Ramadan Reflections: Diversity in Morocco, and the Myth of the Universal Majority

Friday, September 11, 2009 | Ar-Ribat, Morocco

During Ramadan, Moroccan families take evening or late night strolls along Rue Mohamed V in Rabat.
Catfights aside, I actually tend to enjoy Ramadan. In some years past, whether in Jordan, the US, or Morocco, I've even chosen to fast.

Of course, part of me enjoys the challenge, but the greatest motivation of all is not personal but social. In any Muslim country, Ramadan presents one of the surest opportunities to get "in" with the locals. Fasting far surpasses the "gesture of solidarity" realm—it's not easy, as Muslims know firsthand. Because they fast out of religious conviction, many show respect for any non-Muslim with the capacity and willpower to partake voluntarily. In this most generous of seasons, that respect translates into a lot of new friendships, invitations to share meals, and a rare instance of genuine bonding across the great cultural divide. This instance of commonality is all the more precious here in Morocco, a place where the locals have a distinct edge about them.

But outside of these few moments of inclusion, Ramadan can seem a very lonely season for those of us not wholeheartedly taking part, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, foreigner or local. The exclusion of non-participants is, in some ways, central to the month's function—to unite the Muslim community through a common hardship. The flip side, of course, is that those who don't fast can't be part of the "in" crowd.

This exclusion wouldn't be a problem if it weren't for one peculiar facet of Moroccan society—I'll call it The Myth of the Universal Majority. A loose understanding of this Myth has coalesced in my mind over the past year, as I have observed the strange dynamics between majorities and minorities in Morocco.

In America, we live by majority rule. But as I now appreciate, perhaps the most critical aspect of our democracy is our respect for minority rights. Yes, the majority may govern most decisions, but they aren't allowed to simply ignore the minorities, steamroll over their opinions, or pretend they don't exist.

But that is precisely the way Moroccan society seems to function.

* * *

In reality, Morocco is a land of minorities, mixed and churned together over the centuries. Ethnic Arabs, the supposed longstanding majority, are a foreign import, and constitute well under half the population. Meanwhile the Berbers, North Africa's original native peoples, make up between 50 and 80 percent (depending on the estimate), all divided into numerous sub-groups. Sunni Islam is predominant—though also a transplant from further east—and has long coexisted with Judaism, Shi'a Islam, mystical strains of Sufism, and other faiths.

Nonetheless, Sunni Islam is the state religion, and Arabic the only official language. Morocco is ruled by a minority that calls itself a majority, while strangest of all, the minorities seem not even to exist.

How did Morocco reach this situation? Since independence in 1956—and initially as a way to make a clean break from the colonizers—the monarchy has actively promoted its singular, centralized Moroccan identity. Today, though the political environment has allegedly opened up since Mohamed VI took the throne from his father a decade ago, attempts to celebrate or promote diversity are still frowned upon, if not viewed as subversive.

Encouraging a false perception of Sunni Arab homogeneity makes sense for the monarchy; its legitimacy rests on the king's lineage, whose revered status as a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad makes him a sort of divine torchbearer, a.k.a. the "Leader of the Faithful". Though the king's mother was Berber, this aspect of his heritage is downplayed, if not actively ignored. The country's Berber majority has received little support from the monarchy in their long struggle to allow the teaching of Berber languages in public schools alongside Classical Arabic. Their pleas for naming rights have also fallen on deaf ears in Rabat's highest political circles; parents who try to give their child a Berber name are frequently denied birth certificates for violating laws obliging the use of names with "a Moroccan character". (It's no surprise, given the monarchy's priorities, that this ambiguous phrase is interpreted to mean "only classical Arab and Muslim names.")

The Myth of the Universal Majority may start at the top, but it also descends to the lowest levels. It intimidates anyone who doesn't fit the strict mold of the artificial Moroccan identity, obliging them to adapt their particular local culture to fit the one imposed from on high (just ask the Berbers). In sharp contrast to Jordan, where the tiny Christian minority is actually celebrated as a testament to the kingdom's tolerance, the few Jews and Christians who still live in Morocco keep a low profile on the streets. Outsiders—whether African immigrants, European tourists, or Moroccans who don't conform—are targets for harassment.

Even food is subject to the Myth. Every Friday afternoon, everyone in the entire country eats couscous for lunch, and who would want to do otherwise? It's "the Moroccan way." A few months ago, Jacqueline and I were talking with a young Moroccan woman here in Rabat, and lamenting that the country's food options, while delicious, were highly limited. Unlike back home, there is not a Thai, Italian, Chinese, Mexican, Indian, Ethiopian, and French restaurant on every block. But before I could explain this, she interrupted me, exasperated, "What do you mean our cuisine is not diverse?" She sputtered, "We have at least, like, 20 different kinds of tajine!"

Statements like that one make you wonder, do Moroccans even know what diversity is? This is the Myth's strangest facet: ordinary Moroccans seem willfully ignorant of the existence of minorities—including some that are actually larger than the "majority"—in their midst. The Berber language rarely features in either the private or government media. Minority religious groups seem invisible, and have few places of worship and even fewer museums, monuments, or other public recognitions of their contributions to Moroccan society.

Soon after I arrived in Morocco, I began asking people about religion (it had always been a good conversation starter in the god-obsessed Middle East). But here, to my surprise, a friendly "So you're Muslim, right?" elicited only laughs, with an unspoken subtext of, "Duh, stupid American, what else would I be?"

I hadn't expected this reaction in a country that's had a significant Jewish population—along with other minorities—for millennia. But the Myth of the Universal Majority presents a tempting offer from on high: If you do your best to conform to who we say you are, you can rest assured that everyone else will be just like you.

* * *

Ramadan serves to stake out the boundaries more clearly, to show in starker terms who has bought into this social contract and who hasn't. First, the fasting majority obliges everyone else to also avoid eating, drinking, or smoking in public during the day. Also, the country's few bars and liquor stores—already hidden from view throughout the year, again out of deference to the majority's sensitivities—are all obliged to close during Ramadan. To show their piety, many men and women switch from western clothes to traditional jelabbas. The unspoken standards for "immodest" dress on women grow even stricter, and their enforcement (by harassment, of course) more severe.

At the literal crossroads of the Arab, African, and European worlds, Morocco remains a place of very real diversity. Yet instead of embracing its cultural and ethnic richness, the kingdom suppresses it, by subtly peddling its Myth of the Universal Majority. That approach hasn't backfired... yet.


Andrew G. Farrand said...

Just saw this post (in French) - http://www.larbi.org/post/2009/09/Manifestation-des-non-je�s-de-Ramadan-au-Maroc - about a protest in Rabat by "Alternative Movement for Individual Liberties". The group apparently gathered to eat sandwiches in public during the day - apparently to make a statement that not all Moroccans are practicing Muslims, and that they should be allowed freedom of action.
The blog post notes "Article 222 of the Moroccan Penal Code stipulates that any individual known to belong to the Islamic faith who allegedly breaks the fast in a public place during Ramadan is subject to 1 to 6 months of imprisonment and a fine."
Very happy to see that such a group exists, and is working to change perspectives on religiosity and conformity in their society!

Anonymous said...

Morocco is Arab Arab Arab.

The one who doesn't like it can kill himself.

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