Elton John wows Morocco despite Islamist protests

RABAT, Morocco — British singer Elton John may not have played the hit tune “Madman Across the Water” at his concert here Wednesday, but that is how Moroccan conservatives portrayed the gay vocalist in the run-up to his controversial show.

John’s visit sparked outrage among Islamists who said the pop star’s history of advocating for gay rights runs against traditional values in a country where 98 percent of the population is Muslim.

“We’re not revolting against the singer, but against a leader of a determined gay movement,” said Lahcen Daoudi, vice-secretary general of the PJD, Morocco’s main Islamist party.

“He is an extremist who has insulted religion,” Daoudi said, citing the singer’s controversial remarks in February saying that Jesus Christ was gay.

Homosexuality is forbidden under many interpretations of Islam and regarded as crime in Morocco — punishable by fines and prison sentences of up to three years. Nevertheless, laws against homosexuality are rarely enforced.

The North African nation is widely regarded as an Arab world bastion of tolerant hipness; alcohol is widely available despite official prohibitions, and the country has consistently played host to gay notables like novelist William S. Burroughs and fashion designer Yves St. Laurent.

Morocco’s liberal face was prominently on display at the concert that went forward despite Islamist opposition. It was a highlight of the country’s yearly Mawazine music festival, which is backed by the country’s absolute ruler, King Mohammed VI.

Organizers said at least 15,000 people turned out to hear the singer belt out a set list that included “Sorry is the Hardest Word,” “Candle in the Wind” and “The Bitch is Back.”

“I love him!” said Samira Alaoui, 21, a receptionist from Rabat, as she craned her neck during “Sacrifice,” her favorite Elton John song.

Alaoui said that for most Moroccans, John’s sexual orientation made no difference. "It doesn't pose any problem for me,” she said. “It's his private life."

Authorities in Rabat reported no protests or disruptions during the performance — a testament to tolerance or, perhaps, to the thousands of Moroccan police, soldiers and plain-clothes officers who mingled watchfully with the crowd.

Between songs, John himself confined his patter to apolitical concert fare, saying “It's a pleasure to be here, thank you for everything,” in French near the close of the show.

For Halim Radi, 38, a pharmacist standing at the back of the crowd with two friends, the big-name, big-money concert represented a step forward for a nation where people still on average make only $6 per day. “For an emerging country, I think it’s spectacular,” Radi said.

Next to him on the trampled grass, Yassir Naji, a 37-year-old engineer described himself as a longtime Elton John fan.

As for Moroccan conservatives who objected to hosting a gay icon, Naji said, "It's their problem, not ours."