Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Beacon No. 34: Rocking for God in Marrakesh


As if "Christian rock" wasn't already a hothouse flower, Sam Loewenberg writes in today's Times about "Christian Rock for Muslims." The story covers Friendship Fest, a three-day music festival that Morocco's government let American Christians put on in the small, inland city of Marrakesh.

Loewenberg describes a situation in which Moroccan kids like the music but don't get the words, Christians functionally break Moroccan laws at Morocco's invitation, and the Rabat government's prime concern is to curry favor with U.S. evangelicals.

Proselytizing is as illegal in Morocco as it is elsewhere in the Muslim world, but Morocco appeared willing to look the other way to allow this particular group of Christians in—which seems strange until you read how some Moroccan officials viewed things:

From the Moroccan government's point of view, it was a chance to interact with what is perceived to be a politically influential group in American politics at a time when the country has been criticized on its human rights record and continues to grapple with a longstanding dispute over the status of Western Sahara.

Some media commentators in Morocco said that by befriending the evangelicals, the government was attempting to curry favor with American political leaders. The magazine Telquel said the government's embrace of the festival was intended to "sell the image of Morocco to the neo-conservative lobby in America."

The Marrakesh regional president, Abdelali Doumou, said in an interview that the government hoped the Friendship Fest would bolster Morocco's image on a variety of fronts, as "a modern country, a democratic country" and "to improve our image in the States in politics, in economics and everything."

He was more coy on the political influence wielded by the evangelicals but said, "If it happens that they are strong, it can help."

Morocco is particularly concerned about enlightening evangelicals on its position on Western Sahara, the former Spanish territory that Morocco has occupied since 1976: Those favoring Western Saharan independence are associated with ... with International Communism!

... One of the evangelical leaders who was behind the Christian rock festival, the Rev. Rob Schenck, who leads the conservative Christian lobbying group Faith and Action in Washington, said that after what he had seen in his meetings with Moroccan officials he would now seek to get evangelicals to reassess their position on Western Sahara and the Sahwaris' political leadership, the Polisario Front. "Evangelical Christians have to be extremely cautious about supporting any group that would sympathize with a socialist or Communist philosophy or world view, which is completely in conflict with an evangelical or Christian worldview," Mr. Schenck said in an interview. He said Moroccan officials had told the evangelical leaders that the Polisario had received Cuban training and aid.

A cynic might say Morocco is playing these folks like a violin, particularly by siting the concert far from any Moroccan population center, thus guaranteeing that its effects would be minimal. Some evangelicals view the festival as a success:

"To play worship music openly in a Muslim country, this is something that lots of people have been praying for for a long time," said Steve Iliff, a 44-year-old cook from Wisconsin who had traveled to the concert with four other members of his church.

Although the clean-cut, undoubtedly enthusiastic musical ambassadors made a good impression, few in this French-, Arabic- and Berber-speaking country will grok "worship music," or any other English lyrics:

... Mahmoud Zuine, a 21-year-old economics student, enjoyed the music but found the Christian component of the rock concert unsettling. "They know we love this music, so they use this music to pass their message," Mr. Zuine said. "It's like a magic way. It's not direct."

But he doubted that many of the Moroccans understood the lyrics. "I laugh because nobody knows what they are saying," he said.

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