Morocco has a king. It is one of over forty countries with a monarch. I have only been to a handful of these nations, and the impact of the monarchy on me has varied. Spain is a kingdom, but I don’t remember being aware of his highness at all in my week in Barcelona. I was somewhat aware of the Cambodian king, mostly because of an excessively expensive structure built by a previous Cambodian king in the early twentieth century. In Thailand, in contrast, reminders of the monarchy were everywhere. Almost every block had larger-than-life portraits of the royal family. The Thai monarchy, however, has little power. When I was there, the country was under martial rule, but the royalty was left intact. Our guide maintained that Thais loved the royal family, and although not necessarily against the law, it seemed as if Thais thought it would disrespectful to say anything to slight any royal personage. (Our guide said the movie The King and I was banned in Thailand even though the governess Anna Leonowens is respected in Thailand for the many modernizing influences she brought to the court and Bangkok. The movie, however, is seen as making fun of the King of Siam, and thus it is not shown today in Siam’s modern incarnation, Thailand.)
Americans seem most aware of the British royal family. Any tourist shop I have gone into in England is filled with royal memorabilia—tea towels and tea pots, ashtrays and serving trays, mugs and figurines carrying a royal likeness. Seeing this stuff it is hard to believe that Brits love their Queen since much of what is displayed for sale is, to put it generously, tacky. But any mention that the British monarchy is an anachronism brings the response that it is an ºimportant unifying force for the UK. Of course, the United Kingdom hardly seems unified these days, but even in less turbulent times, I wonder about that shibboleth. Is that country any more unified than monarch-less countries such as France, the United States, or Mexico? (I will leave for another day to discuss the unfathomable fascination that some Americans have with British royal succession and royal family dramas and scandals. What could be more unAmerican than to be in love with British royalty?)
Moroccan royalty had a certain ubiquitous presence on the recent trip. There were various public pictures of the King—Mohammed VI—and his family, but not as many as in Thailand. On the other hand, tschokes celebrating the king were not in the shops as in Britain. The royal presence, however, was mostly felt because almost everywhere we went there was a royal palace. He has thirty-five of them! We were told that each one had to be in a continual state of readiness in case he came to stay without warning. Readiness includes keeping his bedroom in each palace at a constant 65ºF. so that he can immediately hit the rack if he so desires. His presence is also constantly felt in the country because he owns much of the arable farm land apart from the and because he is at least a partial owner of many important Moroccan businesses and most of its mines.
The Moroccan monarch is not a figurehead. The country has a parliament, but the king has much more power than the elected legislature. He controls the military, foreign policy, and religious affairs of the country that is almost totally Sunni Muslim. He appoints the prime minister and other government officials. He can issue decrees that have the force of law. Our guide said that the king sets governmental policies and basically the parliament only has an advisory role to the monarch.
The authoritarian nature of the government that has been the norm for most of Morocco’s history has been somewhat relaxed recently, but our guide admitted that the press is still not free. All the Moroccan television stations are state owned, and dissidents have been convicted of crimes for what they have published. On the other hand, our Moroccan guide was not uncomfortable in telling us about the press limitations, which are undercut because satellite TV is available, the internet is not censored, and Moroccans get much of their news from social media.
Even though he wished for more press freedom and labeled the previous king, the present king’s father, a “tyrant,” our guide said that he, while wishing that the monarchy was less greedy, wants a king. He said that the king provides “stability” for the country. He did not explain that, but certainly a hereditary king provides continuity: “The king is dead; long live the king.” Furthermore, elections in Arab countries without a strong monarch have often brought instability, as well as civil and religious conflict.
However, there is another aspect of the king and his policies that could be seen as stabilizing. The Moroccan king wants a country without radical Islam. Imams cannot preach politics in the mosques. That does not mean that there is a separation of church and state. It’s clear that religion and the government are intertwined. For example, there is religious training in the schools. When we visited a pre-school, the young children (I haven’t traveled much, but I have learned that three- and four-year olds almost everywhere are cute) sang us a song in Arabic that we could not understand except that it concluded with the repeated chant of “Allah” and an accompanying arm movement. But that training, we were told, shuns radical Islam. Morocco does not have madrassas similar to the Saudi-funded ones in Pakistan that helped train many of the Taliban. Even so, the choreographed repetition of Allah was a bit shocking to this secularist who does not think we have enough separation of church and state in America. Perhaps, however, a Moroccan would have a startled reaction to American schoolchildren standing with hand over heart, facing the flag, and pledging allegiance to one nation under God. (We visitors were asked to sing a song in response to the Moroccan kids after they finished. I quietly suggested, “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus,” but we sang—poorly–“The Wheels on the Bus.” We differed on what verse came after the wheels going round and round and blew it.)