From the Biblical story of Queen Esther to the present time, kings have almost never revoked a royal decree. But Moroccan monarch Mohammed VI did just that over the weekend -- turning a mass demonstration in his country into a teachable moment for Moroccans, the broader region of North Africa, and beyond.
Earlier in the week, Mohammed VI had acceded to a request from Spanish king Juan Carlos, a close ally and friend, to pardon a number of Spanish prisoners held in Moroccan jails on various criminal offenses. The prisoners were all suffering from medical ailments ranging from dementia to terminal cancer. Mohammed VI approved the request as a goodwill humanitarian gesture following a review of the 47 cases by Moroccan justice minister Mustafa Ramid, an appointee of the country's governing Islamist party. But the minister's review turned out to be insufficiently thorough, to say the least: The king was not informed that one of the prisoners, a Spanish university professor named Daniel Galvan Vina, had been convicted of raping at least 11 Moroccan children, aged 4 to 15, as well as filming each of these heinous acts. The decision to pardon him triggered outrage throughout the country..
Walking with my 9-year-old son in the streets of Casablanca, where we live, a friend told me, "This is a conspiracy by Islamists against the king." I also know a young woman whose son committed suicide after having been raped; he couldn't bear to live in a society that relentlessly shamed him as if he were the guilty party. She said, "When my child died the king called me himself to offer condolences and welcomed me to the palace. He went on to pay for the education of my two surviving children." Then she added, "But now it is right that the people are demonstrating against this pardon. I'm sure the king will react!"
In response to impassioned public protests, the king told the public that his decision had been a mistake, ordered an internal government investigation, and revoked Vina's pardon. So far, the director of the prison system has been dismissed, and further sanctions are expected. Meanwhile, the king met with Vina's young victims and their families and pledged to tend to their psychological needs as they work through the emotional damage.
While pedophilia is a global scourge, in Moroccan and most traditional societies there is a longstanding taboo on public discussions about it. Many "sex tourists" and other Western visitors prey on poor children in these countries, often with impunity. But so do far too many locals -- and the disgrace brought on by the latter calls for a degree of introspection which patriarchal cultures have tended to avoid. In the Arab world, poor countries from North Africa in the west to Yemen in the east suffer from this tragedy and the stigma that comes along with it -- and a similar combination of locals and foreign sex tourists share responsibility. The same is true of the oil-rich Gulf states, home to some locals who also engage in sex tourism. The problem is hardly limited to the Arab world: It afflicts the whole of the African continent, much of Asia, and Latin America. And of course, it is widespread in the United States and Europe. In Morocco in recent years, the king has encouraged civil society and human rights groups to raise awareness of the issue -- but their work has been an uphill battle, meeting fierce denial and sometimes threats of violence from Islamist groups in particular.
Both the public demonstrations and the king's acknowledgment of error are indicative of how society and state alike in Morocco are evolving in the right direction. Because in the Vina case the perpetrator was a foreigner, public acknowledgment of the crime became easier for Moroccans to swallow. But the conversation went a step further: In media and among most political parties, it sparked acknowledgment of the fact that in most cases of pedophilia, the criminal is a local. Opinion leaders are now urging families to come forward and report these grave offenses -- whether children to their teachers, siblings to mosque clerics, or mothers to law enforcement. Nor is the discussion limited to the role of the society in preventing this evil: There is also criticism of the criminal justice system. The criminal penalty for sex with a minor, generally around five years' prison, is thought to be far too lenient, and police and courts are faulted for too often looking the other way, or insisting that the child somehow shares in the blame.
As a Moroccan husband and father, I am sharing this story with a foreign audience in hopes that other societies will also begin to open up about the scourge of pedophilia and how to address it. It is my hope that in much the way a Moroccan leader and his people found an opening to discuss it last week following anger at a foreign perpetrator, other countries' leaders and families can do the same by looking to a foreign country -- my own, that is -- as an example.