The news that Morocco's favourite liberal magazine Nichane (Arabic for "straight ahead") has closed, has been greeted with dismay across the country and overseas. While Nichane pushed the boundaries, it should have been supported by the establishment as a fine example of modern Islam. Yet, the magazine has closed, not by court order, but by a boycott by advertisers, prompted by some in the establishment. Ibn Warraq reflects on the events.
The forced closing of Nichane is a major miscalculation by those in power, and it is to be hoped that they come to their senses and realise that Nichane was a tremendously good example to the world of just how progressive Morocco has become. Social reforms have been extremely positive, but closing Nichane is not just a bad look, it is a step backwards. Morocco should be mature enough to embrace total press freedom.
The reaction around the world has been swift, strong and critical. Even the mild mannered Guardian weighed in with a major article that points out that the boycott was "absurd to the point of hilarity." However the editor of Nichane, the respected journalist Ahmed Benchemsi, is not laughing.
For Benchemsi, the real loss is his prominent platform for spotlighting some of the Middle East's top young liberal journalists. Nichane – one of very few Arabic-language publications broaching such topics as gay rights and religious freedom – offered average north Africans a powerful cultural counterpoint to growing Islamist forces. The real winner from Nichane's untimely demise is thus the very Islamists the Moroccan monarchy claims to hold at bay. Perversely, autocrats and Islamists share an interest in silencing the liberal voices that threaten their respective power bases: the state apparatus and the "Arab street".
Benchemsi might seem a provocateur who overstepped the boundaries of his "native culture". But it bears noting that he launched his publishing venture the same year Osama bin Laden launched the September 11 attacks. Middle Eastern "culture" remains up for grabs, with both Islamist and liberal voices vying for market share. To defeat extremism, the west must help nurture genuine liberals like Benchemsi, who offer their audiences authentic alternatives to both the Islamists' poisonous ideological brew and the autocrats' stifling vision of modernity without freedom.