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MOROCCO: Believe or Leave

Abderrahim El Ouali

CASABLANCA, Nov 22 2011 (IPS) - When he decided to publicly express his views about Islam, Kacem El Ghazzali had no idea that he was going to be beaten up and his life threatened. In spite of this, he continues his fight from his country of asylum for the freedom of faith in the Islamic kingdom of Morocco.

Kacem El Ghazzali called the international community last year to intervene to end Sharia law in Arab and Muslim countries. A preacher in a mosque incited Muslims to kill him.

El Ghazzali, who was a student, received threats by e-mail and phone. Later, he was severely beaten by other students and administrative staff of his secondary school. Human rights activists then organised a campaign of solidarity with El Ghazzali, who was finally given political asylum in Switzerland in April.

El Ghazzali, who was born and brought up in Meknes, 230 km northeast of Casablanca, received a deep religious education from his father, who wanted him to be an Imam. Paradoxically, the young El Ghazzali saw religion as “a philosophy of persecution and oppression that throws all questions out of our galaxy.”

The “modern and democratic” Morocco did not tolerate such views made public by El Ghazzali on his blog, despite the official policy of openness. Freedom of religion, although guaranteed by the constitution, is still far from being so in the life of Moroccans.

The Moroccan penal code imposes up to three years’ imprisonment on a person who “destabilises” the faith of Muslims in the kingdom. In fact, Moroccans who are born Muslim but adopt another religion or atheism fall under this category.

The winds of the Arab Spring were unable to bring about a separation between politics and religion in this North African country of 32 million inhabitants. Islam, in the latest constitution, approved Jul. 1, continues to be the official religion of the State.

Demands of secularism were raised during the uprising dubbed the Movement of February 20th, but “the arrival of Islamists in the movement ruined the scene and has limited these demands before putting them completely aside,” El Ghazzali told IPS.

This opinion is not shared by some activists of the Movement. Mohamed Amine Manar, of Casablanca, told IPS that “Morocco is among the countries that respect the freedom of religion. The proof is that Moroccan Jews have always had the right to practise their religion.”

Morocco has a Jewish community of about 200,000, most of whom live abroad. This tolerance towards monotheist religions does not extend to those who leave Islam.

‘’That is an infringement on the personal freedoms of citizens and a grave violation of human rights,” El Ghazzali said. But the young political exile does not plan to give up. “We should first build political balance to defend individual freedoms in Morocco, and that’s what I am doing through my writings and the campaigns I organise,” he said.

“All Moroccans, politicians, as well as the general public, must be aware” of the cause, El Ghazzali said. The best way, according to him, is “to launch a wide public debate on the freedom of religion, with boldness and responsibility.”

However, the stake is not cultural for some. “The respect of the freedom of religion in Morocco would not be thanks to a culture of tolerance, but rather the fruit of pressure by the international community,” the activist Manar said.

‘’Mixing religion with politics has eventually produced a political Islam which refuses secularism,” yet has no plan to resolve the problems of the citizens,” El Ghazzali explained.

The beneficial effects of Moroccan political Islam begin with the State. ‘’They could not abandon the idea of the official religion. It is the religion of the majority that would prefer all forms of persecution to the fact that the State stops protecting religion.’’

The Moroccan constitution stipulates that the king is “Amir Al Mouminine” (the Commander of Believers). ‘’That makes of him a sacred person whom nobody can criticize or question,’’ El Ghazzali said.

‘’It is that sacredness which made that Moroccan contented – contrary to the other peoples in the region – with claiming reforms and not putting down the regime.’’

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