Moroccan moderates, skip the details

A few days ago, voters went to the polls in Morocco to elect a parliament. In Egypt, voters are going into their second day of high-turnout elections. The Moroccan election is part of a governmental reform process initiated by the king. It includes greater power for elected officials and a decentralization of authority. Now, I know that many U.S. readers aren't as interested as they should be in foreign elections. But I wonder if stories such as this one in the New York Times aren't part of the problem. The headline is "Moderate Islamist Party to Lead Coalition Government in Morocco."

So of course what I'm hoping for is an understanding both of what makes this party Islamist but also what makes it a "moderate" Islamist party. Here's the lede in the story by Souad Mekhennet and Maia de la Baume:

A moderate Islamist party achieved major gains in Morocco’s parliamentary election, according to final returns announced by the government on Sunday, giving it the right to lead a coalition government. King Mohammed VI is now expected to choose a prime minister from the party, Justice and Development. ....

The Constitution reserves important powers for the king, including in military and religious matters, and does not establish the kind of constitutional monarchy demanded by the protesters. But the government will be Morocco’s first popularly elected one, with the power to appoint ministers and dissolve Parliament.

In Tunisia last month, voters also elected a moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, in that country’s first free election.

OK, that is wonderful to learn that the Constitution "reserves important powers for the king" and that these include "religious matters." But what is up with the lack of specifics? What religious matters? What does that even mean? Does the average New York Times reader just know much, much more about Moroccan government and society than I do? Am I the only one wondering what these religious matters are?

Also, that's great that Tunisians also elected a "moderate Islamist" party, but I still don't really have any idea what that means.

We learn that the Moroccan party in question got 107 of 395 seats, a monarchist party got 60 and a "center-right" party got 52. We learn that the majority party isn't expected to make any radical changes and that it's loyal to the king. I don't know what that means. I wish I did. So what will the party care about? Here it gets a smidge better:

Its leader, Abdelilah Benkirane, claimed victory, saying the party would focus on democracy and governing. “Today what I can promise Moroccans is that I am going to try, I and the team which will work with me, to be more serious and more rational,” he told the French television station France 24 on Saturday.

The party has appealed to Morocco’s poor by focusing on economic and social issues, modeling itself on Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party, which has fused religion and modern politics.

But what does that mean? A fusion of religion and modern politics? I just want a practical example of this. Here's a quote from someone:

“We have a progressive approach to Islam,” Mustapha Ramid, a party leader, said in an interview. “The Islamicization of Morocco will be achieved only by re-establishing justice, and religious freedom.”

OK. Good to know. Any more platitudes we can get people on record in support of?

I thought the Associated Press story that ran in the Washington Post was much better. Here's the lede:

The victory of an Islamist Party in Morocco’s parliamentary elections appears to be one more sign that religious-based parties are benefiting the most from the new freedoms brought by the Arab Spring.

Across the Middle East, parties referencing Islam have made great strides, offering an alternative to corrupt, long serving dictators, who have often ruled with close Western support.

Later we hear from political analyst Maati Monjib:

In Tunisia, Morocco, and on Monday most likely also Egypt, newly enfranchised populations are choosing religious parties as a rebuke to the old systems, which often espoused liberal or left-wing ideologies.

“The people link Islam and political dignity,” said Monjib, who describes himself as coming from the left end of the political spectrum. “There is a big problem of dignity in the Arab world and the people see the Islamists as a way of getting out of the sense of subjugation and inferiority towards the West.”

Like the Ennahda Party in Tunisia, the PJD is also from the more moderate end of the Islamist spectrum. The party’s leader, Abdelilah Benkirane, supports a strong role for the monarchy and the movement has always been careful to play the political game.

The party doesn’t describe itself as “Islamist” but rather as having an Islamic “reference,” meaning that its policies follow the moral dictates of the religion.

The PJD has also avoided focusing on issues like the sale of alcohol or women’s headscarves that have obsessed Islamist parties elsewhere in the region, and instead has talked about the need to revamp Morocco’s abysmal education system, root out rampant corruption and find jobs for the millions of unemployed.

And the explanations continue. We hear from a politics professor who says that the winning party was able to broaden its appeal by giving assurances to the business and middle class "that they weren't totally Islamist." And we learn that many are looking to Turkey for how modernity and Islam can be allied effectively.

It's just a much different, much more engaging story that actually shows what a "moderate Islamist" party might look look.

Moroccan tile image via Shutterstock.

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