Features

Atlantic allies

"Atlantic allies" Continued...

Issue: "Building a city," March 24, 2007

Casablanca, known simply as Casa by locals, is not the libertine seacoast city it was in the 1960s when storefront gospel chapels thrived on the Corniche alongside drug paraphernalia shops in what for a brief time was a hippie paradise. "We wore tank tops after 1968," recalls Bouteina Iraqui, who heads her own firm in Casablanca and is president of an association of businesswomen. "Now that would be considered naked, as religion has come back in recent years."

Head coverings are more prevalent now than 20 years ago, but many women, like Iraqui and her colleagues, opt freely for Western dress. As the financial capital and largest city of Morocco, Casablanca is a cosmopolitan mix of European and Arab cultures, its souq, or Arab marketplace, a tiny relic surrounded by wide boulevards and roundabouts laid out by the French in colonial times.

Morocco is the first Muslim country to allow women to become imams and to liberalize seriously laws affecting divorce and women owning property. But it is young men that government and private groups seek to target with social programs. Casablanca has grown rapidly to a metropolitan area of 5 million, and 50 percent of that population is under age 30, largely male, and-despite a growing economy-predominantly unemployed. In a country where religious tension can surface, that means idle young men who can be radicalized by jihadist groups.

The 2003 bombing in Casablanca was the work of men ages 20-24 from an outlying neighborhood. They struck five locations simultaneously, killing 45 and injuring hundreds. And this month's bombing, where two men strapped themselves with explosives and one blew himself up in a Casablanca internet café on March 11, was also the work of locals in their early 20s. "This is a nightmare that we don't accept," said Imane Sallah, 17.

With her older brother Nabil, 23, Imane works in Casablanca's impoverished neighborhoods with youth associations collectively called Réseau Maillage, countering the teachings of radical Muslim groups with social gatherings and vocational training. Their slogan: "Ne touche pas mon pays," or "Don't touch my country."

Imane is often the group's feisty spokeswoman, who last year met President Bush at the White House as part of the World Cup Soccer Youth Delegation-extending again the U.S.-Morocco friendship along with common ground in the war on terror. "I don't think the answer is all about the poverty. It is a moral and mental poverty," she told WORLD. "If you say they are poor, we are all poor. No one accepts this. If we know they are ready to blow themselves up, we should be ready to stop them."

With expanding educational and economic opportunities, Imane said Casablanca youth have more reason than ever to be optimistic about their future: "We are gaining back hope."

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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