Of mosques and men

A protestor in Tahrir carries Egyptian flag (Jonathan Rashad).

Two North African governments are building palatial mosques at a time when international media is decrying the rise of theocracy in post-revolutionary Arab states. Only the administrations funneling money into construction are not post-revolutionary Tunis or Cairo.

It is in nations where democracy movements have stalemated that leaders are devoting funds – public or private – to grandiose monuments to faith, in a faltering global economic climate.

The best and worst of times for Moroccan money 

Forty-day-old Habiba Amelou died in Morocco's Atlas Mountains late last month of health complications resulting from the cold, in what French and Arabic media reported was the fifth in a string of similar infant fatalities in the region this winter.

Local authorities had dismissed the deaths as hearsay, according to a report from AFP, amid promises from Health Minister Hossein El Ouardi that a medical aid campaign would be launched in the affected areas.

Amelou's death, which prompted the hashtag #NousSommesTousHabiba – We are all Habiba – in the Moroccan Twittersphere, came less than six months after the inauguration of a 10,000-square meter mosque in southwestern France, named for Moroccan King Mohammed VI. The monarch contributed close to US$7 million to the mosque's construction across the Mediterranean, at a time when the North African kingdom's own poor grapple with the effects of a recent economic downturn and a chronic dearth of public services. 

The Mohammed VI Mosque was built, reports say, for France's Moroccan expatriate community. The imam at the mosque is of Moroccan origin. 

We must not forget that expatriates are a great source of income for the Moroccan economy, and it's important that they keep a good opinion of Morocco,” said the Vice President of the Moroccan Association of Human Rights, Belgium Chapter, Sihem Abbas, on the condition that it be stated her interview does not represent the views of her organization.

I am Muslim myself and certainly not against building a mosque, but there are people in Morocco who need that money more than people living in rich countries,” she added.

Reflecting the effects of a hard-hitting global economic crisis on Morocco's economy, the kingdom was downgraded 16 places in the the United Nation's Human Development Initiative from 2010 to 2011, the organization's most recent report. That same year, Forbes dubbed Morocco's monarch one of “The World's Richest Royals,” with assets estimated at $2.5 billion, largely due to his vast holdings in the global phosphate industry.

Prayer is an Islamic obligation, but it doesn't require a golden palace,” Abbas said of the new Moroccan-French mosque, built at a time when many Moroccans like Amelou's parents are in mourning.

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