Breaking faith in Morocco

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Once upon a time… Beirut, Lebanon was considered the “Paris” of the Middle East.  Writers like Tom Friedman drop references to this beloved destination with ever-so-earnest tales of  “coffee on Hamra Street,” and spending election night with Saad Hariri in his home before “…a gigantic wall-size television broadcasting the results. Along the main TV were 16 smaller flat-screen TVs with electronic maps of Lebanon.” With rare exception, I wonder if Friedman has any concept how utterly condescending his dispatches sound. The obviousness of it all, as if to say “see, see, there are civilized people in the Middle East.”  It offends polite company.

More than ever, the internet age and the 21st Century command us to learn more. To understand more. Whether it is Lebanon, or Northern Africa – the tension between our cultures is palpable. It’s also manageable if we are honest and practical.  Certainly, we do not have to agree on each policy, or with our leaders.  We must pursue truth more aggressively. We all coexist as neighbors, like it or not.

As I have more than a passing interest in Africa, I recently began reviewing and investigating the positions Congressional leaders, as well as some within the Obama Administration, are taking on human rights, foreign aid and the like. Given President Obama’s policy directive and efforts to reach out to Muslim countries, I chose Morocco – thinking it would be a slam-dunk.  Morocco has been a reliable ally in the War on Terror. They are historically tolerant. People of Muslim, Jewish and Christian backgrounds all worship openly.

Geographically, and even culturally to some extent, Morocco is closer to her Southern European neighbors than to her cousins on the Arabian peninsula.  Here is a country with such rich culture. If Beirut was the Paris of the Middle East, then Marrakech is the Paris of Africa.  This nation, with a solid reputation and proven record of religious tolerance, is currently under the microscope of Congressman Frank Wolf, a Republican from Virginia and Co-Chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission.

Americans know something of freedom, of liberty.  The words written by elegant minds and hands of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, or Ben Franklin are etched in our souls.  Or Emma Lazarus’  The New Colossus, inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.

Words, when wielded for dramatic effect not to convey truth, have the potential – as Friedman so aptly demonstrates – to be grammatical Ipecac. They can be the key in a lock as well, opening barriers to individual and religious freedoms.

Policy and appropriations are the football here though. Domestic agendas, foreign aid, Defense spending, the Intelligence infrastructure are all carefully weighed against partisan agendas. Campaign rhetoric is choreographed. Advertisements are written, produced and directed with the express intent of highlighting one truth, while cloaking others. Unfortunately, there is an awful lot of razzle dazzle.

Throughout my eighteen years in and around Washington, DC policy and political circles – one lesson stands out: trust you gut. If something seems fishy, look around for the fish monger’s truck.

Just as I am deeply disappointed in President Obama’s abysmal performance with regard to Sudan’s genocidaire President Al-Bashir, I am increasingly concerned with the actions of Frank Wolf, whose human rights record until now was rarely questioned. The first time I met him was in 2000, the last time I saw him was at an event in 2001 where Cong. Randy Forbes (then a State Senator) was being feted for his birthday at a local Republican event.  Mr. Wolf shared a table with myself and others, among us was Kurt Muse – a former political prisoner of Manual Noriega. We had a lively discussion about Muse’s rescue by Special Forces from the Modelo Prison in Panama.  Wolf and Muse engaged us all, discussing details of Operation Just Cause (the 1989 Panama Invasion) and how he was freed during the collateral Operation Acid Gambit.

It was riveting.  Since then, I have closely followed Mr. Wolf. His work, without a doubt, has not always been popular. Generally speaking, he erred on the side of caution and truth.  I admired him.  Human rights work is sometimes perceived as the domain of folks across the aisle in the Democratic Party.  Wolf never much worried about the labels, just doing what he believed was right.  On the genocide in Darfur, Sudan – he’s been a fierce advocate.

I was taken aback in the last few weeks, however.  Something seemed off. So I waited and watched. Researched. Made calls. In Morocco, several Christian missionaries were expelled from the country. Whenever religion is a reason for deportation, it’s worth following. Given the horrors in Congo, Sudan and Uganda – Wolf, and many in the human rights community, are understandably on edge.  Religious oppression rarely, nay ever, ends well.

From a statement released by Congressman Wolf’s office on 13 May 2010:

“In March, Moroccan authorities deported approximately 40 U.S. citizens and scores of other foreign nationals.  The individuals deported were charged with proselytism, which is against the law in Morocco.  However, Moroccan authorities have refused to turn over any evidence or offer any explanation of the charges.

“Among the individuals who were deported or denied reentry were businessmen, educators, humanitarian and social workers many of whom had resided in Morocco for over a decade in full compliance with the law.  Those deported were reportedly forced to leave the country within two hours of being questioned by authorities, leaving all their belongings behind.

“As a result, a number of organizations which were run by foreign nationals and provided vital community services have been shuttered.  One organization which has been adversely affected is the Village of Hope orphanage in Morocco’s Atlas mountains.  Time magazine reported that ‘the Village of Hope deportations are part of what appears to be a widespread crackdown on Christian aid workers in Morocco.’

Troubling as this information was, I expected to find a long list of stories corroborating the claim that Christians or Jews were being subjected to a widespread campaign of expulsion from Morocco. Or that Aid workers and orphans were being subjected to rules that could easily be perceived as oppressive. From the BBC, I was interested to read  Morocco’s Communications Minister Khalid Naciri’s (& the Moroccan government’s) position:

Mr Naciri said the expelled foreigners “took advantage of the poverty of some families and targeted their young children, whom they took in hand, in violation of the kafala (adoption) procedures for abandoned or orphaned children”.

He said Morocco had “always been and remains a land of openness and tolerance”.

“All churches have their place on the street in Morocco and Christians practise their religion freely,” the minister said.

“The rare cases of expulsion have nothing to do with the practice of Christianity but with acts of proselytism.”

He said the warning also applied to Muslim groups.

Such contrast. Morocco, a country hospitable enough to allow the very modern Sex and The City 2 movie to be filmed there is disallowing Christian aid workers in the name of Islam? This concept simply did not make sense. There must be more.  Morocco has long been a jewel of Africa, a bastion of romantic ideas for centuries.  This is a place where black African Saharawi tribes, just as the Berbers share a rich history with Western civilization.  Plato, one of Greece’s foremost storytellers, wrote of the Pillars of Herakles (Hercules in Roman mythology), one in Jebel Musa, Morocco – the other across the Strait, the Rock of Gibraltar.  Beyond those pillars laid the undiscovered. Beyond them was Atlantis. Plato speculated the one of Herakles’ Twelve Labors was to sig out what is known to us as the Strait of Gibraltar. The Atlas Mountains, where the Aid workers lived, is named after one of antiquity’s greatest stories: Atlas.

It is ironic how the story of Atlas reveals hubris and over-confidence in self sometimes leads to bad judgment and defeat.  I don’t cast Wolf in that role, not yet anyway. But I have been concerned for several weeks that in his campaign to smite Morocco, and withhold Millennium Challenge Corporation funding from this friendly nation, that he is irrevocably committing himself to an untenable position.  On 19 May 2010, he offered the following condemnation of Morocco – condemning the government, disregarding their very positive history with the West – in defense of one small group of expelled aid workers, whose story is unique.

“At a time when the United States owes more in debts and commitments than the total combined net worth of all Americans, it is unacceptable to provide $697.5 million in taxpayer dollars to a nation which blatantly disregards the rights of American citizens residing in Morocco and forcibly expels American citizens without due process of law,” Wolf wrote.

The facts defy Mr. Wolf’s logic.  I can not find one instance of a Jewish, Catholic or other Christian group being expelled without cause, only for proselytizing. A lone teacher was expelled at the end of June for this same offense. There are no facts in evidence supporting claims of a widespread campaign of anti-Christian sentiment.  Perhaps Mr. Wolf should be asking about Morocco’s right to enforce its own laws. Morocco, as nations go, is demonstrably modern and fair. It is not a bad actor.  For state sponsored violations of human rights, the continent of Africa has far worse problems. Problems like conflict minerals and child soldiers in Congo. Or the 200,000 documented rapes that have occurred there since 1996 according to a new United Nations report. Let us look to the Sudan for examples of ethnic cleansing, genocide.

Catholics, Protestants, Jews, animists, and non-believers alike know their common enemy in Congo. In Sudan. For oppressive expulsion and genocide – there are grievous, documented horrors happening across the continent. Morocco doesn’t event make the playlist.

Under Moroccan law, individuals may practice their faith openly. Synagogues and Catholic Churches and Protestant Churches exist, and people are free to worship without prejudice.  This is a country that simply asks people to understand that Islam is the state religion.  It’s not my cup of tea, but life for a woman in Morocco is one of near-equality. Near parity. This is not the Middle East. Morocco cannot be equated with Saudi Arabia, or Iran or Sudan.

Morocco is in Northern Africa, you can see the sunrise over the Mediteranean and set over the Atlantic. The middle class of Europe has vacationed in Morocco for decades. It is a country with rich cultures and traditions that well-precede the nation being conquered by Islam. Anti-Islamic sentiment may have clouded some minds, but all one needs is a map and a world history book.

In June, Wolf hosted a hearing of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission.  As Co-Chair, as was explained to me by a Senior Aide to the Democratic Chairman Jim McGovern, Wolf has authority to hold hearings at any time. The Commission is unique in its organizational structure and the Chair and Co-Chair “often disagree.” I imagine so, as Republican Congressman Joe Pitts compared the Moroccan government to Nazis.

Incendiary language directed at a friendly government is unhelpful, regardless of partisan affiliation. The fact is, all Aid workers are responsible for abiding by the laws. Orphanages should be a sanctuary for these children. If any deception was involved on the part of the Missionaries, this practice must come to a halt. Children are sacred. How we treat the most vulnerable says much about us as people.

It also came to my attention that a trip to Northern Africa has been organized.  I cannot ascertain if it is a fact-finding mission to the Tindouf camps, or a junket to enjoy the political tales of Algerian authorities who are, no doubt, gracious hosts.  It is my understanding this trip is underway.  A human rights worker, who has extensive experience with Morocco, it’s neighbor Algeria and possesses great information regarding the political machinations of both countries, shared concerns that some Members of Congress – including Wolf – were sympathetic to the Algerian-funded opposition group, the Polisario Front.  This group hails from the Western Sahara, which is locked in dispute over land.  Some in the Saharawi wish for Western Sahara to gain independence and are very nationalistic. Others within the Saharawi are oppressed black Africans that are subject to torture and slavery for non-compliance with the more aggressive in the Polisario Front, according to Human rights Watch and other organizations.

Today, I called the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission office. I was told that Elizabeth Hoffman (Wolf’s Senior Aide at the Commission) was out of the office. The staff I spoke with was “unauthorized” to speak about her whereabouts, or Congressman Wolf’s involvement in a trip to Northern Africa.  I turned my attention to the offices of others reportedly on the trip.

Congressman Trent Franks’ staff would only acknowledge that a member of the staff was on the trip. I pressed for further information, asking if the trip was an official Congressional Delegation – I was informed that it “is an authorized trip to North Africa.”  The staffer was unwilling to go on the record about the trip, the funding source for the trip, and declined to characterize Congressman Franks’ position on Morocco, Algeria, the Polisario Front or any related issue.

I also reached out to Congressman Gus Bilirakis’ office. No comment. Staff forwarded me to the Press Secretary’s voice mail and I have not received a call back requesting information.

When I called Congressman Wolf’s office, I left a detailed message for his longtime aide, Chief of Staff Dan Scandling. I have not received a call back. The staffer who answered my call would not go so far as Franks’ office. Without guidance, and an on the record comment, we are all left to draw our own conclusions.

As I have not yet been able to confirm the source of funding for this trip, nor confirm what countries specifically they are visiting, if it is indeed related to the political schism between the Polisario Front from Western Sahara and Algeria with their foes, and the target of Congressman Wolf’s concerns – Morocco, I turned to Minority Leader John Boehner’s office for guidance.

My information indicates that a member of House Minority Leader Boehner’s staff is on the mysterious trip to North Africa.  A Senior Aide told me that he had “no idea” how to characterize the trip, then graciously asked me to put my questions in writing.  I did. No answers yet, though a pleasant-sounding reply to my email raises my expectations for real answers in the coming days.

In fairness, Leader John Boehner manages a massive portfolio and likely was not aware or fully informed about this trip, taken by staffers.  No one is willing to go on the record about the funding source.  Congressman Wolf is in the lead here. And human rights are his strong suit.

The  Polisario Front, like any separatist group, has its detractors. It was the subject of a film, “Stolen,” by two Australian journalists who infiltrated Polisario-run camps in and around Tindouf.  They encountered stories of slavery, and nationalism.  Stories that both support and oppose Congressman Wolf’s statements.

Congressman Frank Wolf has made a strong condemnation of Morocco. He wrote the Millennium Challenge Corporation, asking them to suspend nearly $700 Million in aid. What I know of the Congressman is that he does not act without conscience. With time, I hope he will lay out a case based on facts rather than making sweeping statements about America’s foreign policy. Weighing the big picture must be done. Morocco has been a staunch ally, they have prosecuted terrorists and cooperated with US efforts to root out Al Qaeda.  They are far more reliable than Pakistan or Iraq, and are geographically positioned to help us stop the march of violence across the whole of Africa.

I will press for answers as I wait for the disclosure reports. If Frank Wolf wants to break faith with Morocco, we deserve to know everything that contributed to that marked departure from American policy.

Elizabeth Blackney is best known as a media & communications strategist to private sector clients, US Senate & Gubernatorial campaigns, as a political emissary, confidante and commentator.  Follow her on Twitter at

Elizabeth Blackney