Thursday, August 14, 2008

Agnostic What?

I've been touring Morocco this summer and I spent quite a pleasant time rediscovering my own country. I thought I would embark into an intellectual as well as physical journey, setting about to enquire into how much change has occurred since I've been away. I was interested in the subtlest forms of change, shifts in attitudes, the trends, amongst the youngsters of course and in details of everyday life's interactions. I'm not pretending to have neither the knowledge nor the ambition of a professional sociologist, but I had a keen desire in keeping up to date with the environment in which I grew up, and with the people I consider most close to me. That's a feeling I wouldn't have imagined experiencing: the sheer anxiety of loosing track with home.

Life standards have undeniably improved in Morocco compared to some not very long time ago. Great disparity in the distribution of wealth of course with ridiculously wealthy people, affording levels of luxury and opulence seldom seen in western countries. Centralized power based on the archaic (but not un-sophisticated) system of governance called
the Makhzen... etc. etc. Thinks we (Moroccan bloggers and many friends of this blog) have extensively talked about and tried humbly to analyse. Not much really has changed from this view point unsurprisingly. But that's not what I was interested in probing into anyway.

The interesting thing I detected was a new and interesting way of imagining one's identity in a country like Morocco, torn between tradition and modernity, the west and the east, the north and the south, Arabhood and Berberhood, staying and leaving, accepting and revolting, obedience and dissent, Arabic and French.

Not once, not twice but numerous times I found myself agreeing with fellow countrymen who refused to be considered neither as traditionalists nor as ultra-liberals. And the question of how to put a name, a label on this 'middle group' of Arab/Berber/Muslim/secularists kept haunting me.

"I'm an Agnostic... Muslim" said one of my interlocutors. Agnostic what? How on earth one can on the one hand doubt the existence of a Superior Being and on the other, keep a title of belief? It's like saying that the Pope is planning for a wedding or that Mr Bush has got a brain. Not that I have a problem with people believing or not believing. That's none of my business. But I first thought, unless one adheres to the Orwellian principle of Doublethink, reconciling both things was simply unworkable. Unless... unless... Unless one doesn't consider Islam as a mere system of belief but rather as a cultural matrix. In other words, I can be a Muslim if I choose to keep up to Islam as a culture, a civilization, an identity, regardless of whether I believe in God or not, or whether I'm a practicing Muslim or not. Of course! That is brilliant!

But then I thought: that's quite a controversial topic in a region of the world where freedom of thought is not common place.

The impression I have today is that Muslims (in the agnostic sense of the term), like European Christians before them, have seen the horrors resulting from religion meddling into politics and into their lives and freedoms, and from religious fanaticism and subsequent violence, and have started a very slow, very patient semi-conscious process of obliterating this slippery way leading inexorably to fascism and totalitarianism. On the other hand, many have also well understood that unless one clings to his or her own culture and identity and avoids
self-loathing, individuals and the whole social structure runs the risk of permanent apathy and unproductiveness.


taamarbuuta said...

Nice to have you back.

Most of my Jewish friends are agnostic or secular, at least. Several don't or barely believe in God. But their Jewish identity is strong (and I've never believed in the Jew-as-a-race concept).

I don't see why Islam as a greater cultural idea can't exist. That said, I have never actually met a Moroccan with that perspective before.

eatbees said...

Hello Hicham! I think you've hit on something important here. I get frustrated myself with how Morocco seems divided into ultra-traditionalists who take offense at any kind of freethinking regarding religion, and ultra-secularists or ultra-materialists who think that freedom is anything you can get away with, or afford. I had two conversations in recent days that illustrate these two extremes, and I hope to write a blog post about it soon. The reason it frustrates me is that there are also many Moroccans with thoughtful "middle ground" positions as you point out here. However, that requires understanding that questioning something isn't the same thing as rejecting it; or that interrogating one's heritage can be a higher form of respect than blindly following it. The Qur'an itself criticizes those who followed previous customs only because their fathers did; why shouldn't the same be true for Islam? Some who examine their faith will move away from it, others will reaffirm it, and this diversity makes perfect sense in the face of an infinite universe. Thanks for this thought-provoking post, I think you hit the nail on the head!

Hisham said...

@ Jill & Eatbees :

You will rarely find somebody who will openly question his beliefs because the rule of the game in our traditional societies, stipulates (unfortunately) that unless you absolutely adhere to the common orthodoxy, you run the risk if literally being ostracized. And this threat hangs over many peoples' heads. People are often petrified of the prospect of being rejected by their families, friends. Reputation in traditional societies like the Moroccan one, is immensely important. If you want to mary, run a business, have influential friends, in a country still run by nepotism and plutocrats, many feel it is important to keep their controversial beliefs and opinions for themselves.

I have the opportunity of interacting with what I would call, the 'inteligencia.' Colleagues with whom I studied in Casablanca, now well established doctors; friends with whom I regularly discuss matters of politics and religion. And I sensed this shift as I described in the post. People react similarly in the face of adversity and at the end of the day, come up with pragmatic conclusions: If politically used religion can lead to such disastrous backwardness; and if even materialistic and savage capitalism can result in such dysfunctional societies, then there must be some middle way.

I -a bit ostensibly- wrote a post in July '07 (see the link bellow) in which I laid down what I (modestly) considered a base for a mini-Manifesto for a Muslim (agnostic) who would feel confused about his identity or abused by attacks (mostly racist).

I don't feel there is any contradiction for anybody who considered himself a Muslim, in questioning the existence of God, in having different thoughts than those of the main stream. I hope this trend will continue, and people will be more tolerant and less blindingly following the line set up by dogmatic and irrational religious crazies or autocratic power thirsty rulers.

Thanks both of you for your messages!

Reb said...

Great post! I also struggled with how to "label" the Moroccan attitude towards religion while writing papers last semester. I found it very similar to the catholics I encountered while living in Argentina. In Argentina people are catholic by virtue of having been born into the culture. It was very different from my religious upbringing and other Americans I observed who compete with one another to appear more devout than the other followers. I finally used the term cultural religiosity, which I thought described it well but does not by any means have a universal definition. This is, of course, different from the agnostic Muslims you refer to and I don't think there could be a better way to portray them. I just thought the parallel between our experiences was interesting.

Anonymous said...

Ops, I came across one of the best blogs from/about Morocco. I truly wonder if you would allow me to speak my mind concerning some points you mentioned. I am not here to agree or to disagree but first and last I got to tip my hat for you. You have talked about life standards, identity, and faith. The first point is to be seen, the second to be lived or felt while the third is to be experienced.
In Morocco, the minority possess wealth and all the tools to produce it and reproduce it. This social class uses identity and religion to control the minority. I am very sure that you came across spots that look like Beverly Hills while the rest is very similar to pre-history life style. As for identity, I truly wonder why is it that the majority of Moroccans are ready to deny there belong to the country of origin. This is manifested in the choice of language they use and it can be manifested in the following question: why is it that Moroccans refer any sub Saharian they see as an African? The last point I want to mention is that in Morocco there is what I can call seasonal religion. By this I mean that people practise religion only during Ramadan.
On the whole, I would like to say again that I truly loved reading your posts. Congratulations dude.


Abdelilah Boukili said...

Hi Hisham,
It's good to see you back. I hope you did well in your exams.
I am glad you enjoyed your stay in Morocco.
You should be soon a father. Children are the joy of life.
Concerning my comments on my blog, I am taking a rest. I will soon be back!
Take good care.

Marrakesh, Morocco.

Hisham said...


The parallel is very interesting indeed. I mean, let's face it: for the majority of people, regardless of their cultural background or ethnicity, religion serves as a psychotherapy, a cultural purveyor of identity and/or as a political ideology. The specificity, as far as Morocco is concerned, is that here you have a country where the MAJORITY of the population is illiterate, with irrationality deeply ingrained in people's minds. An objective description of the Moroccan society (no self-loathing here), makes it very similar to medieval European societies. We haven't had our Enlightenment Revolution, our Renaissance in Morocco (and indeed in the whole Muslim world), and that's exactly what I intended to enquired into and that's what the post is really about: Are there premonitory signs of some secularist revolution? Are we beginning to realize that REASON must be put on the diving seat of our Muslim societies rather than irrationality? And I must say, what I discovered was pretty encouraging!
Thanks for the comment. Don't make it your last visit.


Thank you brother. I'm much honoured by your visit.

I pretty much agree with the Beverly Hills comparison. I've spotted Ferraris and Aston Martins in Casablanca, on the Zerktouni Boulevard. Next to me, watching this jaw-dropping scene, was standing this little boy, bare-foot, his face toughened by the sun, smiling and asking bystanders for a coin.

As for identity: I totally agree. There is a cultural cringe phenomenon not only in Morocco but in the whole Arab/Berber worlds. It's really disturbing and quite frankly annoying. If I may, I would invite you to read my personal experience on that matter at this link:

As for Sub-Saharan Africans; Yes, of course: Moroccans are in a kind of self-denial about their "Africanhood." I mean let's face it: There was (and arguably still is) slavery in Morocco, not very long ago. And quite frankly, Moroccans are not less racist than any other nation. The thing is: we have never been exposed to the levels of immigration Europe has, in order for the hidden racism to emerge. Hopefully it is, I believe, not pre-eminent and indeed quite insignificant.

Thank you again and don't make this your last contribution.

@ Abdelilah:
Very nice to hear from you my good old Marrakshi friend.
I'll be waiting, eagerly waiting for your return on the blogosphere and on the airwaves.
Take care!