Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Moroccan Imams Being Dismissed After Requesting Freedom of Speech

Here is an article from Deutsche Welle about ongoing protests for freedom of speech by Moroccan religious leaders.

Moroccan Imams Call for Freedom to Preach

Tight government controls on religious preaching in Morocco has led to a surprising wave of protest among the country’s imams. The resulting dismissals of the leading dissenters has sent shockwaves through the provinces.

It's been raining steadily all morning in Boujniba, a suburb of the phosphate mining town of Khouribga. Children jump over the puddles in the potholed pavements on their way back from school for lunch and the muezzin calls the faithful to the noon prayer of Dhuhr.

Among the men in their long djellebah robes making their way towards the mosque is Mohamed Samir. Until October he was imam of this mosque. Then the government sacked him. The decision caused a great deal of outrage among the local population.

"We cried a lot over him. We cried over his being sacked. We cried because we love him because he is a great person, an important person and he was forbidden to say the truth," said a fruit and vegetable stallholder called Omar, one of the signatories of a petition for the imam's reinstatement.

Learned spiritual leader

After prayers we go to Samir's home. In his front room, books that have overflowed from the shelves are piled on the floor. From in between the titles in swirling Arabic script, the familiar forehead of William Shakespeare beams down as we sit, talk and drink tea. These days Mohamed Samir has too much time to read. And to mull over the sudden way and the reasons why the government put an end to his career as spiritual guide to the people of Boujniba.

"The pretext the ministry gave is that I preached outside of what is permitted," he said. "I spoke about bribery, problems in the administration… corruption."

He had been a preacher since 1990. Then last summer he and some of his colleagues founded the National League of Religious Employees (NLRE) and Samir became its president. The NLRE has two goals, says Samir: To improve imams' living conditions and to win more space for freedom.

Unusual protest

Samir can no longer speak his mind in the mosque. But, in principle at least, he and his fellow members of the League can say what they like in the street. And – an unprecedented sight in Morocco – they have been staging demonstrations. The main ones took place in Ouarzazate, the gateway city to the Sahara Desert where support for the League is strong and in the capital Rabat.

In October, an NLRE demonstration in Rabat was broken up by police. The government, which declined to comment on what it said was such a delicate subject, has, it would seem, been taken by surprise by the emergence of the League.

Mohamed Darif, political science professor at Casablanca's Hassan II University and a specialist in religious affairs, says the imam protest movement is something startling and quite new.

"We had come to believe that the State had succeeded in integrating and domesticating religious civil servants," he told Deutsche Welle, adding that King Mohamed the Sixth, who holds the title of Commander-of-the-Faithful, took the imams' support for granted.

"They have long been part of the State apparatus," he said. "And, through them, the monarchy has always tried to prove its legitimacy."

Tight controls

For a quarter of a century, the imams have been under close State control.

In 1984, not long after the ayatollahs had swept the royal family from power in Iran, Morocco's Hassan II, Mohammed VI's father, ruled that, henceforth, the government would write imams' sermons for them.

Since that date, every week in time for Friday prayers, all the imams in the country receive a sermon. Most read it word for word. Others use it as a guide and inspiration. And not doing so is asking for trouble. Mohamed Darif says a hundred imams have been removed from their positions for straying too far from the government-provided text over the past decade.

For Human Rights Watch's man in Morocco Brahim Elansari this is incompatible with the identity Morocco is now claiming for itself as Africa's first constitutional monarchy. He points out that Moroccans voted this summer in favour of a constitution which has now been passed into law which enshrines freedom of speech.

"But in practice," Elansari told Deutsche Welle, "the Ministry tells the imams what to say each Friday and they don't have the right to say anything else."

Fresh hope

Back at Mohamed Samir's home, the youngest son of the sacked imam brings in mint tea, pastries and Moroccan ‘m'smen' pancakes prepared by one or the other or possibly both of his… two wives. Might we meet them? The request apparently causes a bit of a flutter at the other end of the house with the two ladies apparently debating what level of head cover would be appropriate.

They finally receive us wearing niqabs (the cover that leaves the face visible). Was he, I ask Samir, what he might describe as a conservative? No he said. A conservative wouldn't have introduced me to his wives. And if he were an extremist… a Salafist… he wouldn't just have lost his job. He'd be in jail.

Samir's profile is close in fact to that of the PJD, the Islamist party usually described as moderate that won the general elections just over a month ago and which has just formed a new governing coalition.

The former preacher's main hope now is that the new PJD-led government will be more sympathetic to the League's demands and that he might even get his old job back. He's now working as a guard for the phosphate mining company:

"But that's not the job I was put on Earth to do," he said.

Author: John Laurenson, Morocco
Editor: Rob Turner

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