Days of Terror

In the age of the so-called "war on terror," some dates are imprinted indelibly in the collective memory of Americans: September 11th, of course, but also July 7th and March 11th. Few people, however, would attach any significance to dates like October 12th, April 11th, November 9th, or November 20th, when bombs exploded in Indonesia, Tunisia, Jordan, and Turkey, or indeed to the dozens of other dates that split the histories of other countries around the world into a "Before" and "After." For Morocco, that appointment came on May 16, 2003, when eleven suicide bombers staged coordinated attacks against hotels and restaurants in Casablanca, killing 44 people.

In public and private conversations, in the print media and on TV, the same question kept cropping up: How could it happen in Casablanca? Many Moroccans like to believe the line of P.R. that we feed the world -- Morocco is a liberal Muslim country, a stable kingdom with a history that spans more than a millennium. We believe this even at a time when bigotry and terror have become worldwide afflictions. And so our shock was as genuine as it was naive. May 16 confirmed what many Moroccans, both at home and in the Diaspora, may have been in denial about: that our homeland has become known as much for its sandy beaches, breathtaking architecture and excellent cuisine, as it has for its suicide bombers.

The picture that emerged from the Casablanca attacks was the kind of cliché that drives conservatives to hysterics. The bombers -- all young men, all single, all unemployed or hustling for jobs -- came from the sprawling slum of Sidi Moumen, just outside the city. Sidi Moumen is home to 200,000 people squatting in shacks with corrugated tin roofs. There is no running water. Trash pick up is sporadic and open sewage makes its way down dirt alleys. Unemployment is sky high. In addition, the bombers were recent recruits to Islamic fundamentalism; some had been going to the underground mosque at Si Larbi for only a few months. That short span of time was all it took to convince them that their and their families' problems could be solved by taking the lives of those who lived in the cosmopolitan, multicultural (and therefore, in their eyes, decadent) Casablanca.

The Moroccan government's reaction was predictable. In a move cribbed from Bush's agenda, it began to turn back the clock on civil rights reforms that had started in 1999, with the ascension of a young, reform-minded king to the throne. It reinforced the police apparatus, detained thousands of suspected militants, and centralized the supervision of mosques. But another reaction came, from within civil society itself. A demonstration against terrorism drew nearly 1 million people (Muslims and Jews) to the streets of the city. More interestingly, non-governmental organizations began to combat the spread of Islamic fundamentalism in the slums through grassroots organizing.

One such project is the Forum Entreprises-Associations, which brought together Moroccan NGOs and businesses in an unprecedented effort at cooperation. The project was headed by human rights activist Abdellah Zaazaa, the chair of RESAQ, a network of volunteer neighborhood associations in Casablanca, and by businessman Karim Tazi, the Wharton-educated CEO of Richbond, a major textile company with more than 1,200 employees. Their wager was simple: By bringing together neighborhood associations (i.e. the ideas) and local businesses (i.e. the money), they hoped to secure funding for much-needed development projects in some of Casablanca's poorest neighborhoods, including Sidi Moumen. Zaazaa helped train the organizations in his network on how to write proposals while Tazi brought his business know-how and his contacts in various industries. Top executives of industrial companies whose factories lay in some of Casablanca's poorest districts were won over by the idea. They opened their checkbooks. But part of the money came from an unlikely source: The Moroccan government itself. Prime Minister Driss Jettou, who'd attended the two-day forum as a guest, was impressed with the presentations and picked up the tab where businesses left off. The result: Each one of the fifty projects under consideration was funded.

The volunteers of RESAQ are young and old, some working full-time and others retired, some poor and a few well off, but in all of them I sensed a huge pride at the success of the Forum Entreprises-Associations. Since securing the funds, they'd been able to put together job-training centers for men and women, computer classes for students, soccer camps and libraries for children. They've provided environmental clean up of a road used by many factory workers on their way to work. They've embarked on an ambitious program of legal rights training. I was particularly impressed with a tutoring program for orphaned children; in a patriarchal society where a father's status and salary all but determines his child's future, the volunteers were trying to do what they could to reduce the gap between the have-nots and the have-even-less. "But this is not charity," Tazi warned me. "We're trying to foster social development and to train young people to become leaders of their own communities. If you want to defeat the Islamists you must also defeat them on the issue of trust and credibility within the community."

Can programs like these stop future bombers? I don't know. But I did wonder how many young men who, thanks to the efforts of RESAQ, will now be too busy learning software, reading a book, painting a mural, or playing basketball to listen to the virulence of a hostile imam. Tazi and Zaazaa's wager is that by beating the Islamists on their turf, by doing the charitable work through which the fanatics do most of their recruiting and by training young people to lead their own communities, it's possible to lay the foundation of an alternative, secular society.

People talk about "bringing democracy to the Arab world," as though democracy is a pill that can be prescribed by a doctor, exported, and then forced down people's throats. But in Morocco there is another approach, which seeks to cultivate a homegrown democracy by providing training and services where they are needed and by grooming local leaders who can in turn foster a greater respect for human rights. The grassroots approach might not be the model favored by neo-cons within the U.S. administration for bringing freedom to the Middle East and North Africa. But it can work. It costs a lot less than dropping bombs. And it might just save us from another date with terror.