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Another Case of Identity Crisis
According to an article I read on allafrica.com, Morocco might not allow its expatriates to vote in legislative elections next year. Some analysts claim this is because the kingdom is not up to the logistical challenge involved.
Wednesday, October 18,2006 00:00
by CHRISTINE BENLAFQUIH, Arabisto

According to an article I read on allafrica.com, Morocco might not allow its expatriates to vote in legislative elections next year. Some analysts claim this is because the kingdom is not up to the logistical challenge involved.

But others believe that not allowing expatriates to vote would be an attempt to prevent Islamic fundamentalists from making a clean sweep at the polls. I’m not sure how eliminating expatriate votes would achieve that, and some officials deny the idea as well. Nonetheless, it’s reasonable to believe that Morocco is afraid of what an Islamic party, even a moderate one, might do if elected to office.

Perhaps what Morocco actually fears is a change in status. Morocco is known as a moderate and tolerant country which has long been a friend to America. The kingdom’s liberal move last May to appoint fifty women as preachers, its occasional round-up of "suspected terrorists," and its cooperation with US intelligence in the "war against terror" all demonstrate the kingdom’s efforts to make itself palatable to the West.

But in recent years, Morocco has seen a number of its nationals arrested and charged with involvement in various overseas terror plots. Suspected terrorist cells within the kingdom have also been identified and dismantled. While these events thus far haven’t hurt Morocco’s relations with the West, they appear to have prompted Morocco to clean up its Muslim image even more.

Part of that grooming may be eliminating expatriate votes and avoiding suspicion that some of its citizens abroad are sympathizers of fundamentalists. But at home in the kingdom, primping for more tolerance and less extremism has taken on a different tone. This month, Morocco ordered that a picture of a woman and her daughter in headscarves be removed from a Moroccan textbook. This follows the earlier removal of a verse from the Quran which commands women to cover.

Naturally a number of Moroccans will applaud the move. After all, hijab is not representative of all Muslim women and girls. But like it or not, headscarves do crop up in the mosaic of Islamic diversity, and removal of the picture and verse suggests that hijab is becoming symbolic of extremism. While I think the correlation between hijab and religious extremism is absurd, a BBC.com article cites an employee of the education ministry as defending the move from a different angle—he argues that the headscarf is political, not religious, in nature, and that it’s not fair to define all Moroccans that way. 

That’s funny—I never give a thought to politics when I put on my hijab.

And I wonder exactly how the government would like to define its citizens, 98 percent of whom are Muslim and a good number of whom wear headscarves.

A few days back, my kids were delighted when their English textbooks finally arrived, long after the start of the school year. Published in Jordan and specially written for Arab children who are learning English as a second language, the books are filled with—you guessed it—images of women and girls in headscarves.

So far no one in my kids’ classes is pointing to the pictures and shouting, "Extremists!" But the long-term absence of such pictures from Morocco’s own textbooks might contribute to an atmosphere where visible signs of religious observance are not tolerated, even by other Muslims. 

Perhaps Morocco is beginning a trek down the road paved by Tunisia, which banned headscarves from public places way back in 1981. On Sunday, BBC.com reported that Tunisia is showing "renewed vigour" in applying its decades-old decree against hijab. 

If Morocco takes a similar political stance on hijab, then what becomes of high-profile women who obviously cover their hair for religious, and not political, reasons? Morocco’s fifty female preachers come to mind. Their appointment last May was a notable achievement in women’s rights, but it also demonstrates that Islam continues to influence modern Moroccan society. Surely these women, and the visibility that their leadership roles give to hijab, hold a far more powerful message than a single illustration in a school book.

But the decision has already been made. Lest we all confuse a single picture of hijab as representative of Moroccan women as a whole, we won’t find the picture in print again—at least not in a textbook.

And try as I may, I can’t find the fine line which clarifies when Morocco finds hijab to be acceptable, and when it does not.

Apparently Morocco is confused about that, too. It’s not an easy business, sorting out which parts of Islam are okay to keep, which are better to lose. While Morocco works through its identity crisis for the sake of looking good to the West, I’ll just flip though the pages of my kids’ English books. There’s something in there that I—and quite a few Moroccans—can still relate to


BIOGRAPHY
CHRISTINE BENLAFQUIH

Christine (Amina) Benlafquih is a freelance writer whose work includes articles, opinion pieces, personal essays and occasional fiction and poetry. A former publications and public relations director, she earned a B.A. in Journalism from Duquesne University in 1987.

 

Originally from Rochester, NY, she has also lived in Pittsburgh, PA, the Washington, DC area, and now resides in Casablanca, Morocco. Her experiences as an American convert to Islam, both in the United States and in Morocco, serve as inspiration to much of her work. She is particularly concerned about the biased portrayal of Arabs and Muslims in the media, and about the division and labeling that occurs among Muslims themselves.


 
She is married and the mother of six children.


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