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Allah, the state, or Mom?

Three characteristics are often viewed as important in Arab societies: concern over politics, the place of religion, and the importance of family. Investigation of these 'Arabness' features in Morocco produces some intriguing results.

Today’s Arab societies are known for three characteristics: the concern over politics, the place of religion, and the importance of family. The political importance of the Arab region as a natural resources rich location and geopolitically significant space have created many political tensions within the region. Talking politics for the local population has often been associated with fear of oppression and torture, but also despair in one’s power as a political actor. As for religion, Islamists representing the religious majority have wrestled for power in all these societies, in certain instances leading to the radicalisation of society. Meanwhile, the sanctification of the family in Arab societies is often attributed to the warmth of its peoples: however, it is also associated with coercive norms such as honour killings. 

Moroccan society can boast these Arab features alongside other features and identities (e.g. the Berber identity). Indeed, a preoccupation with politics since independence was declared in 1956 has led to years of turmoil, with two coup attempts in the seventies, followed by a period of autocratic state measures against dissidents that led to particular tensions in the eighties (also known as the Years of Lead). In Morocco, the recent Arab Spring uprisings have brought political concerns back to the limelight, and not only as a result of local concerns but also with regard to regional concerns.

Professor Abdeslam Maghraoui, who teaches political science at Duke University, recently investigated this 'Arabness' trilogy in a study of social norms in Morocco. The aim of his study was basically to find out, among these three features of the state, Islam, and the family, which feature was the strongest in Moroccan society. His work bears an overall concern for social identity theory, and he used survey experiments to test his hypotheses. 

Some of the hypotheses and assumptions in Professor Maghraoui’s study concern the local population’s reaction when one of these three features is under attack i.e. Moroccans act differently towards violations depending on their socio-economic background; Moroccans are less tolerant when Sharia, or Islamic law, is violated compared to when it is not a matter of Sharia; Moroccans are more intolerant towards women violating the rules of gender, than towards men.  

The study was conducted with 550 college students from different universities in Morocco representing two views: a 'metropolitan' point of view, in the bigger cities or more international environments; and a 'peripheral' point of view, in smaller and more rural locations. Of course, this choice of participants represents problems of representativeness yet it fulfils the basic need of the study which is to interview Moroccans who are able to deliberate over issues of the state, Islam, and the family. Different groups were formed: a group neutral to Islam concerns, that was the negative control group, and a group sensitive to Islam concerns that represented the positive control group. The aim then was to see whether the positive group was more conservative towards norm violations concerning the state, Islam, and the family.

When presenting his study, Professor Maghraoui explained that he was interested in investigating the process of deliberation for Muslims. Indeed, this was his attempt to test the assumption that Muslims do not deliberate when there is a violation of Islam. Here we can recall the example of the virulent accusations from Muslims around the world when prophet Mohamed was caricatured in a Danish newspaper in 2005. This assumption about a lack of deliberation from Muslims represents, according to Professor Maghraoui, a discrimination bias in political science studies. Given the notorious sanctification of the state and the family in Morocco, Professor Maghraoui decided to test these two other features, along with Islam, to see if a deliberative process is used when these fundamentals are at stake. 

Surprisingly or not, the research did find that Muslims in Morocco deliberate when confronted with cases of norm violations: for instance, unlawfully breaking the fast in Ramadan, constructing without a proper building license, or disobeying the will of parents. The study also revealed that family is the most powerful producer of social norms in Morocco. When it is about family, however, it was found that there was much less deliberation.

The study showed that Sharia norms were not perceived as the most important norm violation. Unlawfully breaking the fast in Ramadan was perceived by even the most conservative participants as a case that needed some deliberation and was not unanimously condemned. Family on the other hand represented the most important norm violation in which they seemed to deliberate less and punish more. For instance, marrying against the will of one’s parents was for liberal and conservative participants alike an unforgivable act. Even participants who were consistently liberal were conservative in what concerns family violations.

These three features of state, Islam, and the family are ones that I associate with 'Arabness', because in my research I have seen their importance in Arab societies. Professor Maghraoui, on the other hand, associates these features with the wider Muslim world and intends to test his hypotheses in other Muslim countries such as Turkey (i.e. non-Arab) and Indonesia (i.e. non Middle Eastern). So stay tuned for more!

About the author

Zaynab El Bernoussi is a lecturer of International Relations at Al Akhawayn University and a visiting lecturer of Middle East and North African studies at the European Inter-University Centre. Her main research interests are politics of dignity, the postcolonial state and society, and political finance. In 2015, she received the Arab Prize (by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies) for her research on dignity politics in Egypt.


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