The Moorish Wanderer

Wandering Thoughts, Vol.9

Posted in Ancient Times, Happy Times, Flash News, Read & Heard, The Wanderer, Wandering Thoughts by Zouhair ABH on March 9, 2011

Enjoy the little things. Perhaps I am turning into a crap Buddha. I could never enjoy the little things. There’s always that sense of urgency, that even at that very moment I am typing this post, there’s a feeling of time waste. Like there is something more urgent to do, more important (like my MSc thesis, for instance, or taking out the garbage). It actually depends on what one defines as ‘little things’: books are not ‘little things’. Reading is a serious activity, however trivial the book is. These menacing pages plough seeds of compunction, hanging like vocal reproaches: ‘why wouldn’t you finish up the book?’

Karl Popper in 1990.

Karl Popper (1902-1994) Image via Wikipedia

Oh, I am reading ‘From Russia With Love’; With all due respect to Sean Connery’s talent and Harry Saltzman’s artistic craftsmanship, the movie is not up to scratch. Just to set the record straight: up to the Pierce Brosnan period, James Bond movies were artistic jewels. But right now, the novels –at least the one I am reading now- are way more engaging, more exciting. I’m also re-reading Karl Popper -I read a book of his in French at first,  and in English now- it seems my concentration span has shrunk since the days I read it first. Ah, happy days, prep school days…

There is no specific subject in the wandering thoughts series. Perhaps it is just a pretext not to post on something serious (or as I like to re-write such sentences, to look like I am posting on something serious). Something superficial, like Dita Von Teese: I keep bringing up the subject, but that is so because of the numerous visits from Burlesque-related keywords (every time I tag a post with her name, total visits increase by some dozen Google search results). Ego has to be satisfied from time to time, and for a blogger to stand up, take up the microphone and spill their political guts, it either takes a lot of balls, or an ego so huge the Internet is not enough to satisfy.

On the other hand, in an institutional framework that excludes everyone that does not belong to the Master Race, or the offspring of a local notable, and/or did not graduate from a Grande Ecole (all right, I may fall into that category, but that’s not the point), or affect an indefectible support for the official line. After all these draconian filters have been applied, the field is wide empty, with either the product of con-sanguine mating, or the by-product of local baronetcies that are actually groomed for leadership. The aspiring Rastignac like me have only their anger to voice and their bitterness to nurse. On top of that, the field is mined. Talk about Moroccan meritocracy (actually, I heard that lousy line from someone).

‘The Wanderer is bitter about something’, one might think. Damn straight, and it might explain why I would be supporting constitutional reforms or indeed opening up power to outsiders and mavericks, and at the same time ousting some patronyms from power.

Petit-bourgeois reflex: I am prevented from joining in power; therefore I support any mechanism that allows me to be powerful. Constitutional reforms allow me to get political power, therefore I support them. A very cynical view indeed, but it is rooted in the obvious observation that a lot of key positions are trusted by young heirs, albeit with some prestigious degrees; Ah, there goes the unmasked thrust of an ambitious careerist. Not so simple. As Pareto did say, a society crumbles when the incumbent elite slips into an aggregate of effete, inbred, mafia-like apparatus. And when things do go tumbling down, the non-governmental elite goes away too. And there goes the petit-bourgeois instinct again: loosen up the co-optation mechanisms: marriages for instance. Diversify upper-intermediate echelon, affirmative action for Amazighs and ‘Aroubis. I don’t know, something, anything to keep the rabble -like me- happy and at the same time reach a more peaceful status-quo. [It feels good to voice one’s frustrations, doesn’t it ? Thank you for contributing to my group therapy]

The trouble with what many still fail to recognize as the Makhzen, is that it cannot be reduced to a set of historical institutions, in the western sense (i.e. in the Weberian sense). Makhzen also encompasses less formalized items: tribal loyalties, family ties. It’s a bit like Victorian England: purchased positions, family influence and hermetic elite. But there’s something else to it: a mixture of rigid bureaucracy and the idea of submission that goes with it. Hierarchy is not a matter of technical organization; it evolves into a disciple-master relationship.  So in that sense, Makhzenian ‘way-of-life’ extends to all forms of social organization: families, mainstream political parties, charities, etc. The hierarchy relationship is just a make-believe. This rotten superstructure is the blocking institutional element that prevents the radical changes we need. The trouble is, it looks a bit like a Quixotian struggle: The windmills are there, but they are not there.

So that was the politics two-bits. Keep it wandering.

Twitter is such a wonderful instrument: as you may know, the blogoma lacks formal connections between its distinguished members. I mean in that sense that bloggers, like writers, do not take the trouble to engage in meaningful discussions (I might be missing scores of fruitful blog-epistolary correspondence) so we do our best to compensate on twitter. 140 characters do not help however, to formalize these discussions, which are doomed to remain chit-chat. But a couple of days ago, there was some interesting chit-chat about Economics in Arabic. An interesting suggestion came by to post on economics in French, or better still, in Arabic. I’d love to, but -as far as both languages are concerned- there is a formidable obstacle -among others- that prevents me stepping up and meet the challenge: lack of proper vocabulary.

French language has exhausted very early its vocabulary span to keep-up with the essentially Anglo-saxon scientific production in the economic field. Sometimes, it goes as far as literally using the same words: ‘Averse au Risque‘ for ‘Risk Aversion’, for instance. Native French economists seem to be either poorly educated in English language (an ordeal I had unfortunately to put up with time and again) or with little or no imagination to come up with alternative translations. In terms of scientific production (and I refer here to breakthrough academia) the French academic world is senile if not already dead (did you see the way they treat their PhD Student? And I don’t blame the state-controlled scientific research schemes, I blame the political will to adopt Anglo-saxon procedures with half-measures). plus their clinging to their language as the primary language is just ridiculous.

What about the Arab-speaking/writing academia? What words can be devised to refer to concepts? inflation is معدل التضخم but more sophisticated concepts are difficult to translate, or even to find words that can approximate the meaning. I looked up some vocabulary, and here’s what I’ve found:

Inflation: معدل التضخم
Goods & Services: بضاعة و خدمات
Deficit: عجز
Unemployment: بطالة
GDP: الناتج الوطني الخام
Monetary Creation: معدل طبع النقود
Recovery: إنتعاش
Capital: رأسمال
Labour: اليد العاملة
Import/Export: إستيراد و التصدير
Wage: أجر
Utility Function: نظرية المنفعة
and the killer, privatization: خصخصة

As long as the concepts are often used in media outlets, or belong to the basic notions of economics, there are plenty of words out there. But in hardcore academics, concepts like Risk aversion, liquidity trap, savings glut, etc… are simply missing, not because of lack of words, but because contrary to the more popular concepts, these belong essentially to a rarefied audience. And such as it is, the Arab-speaking research program is unable to come up with new concepts. At best, there might be some clever translation, but there you go.

Now, I haven’t given much thoughts about it, since I am utterly uninterested in the future of Arabic language: I can read and write it, and I enjoy a good reading when I find one,  but I simply cannot feel that fire and brimstone pan-Arab passion and Arab revival. I feel some ideological sympathy towards Gamal Abdel Nasser, but I don’t buy into this ‘great Arab nation’ grandiose project, not to mention the supra-national pet project of any political islamist movement, the much fantasied about Umma.

Wandering Thoughts Vol.8

Posted in Flash News, Moroccan ‘Current’ News, Morocco, Wandering Thoughts by Zouhair ABH on February 26, 2011

When I read or listen to the official -and not so official- stuff pouring out of media and web outlets, I feel lucky. Lucky to be born and raised in the circumstances that made me what I am. Before the 20/02 row (over the pro-democracy demonstrations in Morocco) I always felt I had no right to take the moral high ground; After all, a middle class, cosmopolitan, (a bit, just a bit) clannish or cliquish, left-wing-y schoolboy is certainly not fit to claim moral superiority over those who happen to disagree with my opinions.

Markus Brigstocke. I now feel his rage (but I lack his wit to take on the stupid, the prejudiced and the wilful ignorant)

Whatever my academic achievements (including those pertaining to political history and sociology) I have no right to impose on my opponents my ideas. On the other hand, logic, buttressed with documented argument, should, in my Cartesian mind, make the difference in a high-brow debate.

But This February 20th came along. To be honest, I didn’t think much of the expected demonstration (but then again, that was more out of laziness, especially with bad weather forecast) but the cardinal item of their grievances, a constitutional reform, was very close to my mind and to my heart. But then again, I spoke to, and chatted with acquaintances of mine about this. I noticed many changed their profile picture on Facebook to that of His Majesty’s picture. I was a little bemused, but then I thought ‘These guys are into weird fetishism. But hey, that’s their life‘. Not long afterwards, I received emails (spam, really) and messages urging Moroccans to ‘Rally behind our beloved King Mohammed VI Allah Y Nessrou‘. I keep receiving invitations to events I can’t even stand reading. The cup was bare. And this was not entirely on internet; even off-line conversations with some Moroccan classmates on campus were puzzling. I knew they had no interest and no knowledge of Moroccan politics, but surely stupidity can’t reach these proportions?

I also think I have proven record of enthusiasm for debate. But there are two thing I can’t stand in a debate on Moroccan politics, the first is when people start faking post-1956 history: Green March, fine. King Mohammed VI is a nice monarch, yeah, why not. But Moroccan history of 1.200 years, or fairy-tales about how Hassan II was a good man, or claims we remain insular to all changes in the region, that I can’t stand. It drives me ape. The second thing is about the economic argument: ‘we are improving’. And the worse thing is that such statements are coming from people with little or no knowledge of economics. And even if they did have some knowledge of economics, the numbers they’re so keen on posting and summoning are meaningless when not put together with other figures thy don’t know about, or don’t want to. And whenever I go ballistic on these things, I almost immediately feel contrite afterwards, I should be open to debate. But then, I remember the days of my former high school Geography teacher used to say: “a debate cannot happen if one side is not up to it“.

So yes. I am sorry, but many people are not packing up enough to keep up with sensible debate, like that pokerface soon-to-be ex-minister for sports, Moncef Belkhayat (and that just gives an alarming glimpse to the kind of politicians supposedly leading our country, and worse, supposedly voted for democratically). This kind of people, the ones that flock to read and take for granted Big Brother’s, Robin Des Blogs‘ and Hmida’s half-witted posts, are the very people who can feel quite content with Manichean, simplistic ersatz thinking.

F**k politics. That's what the people want: glamour, frivolity and burlesque.

I have to admit my anger. And it’s out of disappointment really, because in my everyday life, especially with Moroccans I’d meet for the first time, I’d either try to hide or tone down my political opinions, or try -or to be seen to try- to have some understanding to opposite or divergent views, all of this just to keep social contacts I can usually dispense with. I am angry with young Moroccans that had the opportunity to get good education, to follow up their baccalaureate with higher education in the best schools, in Morocco and abroad; And yet, for all their academic records, they utterly fail to put two logical arguments together in order to make the case for ‘Al Maghrib Ya3mal‘ or some similar gobeshit. I understand that Civic Education can have everlasting damages, but come on!

I am also angry because it is most likely that my reader would agree with me, or share my angst (alternatively, they might be looking for entries about Dita Von Teese, as my blog statistics show…). Not that I hold anything against fellow nihilists (salt of the earth, these people) but because I genuinely try to hear the other side’s argument, and so do a lot of fellow nihilists. I’d even try to reach out and be less polarizing on many issues, including constitutional changes. Nothing. Zilch. I don’t think they would reciprocate. I’d love to receive a comment, or an email saying: ‘Sorry, I don’t agree with the following points you made on such or such post, and here’s why’. I’d truly respect that. Is it out of intellectual laziness? Or is it rather because of an intellectual inability to think complex issues as they are? If it turns out to be true, that proves my point: Reality can be distorted to please their half-backed weltanschauung. I try my best to be faithful to Edgar Morin‘s quote: ‘always apprehend things in their complexity’. It seems would-be thinkers cannot.

I can also provide a counter-argument to the expected reply: ‘You don’t abide by the democratic rules. Those very rules you claim to be defending’. Yes and No. Yes, because I surprise myself into considering the technicalities of a random sterilisation, just so as to control ‘la connerie‘ genes (the French word carries my anger more emphatically, I think).

No, because contrary to what one might think, democracy is actually the dictatorship of the well-informed. The underlying assumption of democratic institutions and practises, just like all other positivist inventions, requires citizens to be fully aware of all past elements and compute them in their decision-making process, before they take a stand on a particular issue.

'I'm a nice guy. See, even the younger generations think so too'.

The wet pants I knew from secondary, high, prep schools and university (and many of them are still very average) that rise up and claim that ‘demonstrations are bad’ or ‘constitutional reforms? parliamentary monarchy? Vade Retro, soulless republican !’ When asked about the constitution, 9 times out of 10, they didn’t go beyond the preamble.

It’s high time I took up a hobby, because it is unbearable to stand Moroccan politics, squeezed between childish pseudo-patriotism from ignorant intellectual toddlers, and the frustrating debate on policy-making issues.

I should apologize. screaming words of abuse, justified or not, and these are better kept locked away. I should apologize for the burst of anger and ranting, but, as a friend dubbed it: ‘it’s worse than Stockholm syndrome, it’s Hassan II syndrome’. I’d agree; I didn’t know individuals can go to such length in masochism.

One word: grow up. [and don’t take this seriously. I have gone off the rails, nothing to worry about]

The Rise of the bearded lark

Posted in Moroccan Politics & Economics, Moroccanology, Tiny bit of Politics by Zouhair ABH on March 5, 2010

I was just listening to an LSE lecture podcast (wonderful gizmo, I must say) and their July 28th, 2009 lecture was delivered by Ali Allawi about “The increasing religiosity of Muslim societies and the spectacular rise of political Islam have served to mask the seeping of vitality from Islamic civilization. If Muslims do not muster the inner resources of their faith to fashion a civilising outer presence, then Islam as a civilisation may indeed disappear.

(Ali A. Allawi has served as Minister of Defence and Minister of Finance in the Iraqi postwar governments. A graduate of Harvard University and MIT, he is Senior Associate Member of St Antony’s College, Oxford). [The lecture itself is available]

I don’t want to talk about the lecture itself, I’d rather further the point made at the beginning of it: Muslim societies of the MENA region were, between the 50’s and the 70’s, going secularists, and religion –Islam, that is- was just part of folklore or ‘elderly people kind of thing’. Am I longing for a past period I idealize too much? Surely not.

However, I do recall from my readings and discussions with much older people than I am, the MENA region was not so heatedly religious, and the moralist speech that is now so oppressively dominant in the Arab Medias. This new conservatism is, if I may say so, an artificial part of the political spectrum.

I had a glance at the declassified CIA documents –available on their website; they produced in the 60’s and through the 80’s some interesting documents that report the general mood of the MENA region.

Now, I know that these documents are not entirely creditable, or genuine, and they just reflect America’s point of view on quite complicated issues –that are usually produced in utmost a dozen pages with some figures but the truth of the matter is, and it backs up my early hypothesis, MENA was going secularist with the modern Arab nationalism (of which I disapprove, being a non-Arab, albeit a Moroccan national), one can read in the National Intelligence Estimate dated April 1964, pages 6 to 9: Area-wide Political Forces :

[…] Nasser remains the prime symbol of revolutionary success [he] will continue to use his assets throughout the Arab world to promote political leaders and groups sympathetic to his policies and objectives [and] feel compelled to help any embattled Arab nationalist […] [his] leadership is being challenged by the Baath movement. [It’s] a unique political organization in the Arab world; an Arab unity movement based on an ideology rather than on personal leadership, and it has an apparatus functioning in nearly every Arab state. The Baath is socialist in character; it has been bitterly opposed to both imperialism and communism (that is, the USSR and its allies) virtually since its inception in Syria. [As for communists, they had] an apparatus of some sort […] in virtually every Arab state, and the movement has been well organized in the past in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. […] More recently, the rise of nationalist movements has provided [it as] an alternative far more appealing. […] Nevertheless, in the turmoil which might follow the overthrow of a regime, there is a possibility of significant growth of communist strength or influence.

Not a word of political or militant Islam as a political contender. As for the West, the same reports points out that:

The Arabs are attracted by the image of the Western countries as modern nations, capable of playing an important role in international affairs and of providing decent life for their people.

The latter outlook influences Arab society in matters of education and economic development

The very same things our ‘modern’ Islamists and would-be conservatives in the MENA region are rejecting since the late 1970’s.

Now, the question I would like to ask is: ‘how, in less than a couple of decades, the MENA-Arab world went from an aspiring nationalist, secularist project, to another nationalist, religious-based project?

Do notice that the ‘nationalistic’ dimension of the aspiring MENA people is remaining, which is perfectly understandable and though I don’t like being at odds with Popper criticism of historicism, I believe it to be the modern aspect of nation-state (or even regional nation) is a brand new concept (albeit a colonial sequel).

The how should not hinder our sight from the why. And the second question is even more important, as this long trend of conservatism (I would call it reactionary) finds its roots in a series of political projects, more or less coordinated. I think we have to go back to the Cold War (I am not getting nostalgic about it) in order to understand that Islamism is not inherent to the nature of MENA societies, and moral conservatism that is so dominant nowadays is a reflection of confused generations, for whom the traditional weltschauung is profoundly shaken; that’s a first-glance kind of explanation. The next step is to unveil the various actions that influenced MENA population to be more conservative and to consider that rigorous practise of Islam could actually make their everyday life better off.

I do not have the required knowledge nor the relevant information to venture an explanation, but I can provide some information about how, during the 70’s and 80’s, in order to toe the line, MENA (with some US help) fostered the nationalist Islam in order to ward off the left-leaning secularism. Before I could lay my point, I found in the US President daily checklist dated October 15, 1962, it stated:

King Saud, in extremely poor health and in a psychopathic state of suspicion and worry about the Yemenis, may not last much longer.

Among other Plots, a group of Saudi princes, anxious to pre-empt the field before pro-Nasserites make a try at taking over, are laying plans to force [King] Saud to abdicate […]

Even Saudi Arabia was subject to the new Arab nationalism; though not on the same scale. (Saudi society is still a tribal society)

Strangely enough, the rise of reaction was not especially in the MENA-Arab world, but rather Eastward, namely in Pakistan.

After his bloodless coup against Ali Bhutto’s government in 1977, General Zia Al’haq established Sharia law, in a chronology related by this Time article dated July 1977:

“Last week the new military regime in Pakistan announced that it was imposing Koranic law in that country. Whipping, amputation and death, along with prison terms, were prescribed for a long list of crimes, ranging from theft, armed robbery and insulting the modesty of a woman to political activities, labor organizing and striking. General Zia ul-Haq, the new chief administrator of martial law, decreed that there would be no amputations without his approval and that anesthesia would be used. Nonetheless, the threat was apparently sufficient to cause a sharp drop in crime.And in the same article, one can read:

Five Arab states in the Middle east—Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Libya, and North Yemen—base their laws on the Koran. In Egypt, which prides itself on its Western-style sophistication, a parliamentary commission is at work on a new code, based on Islamic law that would make apostasy, among other crimes, punishable by death. A rider to the proposed bill provides that if a Muslim becomes a Communist he would be considered apostate and therefore subject to beheading.

Just before that, Bhutto showed the way. Another Time article (July 18, 1977):Bhutto became a national hero for restoring the country’s morale after the 1971 war. His popularity, however, was badly eroded in recent years by his highhanded ways. After the March elections, he tried doggedly to come to terms with opposition leaders on conditions for holding new elections in the fall. He imposed nationwide prohibition of alcoholic beverages in an effort to win the support of conservative Muslim elements.

The 1970’s where, it seems, the tipping point on which Arab and Muslim-countries’ leaders started the ‘let’s-gobacktoreligion’ policy. Indeed, Sadat did say once he ‘would crash anyone who creates doubt’

Indeed, President Sadat proposed a referendum on whether Egypt should continue to allow political activity by those who “advocate an ideology contrary to divine law,” and those who in previous times were convicted of “corrupting the country’s political life.” His targets were obvious, a small but active leftist party, and the leaders of the re-emerging Wafd (delegation) Party” Sadat, it seems, wanted to get rid of the Soviet influence by calling up America as an alternative partner, and most importantly, by reigniting the Islam nationalism. Nasser was not, so to speak an atheist, but his followers, and especially under Sadat tenure, were pushing for anti-islamization policy, in universities and elsewhere and it has been proved that Sadat used the Muslim Brotherhood as a tool to encounter the leftist radicals. “After Egyptian President Gamal Abddul Nasser dies in October 1970, he is succeded as president of Egypt by his former Vice President, Anwar Sadat. Sadat is also a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and he promptly reinstates the group as a legal organization and welcomes them back into Egypt. Sadat also has a very close relationship with the head of Saudi intelligence, Kamal Adham. Through Adham, Sadat also develops close working relationships not only with the Saudis, but with the CIA and Henry Kissinger. Sadat uses the power of the religious right, and the Muslim Brothers in particular to contain the Nasserites and their resistance to the radical changes he introduces. During Sadat’s tenure in the 1970’s Egypt becomes a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism, and figures like Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman and Ayman al-Zawahiri gain great power in Egypt during this period.”

What about Morocco then? Well, it is trickier, because the monarchy did use Islam, above all because it is a backbone of its legitimacy. Furthermore, other political forces, long before the independence, claimed Salafism –true observance of Islam precepts- as a way to get out of the submission and humiliation Morocco is enduring as a French protectorate. I am not an expert, but it seems that the basic idea of it, is to renew the Moroccan and Muslim society through a renewed Islam, some sort of Islamic (and not islamist) humanism as it where. 1956 aftermath was not so politically smooth though, and Istiqlal as well as the monarchy did use Islam as a way to get rid of their not so religious political rivals.

Anyway, in crude generalization, religious conservatism was above all, of academic nature, according to this paper:[…]This new form of imported Salafiyya differed significantly from that of the 1925-1954 where Moroccan Salafi activism, personified by Allal al-Fassi, the religio-nationalist leader of the Istiqlal party, sought to defend Morocco’s Arab-Islamic identity against the onslaught of European colonialism and the “heresy” of Sufism and maraboutism, by promoting scriptural orthodoxy. This mainly revolved around the famous Islamic injunction of “commanding what is proper and forbidding what is reprehensible”. This obsession with the good conduct of individuals resonated well with broad sectors of the population who lived in crowded and poor neighbourhoods and shantytowns. The latter are largely unrecognized by the state and receive little or no basic public services such as electricity, water, telephone lines, educational or health facilities.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, this apolitical, puritanical, and backward-looking wave of new fundamentalism benefited greatly from globalization and the widespread alienation generated by the painful IMF/World Bank policies of economic and financial structural adjustment programs. […] But contrary to popular images, the ideological underpinnings of modern Moroccan jihadism derive from a much more complicated set of intellectual, political and ideological trends than what is referred to as the fatalistic Wahhabi Salafism. The phenomenon of al-Salafiyya al-jihadiyya can be traced back to a deadly mixture of the Saudi tradition of aggressive Wahhabi militancy and the revolutionary political trend of Egyptian scholar, Sayyid Qutb (d. 1966).

The initial question is still unanswered, though it becomes obvious that a political mastermind made it possible for the Wahhabi salafism to get to Morocco. Islam was effectively put to use for political purposes, during the Green March for instance. Volunteers were sent with “Divine Protection. […] Premier Ahmed Osman personally sent off the first contingent of 20,000—most of whom carried copies of the Koran along with soup bowls, spoons and bottle openers—from the oasis of Ksar-es-Souk. “Go then under divine protection,” he said, “helped by your unshakable faith, your true patriotism and your total devotion to the guide of your victorious march, King Hassan II.”

Even though western medias noticed with a long delay, islamization of the Moroccan society is the effect of a policy carried out by officials in order to block radicals and leftists, in universities and elsewhere. Islamists were helped out in many ways, and that, unfortunately, led to a general state of conservatism and reaction.

My point is, use of religion as a political tool, or as a social regulation –in the way it is now- is not only contrary to any customary or historic tradition, it is the very danger of intolerance looming in the horizon.