Yesterday, Morocco’s police preempted a small rally called to protest Saudi Arabia’s court-imposed punishment of blogger Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and a 10-year prison sentence for “insulting Islam.” Badawi had set up an online forum to discuss religious reforms and for criticizing authorities in Facebook posts.
To stop the rally, Moroccan police – manifestly avid readers of activist pages on Facebook – fanned out on the streets near the Parliament in Rabat. One high school student, 17, told me, “I came with a couple of friends, but the police know me as an activist in the February 20 [youth pro-reform] movement, and so they stopped us across the street from the place. They made my friend give them her ‘Free Badawi’ banner, and shoved us, saying, ‘Leave now unless you want trouble.’ So we left.”
Last Sunday, a handful of pro-Badawi demonstrators, responding to a Facebook appeal to assemble in front of the Saudi Embassy in Rabat, were intercepted by policemen who ordered them to disperse.
Both of these events were blocked prior to the announcement that Saudi King Abdullah had passed away.
Authorities tolerate a wide variety of demonstrations in front of Parliament, but criticizing other Arab governments seems to be a red line. Journalists at three daily newspapers in 2009 were prosecuted for criticizing Libya’s ex-ruler Muammar Gaddafi and, in 2005, a court convicted another paper of insulting Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. (Morocco’s press code calls for prison terms and fines for “insulting the person or dignity” of foreign heads of state or senior officials.) And before Tunisians ousted President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, Moroccan authorities prevented human rights activists more than once from protesting his repressive rule in front of the Tunisian embassy.
Silencing domestic criticism of its repressive allies appears to be largely about protecting Morocco’s foreign alliances. On January 19, the day after the first thwarted rally for Badawi, King Mohammed VI received Saudi Intelligence Chief Prince Khaled Bin Bandar Bin Saud.
Saudi Arabia’s monarch claims religious legitimacy as custodian of Islam’s holy places in Mecca and Medina. The Constitution of Morocco enshrines the king’s authority as “Commander of the Faithful.” Saudi authorities mete out harsh punishments in the guise of protecting Islam. Moroccan authorities, meanwhile, say that under Mohammed VI’s stewardship, Moroccan Islam is “open” and “tolerant.”
To be sure, unlike Saudi Arabia, Morocco has no laws providing for corporal punishment for criminal offenses. However, if Morocco is to claim the high ground as a promoter of religious tolerance, it should allow its citizens to publicly challenge the inhumane punishments that other states are perpetrating in the name of Islam on peaceful dissenters.