No Longer an Oasis of Religious Tolerance

Many Moroccan intellectuals believe that the Madrid bombings were made possible because the system that has tended to foster religious extremism by systematically undermining critical thinking. Beat Stauffer reports

Many Moroccan intellectuals believe that the Madrid bombings were made possible because the system that has tended to foster religious extremism by systematically undermining critical thinking and by tolerating the influence of radical preachers. By Beat Stauffer

photo: AP
Protesting against the bombings - a young Muslim women in Madrid

​​This time the public reaction was quieter, more reserved, the feelings of shame and perplexity stronger. Unlike what happened following the terrorist attacks in Casablanca last May, this time there were no mass demonstrations in which hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets, and no campaigns with slogans posted everywhere.

On the outside, the reaction was hardly visible at all and threatened to be swallowed up by the day-to-day hustle and bustle of the big cities: here a sit-in in front of the Spanish embassy, there a reading or an open letter expressing solidarity with the Spanish people.

But the shock felt in the aftermath of these attacks, which were very probably masterminded by a group of young Moroccans, must sit even deeper than after the events of May 16 last year, when a handful of young "kamikazes" killed themselves in the center of Casablanca, taking three dozen innocent bystanders with them.

Morocco is not an island

Many people in Morocco must surely have come to the painful realization that the incidents in Madrid have now destroyed the country's former reputation as an oasis of religious tolerance, where, due to these special circumstances, extremist Islam would be unable to secure a foothold. It was suddenly perfectly clear that this image, cultivated for so many years by the country's officials, had long been divorced from reality.

And what's more – that this new "export of terrorists" had incalculably damaged Morocco's relations with Spain and the rest of Europe.

A feeling of shame

Several weeks after March 11, Moroccan intellectuals are still trying to come to terms with these recent developments. Many do not hesitate to speak of a feeling of deep "shame" that such a thing could happen. These include columnist and writer Lotfi Akalay, with whom we spoke in Tangiers.

Like many others, Akalay calls to mind the erstwhile cosmopolitan, liberal image of Tangiers, where people from the most diverse backgrounds, where Muslims, Jews and Christians lived together in almost perfect harmony.

Even though this liberal-minded Tangiers has long been a thing of the past, Akalay is convinced that until recently it nonetheless lived on in people's minds – as a model, or perhaps as a utopia.

A striking lack of critical thinking

But for years now, signs that religious intolerance was spreading were hard to ignore. Akalay experienced this turnaround first-hand: the decidedly secular author has more than once been the target of Islamic zealots. A lead article on the front page of the country's major Islamic newspaper branded Akalay an "enemy of Islam".

Since the editors saw fit to accompany the article with a prominent photo of the author, Akalay was afraid to leave his apartment for the next two weeks. Akalay believes that Islamic opinion-makers must thus take some share of the blame for the ideological blindness of the terrorists who committed the assaults in Madrid.

Most of the cultural practitioners with whom we spoke have no doubt that these circumstances played a role in the recent events. Writer Abdelhaq Serhane, who left Morocco a few years ago and today teaches at a university in the southern USA, even takes the equation one step further. He believes that the terrorist attacks in Casablanca and Madrid were not isolated events, but rather the outgrowth of developments that were set in motion deliberately some 30 years ago.

Ever since the seventies, alleges Serhane, the "palace" - meaning King Hassan II – has done everything in its power to withdraw or withhold funding from the country's centers for critical thinking, or has simply dissolved them.

Closing down institutions of critical thinking

The Institute for Sociology was shut down, for example, as were the psychology and philosophy departments at various universities. At the same time, the King provided support for Islamic movements and even allowed Wahhabi preachers from Saudi Arabia to enter the country in order to weaken the leftist opposition.

According to Serhane, in this way a kind of "mentality" has been cultivated through the years that is now making itself known with disastrous consequences.

Diagnose: intellectual poverty among young extremists

This thesis is supported by other intellectuals as well, for example the lawyer and human rights activist Abderrahim Berrada from Casablanca. Berrada has diagnosed a kind of "intellectual poverty" among the young extremists, characterized by the utter absence of a faculty for critical thinking, which apparently is the result of a kind of brainwashing.

"The material and intellectual impoverishment of these young people," Berrada says, "represents a combustible mixture for which the Moroccan state is ultimately responsible."

It must be mentioned here that such opinions are by no means shared by the majority of Moroccans. For the former diplomat Ahmed Berroho, who wrote a novel about the attacks of May 16th, the Madrid terrorists, despite their Moroccan origins, have long become Europeans. Their barbaric deed, Berroho concludes, thus has little to do with Morocco.

Writer Youssouf Amine Elalamy takes a different perspective. The 43-year-old author of several novels, who works as a professor of English literature in Rabat, published an Art Journal after the attacks in Casablanca in which, in his essays and short stories, he attempts to come to terms with this unprecedented Moroccan phenomenon.

For Elalamy, the atrocities in Madrid were a tremendous shock, despite the similar incident in Casablanca just nine months earlier. He was bewildered not only at the extent of the attacks, or at the fact that young Moroccans had committed their deadly acts in Europe, but even more by the suspect profile that emerged.

The terrorists came from middle-class families

By contrast with the "kamikazes" of Casablanca, these terrorists did not live in poverty – one even came from a middle-class family. At the moment, Elalamy inferred, the search for the causes of the crime was turning up more questions than answers. "I think we need to start coming up with some new concepts and to develop a new discourse before we can even begin to understand this phenomenon," the writer maintains.

Attributing the motives of the terrorists to manipulation and indoctrination by obscure background figures alone is, in Elalamy's opinion, inadequate as an explanation of the crimes. He views two aspects as urgently calling for closer analysis if we are really to attempt to comprehend how such atrocities could come about.

The first of these is the spectacular manner in which the terrorists staged their crime, says Elalamy. This reminded him of the mise en scène for an ancient Greek tragedy. Secondly, there is also a sexual dimension to such crimes that heretofore has not been adequately acknowledged.

Were the bombers sexually frustrated individuals?

Elalamy refers here to the syndrome often manifested by arsonists, who are frequently sexually frustrated individuals. "The prototype in my view is that of the lonely shepherd," explains Elalamy, "who has no sexual contact with women and consequently tries to live out the fire, the passion burning within him, in this disastrous way."

Elalamy is convinced that such aspects must also be brought to bear on the analysis of the new forms of terrorism.

Plea for forgiveness

Finally, the Paris-based poet Abdellatif Laâbi, one of Morocco's most significant literary voices, had a very individual way of responding to the attacks: with a harrowing elegy entitled "Gens de Madrid, pardon!" in which poetic passages alternate with prose.

In Laâbi's work, which he personally recited in several Moroccan cities, he addresses the victims and inhabitants of Madrid and begs for their forgiveness, asking them to pardon "the silence of my brothers" and their "indifference".

And then Laâbi turns in a hard, relentless tone of voice "to the messieurs murderer" and denounces the political systems that produced them. But even Laâbi's grim text exudes a boundless sense of helplessness in the face of the murderous act and its consequences.

In Rabat, Algiers, Cairo and Baghdad, our loudest lament would have to be that we don't know what to think, that we don't know what to say, that we don't know what to do.

Beat Stauffer

Translation from German: Jennifer Taylor-Gaida

This article first appeared in Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 17 June 2004

Related Topics
In submitting this comment, the reader accepts the following terms and conditions: reserves the right to edit or delete comments or not to publish them. This applies in particular to defamatory, racist, personal, or irrelevant comments or comments written in dialects or languages other than English. Comments submitted by readers using fantasy names or intentionally false names will not be published. will not provide information on the telephone. Readers' comments can be found by Google and other search engines.
To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.