an opportunity to be Morocco's greatest monarch, the one who let his people go and guided them to a true democracy, even if in the guise of a constitutional monarchy. But to keep his position, he must give up his power. This would be a great gift to the Moroccan people. The only question is whether Mohammed VI is wiser than Louis XVI.

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Vive la Revolution!

Along with much of the world, I am both excited and hopeful about the possibilities for Tunisia following the ouster of the Ben Ali dictatorship. My excitement is tempered by the fact that the seed of freedom has just been planted, and not every flower blooms.

Big Brother Watches Still: Torture in the Modern Maghrib

Laila Lalami has a chilling piece on the persistence of torture in modern Morocco. Because the victims are not celebrities, they suffer and die unnoticed by the Western media — out of sight, out of mind. While the Kingdom has broken very publicly with the "Years of Lead," during which there was widespread torture of political dissidents under King Hassan II, incidents such as those reported by Lalami are a chilling counterpoint to the current regime's bright face of prosperity, particularly when coupled with ongoing suppression of any kind of free press.

Periodic reports on Morocco's Human Rights Record are available at Human Rights Watch.

Blogs and Black Sites

Some of the most interesting news about Morocco comes from the many blogs written by Peace Corps volunteers currently working in country. When I was in Morocco, the word "blog" had not yet been coined, laptops were largely an expensive proof of concept, and a cell phone the size of a brick cost $2,500. On the rare occasions when I wanted to make a phone call from Outat El Haj, I went to the post office and asked the operator to crank the phone and connect me in a scene reminiscent of American movies from the 1930's. Nowadays, however, Peace Corps blogs pour in with news from across the country, written by Americans who nevertheless are solidly ensconced in local communities.

On a recent perusal of one of these blogs, Amber Shiel's The Life and Times of Moroccan Amber, I came across an offhand comment that was both tantalizing and shocking. Ms. Shiel reports:

But Moroccans are not the only ones to have created and used secret prisons. There is a CIA blackout site in the middle of nowhere in eastern Morocco near the Algerian border between Outat el Haj and Guercif that was used to harbor suspected terrorists until 2006. Because it was conveniently located off US soil, many human rights laws were ignored. The site has been closed down, but it is scary reminder that the days of secret prisons are not as distant as history might make you think. Having an old secret prison in our own site is an even more insistent reminder of the past.

Now, for some people, Outat El Haj may be the "middle of nowhere." For me, it was home for two years. So I do find it shocking to hear of a CIA secret prison in my former back yard. While I lived in Outat, I used to laugh at the rumors that I was a CIA agent. What was I going to do, call in missile strikes on the desert? Somehow, the idea does not seem quite so laughable anymore, and the thought that our government might have planted an outpost of hell near my friendly little village, where I was so warmly welcomed, makes me grieve.

One Way or Another

I started playing with websites from the moment my (now defunct) dial up provider offered me 5 megabytes of web space, and I dived into blogging at about the time that Dave Winer first decided Frontier 5 could be more than an alternative script for Apple Computers and positioned it as a blog publishing tool. (I moved to Movable Type in 2003 and have never looked back). I have consistently, if intermittently, written a blog (or two) ever since, but the thing that nearly killed off my blogging habit was Facebook.

Facebook has a number of inherent advantages over a blog. First of all, it is designed primarily as a means to keep in touch with people one already knows and likes, so it have an important function apart from the kind of exchange of information for which a blog exists. Secondly, people actually read and comment upon and sometimes care about what you write on Facebook, and because they are already your friends, they are generally supportive. The blogosphere, by contrast, unless one is on the so-called "A-list" or even on the "D-list", can be kind of a cold and lonely place, one in which one is essentially shouting in the vacuum with no one to hear. This is not all a bad thing, and can actually be quite therapeutic, but it is a different experience from Facebook.

Another thing that Facebook does well is it pulls people together, at least superficially, into groups of common interest. One of the most encouraging Facebook groups I have joined is entitled "On est Juifs et on est Musulmans et on s'aime. (OJMA)." In one sense, such a group may reflect no more than a naive one-worldism that overlooks the serious rifts that exist among adherents of the three Abrahamic religions. I prefer, however, to think of the group as an expression of hope that hatred can be overcome, particular in a region -- the so-called Holy Land -- that is rife with hatred even as it purports to be a center of peace and love. This group, to which I was referred by Tunisian blogger Massir Destin, appears to be comprised largely of francophone North Africans, who have a remarkable tradition of religious tolerance stretching back even before the establishment of the legendary kingdoms of El Andalus in what is now southern Spain. This not to say that the region is without bigotry, but it has a remarkable historical record of largely not eviscerating people over religious differences. So-called Christian Europe, with its shameful record of persecution, pogroms, and ultimately the Holocaust, should take note. Suffice it to say that with number of close Muslim friends and a Jewish family, this cause comes close to home.

Finally, however, I come full circle. Because for all the virtues that have led to its explosive growth, there are a number of areas where Facebook falls short of the blogosphere. First, Facebook may be liberal, but it is not free. In the benevolent dictatorship of Facebook, the company can always shut you down. Breastfeeding mothers found that out in a hurry. True, the various companies that host blogs are also able to impose some restrictions, but one can always move, and, even, in a pinch host one's blog onself, so long as one has a computer and a high speed connection. Facebook, in contrast, has far more control over both content and its distribution than anyone has over a blog. Second, Facebook is geared toward people one knows already, functioning more sometimes as an echo chamber than a true exchange of information. Third, Facebook takes only limited advantage of the possibilities for linking information offered by the full web and the blogosphere. Finally, Facebook has an audience limited to one's "friends"; the audience in the blogosphere is potentially limited only by the number of users on the web and the efficiency of Google.

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The two journalists from the weekly newspaper Al Watan Al An, Mustafa Hormatallah and publisher Abderrahim Ariri were convicted by a criminal court in Casablanca for "concealing items derived from a crime."

VOA News. The conviction of two journalists for apparently violating Morocco's version of the Official Secrets Act, is the kind of prosecution that before the Bush Administration would have been laughable in the United States. Ironically, it would appear that, with its support for secret detentions and torture, the Bush Administration's effect on press freedom and human rights in Morocco has been generally malign at a time when the Kingdom has become more liberal generally.

Routing Around Moroccan Censorship

The Morocco Report calls upon the Blogoma to rise up in protest of Morocco's decision to block access to YouTube, joining the likes of China, Syria, and Iran as Internet censors. Fortunately, an attack on the Internet is often defeated by the Internet itself, and there are a number of suggestions online for circumventing such censorship: see for example, Blogspot Blogs Banned in India and How to Access Blocked Sites. Unfortunately, since I am not in Morocco, I cannot personally verify whether any of these methods work, although I would certainly appreciate feedback from anyone who tries them.


Sexual Threats Stifle Some Female Bloggers -

The Washington Post today ran a story on women bloggers being targeted with harassment and threats of violence:

As women gain visibility in the blogosphere, they are targets of sexual harassment and threats. Men are harassed too, and lack of civility is an abiding problem on the Web. But women, who make up about half the online community, are singled out in more starkly sexually threatening terms -- a trend that was first evident in chat rooms in the early 1990s and is now moving to the blogosphere, experts and bloggers said.

Beyond the obvious revulsion against threats of sexual violence against anyone, there are several additional reasons why this story is particularly disturbing. Not only are many of the attacks quite graphic, but also the perpetrators are often able to remain anonymous on the Internet. While one's first sympathies go to the victims, the consequences for the blogosphere are also likely to be severe. I would venture to say that a majority of the high quality blogs that I read regularly are written by women, and for women in the Maghreb the Internet seems to have been a particularly liberating opportunity for public expression. It would be a shame for the criminal actions of a few sociopaths to shut down access to free expression on the Internet for over half of the population. Finally, if my daughters want to blog when they get older, I want them to be able to do so without fear.

An Infamous Life

Maurice Arthur Jean Papon's chief claim to infamy, according to the New York Times, was his signing the deportation orders of thousands of Jews sent to the death camps during World War II while he was an official in the collaborationist Vichy regime. His subsequent career, however, was littered with bodies from his career as a regional prefect in Algeria during the war for independence and later as prefect of police in Paris. The abduction of Moroccan opposition leader Mehdi Ben Barka by two policemen took place while Mr. Papon was prefect of police. Mr. Papon characteristically denied responsibility. In 1998, he received a 10-year sentence for complicity in Nazi crimes against humanity; he served less than three years.

Abolition of the Death Penalty

Morocco takes a policy stand more progressive than all but 13 states in the United States, as it formally abolishes the death penalty in April.  In the year 2003, 65 people were executed in the United States, making the United States a member of a select group of states practicing the death penalty that includes China, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.

Update: BO18 points out that Djibouti has the honor of being the first Arab state to abolish the death penalty, which it did in 1995.