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SIT Graduate Institute/SIT Study Abroad
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Morocco: Field Studies in Journalism and New
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Religious Tensions in Moroccan College
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Cabrera, Julia, "Religious Tensions in Moroccan College Campuses" (2016). Morocco: Field Studies in Journalism and New Media. Paper
Independent Study in Journalism (MOJ)
Religious Tensions in Moroccan college Campuses
By Julia Cabrera
Print with Photographs
May 8, 2014
1. The Pitch.
For more than four decades, the Moroccan state has fueled tensions between leftist and religious
students on campuses. This is an attempt to weaken the leftists who demand democracy in this
North African kingdom. This story will look at students caught in this ideological war: students
who feel discriminated against for their religious beliefs and secular students who are trying to
resist the predominance of religion. Professors and Deans are also struggling. For example, with
new rules that let a student leave class to pray, raising concerns about the balance between
education and religion.
2. Development & evolution of the story idea. Explain the process by which you arrived at
this story idea. How did the idea evolve into the pitch? What is this story’s relevance to your
personal interests and course of study at your home institution? Why did you produce the story
in the format you chose?
From my first days in Morocco I was drawn to the topics of religion and the role of women. I
wanted to pursue a story on religious minorities, and how these minorities practice in Morocco
.My leads never took me far enough to have bases for an actual story. I then followed my second
interest by learning about the Hijab. In America we are in some way taught to think that Muslim
women, or women in the Arab world are veiled s a form of oppression I was highly interested in
the fact that women did have a choice, and while some women undergo oppression, there are
many who wear the hijab because they choose to. I was particularly interested in younger
women, specifically in college as some women that I met said their professors often make
comments about the hijab. After talking to my advisors I fond out about violent clashes that
were happening in some Moroccan universities due to opposing religious and political ideology
and I thought it was the perfect combination of my interest.
3. Sources, interviews, scenes. How did you find your sources, your elements, interviews and
scenes. What/who are they? What problems/challenges did you encounter in reporting this story
and how did you solve them (or not solve them).
Once I had fallen in love with my topic I did a lot of research about the clashes and the deaths
that derived from it. This gave me a good idea of whom I should speak to. Luckily my partner
has many friends all over morocco. She contacted a friend who studied at a university in Fez and
he arranged for us to meet with the Marxist group. Once on the campus we strolled around
looking for members of the other group and students and teachers who were willing to speak to
us. We conducted about 15 interviews in a day and a half. It was an amazing experience.
4. Journalism ethics. What ethical issues did you encounter in reporting this story and how did
you resolve those ethical issues? Were there ethical issues unique to Morocco?
Our story dealt very closely with the students at the university. We traveled to fez and were
offered to stay in the dorm rooms. This presented an ethical issue as it could potentially be a
conflict of interest. We did not want to feel like we owed them anything, but the university is a
public space and the students have free tuition, we realized that if we paid them they would feel
that we were paying them for the interview. We decided to stay and ultimately it was the best
decision. Staying in the dorm rooms allowed us more time for interviews and to let our sources
be comfortable enough to be themselves around us. This way we got a better look at what was
happening at the campus which was very useful for our story.
5. Potential media outlet and audience. Where do you think your story might be placed?
Why do you think this media outlet would be interested in your story? Who is your audience?
Why do you think this story will be attractive to that audience? How did you produce the story to
keep it interesting?
I can see my article being placed in publications like The New York Times, The Washington Post
or the Boston Globe. These publications have a reliable readership and are known for tackling
complex issues worldwide. I believe that I have done the reporting work necessary to gather very
valuable information and as these publications are know to be the best in the field, I am willing to
put in the work and work closely with my advisors to get it to the approval standards for these
6. The Story.
Religious tensions on Moroccan College Campus
by Julia Cabrera
Fes, Morocco Two years after the death of Abderrahim Hasnaoui, a student leader of the
Islamist group, Attajdid Attolabi (Student Renewal), three members of the group still feel the
need to confine themselves to the safety of their room. In the comfort of her barewalled
sanctuary Fatima Zahra Tajami’s veil is slightly undone. She motions to fight her tears but she
can’t, “We are waiting for something to happen,” Tajami says, “but what more can they do than
killing a person. That was the worst they could do.”
Students at the University of Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdellah in Fez, have to further their studies in
hostile environments. For decades universities have housed these ideological tensions between
Islamist group much like the Attajdid Attolabi and Radical leftists groups, like the Annahji
Democrati Icaaidi. Even though the recent escalation of the conflict resulted in the death of a
student, the government has yet to come up with an effective plan to control the violence.
Moroccan Historian Driss Maghraoui said, “Historically the state was not receptive to any kind of
rapprochement between these ideologically opposing forces.”
For over 40 years and counting the radical left and the Islamists groups have struggled to share
their campus. Advocating for the equality of their individual believes they have failed to find
In the 1970’s, According to Moroccan Association of Human Rights representative Mohamed El
Boukili, leftist groups had a strong presence in Moroccan universities, focusing on bringing
democracy beyond the walls of their campus.
According to El Boukili, the state was threatened by their efforts and created the Islamist group
as a tool to weaken the leftist’s voice. The state, he said, used the press and the campus clashes to
restrain these groups, and even though they managed to persevere they were weaker than
before. What was then called the Union of Moroccan Students (UNAM) was unofficially banned
from the university, but returned in the late 1980s through different groups like the Annajhi
“This conflict has a political agenda and religion is just added on and used to frame the entire
thing,” said Dr. Taieb Belghazi, a professor at Mohamed V University.
In 1993 the Islamists were accused of killing leftists student, Benaissa Ait el Jid. Abdelali
Hamiddine, a member of the ruling party, the Justice and Development Party (PJD), was jailed for
two years as a student for this crime. The clashes continued in the universities as the Islamists
students strived for their religious freedom and the leftist students continued to fight against the
strong hand of the state.
In 2014 the Islamist organized a conference to speak about peace and democracy. The leftists
quickly threatened the event, as Hamiddine was one of the event’s speakers. Although the event
was canceled, some Attajdid Attolabi members decided to meet at the university Dhar El Mehraz
on April 24.
The gathering, once interrupted by the leftists resulted in the death of Abderhahim
Hasnaoui, and the harassment of many other Islamist students. The details of the events are still
vivid in the student’s minds, as the territorial battle has persisted to date.
“If the problem is not religion why did they rip off our veils?” said Attajdid Attolabi member
Fatima Annoubi, 21, referring to the day Hasnaoui was killed. She sits in between her two
roommates in their dorm room. Lined with plain white walls the room is their fortress. With a
small gas tank, a few pots and a coffee table to share their meals, they try to avoid the rest of the
According to Annoubi freedom of religion in the university was the beginning of the conflict. She
believes this was difficult for the Marxists to accept and thus why they have been trying to
restrict the Islamist’s freedom ever since.
In the cafeteria of Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdellah, members of Annahji Democrati Icaaidi sit
around a blue plastic table. The large room is highly trafficked throughout the day, as it is one of
the only free spaces students have to meet outside of classes. At first glance one notices the
photographs of famous theorists and revolutionary legends like Chec Guevara, Vladimir Lenin
and Karl Marx adorning the wall. To the left of their mentors are photographs of the group’s
current political detainees, and a can on a table in the center of the room serves to raise funds for
their prisoners’ liberation.
“It’s an issue of interest, economy, to exist or not to exist,” said Annahji Democrati Icaaidi
member Mohamed El Hadidi, 23. He believes that the conflicts have no relation to religion and
that a higher power is using religion to cover up the real issue.
According to Hadidi, the rise of what he calls, the “socalled Islamists” created the divide in their
campus. When the Islamists groups came to action, they spread the word that the Marxist groups
were atheist and the universities must be purified from them. They justified their actions by
claiming they were holding truth to Allah’s word. El Hadidi and many of the group’s members
consider themselves Muslim; they follow the revolutionary ideologies of Marx and Lenin, but not
Outside of Annahji Democrati Icaaidi and the Attajdid Attolabi, there are many students who
accept the advantages of these groups on campus and would rather do without the
disadvantages. Omar Boumarej an English studies student at the university believes the
advantages of the Marxists efforts is the liberties they provide the students, such as allowing
students to smoke and sit with their female friends.
“They also give you violence,” said Armine Doumdoum, Boumarey’s classmate.
The Marxists have created strict rules for the students body. Students said that they are not
allowed to listen to music in public without headphones, or partake in public displays of affection.
When a student breaks the rules the group asks other students to gather and form a trial against
Some students believe that without the Marxists on campus the administration would have the
power to control everything, but they do not agree with the way the Marxists try to speak for the
entire student body without properly consulting them.
“We coexists with them and their things,” said Siham, a student at the university who did not feel
comfortable giving her full name, “There is nothing we can do. “
In their fight for basic students rights, the Annahji Democrati Icaaidi has lowered the cost of room
and board and changed the rules allowing female students to eat in the boy’s cafeteria. They also
arranged the boycott of new examination reforms that tests students continuously throughout
the year. The boycotts resulted in 45 arrests in the last two months. According to Belghazi, the
administration is still trying to administer last semester’s exams.
“I think students are forced to go on our side because we fight for their interests. No one is brave
enough to stand up to the authorities,” said El Hadidi.
Belghazi believes that the administration allows the groups to believe they have power. They
create an illusion by allowing them a win over cheaper meals, but they are not making any large
changes. “These groups are a way to mark their (the state) presence and political weight,” he said,
“An investment towards political preference in the future.”
Today the Annahji Icaaidi is planning a revolution. Through general meetings and teachings on
the ways of Marx and Lenin, they are training the people that will lead the revolution in Morocco
and creating the future members of a party that will serve them.
“There is a dictatorship in our campus not a democracy. They are claiming democracy but are not
listening to everyone,” said a Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah professor who preferred to remain
Professors in these universities have become all too familiar with the sudden outbreaks of
violence. The Annahji Democrati Icaaidi marches into classrooms asking students to leave class
and join their protests, leaving the professors with less authority each time.
Literature professor, Noureddine Rais believes that the government is the only one that can help.
Teachers on their own are finding it difficult to intervene, as they have also been harassed and
threatened by the radical groups. While some of the group’s requests, like their right to free
education or examination reforms, cannot be answered by the dean of the universities, they use
the university as a platform to voice their concerns.
Belghazi believes that collective action is necessary to put an end to the violence. “There has to be
a moment of acknowledgement for everyone, that this is a time of crisis,” he said.
Abdelhak Hasnaoui, the brother of the Islamist student who was murdered, is one of the founders
of Attajdid Attolabi. He believes that the students are just tools being used by higher powers in
these violent clashes. “If we know who killed my brother we can stop the violence. It was not one
person who killed my brother, it was an organization and they are being helped by their
supporters,” he said.
For Maghraoui, the real issue is identifying the problem and its source. The problem he said,
putting aside the state, is the way people negotiate their differences in society. “Moroccans have
to learn that they are different. Some go the mosque and others go to the bar. Some wear the
hijab and others the minijupe (miniskirt), ” he said.
The state’s attempt at a solution was allowing police officers to enter the campus without the
permission of school officials. According to El Boukili, uniformed officers stand outside the
schools, while undercover officers serve as spies and agitators within the campus. In his opinion
this benefits the state, which once the violence breaks out, issues a few arrests from each group
and harasses the rest of the students. This is an effective form of establishing fear, El Boukili said.
“When there is violence the students leave. They pack their backs and they go home. They are
there to study, not to kill each other.”
Teachers, students and specialists agreed that to be able to have a better functioning society you
need to create spaces where people can meet and have conversations about the things that are
oppressing them, otherwise you will have places like these campuses that are saturated with fear.
Maghraoui said, “Negotiating our differences is not about culture or religion, it is about creating
the democratic and constitutional institutions to negotiate these differences and even with that, it
is not the end of the story.”
7. Photos. Your story must be accompanied by at least 3 photos with a caption for each. In
addition you must submit 3 photos of you and your partner working in the field on your story.
Students at Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah University walking to class on a Saturday morning.
Members of the Attajdid Attolabi pose for a photograph in the hallway of their dorm room.
Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah’s Cafeteria adorned with Marxists ideologies.
Julia Cabrera and Meriem Marghich after interviews members of the Attajdid Attolabi.
Annahji Democrati Icaaidi women raise there symbol of victory in the Girls dormitory Cafeteria.
Meriem Marghich Speaks to Annahji Democrati Icaaidi members.
8. Morocco news. What are the 3 best, most informative articles you read on Morocco and why
do you find each of them so informative? What do you think are the 3 best sources of
information on Morocco – could be anything from Twitter feeds to NPR – and why.
The three most informative pieces that I can remember reading on Morocco are by Al Jazeera
and The Middle East Eye.
An article titled “Neither slave, nor negro,” was one of my favorites. It speaks about the
unspoken racism in Morocco against subSaharan Africans. I found this piece very informative
because even though I could physically see instances of racism, Moroccans tend to believe it
does not exists.
“UN Chief regrets Western Sahara ‘Occupation’” I am not 100 percent sure if this is the exact
article I read but I remember Aljazeera being very informative on issues of the Western Sahara.
This article in particular was interesting because my host family and many other Moroccans I’ve
encountered say they hate Ban Kimoon or as some call him Pokémon, but most of the time they
don’t really know what happened. However I still believe he meant his comment about the
Sahara being occupied.
The Middle East Eye article “Five years on, have young Moroccans gained their rights?” gave
background info on the rise of the 20th
movement but was also very informative on what it means
for Morocco’s youth today.
Other than these outlets I have read Moroccan news on NYT, and Washington Post from pieces
published by MOJ or informative pieces that helped us understand our lectures; for example the
Washington post for their coverage on the Arab Springs.
7. Conclusion: What could have been done better? Is this a story that deserves a followup? If
so, what might that be? What did you learn from doing this story?
The entire ISPJ time was a learning experience. I learned so much about field reporting and the
importance of making people feel comfortable. I learned to be prepared for every possible
situation.. My story affected so many people and each person had a different agenda; I had to
keep searching for more official and concrete answers. After speaking to so many different
people I learned that it is easy to be swept into a person's point of view, through this I learned to
focus on objectivity
In less hard skills I learned a lot about myself. Being Independent in a foreign country where I do
not speak the language taught me to value my own company and forced me to interact with
complete strangers. It showed me that I should escape my comfort zones more often. I had the
opportunity to meet great people who helped me understand myself better and gained beautiful
friendships. The experienced helped me realize my strengths and weaknesses. I now know that I
am the same person everywhere no matter who is watching and I am very proud of myself for
If I could follow up with the story I would reattempt to speak to the minister of higher
education, I think that the opinion of law enforces would make the story better. We were not able
to meet with him despite our efforts.
Overall I take away reporting experience, great friendships and a greater understanding of whom