January 10, 2017, 6:04 pm IST
In a big development, the North African nation of Morocco has reportedly banned the import, manufacturing and marketing of the burqa. According to Moroccan news, burqa producers and retailers have been issued written warnings by the country’s interior ministry to cease making and selling the Islamic full veil. They have been further instructed to get rid of their burqa stock or convert it within 48 hours. Predictably, the decision has elicited mixed reactions in the Muslim-majority kingdom with some calling the move highhanded and others welcoming it on the ground that the burqa is alien to Moroccan culture.
Now, let me be clear that I am generally not for state-enforced bans on things like people’s dresses. However, the reported Moroccan burqa ban needs to be seen in the right context. First, there’s no denying that the Islamic full veil is a product of Gulf Arab culture. It has only increased in visibility in other Muslim communities over recent decades because of the spread of Wahhabism. However, the Islam that is practised in Morocco stems from the Maliki creed, emphasises on moderation and has Sufi influences. In fact, the evolution of Moroccan Islam away from the Arab Gulf meant that the former was able to take in syncretic inspirations.
In that sense, the full veil as a product of Gulf Arab Islam is indeed alien to Morocco. Secondly, the reported burqa ban also needs to be seen in the context of the current situation in North Africa. Following the Arab Spring wave of 2011 that saw the toppling of several regional strongmen, North Africa was awash with radical Islamist currents. We all saw what happened in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. Morocco survived this upheaval because of its sagacious monarch King Mohammed VI who sensed the popular desire for change and ordered the drafting of a new Constitution that devolved many of his powers to the elected Parliament. And because of this Morocco has emerged as an island of stability in North Africa over the last few years.
But King Mohammed did not rest on his achievements. He recognised the precarious situation that the region was in and pushed for a multi-pronged strategy to deal with the problem. Accordingly, Morocco has been championing South-South cooperation with sister African nations to boost development, fight poverty and increase self-sufficiency. It has been engaging in active security cooperation with foreign nations to tackle extremist groups. And it has been championing moderate Islam to ideologically fight the scourge of radicalism.
The last point is best exemplified by Morocco’s programme of training of foreign imams and the establishment of the Mohammed VI Foundation for Africa Ulema, both of which is aimed at countering Islamist radicalism, correcting misleading Islamic precepts, and preaching moderate Islam. Seen in this context, the burqa ban is only a logical extension of Morocco’s efforts to fight extremism. How can a country preaching moderation, tolerance and equal respect for women accept the burqa?
In that sense, the burqa ban is a strong message that the Moroccan state doesn’t accept what the Islamic full veil represents and the status it accords to women. That said, I agree that a ban on burqa itself will not defeat radicalism. However, there is substantial evidence to suggest that Morocco is also doing quite a bit in terms of spreading moderate Islam for the burqa to be dropped organically.