Belgian volunteers in shorts spark controversy about radicalisation in Morocco

Despite assurances and support from Moroccan civil society, Belgium repatriated the volunteers and the Flemish NGO Boword stopped sending volunteers to the North African country.
Saturday 17/08/2019
Moroccan activists gather during  a demonstration in Casablanca against threats to a group of teenage Belgian volunteers who wore shorts while working at  a construction site in the south of the country. (AFP)
A show of solidarity. Moroccan activists gather during a demonstration in Casablanca against threats to a group of teenage Belgian volunteers who wore shorts while working at a construction site in the south of the country. (AFP)

CASABLANCA - The story of young Belgian women wearing shorts while carrying out volunteer work in a remote village in southern Morocco moved Moroccans to protest Islamists who criticised the outfits.

Pictures of casually dressed Belgian volunteers working in the scorching sun on the construction of a road near Taroudant sparked scathing messages from Islamists on social media.

A 26-year-old teacher, who called for the women’s decapitation in a message on Facebook, echoing the killing of two female Scandinavian tourists last December by Moroccan extremists in the High Atlas Mountains, was arrested August 6 in Ksar el-Kebir.

Ali el-Asri, a member of parliament with the ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD), slammed the women’s attire on Facebook, drawing rebuke for ignoring their volunteer work.

“Since when do Europeans work in swimming suits?” wrote Asri. He reacted to criticism of his statement as “secular terrorism” before deleting it.

The incident showed the resilience of a mindset among segments of the Moroccan public while Morocco was still reeling from the killing of Danish tourist Louisa Vesterager Jespersen, 24, and Norwegian Maren Ueland, 28, by three Islamic State supporters while hiking near Imlil.

The three men charged in the case were sentenced to death over the beheadings of the two tourists.

Activists denounced Asri’s “perverted” thoughts, reminding him that Morocco was a country of tolerance and co-existence. There was also the realisation that the country still had a long way to go to rid itself of anachronistic ideas that can radicalise its youth as well as harm its image in the West.

“A teacher affects a limited number of his pupils and it is a disaster. Although the number of pupils involved is limited, the real disaster lies in the deputy’s stance in a post on the social network,” Salah el-Ouadie, a human rights activist, wrote on Facebook.

“Perhaps the MP should undergo a continuous training reminding him that shorts have been known in Morocco for a long time and that the founders of the unity road were wearing it, including King Hassan II and Mehdi Benbarka, in the presence of King Mohammed V and that the latter received women with the same dress and took pictures with them,” said Ouadie, backing his claim with pictures of both late kings.

Ouadie lashed out at Asri for being unimpressed by neither the volunteers’ extended hand to Moroccans nor their passion for noble deeds.

“What drew the attention of our esteemed MP is the bottom part of the women’s bodies rather than their upper part, their hidden ‘nakedness’ but not the spirit that led them to give up a comfortable holiday,” he said.

Zineb Ibnouzahir, founder of LeMarocDesFemmes.com, criticised Asri’s use of the religious card and that of customs to divert people’s attention from the elected officials’ own shortcomings.

“Rather than welcome the attitude of self-denial, love of the other, courage and determination of these young women who had absolutely nothing to gain by coming to build a road breaking the isolation of a village in southern Morocco, Ali el-Asri, elected PJD [representative] in the House of Councillors, preferred to stop at their outfit,” wrote Ibnouzahir on le360.ma.

Dozens of protesters, many wearing shorts, gathered August 10 in Casablanca to show solidarity with the Belgian volunteers and denounce radicalisation in Morocco. Holding banners that read “No to Obscurantism,” “No to the radicalisation of Moroccan society,” “Morocco is a country of lights” and “Yes, we short.” protesters slammed the radicalised attitudes gripping Moroccan society.

“This obscurantist and extremist speech has no place in our country,” said protest organiser Mourad Elajouti. “Morocco’s image has greatly suffered from the Belgian volunteers’ affair. We had tried to reverse the situation and give another image of the Moroccan people.”

Despite assurances and support from Moroccan civil society, Belgium repatriated the volunteers and the Flemish NGO Boword stopped sending volunteers to the North African country.

Abdelhak Khiame, director of Central Bureau of Judicial Investigations, said in July that security alone was not enough to protect young people against the risk of radicalisation.

“It is necessary to fight the factors that lead to their radicalisation,” said Khiame.

4