RABAT — The call by a radical Moroccan imam for the death of a journalist who spoke out in defence of sexual freedom has ignited a fierce debate between Islamists and secularists in a country torn between modernity and religious tradition.
Abdellah Nhari, an imam in the northeastern Oujda region, who is well known for his controversial pronouncements, declared in a recent sermon that Elmokhtar Laghzioui was a "dayoute," or cuckold in colloquial Arabic, and that in Islam "the 'dayoute' should be killed."
Nhari was reacting to Laghzioui's remarks, on a satellite television channel, indicating that he supported personal, and in particular sexual freedom, even in the case of one's "mother or sister."
Around 100 journalists held a sit-in on Thursday outside the headquarters of the newspaper in Casablanca where Laghzioui works, to protest against Nhari's comments, denounce "terrorism in the name of religion," and voice their support for freedom of expression.
The imam has since insisted that his words, which were swiftly disseminated by social networks and the local press, did not amount to calling for the death of the journalist.
But the public prosecutor in Oujda has ordered a judicial inquiry into the case, fuelling the debate on sexual freedom that was rekindled with the opening last month of a theatre production in Rabat openly supporting freedom for women.
The production was a Moroccan adaptation of "The Vagina Monologues," an award-winning play by US author Eve Ensler that celebrates female sexuality and focuses on the abuses women suffer.
The mostly secular defenders of sexual freedom in Morocco want to see the abolition of article 490 of the penal code, which stipulates a prison sentence of one year and one month for anyone caught having extra-marital sex.
In reality, sex outside marriage is common in Morocco and largely tolerated, with unmarried couples behaving discreetly.
"I don't understand why the state sets itself up, through this article, as the champion of chastity while claiming to have a democratic constitution," Zineb El Rhazoui, founder of a civil society group promoting individual liberty, told AFP.
"The reluctance to decriminalise extra-marital sex amounts to an admission of hypocrisy both by the state and society," the activist said.
Khadija Ryadi, who heads the Moroccan human rights association, agrees that the law is an anomaly.
"We know that sexual relations outside marriage are common in Morocco. The fact that all that is hidden encourages abuse, and attacks on individual liberty," she said.
For their part, the Islamists continue to denounce calls for sexual freedom outside marriage.
Attajdid, the newspaper of Morocco's ruling Party of Justice and Development (PJD), has weighed in on the debate repeatedly, denouncing the sophistry of the liberals.
"There is an intellectual terrorism being exercised against the Islamists to prevent them from communicating their point of view with respect to art and creation," the Islamist daily complained in an editorial last month.
Secular movements "use provocation and permissiveness in their calculations... in order to attack the Islamist movements," it added.
El Moukri Abouzeid, an MP and PJD member, made the point more bluntly.
"Any sexual act outside marriage is considered an act of debauchery, a crime.
"The permissive philosophies, which were born in Europe, have they improved social and family relations there? I don't think so," he said.