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Frank talk about the the extremist group from the streets of Marrakesh


What Moroccans say about ISIS

By Zainab Salbi on May 13, 2015

In his opening speech at the Clinton Global Initiative Middle East and Africa meeting in Morocco in early May, former President Bill Clinton talked about Western misconceptions regarding the regions in question. He acknowledged that for every negative story covered in the headline news, there are several positive developments on the ground that are not being covered. So, while in Morocco last week, I searched for the under-reported narratives that might provide a more nuanced view of the country. Here is what I found:

Arabs and Muslims are scared and angry about what ISIS is doing in the name of Islam. Morocco is a country of sultry beauty: the colors, the homes, the mosques, the markets, the spices, the clothing, and the food awaken every sensual response. I have visited Morocco several times in my life and, every time, have left intoxicated by the sensory overload and renewed by the extreme generosity and kindness of the people.

On this trip, for the first time, I saw soldiers stationed on the street corners of Moroccan cities. I first noticed them when I went out to buy Starbucks coffee in Marrakesh (touristy, I admit, but sometimes a good cappuccino is just a good cappuccino). When I asked about the soldiers, Moroccan friends casually answered that they were there “to protect us from the threat of ISIS. These days we all have to be alarmed and defend ourselves from ISIS.”

The need to protect the country was evident not only in the beefed-up military presence, but also in encounters with young women and men who expressed outrage at ISIS and its violations of religion itself. Saladin, a young man of 21 from a very humble family is studying business management and dreams of becoming an actor. When asked if he related to his historical namesake, he surprised me with his ready response: “Yes, of course. Saladin liberated Palestine and I shall protect my country from any aggression by ISIS.” When I asked him to elaborate on his view of ISIS, he grew more passionate: “What these people are doing is not real Islam. Islam does not advocate for killing innocent people or enslaving them.” ISIS, he said, is committing “most sinful acts. I just appeal to those who are joining them to know that they are going to hell by joining ISIS. This is just wrong.” Such voices—those of average young men in Morocco—are rarely heard in Western coverage, while those of extremists are amplified by the global media. Yet it is Saladin’s voice that needs and deserves a loudspeaker.

If one never left America, one would think that all Muslims are terrorists and extremists. Nothing could be further from truth. The one word that I kept hearing in Morocco more than any other was “love.” Yes, love! From an employee in a Moroccan bath house to the wealthiest businessman in the country, people were talking about love for their families, love for the people the society has rejected—street women, children born out of wedlock—and love and gratitude for the mercy of God. One young man told me “the only way I could survive in my life is by taking refuge in love—my love for God and my love for my mother.”

A sense of the country’s mood emerged from my street encounters, a conversation with the staff of a restaurant, and meetings with activists, filmmakers and business executives. The theme that cropped up again and again without prompting from me was the need to love and forgive each other, to transform the culture out of compassion rather than anger and rejection.

Individualism also arose repeatedly in our conversations. The desire for freedom was viewed through the lens of personal decisions rather than big political ones, especially for the youth. Reflecting the demographics of much of the Arab world, 60 percent of Moroccans are under the age of 30. The youth I encountered—young women in a small village on the outskirts of Marrakesh, activists from Casablanca—spoke of basic freedom as it pertained to their life choices. They long for the liberty to pursue careers of their choosing rather than being placed randomly in available jobs. They talked about their desire to get married later in life, in their late 20s to early 30s, rather than carrying on the tradition of marriage and children right after graduation from school. Their longing for individual as opposed to political expression is too seldom discussed in Western coverage of the Arab world, even though the West is anchored in the idea of individual freedom.

It almost seems that the concept of freedom takes on a strictly political cast when applied by outsiders to the Arab world. And thus the media strips the Arab people of their humanity.

This is hardly a comprehensive list of the misconceptions spread by news coverage of the region. But the last week in Morocco exposed me to a new and deeply affecting counter-narrative: people trying to shed backward traditions while promoting values of forgiveness, healing, and love. Perhaps things had to get really bad—ISIS appropriating the religion and the region—for the voice of the forward-looking majority to emerge loud and clear. Or perhaps that voice was always there and was never heard before. As President Clinton said, the positive stories need to be aired. And the youth of the Arab world are ready to tell them.