Being An Atheist In Morocco. An Interview with "Damya"

“Damya” is a young Moroccan atheist feminist woman. She is using a pseudonym because of recent events that she explains in the interview.

Daniel Fincke: Damya, before we get into the details of your personal, regular experience as Moroccan atheist, why don’t we start off by talking about the distressing treatment of a Moroccan atheist you have been telling me about who made political criticisms and is now being jailed for two years.

Damya: First, I would like to put you into context.

Under the reign of the previous king Hassan 2, it was rather very frequent than to assist to crimes that subjected liberty of opinion, and it was almost impossible to discuss certain matters that were relative to men that had been captivated for no reasonable purpose. But after the instauration of the Instance of equity and reconciliation in 2004, that has for mission to compensate the losses of the political prisoners of the old regime, most of us had truly believed in veritable change, and just equally, we foolishly thought that such practices were to be put an end to. However, what we supposed would now be the case and what actually was were two distinct things.

Recently, especially with the rise of the islamist party, the arresting of what I would wish to call “cultural dissidents” had multiplied recognizably. The sole difference that is worthy of being reported is that the arresting no longer occur under the name of “crimes of opinion”, as they were once referred to, but rather under the cover of fabricated charges that lack all possible justification and that are very often related to morality. It’s a subtle way to silence the opposition.

The case of Mohamed Sokrat has shocked the activist community in Morocco. He is an atheist blogger who writes in classical arabic and Darija, the Moroccan dialect. He was well known for his outspokenness, his sharp criticism of religion, always accompanied with a bit of sarcasm, as well as by his analysis and deconstruction of the religious and political system in Morocco.

He has been arrested on Tuesday May 29th, on the bogus ad questionable charge of drug dealing. Then, his father and his autistic brother were both arrested to put pressure on him and make him sign the Minutes. Yesterday, he was condemned to two years in prison.

Daniel Fincke: Is there much media attention?

Damya: On activist websites, yes of course. But none of the official medias has talked about this, which is predictble.

Daniel Fincke: Is there any way to tell how big a factor his atheism was in the arrest, as opposed to his broader politics?

Damya: It was the main subject of his articles, and he declared that it was partly because of the islamist government, and as I said before it’s an important factor, which makes it very understandable, since they are the first ones to talk about respecting the “religious feeling”.

Daniel Fincke: So what are you hearing about the larger implications of this for other activists that the Islamists do not like?

Damya: Of course, we feel threatened by what we’ve witnessed these past few days. We are all concerned, even the less outspoken of us. As I said before, there have been many arrests. Also, we hear of journalists and activists that declare being tracked down and pursued. The general climate remains very uncertain.

I should also mention that there are two forms of censorship. One that is vertical, from authorities. And another one that is horizontal, fellow citizens. Islamists of course, but not only. There is also another form of conservatism. Islam is an important part of it, of course; a conventional islam, not exactly archaic, not exactly “moderate”, but rather contradictory. This form of conservatism also entails a non-progressive view in favor af the absolute monarchy and the now tarnished ideology of Arab nationalism, against the evident cultural diversity of the country.

And the most surprising thing is that such conservative censors are very often still quite young. And to me, they are not less dangerous as they’re a way for many atheists and freethinkers to social suicide and ostracization.

Daniel Fincke: Can you describe more about what how strictly people follow Islam or what kind of Islam they follow in Morocco and what it has been like being an atheist there? How open are you? How many people know? How do you decide who to trust? Does anyone know who now scares you in a time like this?

Damya: I grew up in a secular family, and I think that it has helped me to develop a critical sense. My first real contact with Islam was in primary school, as we were taught this very particular subject called : Islamic Education. As children, we were taught about basic things such as the five pillars of Islam, the main prophets and hygiene/purification, which seemed to me at the time like the main notion in Islam. Also, I remember having to learn by heart short Surats of the Quran that were totally incomprehensible to me, as for all of us, since it is written in old Arabic, and modern Arabic is already a new discovery for us as it is not the language that we speak at home. Most of the time, the short Surats are about the last judgment. So, the incomprehension joined to the certainty that something horrible was going on behind those rough words, without knowing what exactly, made it a pretty scary experience.

As I told you before, there are islamists and conventional Moroccan muslims. At that period of my life, I mainly dealt with the second category. Meanwhile, Islamism was rising in the Moroccan society but was still unpopular. So how can we define the conventional Moroccan muslim ? I would say that he is a person who follows the Islam of the state and of the monarchy, meaning Sunni Maliki Islam, which is the predominant stream in North Africa. It is not the most radical one, but it is not the most liberal one either, it normally follows stictly the Quran and Sunna. The modernity and the openness of Morocco (that are relative to me) surely doesn’t come from its religious background and it’s ability to evolve, but from concrete efforts of secularization that are still needed. And this modernisation have surely influenced the conventional muslims we are talking about, leading to contradiction.

One of the first things that I have discovered in my contact with this conventional Islam, at a very young age, is that my body was, in a way, obscene. And the level of obscenity would vary according to the place (at school, at the beach or in a popular neighborhood) and to the time (whether it was the holy month or not). I didn’t understood that quite well. And that duality is the common thing to all of the tacit conventions with which I would have to familiarize myself later. Then, I had I progressively discovered the representation of women in Islam, the idea that she is half of a man. These discoveries were determinant in my feminism and in my rejection of Islam.

There is also another idea, the idea that I am by definition, since my birth, a muslim, just because I was born in the muslim community. That is something that I couldn’t understand and that I couldn’t accept as I was told at home that it was an intimate choice. I remember, at the time, looking for the Convention on the Rights of the Child, just to check that I had that right, which is pretty comic knowing that Morocco still had reserves on global rights concerning freedom of religion and consciousness.

So as you can see, my doubts about religion started very early, as I had never really considered Islam as an important part of my identity, it still seemed to me like this intimate stranger, as I was silently making my way through a better understanding of my existence. The first step consisted in rejecting religion in it-self, as I understood it at the time, meaning the idea of an intermediate between you and a higher power, I would now call it “revealed religion”. Then, my rejection concentrated on Islam in particular, because of the evident incompatibilities between this doctrine and human rights, and particularly between this doctrine and my nascent feminism. A contradiction that, unlike the conventional Moroccan muslim, I was unable to accept nor to omit.

With all of that, it was still hard to say the “A” word to myself first, then to others. As this particular word was covered with reproaches. But at some point, I had to be frank with myself and admit that I was indeed an atheist. The second part, saying it to other people, was a bit delicate. Meeting other Moroccan atheists through blogs and forums helped a lot in accepting and assuring my identity. And then, naturally, I found the courage to say it to the closest people, meaning my parents, my brother and my closest friends. My family was very supportive, and most of my friends understood, but some were literally shocked and felt like they didn’t know me anymore. Also, there are many members of my family and many acquaintances that still don’t know about my atheism, as I doubt their ability to understand and accept that and as I am told to be cautious in the context in which we are now, with the evident rise of islamists.

Daniel Fincke: Given the history of French colonialism, how do you feel about tensions in France between the Muslim immigrant population and the more traditionally French. To what extent do you think it is about good secularism preserving itself against the threats and injustices of Islamism and to what extent do you think that the tensions are an extension of a long history of imperialism and racism?

Damya: I am not very familiar with the french context. But, from what I know, and what I have experienced with moroccan immigrants, I can emit some comments on it. First of all, there is surely a rise of islamism in France, and in Europe in general, and it mainly concerns the third generation. It can be partly explained by the indentity crisis these youth are going through. While their grandparents were attached to a conventional Islam, their parents, in most of the cases, embraced modernity. So they don’t know exactly were to stand, as they feel rejected from both sides. When they come back to Morocco, they are considered as “zmagria”, as vulgar and debauched. In France, they feel like their not equal to the other citizens, what they call “les français de souche”; literally : French people of strain.

They also feel like they are not rewarded the way they should, and to understand that, we need to understand the context of the immigration of the first gene from Morocco to France. It was in the context of colonialism. After the second world war, and in order to reconstruct France, moroccan men were recruted to that effect, as a cheap labor. The recruiting was humiliating as these men were scrutinized for their physical ability, in a way that makes them look like a cattle. Learning thus is surely something that’s hard to bear for their descendance. As these workers, from all over Africa, helped reconstructing the country, they offered them appartements in sort of ghetos. That’s were this third generation grew up, feeling on the side and unrewarded.

So that is the context that partly leads these youth to many possibilities. The feeling of injustice that they carry helps islamists to get to them easily and try to influence them. I’m not saying it is an excuse, as I believe they have the ability to make a choice, what I’m saying is that this particular context, of racism and inequality should be considered. Also, I thinks efforts should be made in the sense of integrating, helping to regain their double identity without confusion nor tension. On another side, I am against compromising the values of secularism in favor of any community, because that would mean, and Westerners are maybe not aware of it enough, endangering the rights and the freedoms of individuals within these communities themselves.

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