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Morocco uses music festivals to make a point

Officials hope youths will be persuaded to embrace liberal values over those of Islamists.

August 31, 2008|Alfred de Montesquiou | Associated Press

CASABLANCA, MOROCCO — This is an overwhelmingly Muslim country, but you wouldn't know it from the music festivals.

The Casablanca Festival turns the commercial capital into an urban Woodstock, with masses of young people clogging the mosque-filled streets and partying to the pulse of hip-hop, rock, pop and Arab music. An estimated 2 million people attend free concerts at a dozen venues.

And Casablanca is only one of about 400 yearly festivals sponsored by authorities across the country, not to mention the sports, dancing and singing contests organized on popular beaches every summer.

The promotion of culture and leisure by Morocco's moderate government has a political undertone. The country's increasingly powerful Islamist groups view it as a deliberate attempt to divert young people from traditional Islamic values. Even some government officials acknowledge that the aim is to promote the liberal values they'd like to see society embrace over radical Islam.

Youths don't seem to see it that way. Mostly they just enjoy the free music and the opportunity to party in this country of 34 million, where unemployment is particularly high among young adults and where parents usually keep a tight grip on their children.

"I like these concerts. . . . The artists are role models for young people," said 19-year-old Fadoua Hakki at a hip-hop event in Casablanca. A girl named Oumaima, 17, praised the "big strides" made by the new generation of homegrown Moroccan rap singers. "They're very good, and they voice our concerns," she said.

The streets full of trendy teenagers dancing to the Tecktonik craze that has swept Europe stand in striking contrast to the near-medieval living conditions in Morocco's countryside or the sprawling slums around Casablanca, which have become a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism.

Such festivals would be unheard of in more rigorous Muslim states, where the mixing of boys and girls, free sale of alcohol or even dancing in public can be forbidden. But Morocco, a strong U.S. ally and a major tourist destination, prides itself on a cultural diversity that allows scantily clad girls to attend a concert side by side with women wearing Islamic head scarves.

Artists in Casablanca this year included international reggae and hip-hop stars. In Rabat, Morocco's capital, this year's edition of the Mawazine world music fest included Whitney Houston's return to the stage, jazzman George Benson and French electro DJ David Vendetta.

Mawazine takes place a stone's throw from King Mohammed VI's palace and under his direct patronage.

Organizers say bringing in big names to festivals reflects Morocco's tradition of mixing cultures and people from Europe and Africa.

"That openness can only continue if there is an exposure to cultures from the rest of the world," said Ahmed Ammor, the head of the Casablanca Festival organizing committee. "It's part of the king's project for society -- that's why you see a festival in nearly every town."

With a budget of $3.18 million, Ammor's festival is the largest. Like many official events in Morocco, it is funded half by public money and half by large companies close to the government. Ammor works for free; the rest of the time he leads a subsidiary of the national carrier Royal Air Maroc.

A major police presence can be seen around most festivals, as at any other public event in Morocco. Organizers say unruliness is rare, noting that parents often attend with their children and then take them home.

But many have qualms with all this revelry. Some critics say the performers cost the state a fortune. Others deplore the import of Western music such as rap, which they accuse of corrupting Moroccan youth. Others say the large spring festivals are badly timed during exam periods.

The most vocal critics are usually affiliated with the Islamists, who hold growing sway in Morocco. The gap between the educated, wealthy and Westernized elite and the vast majority of the impoverished population has been widening.

"We stand against the debauchery observed during these festivals," Abdelilah Benkirane, leader of Morocco's biggest authorized Islamist group, the Justice and Development Party, said on a state TV talk show.

"Have you seen the type of groups they invite? The suggestive, scantily clad women?" he was quoted as saying by the liberal-leaning TelQuel weekly magazine.

More hard-line Islamist groups, like the semi-clandestine Justice and Charity movement -- viewed as the largest in Morocco -- see more than bad morality in the partying.

"It's not only dissolute, it's cynical," said Nadia Yassine, spokeswoman for the movement and the daughter of its founder, Sheik Yassine.

"It's like ancient Rome: bread and circus to keep the masses happy," she said.

Government officials say the drive for culture comes within a wider plan to improve public education and build new infrastructure throughout the destitute hinterlands.

But they also gingerly acknowledge that they are waging a struggle for the hearts and minds of the country's youth.

One high-ranking Interior Ministry official, who spoke anonymously because this is not a publicly avowed government policy, recalled how some Islamists began speaking out against public beaches. Groups walked the seafront to preach for better morals and fewer bikinis, or to set up segregated areas. "No one wants to be bothered on the beach, so people began shying away," the official said.

The government's reaction was to promote beach sports and leisure activities as well as song and dance contests, even though it bothers the Islamists, the official said.

Ammor, the festival organizer, said the government is on a mission to make Morocco a place where Arab and Western cultures can interplay, rather than dwell on the tensions of the last decade.

"People call it a clash of civilizations," he said. "I think it's a clash of ignorance."

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