I interviewed my host sister, Fatma Zohra, a 23-year-old woman currently studying Midwifery at a private institute in Rabat. I sat down with her one day after Iftar to discuss the issue of citizenship in Morocco and about her participation in the public sphere.
Like many Moroccan citizens, she was very critical about the state of politics in Morocco. As a result, she refuses to participate in political life, whether it is through political parties, running for office, or even voting. “Those who run for office never care about the people,” she said. She believes that politics are very important in Moroccan society and has a huge influence but she doesn’t want to be involved because of those who are corrupt and who often only care about their personal interests.
Despite her inactiveness in political life, she is very active in the community dimension. Fatma believes that religion plays a very important role in the community and is a very important factor in citizenship. She used to volunteer at orphanages and with senior citizens for several years. She believes that when it comes to volunteering, people should help others because they are able to contribute, and also because it is encouraged by religion and is rewarded by God. According to her, the mosque is very important in a community and in encouraging Moroccans to be better people and better citizens. Mosques offer lessons for children to go and learn the Qur’an. Mosques also have Khutbahs delivered by the Khatib. These sermons encourage Muslims to help others and to improve their community.
Fatma told me that Mosques in Morocco are important for the development of the community. Just like it is the place for prayer, the mosque also functions as an office for welfare management where the old, the widowed, and the poor receive assistance from the donations made by Muslims. Muslims who do donate do so because zakat, or almsgiving, is one of the five pillars of Islam and is a religious obligation. Most mosques are open 24/7 and they are often the place the poor and homeless go to for help.
One of the most important question I asked Fatma was what is the ideal Moroccan citizen. She stated that a good citizen must be a good person and must be educated. When I asked her to elaborate on what she meant by a good person, she explained that they should not do drugs or steal or harm others. Anyone who does anything to make Morocco a worse place is a bad citizen. A good citizen should also be educated because being educated means you can contribute to making the country a better place for everyone.
For Fatma, just like a citizen has a responsibility towards their country, the government has a responsibility towards its citizens. The Moroccan government according to her has neglected the education and health sectors in Morocco. These two factors are important precedents in order for an individual to become active in society and be able to contribute. However, it is these two sectors that the Moroccan government has neglected and she blames the lack of engagement of many people with their society on the state. In her opinion, the state has a huge role towards the Moroccan citizen that is yet to be fulfilled. The state must meet the demands of the people first if someone is to become an active citizen.
Today, I had the opportunity to speak with a man called Ismail about citizenship. Ismail is a young Moroccan math teacher and is from the city of Fez. I interviewed him about his perspective and thoughts on active citizenship in Morocco through an informal conversation. For Ismail, being a Moroccan citizen most involves being connected to the culture and the faith that informs the country’s principles and values, Islam. He spoke about how Islam positively influences Moroccans and shapes the country’s narrative. When I asked more about other cultural aspects that are important, he explained how food is so central to the essence of being Moroccan. In his opinion and his experiences, people in many other countries do not eat as well as Moroccans do, and the practice of sharing traditional meals enriches the Moroccan culture. When people take the time to share a wonderful meal and tea, they are uniting friends and family, stepping away from busy schedules to enjoy the day.
Next, I asked Ismail about what a “good” or “bad” citizen would look like. He explained that he feels it is most important for a good Moroccan citizen to read. He feels that in the United States, people study for the sake of learning, because they have genuine curiosity and are passionate about their fields of interest. He explained how he has had access to American textbooks and they are more cohesive and conducive to understanding the subject matter. He feels that people in Morocco study to earn a degree and mostly memorize information instead of internalizing and genuinely understanding it, as he feels Americans do. In Morocco, he feels that many people, especially young people, do not have a desire to read books and develop their intellectual interests. He quoted a study he read once that claimed that in the United States, the average person reads 35 books a year. In the Arab world, one book is read for every forty people. This illiteracy is tragic and shameful for the Arab world, in his opinion. Ismail articulated how Arabs are often portrayed as oppressive, as terrorists, etc. in media throughout the world (particularly in Western nations), and he feels like the Arab world’s illiteracy contributes to an inability to properly defend and represent the true Arab world. When I asked him how illiteracy should be conquered, he explained that it is everyone’s responsibility, and programs should be created by good citizens and the government.
Regarding the government, Ismail is not so concerned with the responsibilities of the government or the relationship between the people and their political representatives. He said it is most important for each individual to be good. “Good” means knowledgeable, curious, empathetic, active, in Ismail’s opinion. People need to be good at their very core, in their hearts and in their minds. He continued to say that if people were all good, the government would be good by default. I was really struck when he said that the government is only as good as its people – its representatives and leaders are not the worst in Morocco, but they are certainly not the best. They are average, and they serve a community which they reflect. Individuals need to focus on themselves, and their own purification in order to create a society which deserves and requires certain privileges. For Ismail, Moroccans need to find goodness in their souls, always seeking knowledge and wisdom, especially in a way which may allow people to learn and contribute back to their communities