"Elections do not create democracy. We will neither have modernity nor citizenship in the absence of a civil state. Our Arab societies cannot be torn between two bitter choices: political Islam or military rule," Moroccan intellectual Hassan Aourid, the first spokesperson for the Royal Palace, told Raseef22 in a lengthy interview.
Aourid thinks that the "burden of the Arab history" is the worst obstacle keeping the Arab world from emulating modern societies' advancement. He believes this history has to be dismantled so it does not encumber the Arab civilization, stressing people should not regard it as sacred or legendary.
The interview took place in Bordeaux where Aourid took part in an event organized by Les Désorientalistes under the name of the Week of the East.
In your latest novel "Spring of Cordoba" you recall the Andalusian history to talk about reality and pose questions related to politics, ruling affairs and what was happening inside the Royal Palace. Have you used history to conceal the fact that you have spoken of a reality that you have perhaps experienced firsthand?
We cannot consider this to be some sort of distortion of the present. Can we say for example that [Italian philosopher and novelist] Umberto Eco has distorted reality in his novel "The Name of the Rose"? Referring to history in Spring of Cordoba has enabled me to touch on current issues. In my novel, I talk about the Shiite-Sunni struggle that was intensified back then, and of course we can draw a comparison between this era and what we are living now. I refer in my novel to the Qarmatians who we can certainly compare to Daesh [the Islamic State militant group]. I have written things that are related to present time. This is not evasion, but history has given me more room to speak, maybe more courage as well.
In the novel you talk a lot about coexistence of religions. For instance, you quote the first Andalusian caliph Abd-ar-Rahman III as saying while he was speaking to his heir apparent, "Righteousness is too great to be exclusively dictated by a religion, and morals are too aloft to be attributed to a group". Are you afraid of the fact that Islamists or maybe mainstream Muslims claim they solely know the truth?
For sure, I started with the example of Andalusia where there was coexistence of religions, sects and ethnicities. This contradicts any unilateral or typical portrayals by Islamists, the Inquisition or Arab nationalism. Of course mentioning Andalusia is to remind [readers] of a model of coexistence and to look forward to a society that embraces various beliefs without limitations. I do not think this is only applicable in Morocco. Freedom of belief is tackled today like how multiculturalism was tackled two decades ago. What I said, the Caliph's words, is definitely my own vision.
Can we perceive Spring of Cordoba part of Hassan Aourid's memoirs of an epoch he lived in the Moroccan Royal Palace, especially that you know the secrets of the palace and what was going on confidentially and in public?
Yes and no. Yes because the novel includes part of my vision and maybe my experience, and no because the novel goes beyond that. If I had wanted to write my diary, I would have done it without the need to hide anything. Practically speaking, we cannot separate a writer from his life and the events of his experiences as well as his views.
Tell us a secret that you came to know during the time you worked alongside the Moroccan monarch and you have never unveiled.
The experience I have lived during that period is not mine. I have no right as a person who bore responsibilities through a state position to do as I please with what is not mine. I do not speak of things, memories or persons, but of outlines and thoughts. A life has ended with all its good and bad things and now I live a new one. Of course I cannot claim there is a rift between both lives, yet it is important to differentiate between the two.
The time factor fundamentally separates the two experiences from each other. I also believe, by time, I am no longer seen as a former official, but as someone who reflects and writes. I should be seen based on what I do now not what I used to be. That does not mean I do not care about Morocco and the region. I cannot say I do not care about either what happens in my country or the Arab region, but definitely my vision and approach have changed.
You say in the novel: "Zizi, Berber boy, Arabic is your language as much as it is the language of my father Ali Al-Qali who is Armenian. It is also my language while Arab, Berber and Visigothic blood runs in my veins". What makes an Amazigh adore the Arabic language? And where are the cultural rights of Amazighs in a sentence like this?
I am not sure if you talk about the character of Zizi or myself. Practically speaking, the Caliph speaks on my behalf here. The Arabic language is a fundamental part of the Moroccan cultural fabric and a tool to refer to Moroccan history and personalities. Personally, I love Arabic and I have studied it with teachers who were fond of it, and it is my duty to give them their due and that does not mean I renounce the language of my Amazighi ancestors. I have defended the Amazighi language when it was hard to, and I was subject to immense pressure, harassment and slander for that. I do not compare the depth of the Amazighi language to the Arabic. No one can be taken away from his parents, or compare them with each other. I cannot renounce my Amazighi depth or my Arabic language.
Your studies and work with King Mohammed VI aside, how do you assess this ongoing period while you are now out of the ruling institution?
I am a political science professor now, and the basis of political science is objectivity which requires not to link phenomena with a certain time. Can I be objective? I don't know. Important things were achieved under Mohammed VI including developing the state and its infrastructure.
However, changing mentalities remains the biggest challenge, which has not been achieved and no one is trying to hide the failure of the Moroccan education system. Not only is that a challenge for the government or whoever in power, it is the cause of Moroccans from all walks of life. How can we qualify a human to live in the modern times? This is not a doddle considering traditional and conservative tendencies.
Can we describe you as the intellectual who abandoned power, or is it power that could not afford you? Why exactly did you leave?
I cannot talk about the position of the other. But for me power was not a target. A man has to see himself through certain directions. For a while, I could not find such directions so I decided to pull out.
From February 20 movement in 2011 to Hirak Rif, which reality do Moroccan live today while it has to change?
I always refer to the quote of [Italian philosopher Antonio] Gramsci, "The old is dying and the new cannot be born". We better read well the messages of February 20 and Hirak Rif.
"Mohammed VI has developed the Moroccan state and its infrastructure, but not the education system which is indispensable to move towards modernity"
Elections can neither reform the political system nor create democracy. The Arab world is torn between political Islam and military rule
February 20 is based on the role of the youth and their legitimate demands, including political participation, jobs and dignity. These causes cannot be solved by shunning them irrespective of whether the movement is active or has died down. This does not really matter. Hirak Rif reminds the people that there is a lack of good governance. The management of the intermediate structures and the development model are flawed. The young people of Hirak Rif have called for legitimate social and human rights. What is the value of mega projects that do not affect the residents?
We must have the courage to say that neoliberalism has failed and so has the so-called Washington Consensus, which calls for the privatization of the state and its withdrawal from the social sector that would only play a facilitator role. The state has to be involved in achieving an economic and social balance.
Who is responsible for not achieving that?
No doubt that the government is responsible, and so is the political elite. It is not wrong to say that we are all responsible. Of course intellectuals can achieve what a minister, an MP or a partisan striver who abides by certain regulations cannot achieve. We need the role of the intellectuals and people who have the courage to speak out against flaws before they get worse.
Can we say that King Mohammed VI and the Moroccan system in general have successfully contained the uprisings of the Arab Spring? How did the regime contain those calling for change? And why did the Hirak Rif area witnessed the recent events?
No doubt that the speech of King Mohammed VI on 9 March 2011 was a smart move. There was no crack in Morocco. There was a constitutional amendment, or a new constitution that came in effect. Fresh election took place and Islamists came to power. Regardless of the instigators, we as Moroccans are the ones setting the rules of the game. No one calls for the collapse of the house that we live in. But it is normal that certain groups would call for solutions for problems.
Could you have talked about reform, political Islam and Amazighs while being part of the authority? Can a man of authority reflect the burdens of the public and think freely about a political reform?
There are three milestones in how to deal with these controversial issues, which I presented in my PhD thesis in 1999 in Rabat before filling a state position.
While in an official post, no one can solely express opinions. There are ideas that are suggested then the state sponsors them. These ideas are not related to one individual or more. By the end of the day it is an institution.
The third stop in my path is when I stepped down and have combined two contradictory things: the critical role which is played with a degree of freedom, and the responsibility. We are going through a turbulent period not only in Morocco, but the whole region. I would never allow myself to do anything that damages the house we live in. I am neither a foreign researcher who is studying in Morocco nor an orientalist. Yes, I am a professor of political science but the Moroccan affairs concern me as a Moroccan, and it is my duty [to ensure] that the transition is done calmly, smoothly and at the lowest cost.
What do you think should be reformed in the Moroccan political system to achieve real democracy?
I believe that the foremost priority is to cement state institutions. British weekly The Economist in 2014 cast light on this file, saying that the Arab world has robust regimes but incapable states. I believe the biggest challenge is to use the structure of the state as a tool to serve all layers of society and not just one layer or one minority. This, in my opinion, is beyond election. Elections do not create democracy.
The second factor is education, not in the sense of expanding knowledge but through establishing a new contemporary person who is aware of his rights and duties, and speaks the language of his time without metaphysics, grudges or a feeling of superiority. This I believe is a cornerstone.
Are you worried over the parties of political Islam in Morocco? How do you assess their experiences? And how do you see the "Makhzen" policies that aim to contain and affect them, like what happened with the Justice and Development Party? Does weakening the parties serve the political life or cause people to lose faith in peaceful change?
These are complex questions. Let me tell you that because I know the Justice and Development Party for long, I am aware of its strengths and weaknesses. I try to assess it objectively. Yes, I am not an Islamist but I cannot deny the legitimacy of this party. At the same time, I have to admit that its strength is derived from the weaknesses of other parties, or weakening them so to speak, weakening the state institutions to be more specific. In all cases, I believe it is a good thing that the Justice and Development Party has been integrated in the political scene. People will not judge this party from a moral perspective, but based on what it has and has not offered.
Concerning the Makhzen policy, honestly I am not entitled to render a judgment on it. My job now is to understand, and to understand I have to be fully aware of all aspects and this is not the case.
What are the chances of jihadists in a country like Morocco? What are the factors that help them spread and recruit people, and what are the elements that have the opposite effect?
The jihadists' problems are not related to Morocco, but are rather global. There are Moroccans who fell prey to Daesh's rhetoric and their return would pose a security threat, while there are hotspots in Sahel. It is well known that after the collapse of the Islamic State [militant group] in Iraq its remnants can move to tribal rough terrain, and that is Sahel. The latest developments in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, were an indication that the most dangerous area have changed. This primarily concerns security personnel but it is also related to what some would call the battle of thoughts, or counter narrative that dissolves the jihadist rhetoric. By the way, there is a good project conducted by a religious institution in Morocco, Rabita Mohammedia, which provides counter narrative. The battle will not be concluded in one or two rounds.
What do you think is the most needed change on the level of freedoms in Morocco?
There is a point of contention when it comes to personal freedoms, and the current laws are no longer suitable for many factions' demands with regard to personal freedoms. For example, there is a law that criminalizes eating or drinking in public during [daytime of] Ramadan, and there are people who demand that authorities rescind it. The criminal law also criminalizes sexual relationships outside wedlock, while some layers of society believe consensus is what matters. There is another issue related to the freedom of belief. It is known that the Moroccan law and the way it is applied have been affected by the traditional jurisprudence with regard to apostasy. There are people who are pushing for freedom of belief. Of course, freedom of belief can be mistaken for contempt of religion because some people would think that freedom of belief would allow them to disdain any religion. I think a law can be enacted to secure freedom of belief without allowing contempt of religion.
Do the people of the Arab world indeed have only two choices in political Islam and military rule?
This question is probably related to the structure of the Middle East but I have to remind you of one thing; a civil state was among the demands of the Arab Spring, which can be narrowly identified as a state that is neither Islamic nor military. The wider definition is that it is a state that separates religion and politics from each other. There will be no modernity, development or citizenship amid the absence of a civil state. Our Arab societies cannot be torn between two bitter choices.
Is there something in the Arab culture that keeps the region from emulating contemporary societies' development?
For sure, it is the burden of history that has not been studied and dismantled. If we study history in a scientific and objective manner, it will turn into a friend rather than an obligatory thing that tells you what to do and not to do. I like a quote of [Johann Wolfgang von] Goethe that says "what you have inherited from your forefathers, it takes work to make it your own". We are still looking at history from a mythical metaphysical perspective and this is a huge obstacle.
Another issue is that the Arab world looks at itself in a typical way without considering significant elements that compose this world, either because it is ignorant of them or just ignore them. We have hostility against Arab Christians and Jews while Kurds and Amazighs in North African have been neglected. We have to be united by what is common and one destiny regardless of our different beliefs, cultures and ethnicity.
Do you think that western countries, particularly EU nations and the US, are afraid of Arab democracies and prefer to deal with authoritative regimes that can guarantee the implementation of treaties?
I do not think so. Even if that was true for a while, I think it is not applicable in Europe now, especially France which can do nothing but to accept the democratic choices of our societies.
How have the history of France's ties with Morocco, the Arab culture and the Francophone culture affected Moroccans' life? What are the negative and positive effects?
I think French is an effective tool to communicate. In Morocco, we have mingled our historical depth with openness and I believe we have to preserve the French language. It is not a burden for those who look at things through an ideological lens. I speak French and that does not necessarily mean I do not know Arabic or Amazigh. Speaking and writing French does not make me isolated from the causes of my society.
As a Moroccan intellectual, a citizen and a politician, how do you look at the feud of the Western Desert? And how can this struggle end in a fair way that would satisfy all involved parties?
The disputed desert is a hotspot in the region, that's for sure. In other words, it is a taboo related to the tensed relations between Morocco and Algeria. The autonomy suggestion made by Morocco offers a way out that would allow locals in the desert to govern themselves and maintain their cultural privacy. It would also defuse the tension in the region. A solution cannot be reached when the other party completely refuses this suggestion. There are things that will be resolved only by time but it is important that people get ready for the history's judgment and put forward suggestions. I believe autonomy is a good way out that everyone will benefit from.
Who is Hassan Aourid?
Hassan Aourid is a prominent pro-modernity intellectual, a politician and an author in Morocco. He was born in the Amazighi village of Tazemourt in 1962. His upbringing with a modest family did not prevent him from sharing the same desk with King Mohammed VI, the heir apparent at the time, at the Collège Royal School.
Aourid took up high-profile positions in the Royal Palace, including the first spokesperson for the palace. He was appointed as the governor of Meknes-Tafilalet region before returning to the Royal Palace as a historian. After quitting politics in his country, he returned to the political and cultural scenes through teaching and writing.
Aourid has widely diversified his writings, having produced historical researches, opinion pieces, literature and translated work. His most important books are "The Predicament of Political Islam" and "The Roots of Arab Weakness" in French, in addition to "The Disappearance of the West" in Arabic. He has also written numerous novels, the latest of which is Spring of Cordoba.