Since taking office in January 2012, Morocco’s Islamist majority government has turned its attention to culture as a sculptor might: most gently, and layer by layer.
New specifications have been imposed on television and public media: a greater usage of the Arabic language (no colloquial Arabic, considered to be a danger to classical Arabic, the language of the Quran, and an ally of “profane” foreign languages), and a greater place for religion (the wide transmission of calls to prayer, which was once only the task of a single broadcaster: Al Oula).
Entertainment and game shows, as well as works of fiction (telefilms, sitcoms), will be subject to the opinion of a committee whose members are chosen by a board of directors (made up of members of government.) In short, television and the public media will have to conform to the identity and mission that the Islamists want to give them: respect for family values, which will naturally engender self-censorship. It seems unlikely that any daring projects will escape this institutional filter.
An attempt to standardise culture
I discussed the matter with the Moroccan minister of communication, Mustapha El Khalfi, who is also a former journalist, and this is a faithful account of the conversation: “Sir, I fear that no more fictional characters will smoke, nor hold a glass of alcohol on television.”
“No, no, do not fear,” he replied. “This person will exist, but we will make sure he is the bad guy!”
The temptation to standardise cultural products could also extend to other parts of the media, including films for the big screen.
The members of the newly-established Relief Fund committee, which grants public funds to film projects, are close to the Islamist party. And they are already showing it.
In their first document released only a few days ago, they chose to leave out two major Moroccan film directors, denying them any public funds: Daoud Aoulad Syad and Faouzi Bensaidi. The first has filmed transvestites and homosexuals (Adieu Forain, Waiting for Pasolini), while the second does not hesitate to write larger-than-life love scenes (Death for Sale).
Censorship at any cost
Even the written word has not escaped censorship.
In only four months of power, the government has already censored ten foreign newspapers, French and Spanish, for having published caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed or excerpts from a book criticising the monarchy (Le Roi prédateur, lit. “The predator king”, Le Seuil). Other books have not found their way to Moroccan readers, such as Paris Marrakech, which depicts the dark side of the red city and shifts in Franco-Moroccan relations, or Le Dernier combat du capitaine Ni’mat (lit. "Captain Ni’mat’s last battle") by Mohamed Leftah, which was published posthumously and describes a homosexual relationship between a retired military officer and a black slave named Islam. For the record, the book won the 2011 Mamounia literary prize in Morocco, but this did not save it from being banned.
Control over culture and communication exists in a variety of forms. When it isn’t the government leading the witch-hunt, it's the average man. In 2012, artists are regularly judged for the audacity of their work.
Such is the case, for example, of young writer Kawtar Harchi (L’Ampleur du saccage, lit. “The extent of the wreckage”, Actes Sud, 2011) who describes the sexual and emotional distress of young Arabs. In Tetouan, in the north of the country, where she presented her work, Kawtar was faced with a hostile audience:
“Miss, are you not ashamed to be portraying us so negatively? […] Aren’t you afraid that encouraging people to be more liberated will ensure even more perversity than already exists in society?”
In Oujda, the painter Asmae El Ouariachi was no better off. Her exhibition on nudity was nearly banned by the public in March (read more).
Regardless of whether it is the work of the state or the public, intimidation can sometimes have its effect. This was recently the case in Marrakesh, where a belly dancing festival was cancelled, purely and simply because of public pressure.
“I cancelled the festival because I was afraid for my team’s security,” the event’s producer told the press.
An initiative in a climate of fear
It is in this climate of fear, censorship, and self-censorship that the Free Culture Collective was founded in early 2012, at the initiative of film producer Lamia Chraîbi.
I am a part of this collective, which began with the publication of a manifesto with a call for signatures. On April 22, we hosted an event in Casablanca’s former slaughterhouse, a space now dedicated to alternative culture, with music, theatre, and debate.
Whatever other events, other forms of protest follow (and they must follow), our credo remains unchanged: to allow the existence of difference and freedom of expression. We are not only bothered by the Islamist majority government, but also by the increase in members of the public receptive to its message.
Cultural products are starting to the standardised, via both institutional and more “anarchic” paths. In time, this threatens to push back the limit of what is possible and tolerated, creating in its midst a new norm: an increasingly lower level of creativity.
Our battle has only begun.
Karim Bouhari, editor-in-chief of the weekly magazine TelQuel and founding member of the Free Culture Collective
To read the original article in French, click here