Ramadan Brings out Morocco's Morality Police

Muslims around the World are celebrating the holy month of Ramadan, spending their days abstaining from eating and drinking and focusing on nurturing their spiritual connection to God.

Given the spirit of this time, it's not surprising to find this story in Hespress describing a recent police operation in Casablanca to shut down hookah bars in Morocco's largest city. In the current environment, an operation like this bolsters the ruling Islamist Party for Justice and Development's commitment to upholding public morality.

Here is a translation of the article:
Police in Casablanca, as part of a growing campaign against hookah bars during Ramadan, finally carried out raids on a number of cafes that provide sheesha to their customers, leading to the arrest of their clients, many of them female, for questioning.

The cafes' owners deny setting up their establishments up as hookah bars and places for customers to behave immorally, as some claim. An official in Casablanca's city council believes that the police operation targeting hookah bars has been following orders from the federal and regional governments. According to the official, the campaign was not aimed merely at smoking but other activities that are potentially harmful to public morality and health as well.

"Tom and Jerry"

The crackdown, which lasted until last Thursday, targeted 12 cafes. The raids and arrests of sheesha smokers, many of them underage girls, were considered justified, as was the seizure of dozens of water pipes and other sheesha related paraphernalia.
The recent operations focused on sources providing water pipes, which are produced outside of Morocco. If a cafe's owner was unable to produce the paperwork indicating that his water pipes were imported legally, it meant that his materials were smuggled, which is subject to punishment under Moroccan laws pertaining to contraband goods.

Hamouda, a cafe manager in Sale, said in statements to Hespress that many cafes provide sheesha, among their regular fare, to customers who want it. He continued, saying that anyone who denies sheesha's prevalence is lying to himself, before adding that at times police turn a blind eye to sheesha, while at others they organize crackdowns.

Hamouda continued, saying that cafe owners who serve sheesha do not put the water pipes in the front of their shops so as to not 'disturb' police. Rather they serve smokers discreetly, in private areas far from the public gaze and with respect to the public conscious and social customs. In describing the relationship between cafe owners and the police he said that it resembles the cartoon "Tom and Jerry".

Minors and Health Risks

Mostafa Al-Haya, a member of Casablanca's city council and the fifth representative of the city's major, commented on the hookah bar crackdown saying, that though the law banning sheesha smoking was approved by parliament years ago, it's remained unenforced. He emphasized the necessity of truly enforcing the law.

Al-Haya explained, in statements to Hespress over the telephone, that the police operations against sheesha are responding to federal and regional commands for Casablanca, indicating that authorities are relying on such orders to organize campaigns to curb the spread of hookah bars.

Al-Haya emphasized that the problem is not limited to sheesha in itself, but rather that these cafes in their nature lead underage girls - legal minors - to smoke, which increases the probability of physical and sexual assaults against them or their solicitation to participate in other illegal activities.

The speaker went on to say that the health risks posed by smoking sheesha also factored into these operations' rationale. He pointed to Casablanca's Moulay Rashid district which witnessed a notable rise in the numbers of tuberculosis cases, given the disease's potential to affect sheesha smokers who share water pipes without taking the necessary precautions.
Despite the stated reasons behind the crackdown, an operation like this has only one real purpose: favorable publicity for the ruling Justice and Development Party.

Considering growing criticisms against Morocco's Islamist government for its inability to combat the country's economic woes while pursuing unpopular policies like lowering the gasoline subsidy and reversing the country's historic commitment to tuition-free higher education, an operation like this, despite its small scale, could bolster the party's support among social conservatives.

Mr. Hamouda, quoted in the fifth paragraph, is entirely correct in pointing out the government's double standard in treating sheesha. There are many cafes that serve sheesha in Morocco, discreetly, and targeting these 12 in Casablanca is pretty arbitrary. But this describes much of law enforcement in Morocco; laws are applied selectively and at the whims of the government. The PJD has promised to change this aspect of Morocco's political/legal culture, and while they still have time to do so, many doubt their ability to do so.

What struck me most about this article is the 'concern' for the well-being of these cafe's female patrons. While it's probably true that some shady dealings take place in hookah bars, such 'immorality' is not limited to cafes like these. Crackdowns like these do little in changing the culture of sexual harassment and exploitation that characterize Morocco's cafes, bars, and streets.

And while it's 'endearing' (and more than a little patronizing) to hear the government so concerned about these girls' well-being, a braver, more effective stance would be to target predominate male attitudes that condone the sexual exploitation of Moroccan women.