Morocco is reeling from the arrests of two prominent Islamists who reportedly were caught having illicit sex with one another in public.
Police found Fatima Nejjar and Moulay Omar Benhammad, both in their 60s, in "a sexual position" last week in a car on the beach, Moroccan media reported. The reports did not elaborate on the alleged position.
Until Monday, Nejjar and Benhammad were vice presidents of Morocco's Unity and Reform Movement (MUR). The MUR is the religious and ideological wing of the kingdom's governing Justice and Development Party. In light of the arrests, the party suspended the two on Monday.
"It's huge in Morocco," said Hakim Arif, editor-in-chief of L'Observateur magazine who spoke to AMI Newswire from his office in Morocco. "Many were trusting this woman and this man."
Now, the arrests have served to rip the veil off their apparent duplicity.
"It reflects the hypocrisy of Islamist religious parties of Morocco," said country specialist Abdeslam Maghraoui, a political science professor at Duke University. "These parties are always talking about morality."
As reported in the local media, police encountered Nejjar and Benhammad in their unspecified "sexual position" in a seaside town near Rabat.
When questioned on scene, Benhammad reportedly told police that Nejjar is his wife. When asked to produce proof, Benhammad reportedly said Nejjar is his spouse under Muslim law.
So-called "Muslim marriage" currently is an issue in Morrocco.
In such an arrangement, couples marry via mutual declaration, and then can have sex, Arif said. "Maybe in the morning they can divorce the same way. Then it's bye-bye, ciao, and we can get married again that night. It happens all the time in Morocco."
Police did not buy the "Muslim marriage" claim from the Islamists on the beach: Nejjar, a widow and mother of six, is charged with complicity to adultery; Benhammad, a married father of seven, is charged with "attempted corruption" of the policemen.
Nejjar and Benhammad are well known in Morocco for posting their religious views, especially those pertaining to sex.
"They make videos and preach to people that they mustn't have sex without marriage," Arif said. "Especially the woman, who has many videos that girls mustn't see men in the eyes because the eye can be proof of desire. She says this all the time."
"It's such a contradiction and a shock to hear this news of the arrests, and to see this woman telling young women you should be shy and not provoke," said Maghraoui, who watched a portion of a Nejjar video before turning it off. "I couldn't listen to it."
Following the arrests, critics took to social media to lambaste Nejjar on Twitter, mocking her in French and quoting her admonishments to young women.
Such a reaction is not surprising, the
said. "Suddenly the public discovers these same advocates engaging in activity that contradicts what they preach."
The scandal may or may not have an impact on forthcoming elections, "but it does add up," Maghraoui said. "I'm not sure of the net effect."
Morocco is a constitutional monarchy, according to the CIA World Factbook. The monarch inherits his title, and appoints a prime minister from the majority party following elections.
In 2001, the current King Mohammed VI implemented reforms in response to pro-democracy protests, the Factbook states. In November 2011, the Justice and Development Party
the party from which Nejjar and Benhammad were suspended
became the first Islamist party to assume leadership of the government.
Islamist power notwithstanding, the king has emerged as a strong voice against Islamist-inspired terrorism. Just days ago, Mohammed VI condemned terrorism in the name of Islam.
“I strongly condemn the killing of innocent people,” the monarch said in an Aug. 20 address. Referencing the recent murder of a French priest, he said, “killing a priest is forbidden by religion. Murdering him inside a church is unforgivable madness, for he is a human being and a religious man – even if he is not a Muslim.”
Such terrorists "have strayed from the right path, and their fate is to dwell forever in hell,” the king said.
Some religious leaders in Morocco, meanwhile, have rallied behind the deposed Nejjar and Benhammad.
"Islamists in Morocco are saying on social media that the police maybe created this case," Arif said. "But they say that all the time."
Nejjar and Benhammad in fact were only "having a meal" in the car when arrested, according to a source "close to Benhammad," one Moroccan website reported.
If convicted, the two could face between one and 12 months in jail.
The scandal potentially has a good result, said Arif, who does not want to see the pair sent to prison. "Most important is that we know there is hypocrisy. All they have told is lies. This is more important than prison or any other punishment."
The pair reportedly face court hearings next week. Elections are set for October.