Morocco's King Mohammed VI is not the ruthless brute his father was, but his thin skin and paranoia mean that Morocccan minorities still pay a heavy price. (Chris Jackson/Getty Images)
It's not clear what Shiites and homosexuals have to do with each other. Some Shiites are homosexuals (don't tell Mahmoud Ahmadinejad). Some homosexuals are Shiites. Nothing new, unusual or assailable there.
Except in Morocco.
That relatively tolerant country (relative, that is, to Saudi Arabia or Egypt, which is not saying much in the Middle East) has suddenly decided to launch a targeted crusade of repression against homosexuals and Shiites. Go figure. Either the worldwide economic crisis is severe enough in Morocco that the country is trying for more efficient repression by way of package deals, or the alternately reclusive and far-flinging King Muhammad VI is getting even more paranoid than usual and taking it out on easy and visible victims.
"Certain media are taking a stand for certain ignominious behaviors, which is a provocation for the national public opinion," a statement by the Moroccan Interior Ministry read on Saturday. "Any act contrary to moral or religious values will be repressed."
Where do the Shiites come into play in this? Morocco's Shiites who, in a country of 34 million, amount to fewer people than could fit in a good-size stadium. (More than 99 percent of Morocco is Sunni Muslim, and the next two largest minorities are Christians and Jews. Shiites are distant fourth in demographic groupings.) Well, earlier this month I noted that Morocco was engaging in an odd war of words with Iran over Iran's verbal slight of Bahrain. Iran has historically considered Bahrain part of its Persian realms, but it has also generally behaved enough to keep its ambitions rhetorical. When a high Iranian official reminded Bahrain of its history recently, Bahrain got upset and threatened to sever a few business ties, but the spat was quickly settled. Morocco took Bahrain's side--or, rather, the Bahraini government's side, which is Sunni Muslim, although the majority of Bahrain's population is Shiite.
What we had there was a curious proxy war between the Middle East's two ideological powers: Sunnis and Shiites, or, if you prefer, Saudi Arabia (Sunni) and Iran (Shiite) playing it out over Bahrain. But Saudi Arabia doesn't make its proxy fights too public. It likes pawns. Its pawn, in this case, appears to be Morocco, which is happy to oblige. So Morocco's been accusing Iran of attempting to destabilize the Moroccan kingdom by fomenting trouble by way of Morocco's six and a half Shiites. Absurd, but true.
And now Morocco is rounding up the usual Shiites. "Rights groups," AFP reports, "say about a dozen people have since been arrested in working class neighborhoods of northern Morocco towns on suspicion they had converted to Shiite Islam. The Moroccan Association for Human Rights warned that "the war being waged by Morocco against belonging to the Shiite rite" is against the country's strong move recently toward democracy and civil liberties."
But should we really be surprised by Morocco? This is a country where, last September, a blogger from Agadir, Muhammad Erraji, was sentenced to two years in prison for questioning Muhammad VI's habit of doling out gifts on cross-country trips designed to regain the favor of the Moroccan people (the king has a habit of leaving the country for months at a time). This is a country where journalists are routinely jailed for political reasons, where Nadia Yassine, daughter of the leader of Morocco’s largest Islamist group, al-Adl wa al-Ihsan (Justice and Benevolence), faces trial for remarking casually that she wouldn't mind seeing Morocco become a republic.
Maybe the crackdown against gays and Shiites isn't unusual after all. It's all of a piece: the latest expression of a regime's foibles and phobias. Maybe the king should take another trip--to the Magic Kingdom. On Gay Days, He might learn something about true tolerance, to say nothing of true, mouse-eared royalty.