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The truth about Islamic law

August 21, 2005|Ahmed R. Benchemsi | AHMED R. BENCHEMSI is editor of TelQuel, a weekly French-language magazine in Morocco.

AMERICANS MAY be hoping that Iraqis currently debating their constitution will resolve once and for all the thorny issue of what role Islam plays in society. But those of us who live in Muslim societies understand that this question is never fully settled, regardless of what the law says.

Countries such as Saudi Arabia are extremely strict. Saudis found guilty of adultery face the death penalty; anyone caught drinking alcohol, the selling of which is forbidden, or breaking their fast during the holy month of Ramadan is sentenced to long-term imprisonment plus a beating with a stick.

None of this, however, prevents the royal family or the bourgeoisie from doing whatever they want behind the concealing walls of palaces or mansions. But the common people are generally prevented from committing such horrible sins.

Yet some Muslim countries, such as Egypt, Jordan and Morocco, are more liberal. Their laws are still backward, but society is governed by the rule of hypocrisy rather than by the rule of law.

And that's a good thing at times. The law in Morocco, for instance, bans the sale of alcohol to Muslims. It even says so right on the government-issued licenses to sell booze -- presumably to non-Muslim residents and foreign visitors, who make up the non-Muslim resident population. But in our society, religion is a given, not a choice, and so roughly 99% of all Moroccans are deemed Muslims as matter of law. The beauty is, there is no way to prove if someone is a Muslim because it is not written on ID cards or on foreheads.

On any given day, there must be 100 times more cans of beer consumed than there are non-Muslims living in the country. The game is to turn a blind eye when it comes to the religion of the drinkers -- a Moroccan version of "don't ask, don't tell" -- and business goes on.

When someone buys alcohol in Morocco, the salesman hands him the bottle in a black plastic bag so that the buyer "shows respect" to Muslims in the street by not "exposing them" to alcohol. The side effect is that anyone carrying a black plastic bag, even if it contains Coca-Cola or diapers, is suspected of being a "bad Muslim."

Hypocrisy also applies, not surprisingly, to sex. Having sex outside marriage is a crime. Divorce is legal in Morocco, but living together if you are not married is technically a crime. Moroccan society glorifies virginity until marriage, at least in theory. Neither laws nor the social order can stop the hormones' call.

Such laws are not often applied, yet few advocate their repeal because they are meant to preserve the facade of religion and tradition. A respected elderly father will stick to the idea that his by-all-means-righteous, single 40-year-old daughter is a virgin. To admit otherwise, even when everyone knows it's not true, would mean dishonor to the family, so everyone plays along.

In Morocco, there is no such thing as an honor crime. Delusion works better.

Hypocrisy is a way to reconcile the needs for religiosity and freedom. The late King Hassan, who kept a firm grip on Morocco over four autocratic decades, often stressed the "Moroccan genius," consisting of blending tradition and modernity harmoniously. The thing is, it was a lie. Tradition and modernity never combined. They just coexisted side by side in contradictory ways, which prevented people from clearly choosing either. As Hoba Hoba Spirit, a famous rock band in today's Morocco, puts it:

A bit of tradition

A bit of science fiction

End result confusion

It's fusion that makes us dumb ...

and completely lost....

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