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Morocco’s battle over booze

Should Morocco tolerate Muslims who drink alcohol?

A bartender mixes a cocktail at a bar in Tangiers, Morocco. (Solana Pyne/GlobalPost)

RABAT, Morocco — The buying frenzy begins around 6 p.m. Men throw elbows and shout, pushing to the front of the checkout line, clutching bottles of booze.

Lines, if you can call them lines, form eight or 10 deep, each man looking for the fastest way through. Buyers jostle and press forward. Some stand on tiptoe to pass clinking baskets of bottles to friends closer to the register. The air reeks of spilled beer.

This is not scene on the eve of a looming alcohol shortage. It’s not a speakeasy in a rough part of town. It’s just an average evening at my local liquor store, in an upscale neighborhood of Morocco’s capital.

One possible explanation for the crush is that everyone is technically breaking the law. A royal decree from 1967 forbids the sale of alcohol to Muslims, which constitute 98 percent of Morocco’s population. Liquor stores and restaurants officially may only sell booze to foreigners.

But the furtive atmosphere may stem from a stigma that’s more social than legal. Even the government admits the law is rarely enforced.

“It’s complicated. Officially, the consumption of alcohol is forbidden for Muslims,” said Khalid Naciri, Morocco’s communication minister. “But the authorities aren’t going to go into every store to see whether Moroccans are buying it or not. This is not our concern.”

This ambiguous truce has existed for years. In theory, the law conforms to what’s preached in the mosque. In practice, those on the street make their own deals with God. Moroccans can buy booze in bars, restaurants and grocery stores in the country’s bigger cities.

But in the past few months, groups at opposite ends of Morocco’s political spectrum have begun challenging the status quo.

In December, a prominent Moroccan cleric, Ahmed Raissouni, published what he called a fatwa, or religious edict, urging Morocco’s Muslims not only to abstain from alcohol but also to boycott any supermarket that sells it — which includes the country’s biggest and most profitable chain stores.

Raissouni has close ties with the Justice and Development Party, or PJD, an Islamist opposition party that courts the religious vote. Although PJD officials downplayed the edict as being just one cleric’s opinion, Moroccan civil liberties activists fired back almost immediately.

Days after the fatwa, an activist group called Bayt Al Hikma, Arabic for House of Wisdom, called for Morocco’s alcohol law to be repealed, asking that more reasonable rules be put in its place.