Morocco tries televangelism

MOROCCAN authorities have introduced a new weapon in the fight against Islamic extremism: 2,000 brand-new widescreen plasma TVs. They are to be placed inside mosques across the country in order to preach a moderate version of the Muslim faith, a version more consistent with the ideas of King Mohammed VI. This admittedly original approach to televangelism is meant to counterbalance the influence of hard-line imams and preachers, satellite stations from the Persian Gulf region and Middle Eastern DVDs that spread radical Islam. With war raging in Gaza and Lebanon, can moderate televangelism blunt the appeal of the hard-line message that seems to be gaining ground among Morocco's 33 million people?

In case you were wondering how worldly authorities can interfere in what is preached in a house of worship, it is important to understand that the notion of secularism in Morocco is limited to the minds of no more than a handful of intellectuals. (And it can boast few followers anywhere else in the Arab world.) In fact, Mohammed VI has the luxurious position of carrying the title of Amir Al Mouminine -- commander of the faithful. According to popular belief and political tradition, the king is a direct descendant of the prophet Muhammad, just like his fellow sovereigns in Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Mohammed VI not only wields almost unlimited political power (Morocco's democratization is embryonic), he is also the country's highest religious authority.

The problem is that his authority as commander of the faithful is being challenged, especially by Islamists. Which returns us to the question of whether state-sponsored televangelism can win the hearts and minds of Moroccan Muslims. This is doubtful, to say the least. The country has roughly 40,000 mosques, all of which officially fall under the control of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs. Their imams, who lead the prayers, are basically civil servants. Because their salaries are paid by the state, most do not preach hate or dispute the king's role as commander of the faithful. Such an anti-monarchist message would lose them their jobs and probably their freedom.

However, most mosques have, in addition to the imam, a preacher who is not on the government payroll and is thus much more difficult to control. Moreover, the most radical Islamists have long known that across the Arab world, state security services have always kept a close eye on what was being preached in the mosques. That's why hard-core topics such as violent Islam are rarely discussed in mosques but rather in living rooms, garages, caves -- wherever government ears aren't.

"Most Muslims who go to pray in the mosque are not likely to become radicals....The extremists don't even try to target them. They have different ways," says Mohammed Darif, one of Morocco's most renowned experts on Islam.

After multiple suicide bombings shattered Casablanca in 2003, killing 41 people, authorities learned that the bombers had frequented underground houses of worship in the slum of Sidi Moumen, where jidahists had been recruiting. Most of the clandestine mosques were dismantled and the known radical imams jailed.

But even that crackdown appears to be having a ricochet effect. The roughly 2,000 alleged extremists incarcerated after the Casablanca attacks are now said to be recruiting massively inside the prisons. The government response? More television! Islamic Affairs Minister Ahmed Toufiq announced last month that another 27 TVs will be placed inside prisons throughout the country.

However, if the authorities in Rabat or any other Arab capital don't address the real reasons why so many young Muslims turn to radical Islam -- poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, hopelessness, not to mention the Palestinian question -- their 2,000 plasma screens will simply be preaching to ... the choir.


BART SCHUT is a Dutch journalist in Casablanca for Morocco's leading independent weekly, TelQuel.

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