Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Arab Revolution ? (June-July 2011)

The world of liberty began some five decades ago when, by virtue of the 1954 and 1964 Obscene Publication Acts, government no longer decided what was immoral in literature. Of course, this happened in Britain, where women succeeded in getting the right to wear trousers wherever they wished. They even went out in mini-skirts. A student strike over when girls were allowed into boys' dorm rooms triggered off a revolt in France. Noted Former French Minister of Culture Jack Lang in TIME Magazine (August, 2002): "May 1968 was a grand movement of liberation in the American sense, but also a movement of simple respiration (…) The French state then was a symbol of oppression. It seemed to have a lid on everything, with state-run television and radio putting out permanent propaganda. Suddenly, it became apparent that the state wasn't all-powerful after all, and for many of us everything seemed to even smell different."

History repeated itself in Tunisia and in Egypt in 2011. An Arab Revolution broke out, reaching my country, Morocco, on February 20. The February 20 Movement called for a new constitution. The King promptly ordred one. The new constitution has been hailed as a 'revoltution' in its own right. But people didn't want a new constitution for the sake of a new constitution. They wanted social justice. But then they didn't want social justice for the sake of social justice. What they wanted, in fact, was a better life: jobs, housing, better schooling, better health services, better infrastructure, stadiums...and a lot of freedom. All this is now in the new constitution. The question is, where do we go from here?


In his wonderful book about the British people and their culture, Understanding Britain, John Randle (Basil Blackwell Publisher, 1981) wrote: "The British were inclined to think they had avoided upheaval by virtue of their glorious constitution and their acceptance of gradual reform. This argument may have had some merit, but Britain's wealth increased dramatically in the nineteenth century, and though its distribution was highly uneven, the increase in prosperity among the working class was sufficient to give its members a growing feeling of betterment and security." This kind of prosperity is unfortuanely hard to imagine in the foreseeable future in this part of the golbe, North Africa.


In his book, "Dreaming of Damascus: Arab Voices from a Region in Turmoil", published in 2003, Stephen Glain wrote: "One of the most potent threats to Middle East stability (...) is chronic illiquidilty --the main source of rising unemployment and stagnent economies in the Arab world. The problem is not merely weak revenue, but a lack of modern banks and financial tools to lure cash out of burgeoning black markets and into the faltering daylight economy. From Syria to Morocco, Arab financial institutions are too primitive and regimes too inept to meet their economies' basic need for capital". That may be true for other Arab countries, but not as much for Morocco. The Moroccan state itself has its own wholly or partly owned ultra modern banks which lend a lot of money.


But here's one of the real problems. Morocco is a Muslim state and Islam prohibits usury based banking dealings. Why? Because they do more harm than good. And Allah threatens war on those who wouldn't listen and keep away from usury based dealings. In an article entiltled "Paying More for Money", George J. Church wrote in TIME Magazine (March 8, 1982): "In the past three years, interest rates have shot up higher than anyone could have imagined earlier, and they have suddenly become Topic A in the beleaguered American economy (...) Bankruptcies around the country are beginning to rival those of the Great Depression." Twenty years later, in October 2002, Fareed Zakaria of NEWSWEEK quoted Al Gore as saying in a speech to the Commonwealth Club: "(...) what worries me as much as the Middle East is the Middle West. The American economy is dead in the water (...) Every day we hear of a new round of lay-offs, a new bout of cost-cutting, a new set of economic numbers ---all worse than expected. Profits and business investment have fallen more sharply that at any point since the Great Depression. This year the average American household's net worth will decline for the third year running, which has not happened since World War II. The traditional optimism of Americans is being replaced by nervousness and gloom." Nine years later, just earlier this year, I heard Ralph Nader, who ran for President several times, say on Aljazeera English: "This country [the USA] is heading towards Third World status"! Three European Union economies (Greece, Ireland and Portugal) have been bailed out to save them from bankruptcy. What to say of my dear country's economy whose GDP is 79.1 billion dollars US and whose job-seeking population is ever increasing?


 In the wake of the Arab Revolution, the government of my country (Morocco) yielded generously to demands by all sorts of state employees. The wage rises alone will cost the government more than a billion dollars US annually, and the state already has a huge debt problem plus a budget deficit headache. And it's not only the State that has a debt problem. Many, many thousands, if not millions, of my fellow citizens bought houses on credit and are purchasing all kinds of consumer goods on credit. Many of these people are living on a tight budget. Some who borrowed money from banks to start small businessses are now in prison because they failed to pay back. The question is, why do those people hurry to borrow from usury based banks? The answer is very simple and very clear: they don't trust Allah. They can't wait patiently until Allah wills to grant their wishes (of getting jobs, of marrying, of having a house, etc.) They trust their salaries more than they do Allah. With their salaries, they believe, they can pay for just anything they want, even interest on loans. Samuel Smiles claimed in his book Self-help, published in 1859, that success was the product of four virtues --thrift, character, self-help and duty. I know of no one here, in my hometown of Mohammedia at least, who has ever heard of Samuel Smiles or his book. But when I speak to people, what I hear is paraphrasings of those four virtues. Very seldom do I hear someone quote the Holy Koran.


When I go out for a walk --which I do very often-- I find beaches, sea shores, roadsides, woods---all littered with stoppers of bottles and cans of all kinds of wine and beer. Who cares what Islam says about wine and beer? "The Poet" too drinks wine on several occasions. He commits adultry. He too revolts against the rulers. After a long experience, he meets an Egyptian man who guides him through the final stages of his redemption. This is what we need now: guidance. As I said in "Salam Layla", lack of guidance and inspiration is a big problem for us all. When I posted those musings on a blog, I thought few would ever care. But then, to my great surprise and delight, someone translated into French Salam Layla 5 and published it in a very interesting website. The main theme of "The Poet" is FEAR. That is the word that we heard a lot in many commentaries on the Arab Revolution. the Poet is a coward, but he ends up a brave, self-confident man. And it's FEAR that made me relate the Poet's tale in a historical, rather than, contemporary novel. I started on it in 1992 and finished it in 1996, under the old constitution which the February 20 Movement wanted to change.



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