“At first, we saw him and we didn’t think he was good (mezian). But it was none of our business,” the woman says, referring to President Trump.1 She is in her mid-70s. Her husband, a retired civil servant just a couple of years older, sits next to her. I am in the small Moroccan city of Taza, about an hour and a half east of Fez.
“But after Jerusalem, we knew he was hmoq,” she says, using the word for lunatic. We are speaking in the Moroccan dialect, darija. “Marid al ‘asab,” she adds (mentally deranged). Just the day before, on December 7, 2017, President Trump had announced that the United States now recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and intends to move the embassy there from Tel Aviv. During the week I was in Morocco, split in half by this news, no one I spoke to had anything good to say about Trump. After the declaration on Jerusalem, it only got worse.
The Tazia septuagenarian was energized. “I don’t understand politics, but this guy is just zero. He is the worst president ever,” she says. “He hates all Muslims and Arabs and creates problems for us. At least he could keep his feelings to himself.” When I ask for clarification, she explains that by his “feelings,” she is referring to Trump’s hatred of Muslims. She and many others I spoke to in December were firmly convinced of his animosity.
The Al Jazeera television station is on in the background. Reactions in Gaza and Ramallah to Trump’s Jerusalem announcement cycle on screen every few minutes. This couple has satellite TV in their home but, she adds, “no Wi-Fi.” Her adult son, who lives in another city, interjects: “How do you use WhatsApp then?” She uses the 3G service on her cell phone, she explains. Even among the older generation, Morocco is fully in the digital age, which allows for a steady connection to the world. For younger Moroccans, smartphones, texting and Facebook are all part of the fabric of everyday life.
Moroccans have been consuming regular coverage of Donald Trump since the US presidential campaign heated up. I was here in Fez in December 2015 when candidate Trump called for the United States to bar entry to Muslims—his notorious “Muslim ban.” News of it spread quickly. Moroccan students asked me pointedly and poignantly what he had against Muslims, and why Islam was a special target of his campaign. But if they were aware of the Islamophobia sweeping America in 2015, they also were familiar with his reality show, Celebrity Apprentice.
Now, two years later, I was back at Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdallah University in Fez on the day President Trump announced his Jerusalem decision. Among students at this large state university, not a single one thought positively of him. Nor, when I asked, could they think of any person they knew in their families or their neighborhoods who did either.
In Rabat, an Amazigh (Berber) intellectual in his fifties confirmed: “Ordinary people hate [Trump] because he has said negative things about Islam. The main thing for them is that he’s anti-Arab, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant.” The impact on Moroccans who aspire to travel to the United States for work or for study is felt personally, he explained, whether or not they might have the opportunity anyway. The green card lottery offered only miniscule chance of success, but now that hope is reduced to nil.
Most demoralizing, for a longtime Morocco observer, is a pervasive sense that President Trump represents a generalized and expanding American hostility toward Muslims. The immediate effect of the much-discussed “Muslim ban” among young Moroccans is a growing sense of alienation from the United States. This alienation is all the more poignant given the longstanding amicable relationship between the two nations, the many points of contact with Moroccans who have successfully immigrated to cities such as Boston or Minneapolis, and the good impressions generations of Americans have made through the Peace Corps and Fulbright Scholarship program. What matters most about the fact that the Kingdom of Morocco was the first nation to recognize the independence of the United States in 1777 is that most Moroccans know it and still express pride about the long official friendship.
Still, one of the most notable changes among Moroccans between the ages of 18 and 25 as they discuss President Trump is the shift away from national questions toward identification as Muslims. One after another, the students generally agreed that they identified as Muslims first, and as Moroccans second. Trump’s Jerusalem announcement apparently exacerbated this shift. A Moroccan academic tells me a few days later in Casablanca that Moroccans are “now talking more and more again about Palestine as a cause. It was sleeping, but now it is revived.”
National concerns are not gone, however: A number of informants this December referred to perceived tensions between Morocco’s King Mohammed VI and President Trump. Several spoke of an incident from last April, when the Moroccan monarch vacationed in Cuba. President Trump was at Mar-a-Lago, a resort in Palm Beach, Florida, at the same time. In what may have been merely speculation, on April 14 the news magazine Jeune Afrique reported that the king would be meeting with President Trump in Florida. When no meeting transpired over the following days, Moroccan news sources began to question why. Was it the king’s support for presidential candidate Hillary Clinton? What did the slight portend? It remains unclear whether the alleged meeting was itself only a rumor (some sources backed off from their original claims), but the widespread speculation is a window into Moroccan thinking.
During the US presidential campaign, it was widely reported that King Mohammed VI had donated $12 million to the Clinton Foundation. The Clintons in general, and Hillary Clinton in particular, had a generally good reputation in Morocco. As secretary of state, Clinton paid Morocco a much-celebrated visit. Moroccans expected good things should Clinton emerge victorious. The geopolitical issue that matters first to the state—support for its side on the Moroccan Sahara issue, known elsewhere as the Western Sahara—was in the balance. As one commentator told me, “Republicans tend to be more supportive of Morocco on the Sahara issue.” But a victory by Clinton was expected to be good for the Moroccan side due to the perception of her good relations with the country generally.
President Trump’s surprise victory set back this line of thinking. Still, his administration has not yet made any public statements about the Western Sahara. Indeed, President Trump took nearly a year to name a US ambassador to Morocco, and only did so in November when he appointed David Fischer, a Michigan car dealer and major contributor to President Trump’s campaign. This delay led some in the Moroccan press to speculate about why he had appointed an ambassador to Algeria months earlier. Did the delay signal a shift toward Algeria? Or was it retaliation for the king’s donation to the Clinton Foundation?
Whatever the speculation in Rabat, those in Fez cared little about issues that might matter to government. “A priority for us is how he talks about Muslims and Arabs. We don’t give a damn about Western Sahara,” said a graduate student in his 20s. One woman in her early 20s put it this way: “Neither from a Muslim point of view nor a nationalist point of view, but from a human point of view, he must be rejected.” Another woman commented: “As an Amazigh, I don’t support Trump because he is anti-Muslim.” Another claimed that President Trump was “running the United States like he runs a business [meaning that] what comes first is money, not human rights.” An academic I spoke to in Fez put it bluntly: “Trump is grotesque.”
Back in Taza, the hajja (older woman) offers hope that Moroccans may still be able to distinguish President Trump as an aberration. “Americans are good people. But the rulers are not.” Yet, her husband interjects to disagree about the goodness of the American people, referencing mass killings and shootings in the United States. “If America says its aim is to establish peace in the world, and it sides with Israel, it is only pretending.”