- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 3, 2006

MEKNES, Morocco

Mayor Aboubakr Belkora likes to tease his secular rivals by saying that for “every bar you open, I will open 10 mosques.”

During his nearly three years in office, about 30 mosques have been built. But the bars are still thriving, the atmosphere is relaxed, and some see 1,000-year-old Meknes with its population of 500,000 as a best-case model of what this North African kingdom might look like under an Islamic government.

“We are open to openness, to importing knowledge, economy and development,” said Mr. Belkora, a wealthy landowner and member of Morocco’s only legal Islamic party.

He portrays the new mosques as a force for enlightenment — not just places of worship, but cultural centers with libraries and auditoriums where Moroccans can find alternatives to the Muslim extremists who he says “brainwash youths.”

In the new mosques “They are taught that Islam is not a religion of violence, but peace, compassion and brotherhood,” Mr. Belkora said in an interview in his office.

His Justice and Development Party, known by the French acronym PJD, holds just 42 seats in the 325-seat parliament, but that makes it the largest opposition to the ruling centrist coalition.

Some predict it will do much better in elections next year, but no matter who forms the next government, real power will remain in the hands of the popular 42-year-old king, Mohammed VI. His regime, which was buffeted by five suicide bombings that killed about 40 people in 2003, is suppressing the more radical groups such as Adl wal Ihsan and the Salafi Jihadists, while embracing the PJD. The PJD returns the embrace, accepting the monarch as “Amir al-Mouminin” — “commander of the faithful.”

The PJD also wants good relations with Washington, with which the Moroccan king is close, though its leader, Saad Dine el Otmani, doesn’t believe in Washington’s stated goal of spreading democracy in the Muslim world.

U.S. officials say they deal with the PJD just as they do with Morocco’s other political parties.

Some analysts warn that the party could change once in power. They point to calls by hard-line leaders to cut off thieves’ hands and force women to cover their heads with kerchiefs.

The party opposed provisions of a family-law reform passed by parliament in 2004 that raised the marriage age for women from 15 to 18 — the same as men — and gave wives property rights and the right to divorce. Before, only men could seek a divorce. The law also requires a judge’s approval for a man to take more than one wife.

But Morocco, a French colony for more than 50 years before independence in 1956, has a fairly relaxed culture, and in Meknes, which is famous for its wines, the impact of an Islamic government is barely felt. Many women don’t wear a veil, including the mayor’s secretary.

Morocco has for 30 years been at the forefront of fostering Arab-Israeli peace efforts, and some say an Islamic government might make normalization of ties with the Jewish state more difficult.

Asked about that, the mayor seemed lost for words; then, in tacit acknowledgment that such matters rest with the king, not parliament, he said: “We may stop issues that we are responsible for. But matters that we are not responsible for, we cannot interfere with.”

The May 2003 suicide bombings in Casablanca, Morocco’s biggest city, obliged the PJD to distance itself from extremist groups, and its representatives to change their behavior, said Maati Monjib, a leftist political analyst. “They now shake hands with women, shave their beards and speak moderately,” he said.

At a debate involving two dozen students at the Moulay Ismail University in Meknes, the PJD got high marks for fighting drugs, alcoholism and prostitution. Most said they would vote for it next year.

“PJD might straighten out the corrupt government a bit if it comes to power,” said Youssef Amezzian, 24, a third-year biology student.

The PJD is popular for its focus on the country’s 4 million poor and its unemployment rate of more than 10 percent. It is well-organized, with lawyers and physicians among its members. Its leader, Dr. Otmani, 50, is a psychiatrist.

He says the PJD is different from other Islamic parties in the Arab world. The slogan of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is “Islam is the solution,” to which Dr. Otmani replies: “Solution to what? This is a general slogan that can have many meanings. Everyone understands it the way they want. In politics, we have to be specific.”

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