RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
We turn now to a Muslim country in North Africa that hasn't had the kind of sectarian divides seen in the Middle East until now. In Morocco, a campaign against the country's tiny Shiite minority has shut down schools and cultural organizations, and police have rounded up hundreds of people for questioning.
At the heart of the crackdown is a suspicion that Iran is trying to spread its Shiite faith in largely Sunni Morocco. NPR's Peter Kenyon traveled to the far western corner of the Arab world to the city of Tangier.
PETER KENYON: Perched on the northwest corner of Africa, Tangier seems a world away from the sectarian suspicion and hatred that plague some parts of Mid-East. On the edge of the streets of Gibraltar, where the Atlantic and the Mediterranean meet, this port city is a magnet for would-be migrants from all corners of Africa looking to make the treacherous voyage to Spain, as little as a half hour away.
Tangier also attracts literary tourists following in the footsteps of authors who lived here, such as Paul Bowles and William S. Burroughs.
The main religion here, as in the rest of Morocco, is a relatively gentle version of Sunni Islam with overtones of Sufism. So people here were more than a little shocked several weeks ago when Moroccan authorities swept through Tangier and the surrounding towns detaining an estimated 300 people for questioning about their alleged Shiite sympathies.
Unis Serife(ph), a researcher specializing in religious affairs, investigated the police action and came away scratching his head.
Mr. UNIS SERIFE (Researcher Specializing in Religious Affairs): (Through Translator) What is paradoxical about the sweep is that the imminent figures, the best known Shiites, were not even questioned. Most of the people rounded up denied being Shiites. At most, some of them had picked up a Shiite book out of curiosity. The people were let go fairly quickly, which I think means the authorities were probably trying to get a handle on the size of the Shiite population here.
KENYON: That may be, but the detentions also had another affect: They frightened many of those who had been mildly interested in Shiism who hurried home to burn their books on the subject.
The crackdown has also fueled a new flare-up of anti-Iranian rhetoric around the region, with various commentators using the Moroccan example as the latest evidence of Iran's, quote, "desire for regional domination," as one conservative pundit wrote. The campaign has also entered a legal arena in Egypt, where prosecutors are accusing the Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement of operating a terrorist cell on Egyptian soil.
In Morocco, the crackdown has occurred on multiple fronts. In Tangier, one would-be cultural association was told it would never win state approval because there were a few Shiite names on its board.
Then in early March, Morocco plunged headlong into a controversy between two Persian Gulf states thousands of miles away. Bahrain was upset when an Iranian official said that Bahrain was really part of Iran. But without warning, Morocco took the dramatic step of severing diplomatic ties with Tehran, something even the aggrieved Bahrain hadn't contemplated.
One of Morocco's reasons: alleged Iranian efforts to spread the Shiite faith here. The incident led to more head scratching among analysts. Ahmed Benchemsi, editor of the popular TelQuel Magazine, says the notion that there's some kind of stealth Shiite invasion going on is ridiculous.
Mr. AHMED BENCHEMSI (Editor, TelQuel Magazine): We are very far from the region where Shia and Sunnis are fighting each other. It's okay here. It could be a minority, a very tiny one. It could be accepted. And so what? I mean, we have more Jews than we have of Shias in Morocco, and probably more Christians, as well. So what's the big deal?
KENYON: But the Moroccan government seemed to find it a big deal, and it wasn't yet done with its crackdown.
(Soundbite of traffic)
KENYON: I'm standing in front of what used to be the Iraqi school in Rabat. The sign is gone from the door. There's an empty school bus in the driveway. The government closed this school in late March, explaining that when it was originally set up - back when Iraq was still governed by Sunnis, by the way -it failed to meet all the standards.
But people who worked at the school say the real reason was because a parent complained that his children had been turned away on religious grounds, and that certain religious rites, presumably Shiites, were being practiced here. The Iraqi school in Tangier was also closed a week later.
(Soundbite of crowd chatter)
KENYON: In one of the many cafes that line the broad boulevards of Rabat, one of Morocco's few publically known Shiite scholars quietly sips a cafe noir. Drese Hanney(ph) is a soft-spoken man who takes the long view of Islamic sectarian issues. He says historically, Moroccan's had little experience with extreme branches of Islam, such as the Salafist and Wahhabist strains, which consider Shiism apostasy.
That changed in 1980s when Saudi Arabia, with active U.S. backing, helped train and fund a mujahedeen force, one that included Moroccans, to expel a Soviet army from Afghanistan. Moroccans began to be exposed to the Saudi Wahhabist doctrine when the fighters returned home.
Hanney says one of the things the hardliners did was to spread ugly rumors about Shiites.
Mr. DRESE HANEY: (Through Translator) There was a corrupt atmosphere in recent years in which anyone who embraces Shiite convictions is looked on as dangerous, someone to fear. Unfortunately, these Wahhabists, who are trying to spread this image of fear about Shiites, have had an impact.
KENYON: Perhaps more concerned with the rise of Islamic political parties, the Moroccan government did little about the Wahhabists until deadly bombings at Casablanca in 2003. After the counter-terror campaign that ensued, Hanney says Morocco also began targeting other minority faiths, including Christians and Shiites.
In another of Morocco's bustling cafes, this one in Casablanca, Professor Mohammed Durif(ph) of Mohammedia University explains that the government has been worried about small numbers of Moroccans who studied at Shiite shrines in Iran, Syrian and Lebanon.
Mr. MOHAMMED DURIF (Professor, Mohammedia University): (Through Translator) The government was concerned since 2005 that these people came back with a mission to spread the Shiite faith and convert people to Shiism. There's also the issue of the assassination of the Hezbollah leader Mughniyeh, and Hezbollah's declaration that it would strike Israeli interests, wherever they may be. The Moroccan government feared that some of these returning Moroccans might act on that threat.
KENYON: Whether or not Shiites are hatching plots or proselytizing in large numbers, Sunni Arab governments are eager to keep Iran in the rhetorical cross-hairs. Cairo analyst Issandr el Amrani with the International Crisis Group says that may have something to do with the new focus from Washington on engaging with Tehran.
Amrani says while the White House may be worried about Iran's nuclear program, Arab states are much more concerned about Iran's desire to increase its influence in the region, and the so-called Mid-East Cold War being played out largely in the media.
Mr. ISSANDR EL AMRANDI (Analyst, International Crisis Group): If you take the case of Egypt, the big concern in Egypt has been how will these media such as Jazeera make them look? I think it's much more at that level that the stakes are not so much about an actual plan, like, let's send the Iranian Revolution in regards to attack in Egypt or in Morocco.
KENYON: Moroccans are following the sectarian tensions closely, wondering if the crackdown here is over, or if regional and international pressures will prompt the government to take more steps against the Shiite minority.
Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Tangier.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.