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Morocco’s battle over booze

Should Morocco tolerate Muslims who drink alcohol?

“This law is a little hypocritical and it’s not realistic,” said Khadija Rouissi, Bayt al Hikma’s president. “What do we really need to ban? We need to ban the sale of alcohol to children, and to ban driving while intoxicated.”

The debate grew still more heated last month in the ancient city of Fez, when local media reported Fez’s mayor Hamid Chabat calling for a liquor ban. The reports quoted Chabat as saying, “Let those who want to drink alcohol do it outside Fez.”

The news drew protest from within Fez’s profitable tourism industry. Officials with Morocco’s central government have said the mayor lacks the authority to enforce a ban, as liquor-selling licenses are granted by local representatives of Morocco’s king.

The mayor later released a statement denying that he’d called for a complete ban, saying he only wanted to shut down bars and liquor stores “near schools, mosques and residential quarters.”

The debate itself seems to represent a struggle between two opposing visions of Moroccan Islam. And both sides frame the fight as one against outside forces trying change Moroccan culture.

“There are people who want to please the West. It’s unfortunate that they believe that modernity requires that we sell alcohol, we have to have prostitution, we have to have homosexuals,” said Lahcen Daoudi, vice-secretary general of the PJD and the current vice president of the legislature’s house of representatives. “Unfortunately, there’s a pressure from outside.”

But civil liberties activists say Islamists are themselves serving an outside agenda — by importing a less tolerant, un-Moroccan form of Islam.

“These groups, like Raissouni in particular, come from a culture that’s not ours. It’s from Wahhabism, from Saudi Arabia, where there are people who come knock at your door and say, are you praying or not?” Rouissi said. “Our parents never accepted this and in Morocco we have never seen this type of thing.”

In the end, the discussion has yet to yield any concrete result. The law looks unlikely to change in the near term, supermarkets continue doing brisk business selling booze, and Moroccans still drink it.

Inside one of Rabat’s most venerable restaurants, Le Grand Comptoir, Moroccans and expats alike continue to sip cocktails and order wine, much of which was bottled in Morocco. Manager Jamal Latifi said the debate hasn’t even registered.

“The only debate in Morocco now is about the floods,” he said. “It's about the rains. It's whether it will be a good year for agriculture. That's it.”