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The BBC's Nick Pelham
"Unlike elsewhere in the Arab world, Morocco's beach culture is homegrown"
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Monday, 7 August, 2000, 19:41 GMT 20:41 UK
Islamists take to the beaches
Sunset on beach at Agadir, Morocco
Morocco's beaches are popular with locals and tourists
By Nick Pelham

The crowds heading for Morocco's beaches this summer are not just going to flaunt their bodies, they are going to flaunt their souls too.

The beach towels they will tuck under their arms will double as prayer mats. Their picnic hampers will hide banners.

And when they reach the sands, they will not bother to change. They will wade into the waters fully clothed in scenes reminiscent of Victorian Britain.

They are Morocco's Islamists and they are taking their struggle for an Islamic state to the beach.

Sunbather on beach
Morocco's Islamists do not approve of stripping off

Preachers like prophets in gabardines prowl the coastline, calling on less modest Moroccans to put their clothes on.

"Why debauch yourselves in nudity?" they cry, as if all the women were topless. "Repent and Return to Islam."

The ice-cream boy peddles Koranic injunctions with his Cornettos.

The fire and brimstone pulls the crowds. After years of suppression, leaders of Morocco's largest Islamist movement, Justice and Charity claims the people are so happy to see them emerge from the underground, that on one beach they threw rose petals.

Under the long, harsh reign of Hassan II, Justice and Charity was forced to advance its ambitions for power in secret. Under the more lax rule of his son, Mohammed, the movement feels free to challenge the ban and proselytise in public.

worshippers at mosque
Worshipping in an outdoors mosque
At midday the beach turns into an open-air mosque, revealing just how numerous the ranks of Morocco's Islamists have grown.

Lines of believers several rows deep stretch hundreds of yards along the beach. Women line up behind.

It is a scene repeated up and down the kingdom from the Algerian border on the Mediterranean to the south where the Atlantic laps the Sahara.

Sectarianism on the beaches

There is resistance. Morocco's more provocative hedonists strut in front of the rows of prostrating worshippers. In a desperate attempt to resist, believers bury their heads deeper into the sands.

At the sight of an approaching Islamist, Munir shouts: "We're not Iran, we'll stay modern Muslims"

His girlfriend snaps at the ice-cream boy, she will well wear what she likes.

Un-Islamic or not, young Moroccans are not about to let these spoilsports sacrifice just about the only leisure activity open to both rich and poor.

Unlike elsewhere in the Arab world, Morocco's beach culture is homegrown, not just for tourists.

But slowly, slowly, the beach boys are in retreat. You have to trek a fair distance down from the main beach before the beards grow thinner, and the lovers more courageous.

King Mohammed VI of Morocco
The authorities fear the growing Islamist movement
Moroccans call it a two-state solution. The authorities are nervous. They have denounced what they call sectarianism on the beaches.

And they fear the growing Islamist presence could mark an indirect challenge to the king, as he tries to reconcile his role as Commander of the Faithful with that of celebrated jet-skier.

Banning litter and beards

Last month, the minister of interior went on national television to announce an anti-litter campaign for the beaches, and he then broadened its range to say his police would target all forms of pollution, apparently ideological as well as material.

His police have erected checkpoints along the main roads leading to the seaside to bar men who sport beards. Repeatedly, riot police have made arrests on the sands.

Like the tide though, next day the Islamists come back. All of which is beginning to scare the travel agents - all too wary of North Africa's precarious record on tourism.

In Egypt, religious fanatics crippled the country's tourist trade, after taking pot-shots at foreigners who they blamed for spreading Aids and encouraging alcohol.

In Tunisia, a bomb blew the legs off a British tourist. And in neighbouring Algeria -- well, in Algeria. the arrival of a hundred tourists is enough to make a headline.

Battle for the beaches

But Morocco has two million of them. Tourism is the kingdom's top earner. It is a solitary bright spot in a country gripped by depression and until recently, there was no cloud on the horizon.

But now there is the question emblazoned on Morocco's best selling newspaper: "Battle for the beaches, or war on tourism?"

Tourists at hotel in Tarik in Morocco
Tourism earns vital revenue for Morocco
The organisers of the beach campaign, Justice and Charity, reject violence. They say that unlike their Egyptian and Algerian brothers they have no problem with tourists, whether Muslim or not.

They say they just cannot see why a Muslim state should discriminate against men who sport beards. God's creation, they say, should be open to all.

Call me na´ve, but I wonder whether it could just be that Morocco's Islamists are taking to the beaches because they do not want to be left out of the fun of the country's distinctive beach culture.

Okay, they want segregated swimming, and their women bathe fully clothed. But they too can be found playing beach ball with girls in bikinis.

Perhaps along with the confrontation, there might just be some common ground in the sands.

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See also:

17 May 00 | Africa
Moroccan Islamist leader freed
07 Aug 00 | African
Is Monarchy good news for Africa?
30 Jul 00 | Media reports
King Mohammed - one year on
20 Jul 00 | Country profiles
Country profile: Morocco
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