I have been to Rabat twice and, for “family” reasons, I will be spending much more time there in the future. So on Tuesday morning when I found an op-ed in the Washington Post about Rabat (by Anne Applebaum) I was very interested.
Applebaum’s article, “In Morocco, an Alternative to Iran”, contrasted how the Iranian government suppressed protestors in Tehran with how citizens freely and peacefully protest in Morocco’s capital. Typical me, I immediately wrote an email to Applebaum criticizing the comparison as absurd and untenable, complaining about the media’s childish obsession with categorizing a vast cultural and geographic expanse as a single unified group. It is like, as I wrote to Applebaum, comparing Berlin, Germany to La Paz, Bolvia or Mexican Catholics to Romanian Orthodox Christians. Yes, both Rabat and Tehran have majority Muslims populations (as well as Jewish minorities, although that comparison wasn’t made), but they share little else culturally, historically or linguistically. And religiously, they are as different as Catholics and Protestants.
Much to my surprise, Applebaum promptly wrote me a very kind email in response. She explained that the whole purpose of her article was to show the American public that Muslim countries were not, by their very nature, necessarily incompatible with democracy.
It almost never fails. When a Western reporter goes to Morocco to write about the process of democratization, the resulting article will inevitably mention sartorial choices and give them positive or negative values. Jeans = good. Jellabas = bad. At Slate, Anne Applebaum visits Morocco and finds that many women “would not look out of place in New York or Paris.” So what? What does Moroccan women’s fashions have anything to do with human rights and democracy? Under King Hassan, Moroccan women used to dress much less conservatively, but that didn’t mean that the country was a haven of human rights. Just look at what happened to women activists during the Years of Lead.
I also sent Lalami an email and, just like Applebaum, she kindly responded.
I think the point is Applebaum, Lalami and myself would all agree that if you never visit an “Arab” country then your entire notion of the region will be completely skewed by the media’s portrayal of violent extremism and religious oppression. And that, I believe, was Applebaum’s point. Even Obama, in his arguably effective Cairo speech, was at times patronizing in the way he addressed “violent extremism”. Could you imagine a foreign head of state coming to the U.S. and saying that he knew that not all Americans were hypocritical imperialists? Just as Americans would be surprised to be labeled imperialists, neither do Arabs think of themselves as meeting the extremist stereotype. Ironically, Obama failed to mention that the Middle East’s extremists come in all flavors, including Christians, the original founders of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
The fact on the ground is that while religious extremism is increasingly becoming a societal problem in a country like Morocco, it is definitely not its foremost concern. Morocco and many other Arab countries suffer from the exact same problems as other developing nations regardless of religion, language or region: poverty, illiteracy, inequality and gender discrimination, and political corruption.
Finally, it is increasingly difficult to take sentences like this one in the American press as anything other than pure cynicism:
It is possible to acknowledge and discuss human rights violations in [Moroccan] culture, just as they can be discussed elsewhere. Just because much of the Arab world lacks the political will to change doesn’t mean that change is always and forever impossible.
Where is our will to change? Especially considering our president’s policy to suppress, in the interest of national security, any evidence of American human rights abuses and the “liberal” media’s conscious censor of the term “torture” in reference to American actions that it deems “torture” when applied by other countries.