One of the first concepts that we learned about in our Islam in North Africa theology class was the concept of taqiya— literally meaning “prudence” or “fear.” The practical meaning of taqiya, however, is a form of dishonesty that is condoned within the Shi'a sect of Islam when it is used to protect against religiously-based persecution. Because Shi'a Muslims have been the minority group throughout most Middle Eastern and North African populations for centuries, taqiya was historically used to conceal the religious identity of Shi'a Muslims when they were being threatened as a direct result of religious persecution. In these types of situations, sharia law allows Shi'a Muslims to pretend to be Sunni.
When I chose to study in a Muslim-majority country, I actively chose to be in a place that would culturally and socially challenge me. I chose a place where I would not necessarily be comfortable as a white, Western, Catholic woman. The first challenge that I, along with the rest of the people on my program, had to face was the way in which religion is handled in Morocco as opposed to in the United States.
Morocco is a very tolerant country. While there are many societal and religious norms to which native Moroccans are expected to adhere, the behavior of non-Muslims visiting Morocco is greeted with curiosity and acceptance rather than prejudice. One particular moment in history that Moroccans are very proud of was during World War II, when Hitler implored the king of Morocco at the time, King Mohammad V, to give up his country’s Jewish refugees to the Nazi regime. Famously, King Mohammad V responded that, “There are no Jews in Morocco, only Moroccans,” honoring his role as “commander of the believers” and commander of the people of the Abrahamic faiths.
Interestingly, during one of the first sessions on cultural competency in Morocco, our program director advised us on what to say if someone in Morocco asked what religion we practiced. She basically told us to tell the truth—unless we were atheist or agnostic. This, she said, was the only thing that had the potential to offend someone. While you were unlikely to be challenged by anyone on your faith, your lack of faith was up for debate.
This was the first time that we all learned how to use the concept of taqiya in our everyday lives. Those of us who were atheist, or didn’t identify strongly with any religion, lied to taxi drivers and host moms who asked; we said we were Christian in order to avoid any kind of difficult conversation.
We had some bigger conflicts when my friends of Arab or Middle Eastern descent simply answered that they were Muslim, though many of them were not devout by Moroccan standards, or no longer actively practiced. This then prompted the question of why they weren’t wearing the hijab and whether or not they fasted for Ramadan. Here was another use of taqiya; my friends sang the praises of the Ramadan season despite having never celebrated it and apologized for being bad Muslims by not wearing the hijab, all in the name of respecting cultural norms so as to not offend native Moroccans.
My experience with religion in Morocco thus far underscores the important role that religion and spirituality plays in Moroccan culture—but not exactly in the way that I expected. Islam, of course, is ubiquitous, and there is only one church in the entire city of Rabat. Yet, I expected Western religions to be treated with far more criticism than atheism or agnosticism. In many ways, I think the United States is the exact opposite. Many Americans would rather hear you say that you don’t believe in God rather than identify with a religion that they don’t understand or agree with. While I expected many cultural differences during my time in Morocco, this was not necessarily one of them—just one of the many challenging surprises that I have encountered throughout my semester abroad.