Mohamed Chtatou

Moroccan Cultural Tolerance

Morocco is not a fully-fledged democracy, as is the case in the West, but the country, is slowly but surely,  moving in that direction. As a matter of fact, the constitution of 2011 has opened the door to the devolution of power and has strengthened the diverse identity of the Moroccan individual: he is Arab, Muslim, Amazigh, Jewish, African, and Mediterranean.


Tolerance has been through centuries a way of life of the country and is the second nature of Moroccans, not to say that it is probably part of their DNA. Jews arrived in the country in the year 71 AD after the destruction of their second temple by the Romans. They were well-received by the Amazigh/Berber native people and they quickly melted into their social fabric for two reasons: firstly, because they were tribal and secondly they shared the trait of a strong matriarchal system.

The Jews, though a minority, managed to convert some of the Amazigh/Berber people to Judaism from paganism without obliterating their strong pagan beliefs such as practices linked to agricultural rites of fertility which even Islam was not able to get rid of.

While the Amazigh/Berber concentrated their efforts on agriculture, cattle-raising, and animal husbandry, the Jews developed commerce, trade, and early banking practices, a tradition which was to continue on for centuries until their departure to Israel starting in the fifties of the twentieth century, after the creation of the Jewish State in Palestine in 1948.

The Judeo-Amazigh cultural substratum

The Judeo-Amazigh cultural substratum is undoubtedly the foundation of the Moroccan culture of tolerance and acceptance of the other which is expressed through such rituals as:

  1. Extreme hospitality tradition ;
  2. Mint-tea drinking ceremony;
  3. Sharing-in in religious celebrations;
  4. Social solidarity known as twiza; and
  5. Henna ceremony.

Throughout Moroccan history, there were undoubtedly pogroms and Jews were not full citizens in the cities and were often badly treated by Muslim religious zealots and considered as second-class citizens. Consequently, Sultans took upon themselves to protect their Jewish citizens and, as such, built them quarters known as mellah, adjacent to their palaces. Moroccan tolerance reached its apogee in 1492, after the Fall of Grenada and the advent of the Reconquista. The Spanish Catholic authorities enacted a decree stripping the Sephardic Jews of their nationality, property, and wealth and kicking them out. So many of them came to Morocco in full distress seeking asylum and were well-received by the Amazigh/Berber Wattassid Sultan Abu Zakariya Muhammad al-Salih al-Mahdi (1472-1505) and Moroccans.

The Sephardic Jews of Spain, given their education and expertise soon became the accredited businessmen of the Sultan: Tujjar Sultan, bankers, politicians, and diplomats and until their exodus to Israel in 1967 rendered invaluable services to the country and the Monarchy.

During the Second World War, Vichy France (July 1940–September 1944), which was the French protectorate authority of Morocco, instructed the monarchy to park all Jews in camps and make them wear the Star of David. In response, Sultan Mohammed V made the French know that Moroccan Jews are his subjects and therefore all of Morocco is Jewish and all Moroccans will stand against this anti-Semitic law, one and all, and sport the Star of David, if compelled by force.

Bouts of pan-Arabism in the 1950s, in certain areas of the country, triggered a wave of anti-Semitism and this movement combined with the hyperactive efforts of the Jewish Agency, to encourage Jews to make the “act of going up to Jerusalem,” known as Aliyah to the “Promised land,” led to a massive departure of Moroccan Jews. But in spite of this, the late King Hassan II did not recall their Moroccan citizenship nor nullify their properties instead he called on Moroccan Jews to come back to their homeland.

Today, Moroccans regret the departure of their Jewish brethren and this was expressed openly in the successful documentary films such as Tinghir-Jerusalem by Kamal Hachkar (Icarus films) released in 2014 and Moroccan Jews: Destinies Undone by Younes Laghrari (Younslag Films.)

Hassan II and his son Mohammed VI have, in the last several decades, actively, also, renovated all Jewish cemeteries, schools, synagogues, and important Jewish sites in the country, as a sign of goodwill and tolerance.

Modern time aspects of tolerance

Since independence in 1956, Morocco has been active, in secret, trying to bring Palestinians and Israelis to the negotiation table. The late King Hassan II received Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres in July 1986 and had with him a closed-door exploratory discussion that produced a major breakthrough in Middle East peace initiatives.  These diplomatic contacts bore fruit in 1993 with the Oslo peace agreement I known as the Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements and Oslo II of 1995 commonly known as the Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip between the Palestinians and the Israelis leading to the establishment of the Palestinian Authority.

But Moroccan tolerance is not only expressed in accepting Moroccan Jews, it is, also, shown in allowing the Islamists after 2011 to come to power and rule the country till the recent September 8, 2021, general elections, within the limits stated by the constitution of 2011.

Probably the most important aspect of tolerance today is the official recognition of the Amazigh/Berber culture and language initiated in 2001 by King Mohammed VI and expressed in gold in the 2011 constitution, by the recognition of the Tamazight language as an official language besides Arabic.

Another important aspect of tolerance is the acceptance and the formalization of African migration. Since 2000 many Sub-Saharan Africans, came en masse to Morocco with the hope to go to the European Eldorado, but could not make it and could not go back to their respective countries for economic or political reasons. Sympathetic to their predicament, Morocco took in thousands of African migrants giving them official papers and opening doors for them to work and educate their children like all ordinary Moroccans. This move was praised by most countries of the world and in an expression of gratitude towards the country, the United Nations convened an international conference on the topic of migration in Marrakesh on the 10th and 11th of December, 2018: The Intergovernmental Conference to Adopt the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration.

Would Morocco accept the LGBTQ, Moroccan Christians, and Shiites?

Today, there are lots of other groups living in the closet and waiting for the propitious time to come out. They are tolerated but not officially recognized.

Throughout history, gays have always existed within the Moroccan culture and were, somewhat, “tolerated”. They are thought to be affected by a malady that is incurable and are as such a “shameful problem of society” but, nevertheless, an integral part of it. In the Moroccan tradition are considered gay people those who are “bottoms” as for the people who are “tops” they are viewed as “doers” and therefore “virile” individuals, or rather as studs, Because of this heavy social stigmatization they have always lived in the closet and in total fear.

Gay women known, in Arabic, as “saHâqiyât” are not tolerated, in the least, and are considered as “dangerous abnormal people” or even as ” individuals possessed by an evil spirit jinn” bent on social destruction. This is why most gay women of Morocco either migrate to Europe or stifle their sexual identity and orientation and try to live, in appearance, a “normal” life.

However, such women and men can express their sexual identity freely in certain selective areas, mainly public baths.

Gays of Morocco came to prominence in recent years when a Moroccan gay author called Abdellah Taia published several books in France related to his personal experience as a gay from a Muslim country. He has, indeed, published eight novels, many of them heavily autobiographical that have been translated into such languages as BasqueDutchEnglishItalianRomanianSpanishSwedishDanish, and Arabic. Described by Interview Magazine as a “literary transgressor and cultural paragon,” Taïa became the first openly gay Arab writer in 2006.

Sex workers

Through prostitution is considered to be the oldest profession in the world, yet it is the oldest stigmatized occupation and breadwinner in Morocco. Prostitution has always been tolerated but since independence, it has become an important economic factor.

Because Morocco does not have oil, it has made out of tourism, one of its major economic sectors and cities like Agadir, Marrakesh, Fes, Rabat, and Tangier have attracted thousands of visitors in the last half-century, and Morocco has become, ultimately, an attraction of sex tourism and pedophilia, especially for people from the rich Gulf States where prostitution is severely outlawed and sexual activity allowed within marriage only and Europe, as well.

So, Gulf youth and adults alike flock to Morocco, to satisfy their sexual desires and fantasies, and as a result, many young Moroccan women go, in a reverse movement, to UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Jordan, etc. to work in hotels, bars and night clubs as sex workers. With the money made in these countries, lots of these women come back to Morocco and start an “acceptable” business to lead a “decent and acceptable” life. These women wear hijab, make the pilgrimage to Mecca and start a new life of religious piety to “please” society.

Other religions beliefs

Morocco is a Sunni country of the Malekite School and besides Judaism that is recognized in the constitution of 2011 as a cultural affluent, no other religion is recognized or officially accepted though Christians of other nationalities are welcome to practice their religions in all freedom short of any proselytization activity, whatsoever.

Moroccans who convert to other religions live abroad and rarely come back to Morocco, like the case of the famous Moroccan Roman Catholic priest Jean Mohamed ben Abdeljalil (1904-1979) who converted to Christianity in 1928 and lived since in France where he took several teaching positions.

However, since the advent of the third millennium and the digital revolution, many Moroccans converted to Christianity or migrated from Sunnism to Shi’ism, out of financial need or for pure belief and philosophical reasons. The Shi’ites are located mostly in the north, with a large concentration in Tangier.

As for the Moroccan Christians, their faith groups are known to intelligence services and to many people at large, and, as such, are tolerated and indirectly protected. They conduct their religious services in homes, away from the public eye but they have been asking lately for official recognition which seems difficult to grant them in the present times given the presence of violent extremism in Morocco and other Islamic countries.

For the authorities, recognizing them can either weaken and defeat extremism or embolden it beyond belief, and given these challenges, the officials believe it is better for these groups to remain in the underground for the time being mostly for their safety and well-being.

Papal visit

On March 30 and 31, 2019, Pope Francis visited Morocco, at the invitation of King Mohammed VI, for a short stay focused on interreligious dialogue and the situation of migrants. This is the first visit of a pope in the kingdom of Morocco since the one made by John Paul II in 1985.

Nowadays, Morocco is 99% Muslim and has 30,000 to 35,000 Catholics, ten times less than before its independence, in 1956. Of the 200 churches that existed at the time of the French and Spanish colonization, it currently has only 44. Their preservation is particularly related to the influx of sub-Saharans and that of students attracted in the 1990s by the system of university scholarships, and for ten years by that of migrants.

In front of thousands of Moroccans and King Mohammed VI, the pope defended “freedom of conscience” and “religious freedom”, allowing everyone to live according to his own religious conviction, in a speech delivered in the huge esplanade of Rabat: “Freedom of conscience and religious freedom – which are not limited to freedom of worship but which allow everyone to live according to their own religious belief – are inseparably linked to human dignity,” said the pontiff, by calling believers to “live like brothers“.

In a welcome note addressed to the visiting pope, King Mohammed VI expressed Moroccan tolerance in a speech he made in Arabic, French, Spanish, and English to make the Moroccan strong belief in inter-faith dialogue universal.

Final word

Since the adoption of the constitution in 2011, Morocco has officially trigged an incremental democracy movement and this movement that is in the long run beneficial for the welfare of the nation and its development can be successful in its action if personal liberties are accepted and calibrated by law.

The Moroccan LGBTQ are fully Moroccans, they are not “sick” or anything, they are as normal as straight people, so they have to be accepted as such by the law of the land and helped to come out of the closet to rehabilitate them within real life and protect them from stigmatization and stereotyping. They are people who love their country and want to lead a normal life in normal circumstances.

Morocco is a plural country with multiple cultural, ethnic, and religious identities. If, Jews are accepted alongside Muslims for more than two millennia why not accept Shiites and Christians. What is the difference? Being Moroccan is about Tamaghribit (love of the country) and not religion, culture, or identity. A Moroccan is Moroccan because he holds his country in his heart and not because of his religion, ethnicity, or identity. Amen.

You can follow Professor Mohamed Chtatou on Twitter: @Ayurinu










About the Author
Dr. Mohamed Chtatou is a Professor of “MENA region area studies” at Université Internationale de Rabat -UIR- and of “Education” at Université Mohammed V in Rabat, as well. Besides, he is currently a political analyst with Moroccan, American, Gulf, French, Italian and British media on politics and culture in the Middle East, Islamism and religious terrorism. He is, also, a specialist on political Islam in the MENA region with interest in the roots of terrorism and religious extremism. During 2015 he worked as Program Director with the USAID/CHEMONICS educational project entitled: “Reading for Success: A Small Scale Experimentation” in cooperation with the Moroccan Ministry of National Education and Vocational Training (MENFP). He recently taught cultural studies to Semester abroad students with AMIDEAST, IES and CIEE study abroad programs in Morocco insuring such courses as: “Introduction to Moroccan Culture,” “Contemporary North African History,” “Arab Spring,” “Amazigh Culture,” “Moroccan Jewish Legacy,” “Community-Based Learning” (internship with civil society organizations). He is, also, currently teaching “Communication Skills” and “Translation and Interpreting” to master students at The Institute for Leadership and Communication Studies –ILCS- in Rabat, Morocco and supervising several Fulbright students in areas of religion and culture in Morocco. He has taught in the past some courses in universities in the USA, Spain, France, Italy, England and Greece.