A common mistake is to believe that a Moroccan, or a Muslim raised in a Muslim state, in general, puts behind the word ‘tolerance’ the same meaning as a European.
Hence the misunderstandings and doubts that sometimes arise when we hear the phrase “Islam is a tolerant religion”, or “Morocco is a tolerant country”.
If we go back to the dictionary definitions, there are two possible meanings for tolerance (at least in French, which was the original language of this post, but I assume it’s the same in English):
- To tolerate something, to admit with a certain passivity, sometimes with condescension, what one would have the power to forbid, the right to prevent. Synonymous with understanding or indulgence.
- The state of mind of someone who is open to others and accepts ways of thinking and acting that are different from their own. Synonymous with liberalism.
For the second meaning, even more than liberalism, I would say it is now synonymous with acceptance. Not only should we let it go, but we should even accept the behaviour, or the idea, as having the same value as our own, respecting it as being as good as our own, even if it is different.
In any case, tolerance is not infinite, it remains within the limits of the ‘acceptable’ as set by the norms of society.
In Morocco, in Islam in general, these limits are religious.
In fact, the framework of tolerance itself is religious, strictly codified by the Koran.
The Muslim must respect the beliefs of other monotheists, and not try to convert them by force. He must allow them to worship, as long as it does not offend Muslims.
And since non-Muslims are not subject to certain religious obligations, such as zakhat, in ‘exchange’ they participate in the community and ‘pay’ a special tax for their protection, in a pact of protection from which they derive their name of dhimmi.
Is the Koran tolerant ‘in general’? Yes and no, according to our definitions
The penalties for adultery, for example, or for homosexuality, are extremely severe, and include death.
But alongside this severity, indulgence finds its place, with commandments aimed at making the application of these punishments difficult (four eyewitnesses for adultery, or the repetition several times of the confession of the fault by the guilty party).
In other words, indulgence or tolerance consists in finding ways to ignore the fault. But once the fault is known, it must be severely punished.
This goes back to what I explained in another post: public knowledge of the sin makes it heavier, twice as heavy.
This is the story I found on I don’t know which blog (sorry to the author), of a Jewish shopkeeper accused of selling alcohol to Muslims, and who avoided the prison sentence by explaining that if they bought alcohol, they were not Muslims…
What about the practice of other religions?
Muslim tolerance is very strict. It does not exist for religions “outside the Book”. For the religions of the Book, have you ever heard bells in Morocco? Seen a Catholic or Jewish procession in the streets (I’m talking about processions, not Jewish moussems, where people go on pilgrimage to the tomb of a saint)? Seen a Muslim entering a church?
If the rules imposed on Jews and Christians in Islamic lands were applied to Muslims in Europe, there would be cries of intolerance and racism.
This is because our tolerance is secular, not religious.
It therefore refrains from advocating the superiority of one religion over all others, which is the case with Islam.
(And ask yourself this question for a moment: if I am a convinced Christian, and you explain to me that my religion is inferior to yours, if I am a practising Jew and you explain to me that my holy texts are false and corrupt, would I really feel that my beliefs are respected? I would think that they are just ‘tolerated’.)
The limits set to this secular tolerance are much wider, they are set by law, and – except in some countries, including the USA – do not interfere with private relationships between consenting adults.
They do not apply to the religious sphere either; one can be an atheist or a Shinto or a pagan without any problem.
This is not the case in a Muslim country, where religious tolerance usually stops at monotheism.
Aside: if we look exclusively at the religious aspect, it is true that Islam was in fact more tolerant than Christianity. Judaism is different, since it is part of the Jewish doctrine that this religion is reserved for a few. So there can be no proselytising – theoretically. On the other hand, Christianity has been, contrary to its texts, extremely violent in its proselytism, and has largely surpassed the explosions of intolerance that can be seen in certain Muslim countries.
It is therefore normal for a European to be scandalised by the trial of Ksar El Kebir, and to condemn the imprisonment of people who, after all, did something perfectly harmless, without violence or coercion.
It is also normal that a Muslim does not ask the question, homosexuality is a sin condemned by the religion, it must be punished.
Thus, the basic debate is distorted, because the words do not have the same meaning, and what is intellectual oppression for one will be tolerance for the other, what is depravity for one will be individual freedom for the other.
Personally, having chosen to live in Morocco, it seems normal to me to accept its laws, and not to reproach Moroccans for living according to their beliefs.
If things need to change in Moroccan society, it is up to Moroccans to decide and discuss this.
This is probably why I read, among others, the blogs of Larbi and Fhamatôr
But there is another question, quite different:
Are Moroccans as tolerant as they claim to be?
What I see of this country is very mixed.
The legislation is undoubtedly one of the most liberal in the area of individual status, while remaining within the limits of the Sharia.
But it is still not applied everywhere.
Morocco is probably the only Muslim country where one of the closest advisors to the King is Jewish. But – and it is Moroccans who say so – a certain number (how vague is this expression?) practice a religious “racism” totally contrary to what the Koran says. As I have written here before, it was in Morocco that I discovered brutal racism, contempt “à la Dupont La Joie”, and the freedom to display opinions that would send you to prison if you were in Europe.
Morocco is one of the few Muslim countries, along with the Arabian Peninsula, where non-Muslims are banned from Muslim places of worship. Everywhere else in the world, if I am respectful of the place of worship, decently covered, I can enter a mosque.
Not in Morocco.
And why that?
Simply because of a foreigner, because of a Christian, Lyautey, who introduced this ban to avoid friction between the communities.
There is a certain humour in seeing Moroccan Muslims declare the Hassan II mosque impure, because it was built and visited by “infidels”, even though this prohibition comes from a non-Muslim foreigner.
The paradox, the ambiguity, the unstable equilibrium of Morocco today is that its king derives part of his legitimacy from his religious authority, from the title of Commander of the Faithful (which was institutionalised by Hassan II only). Even though the whole of Morocco is seeking to modernise, progress and become richer, and the “Palace” is seeking to move the country towards a more democratic practice, this evolution is framed from the start by a religious law.
Some Moroccans want to move towards a secular democracy, even if they are practising Muslims, to avoid abuses of power committed in the name of religion.
Another part of them wants it simply because they are atheists.
But any questioning of this status is impossible, because it is within the framework of a power that is precisely religious. So there is a whole part of the debate that is purely and simply ignored, and the rules are blurred.
But tolerance, to come back to the original subject, is not a vague rule that can be applied or not, depending on circumstances or individuals, it is a framework that defines what is authorised and what is not, and that does not prohibit too many things. The gap between religious tolerance and secular tolerance is deep, and using the same word for both attitudes can only create misunderstandings.
NB: to try to avoid the “who do the French think they are and I don’t want you to impose anything on me” part of the debate, my opinion on what Morocco should be, and how it should be run is very simple: it is up to Moroccans, and only them, to decide how they want to live. If I don’t like it I will leave the country and that’s it. On the other hand, living in this country, I have the same right as everyone else to complain when the rules are not applied. And I can also try to shed light on the differences in culture. As I am tolerant 😉 this does not mean that one is better than the other.
This is a translation of a post originally published on my French speaking website, here on February 2008. It was updated in May 2020
In twelve years, things have changed for the worse.
Tensions have risen on both sides of the Mediterranean and intolerance has increased in Morocco.
In recent years, regularly, every summer, there have been serious demonstrations of intolerance against women, homosexuals or supposed homosexuals. I have witnessed many manifestations of verbal anti-Semitism, which I did not hear at the time this article was written.
Extreme Islamism, Isis or Daech, has been contained in Morocco, but it has still struck, several times, including a murderous one in Marrakesh on 28 April 2011, or more recently, in December 2018, with the savage beheading of two young Scandinavian tourists in the Atlas Mountains.
Morocco regularly dismantles terrorist cells. This also proves the vitality of this extremism. It remains an extremely small minority in Morocco. Nevertheless, Moroccans hear and see what is happening abroad, with the rise of nationalism. They react logically by becoming less welcoming.
Morocco’s government is no more Islamic
Moroccans voted out the PJD (religious party) that led the country for ten years. They did not do it because of its religious rules but because of economical problems. Paradoxally, the PJD said that was was private would remain private, privacy would be protected. Overall, they did not diminish religious liberties, or social ones in aspects linked to religion, they did not improve them neither.
The new government is facing strong expectations. Liberals will ask for more liberties, freedom of conscience, for example. Nevertheless, the Moroccan society remains strongly conservative.