On October 12th 2013, a dozen freedom activists hugged or kissed in front of the Moroccan parliament. The event was held in solidarity with the two Moroccan teenagers imprisoned a week prior for posting a picture of their kiss on Facebook. The kiss-in was the culmination of a popular Facebook campaign to which more than 2000 people registered. However, a less numerous crowd showed up, and the event lasted just a few seconds. Brutally interrupted by a seemingly offended citizen, the gathering moved to another location. The Moroccan social networking community was very swift to recognize the man whose violence (breaking glasses and throwing chairs at a coffeeshop’s terrace) put an end to the kiss-in. Amine Baroudi, a renowned PR hit man for the Moroccan security establishment, was not making headlines for the first time. Formerly part of a hoard of mercenaries tasked with defaming the February 20th movement, Amine Baroudi can also be viewed threatening Morocco’s Sahraoui citizens with a gun (which is virtually impossible to obtain in Morocco unless you’re a cop). A more spontaneous crowd later joined him in persecuting the freedom activists, shouting “get lost!” To the average observer of Moroccan affairs, the unfolding of events due to the kiss-in was a bit too familiar.
In 2009, a Moroccan Civil Rights group did the unthinkable by calling for a daytime public picnic in Ramadan. Named M.A.L.I. (Mouvement Alternatif pour les Libertés Individuelles) — an acronym which, read in Moroccan Arabic, means "what's wrong with me?" — the group was successful in gathering sympathizers via its Facebook page. Packing sandwiches en route to capital city Rabat, they were stopped by about 100 policemen at a train station. Similar law enforcement courtesy was reserved to Masayminch (in Moroccan Arabic: "We ain't fasting"), an offshoot of M.A.L.I., in 2012. This year, all it took an 18-year-old to be imprisoned was to light up her cigarette while everybody else (?) was fasting.
Far from enforcing a strict reading of Islamic Sharia, the Moroccan government justifies such prohibitions by Articles 483 and 222 of the country’s penal code, respectively: “Anyone who, through voluntary nudity or obscene acts, commits an affront to public morals shall face one month to two years’ imprisonment and a fine from 200 to 500 Dirhams”, and "Anybody commonly known to be a Muslim who ostensibly breaks their fasting in a public setting during Ramadan shall face one to six months' imprisonment and a fine."
I know what you're thinking. What makes one a "commonly known" Muslim? Is it their lineage, personal admission, name, or maybe physical appearance? What makes a kiss obscene? And why should any Muslim be offended at the sight of another Muslim eating or kissing? Aren't modesty and abstinence first and foremost personal acts of sacrifice before God, in the Islamic religion?
But let us forego the semantics of what is clearly a loosely defined law. Beyond the absurd notion that a government can tag people for what it thinks they believe, there is a more serious issue at stake. By still enforcing Articles 222 and 483, the Moroccan government is actually violating its own Constitution’s "Article 3, which quotes “Islam is the religion of the State, which guarantees to all the free exercise of beliefs"
Well, apparently not. The conventional "wisdom" in Morocco is that a citizen born from Muslim parents ought to remain that way (don’t even get me started with the chicken-and-egg charade “and how do we know the parents themselves are Muslims?”) “Renouncing Islam” (a legal concept based on the dubious assumption that everyone is Muslim by default) is cause for criminal prosecution in Morocco, as evidenced by the case of this gentleman who took the Muslim acceptance of Jesus to another level by converting to Christianity. He could face 36 months in jail and a $675 fine. A light sentence by the standards of the Moroccan council of religious scholars (Ulema). In april 2013, those officials recommended the death penalty as a legal remedy for apostasy. Neither the government nor its religious "think tanks" seem to have gotten the memo: even by strictly religious norms, prosecuting individuals for their beliefs is not the Muslim thing to do. As the Quran’s famous Al-Baqarah:256 verse quotes, “No Coercion in Religion”.
Yet one cannot consider the government and its so-called scholars as the only impediment to true freedom of conscience in the country. If anything, these two stakeholders seem to only pander to a much louder and scarier voice of intolerance: the one of majorities. Moroccans do remember the violent popular backlash that terrorized the town of Ksar el Kebir in 2008 amid rumors of a "gay wedding" organized in one of its houses.
As a Political Science professor put it to us back in College: "Would you rather have people like M.A.L.I. taken into custody for a few weeks by the police, or violently persecuted by angry masses?"
How about none of these?
* Zouhair Mazouz is a Moroccan market analyst and blogger.