Americans love revolution. Why shouldn’t we? Ours was among the most successful in history. It endures more than 200 years later, and was not the result of gradual change. As Thomas Jefferson put it, “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”
The French Revolution followed ours, and Jefferson naturally swooned while it was happening. But it didn’t end well. Instead of enjoying the blessings of liberty, the French inflicted the Terror on themselves and later reverted to monarchy. But those lessons are lost to time for all but the most historically-minded.
Thanks to the Russians, average Americans looked askance at revolution throughout much of the 20th century. The October Revolution of 1917 installed a totalitarian dictatorship that built a slave empire spanning most of two continents. Then it replicated itself, virus-like, by sponsoring similar revolutions all over the world, creating one ghastly police state after another. But Europe’s anti-communist revolutions in 1989 seemed to put everything right. Repressive regime after repressive regime fell to liberal dissidents like Lech Walesa in Poland and Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia.
The 1989 revolutions echoed the American Revolution in some ways, and they’re fresher in everyone’s minds than their botched predecessors. None of us old enough to have witnessed it can forget the fall of the Berlin Wall. Freedom was spreading again after the terrible communist detour. The tide of history was washing tyrants away, as it should.
The Arab world seemed perfectly capable of replicating what Americans and Eastern Europeans had accomplished. During the Beirut Spring in 2005, the Lebanese evicted Syria’s smothering military occupation without firing a shot. The more or less free and fair elections that followed sent the liberal pacifist Fouad Seniora to the prime minister’s office. The model for Lebanon’s uprising was the revolutions in Eastern Europe. I know because I was there. The very name “Beirut Spring” harked back to the 1968 Prague Spring. Surely the same thing could happen in Cairo and Tunis and Tripoli and Damascus. Right?
Tunisia’s revolution was mostly non-violent and has been at least partly successful; but Egypt’s, Libya’s, and especially Syria’s have been much darker affairs. The very name “Arab Spring” evokes the romantic image of the Prague Spring, but we should remember that the 1968 Czech uprising, like the 1956 Hungarian revolution before it, ultimately failed. Soviet troops rolled into Budapest and Prague and smashed both democratic movements under the treads of their tanks.
In celebrating the Arab Spring, too many failed to take into account what was unique about America in 1776, Eastern Europe in 1989, and Beirut in 2005. In all three cases, the people were resisting a tyrannical regime that was imposed from the outside: by the British crown, Soviet Russia, and Syria’s Arab Socialist Baath Party respectively. These revolutions were produced by a more or less democratic political culture that already existed and was being suppressed by force from abroad.
Democratic political cultures aren’t created by revolutions. They are created in advance of revolutions and reach their maturity during the aftermath. Lebanon and Tunisia are doing better than Egypt, Libya, and Syria because they already had partially democratic and pluralistic political cultures that were being suppressed by their rulers. But Egypt has never known anything but authoritarian rule, and before rebel fighters lynched Qaddafi outside Tripoli, he treated Libya like a mad scientist’s laboratory for longer than I’ve been alive.
America was an exceptional place in 1776. So was Eastern Europe in 1989 and, to a lesser extent, Lebanon in 2005.
So is Morocco. It’s not exceptional in the same way the American colonies and Eastern Europe were exceptional, but it is exceptional.
Morocco is doing better than most Arab countries because of its system of government, and it’s doing better than other Arab monarchies because of its history.
That history is unique in large part thanks to geography. When I visited the country, I drove from Rabat to Marrakech—a perfect city for tourists—and from there into the towering Atlas Mountains. Morocco is huge. It’s rugged and craggy. Much of it is green. Part of it is on the Mediterranean, but most is on the Atlantic coast.
It doesn’t look like any place in the Middle East, and nothing like the culturally vacuous Persian Gulf emirates. It doesn’t look like a Mediterranean country or an African country. Morocco is just Morocco; separated from Europe, the Middle East, and sub-Saharan Africa by water, mountains, and the hottest desert on earth. Over the centuries, its history and geography have sculpted a culture that’s partly Arab, partly Berber, partly European, and even partly Jewish. Its government is so stable it’s an anachronism.
The capital is 3,000 miles away from Mecca, the center of the Islamic world; while the city of Tangier is so close to Europe that you can see Spain across the Strait of Gibraltar. A fit enough person could swim there. The Spanish city of Ceuta on the north coast of Africa is actually contiguous with Morocco. It has been free of Muslim rule and either self-governing or Spanish for almost 600 years.
In the past, Morocco ruled parts of Spain. More recently, the Spanish ruled parts of Morocco. And there is no doubt that the two countries have influenced one another. One of the more striking things about Spain’s southern region of Andalusia is how it looks and feels vaguely Moroccan, especially compared with Madrid. No one can visit Morocco without noticing that parts of it look and feel vaguely European, especially compared to the heartland of Arabia.
Moroccan culture is also influenced by Sub-Saharan Africa and by Judaism, which has existed there for thousands of years. The new constitution defines Moroccan identity itself as partly Jewish.
What’s really striking about Morocco, however, is how much less Arab it is than other Arabic-speaking countries. That’s partly because nearly half the people aren’t even Arabs. They’re Berbers—or Amazigh as they call themselves—an indigenous people who predated the 7th century Arab invasion by millennia. Morocco is a diverse and polyglot place, but its people have managed to create a coherent and unified culture that is rarely prone to the sectarian and ethnic violence that has torn other Middle Eastern countries apart.
But it’s not just the Europeans, Berbers, Jews, and black Africans that make Morocco unique. It’s also the country’s distance from the Arabian Peninsula and the core of the Islamic world.
During my visit, I met with Dr. Ahmed Abbadi, who holds a PhD in Islamic Studies from the University Qaddi Ayaad in Marrakech. Before 1995, he taught comparative history of religions and Islamic thought. Today he teaches sociology in a cooperation program between the University Qaddi Ayyad and DePaul University in Chicago. He agrees that Morocco’s uniqueness is geographic in origin.
“Morocco used to be called the Far West before America was discovered,” he told me. “The Atlantic Ocean was known as the Sea of Darknesses. We didn’t know if there was anything out there beyond it.”
Indeed, when I stood on the beach in Rabat it felt strange to think that directly across the water lay not Turkey or Iran or Yemen or Pakistan, but Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Morocco is closer to the United States than most of Europe. Baghdad is as far from Rabat as Canada’s Prince Edward Island.
“We’re separated from the center of the Middle East by great distances and great mountains,” Abbadi said. “Because we are so far away, we have time to analyze everything that comes out before it gets here. Everything emanating from the Middle East arrives on our shores in milder form. To quote Frank Sinatra, we did it our way.”
The ancient Phoenicians helped establish the rudiments of civilization in Morocco, but the early Moroccans resisted the Roman Empire. “We also resisted the Umayyads,” Abbadi said. “We resisted the Fatimids. We did not accept the Ottomans. We stood at the border of Morocco and Algeria and told the Ottomans no.”
Robert D. Kaplan, in his fascinating book, The Revenge of Geography, notes that mountains are a conservative force. For good or bad, they block the spread of ideas. The Atlas mountains are a powerful conservative force; not only do its snow-capped peaks slow the progress of ideas and culture coming from the Middle East, they create hyper-local cultures within Morocco itself.
Port cities, moreover, are inherently liberal, and Morocco has lots of them. Because they are hubs for travel and trade, they provide access to foreign people, ideas, and culture; and they do it safely because the sea protects them from ground invasion. Morocco’s port cities are all right next to Europe.
In short, Morocco’s geography is a blessing. Its port cities near Europe tend to bring good ideas in, and its mountains keep some of the Middle East’s worst ideas out.
Arab nationalists like to claim that the Arab world is a single nation cruelly divided by European imperialists, but this is a fantasy. The Arab world is coherent as a civilization, but like all civilizations it’s splendidly diverse and tragically fractious. Not even Lebanon can hold itself together as a coherent nation, and it’s smaller in population than metropolitan Houston. So of course Morocco is different from other Arab countries. All Arab countries are different from other Arab countries.
When the Prophet Muhammad’s armies swept out of the Arabian Peninsula thirteen centuries ago, they spread their religion and language, but they didn’t exterminate and replace indigenous populations. And the natives often influenced their conquerors as much as vice-versa. In Egypt, Arabs became Egyptian even as most Egyptians eventually converted to Islam and learned Arabic. In Tunisia, the conquerors assimilated themselves and their religion into a highly advanced civilization that was Western in orientation. And in Morocco, they mixed with a Berber population linked to both Sub-Saharan Africa and southern Europe. This is how it always goes for imperial expansionists. Mexico, for example, is to this day a fusion of European and Aztec cultures.
Religions also change as they spread. Christianity is practiced in strikingly different ways in, say, Norway and Cuba. And both are very different from Christianity as practiced in Jerusalem, its birthplace. In the same way, Islam as practiced in Rabat is very different from how it’s practiced in Mecca. Like everything else in Morocco, it’s milder.
I asked Dr. Abbadi what he thinks of the term “moderate Islam.” Some Muslims don’t like it. Some non-Muslims think moderate Islam doesn’t exist. Even some Muslims insist that moderate Islam doesn’t exist.
“I prefer ‘ponderous and reflective’ Islam,” he said. “The word ‘moderate’ per se doesn’t mean anything. Islam should be modern, teleological, clear, contextualized, realistic, and feasible.”
“The reason I ask,” I said, “is because I want to know what you think about something Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan once said. ‘There is no moderate or immoderate Islam,’ he said. ‘Islam is Islam and that’s it.’”
“That’s very dangerous,” Dr. Abbadi said. “Islam is not absolute. It is yoked to the human dimension. It is we humans who understand Islam. It is subjected to my reason, my way of understanding the world, and my analysis. Religions encounter previous cultures, previous religions, previous visions and cosmologies. It merges with all of them. No religion falls from the sky onto bare ground.”