I WAS IN CASABLANCA at this time last year, finishing a two-week trek through Morocco. The enormous mosque built by the late King Hassan II on a promontory overlooking the Atlantic Ocean — the second largest in the world after Mecca, so as not to offend religious authorities there — rose so high I had to take three photographs to capture all of it.
A friend and I ate noodles sauteed in mango juice at a dusty restaurant called Marignan on Boulevard Mohammed V. We were the only diners, which made it difficult to inconspicuously pilfer all the toilet paper from the Western-style bathroom; we had none at our modest hotel near the train station. We spoke to few people in Casablanca that night because we were exhausted from our trip and mostly wanted to unwind before flying back to the States the next day.
But we spoke with many people in other parts of the country during our sojourn — Berber matrons lugging firewood in the Atlas Mountains, hammam bathers in Fez, artisans in Marrakech, children begging for pens all over the country. (They’re expensive in Morocco.)
We had come a scant six months after Sept. 11 and just weeks since the Israeli Army had invaded the West Bank to forestall further suicide bombings. The week before, more than a million Moroccans had marched in Rabat to express solidarity with the Palestinians.
After pleasantries, these were the inevitable topics of our conversations.
Almost everyone we met expressed a similar sentiment — you are Americans and we are Moroccans second, as you are Jews and we are Muslims second. We are human beings first. Our blood is the same color. These words were arresting in their simplicity and sense.
There was one person who disagreed implacably with this view. His name was Hassan, and we were squeezed next to him on a soggy bus ride to the southern town of Er Rachidia after a snowstorm and then a flash flood had turned the roads into pools of mud.
Hassan carefully explained that Israel was an illegitimate occupier of the Holy Land and would be not only pushed back, but removed from the map entirely.
The United States, as its chief sponsor, and, in Hassan’s view, the force responsible for the Arab world’s thousand-year-long decline, would follow. It wasn’t his beliefs that frightened — we had heard all this before — but the calmness, gentleness even, with which he spoke of the slaughter of tens of millions.
We cautiously reminded Hassan that the American government had intervened to protect Muslim lives in Kosovo, but he was not interested. The last thing we learned from him was that, unlike the often uneducated and jobless inhabitants of rural Morocco with whom we spent much of our time, Hassan was gainfully employed: He taught first-graders.
I wonder where Hassan was last Friday, when five simultaneous suicide bombings aimed at Jewish and foreign targets killed 29 people in Casablanca. I wonder what he knew about these plans — or, chillingly, whether he had helped devise them — and how he feels that the bombs succeeded mostly in killing fellow Moroccan Muslims.
Morocco is justifiably famed for its inclusiveness and tolerance — during World War II, the Moroccan king under the French protectorate, Mohammed V, refused to supply the Nazis with a list of Jewish citizens. These recent gruesome attacks are the work of a small group of zealots whose will cannot be seen to represent the wishes of the Moroccan people.
In the minds of most Moroccans, to decide the fate of another man is to usurp the mantle of God, and there is no greater sacrilege.
Increasingly, the ordinary people of Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and other Muslim nations find themselves victimized by homegrown radicals breeding terror and wreaking carnage in their name. Neither do they find relief in a foreign power aggressively intruding in the affairs of their countries, the defensibility of American outrage and anxiety notwithstanding.
More and more, these people feel stranded, with all sides claiming to act in their benefit, and none delivered by their actions.
As the American government calibrates its responses to attacks around the world, its emissaries must never forget that these are the people whose hearts we are trying to win as we attempt to root out terror. Theirs is the faith we wish to sustain. And theirs is the Islam we can learn from.