"Culture is the solution", or when the street pokes academia into action

Dr. Larbi Touaf

In this paper, I will discuss how the possibilities for the renewal of faith in the humanities may come from a return to immediate social concerns, and what better ways to do that than by paying close attention to and making sense of what civil society is doing, especially at this period of time when we are surrounded by discourses of extremisms, xenophobia, negativism, and terror. My primary concern is the state of humanities in my country and how universities are in complete indifference to what is happening around them, overwhelmed as they are by the staggering number of students in open access colleges (mainly humanities and social sciences) and the difficulties related to low budgets and deteriorating work conditions. 
Indeed, the gap between academia and civil society is no more visible than in the area of civil/civic action, where civil society builds on and translates into action those time-honored values of critical thinking, historical perspective an ethical judgement that are the core of humanities.
Starting from an observation made in The New York Times (24 February, 2009) in an article that deplored the state of the humanities in American universities, where it was stated that after the economic crisis of 2008 "the humanities are under greater pressure than ever to justify their existence to administrators, policy makers, students and parents [...]. Some of the staunchest humanities advocates, however, admit that they have failed to make their case effectively.” While this statement predicates the crisis in the humanities on the economic downturn and on the changing attitudes of families and decision-makers to liberal education, it remains certain that at least one of the aspects of that crisis is the failure of the humanities in competing with a culture dominated by techno-scientism. Almost ten years after that article, nurturing critical thinking, civic and historical knowledge and ethical reasoning is still our best argument especially regarding the rise of populism, extremism, and terrorism. And while the university is under pressure to cater to business and industry more than to real social problems, and where faculty is pushed to think more about career security than about advancement of knowledge, the relevance of humanities lies in regaining their place in promoting individual and communal development and participation in a free democracy. While I do not pretend that this is the only way to address humanities’ crisis, it may be worthwhile to consider ways in which academia can address the issue through opening to and engaging with civil society and to take hold of public space and renew the sense of the “commons” to create the conditions of peaceful intersubjective existence or coexistence.
Such an enterprise requires a critical practice that is able to overcome the disciplinary divisions, to inscribe learning and research in historically and contextually determined conditions. In this respect, I will discuss the rise of civil society in Morocco and how it contributes to social change through civic engagement and art. Needless to say that those forms of social activism are paramount in the grounding of a democratic praxis and this is more pressing in societies that are slowly and hesitantly emerging from political and social authoritarianism and their concomitant totalitarian ideologies. Such a context is favorable to uprisings and social-political unrest as the world witnessed with the wave of protest that swept over North-Africa and that is known as the “Arab Spring” being itself the result of decades of oppression and deprivation. Even though Morocco did not experience the violence that characterized the Arab Spring in the neighboring countries, the political and social context has been immensely impacted by the youth-led demonstrations that demanded change. The country nowadays, like the rest of the Arab world, is at a crucial moment in its history; protests led by a collective of young people known as the February 20th Movement has challenged a previously held view that the young generations are apolitical and totally detached from the concerns of their society. Ironically, it is these same young men and women who have triggered a process which many hoped would lead to a more democratic state.
The evolution of Morocco's civil society predates the uprisings of 2011. Since the independence, civil society has existed in different forms, but it is only since the 1990s that it started to play a role in influencing the political and social changes that have taken place in the country. One of the major characteristics of Moroccan CS in the 1990s is that it replaced the state in many areas, both urban and rural, through providing social services that the government failed to guarantee, and this became problematic as it opened the doors for massive proselytizing that was later on used for political purposes and even extremist agendas. However, after the terrorist attacks of 2003 and 2006 in Casablanca, the state weighed down heavily on organizations that were suspected of collusion with the attacks. Since then, CS organizations were closely watched and their actions severely limited.
But, with the events of the Arab Spring, a "political opening" took place bringing with it some advances in civil and political rights. Particular attention was given to cultural rights, especially Amazigh language and culture, women's rights and the right to education and health. However, all these of reforms highlighted the central authority of the king, and revealed the acquiescence of the majority of organizations that remained chronically detached from the reality. It became clear that the wave of protest that lasted from February until July 2011 forced the higher authorities in the state to make differently perceived concessions in order to maintain themselves in power. But, whatever the extent of these concessions or reforms, they have yet to be implemented. For even if the driving force of the protests was “social justice”, only a small minority of the protestors did not view democracy as a top-down process whereby the political leadership was expected to deliver a democracy package to the people. In other words, the idea that democracy concerns only the state-system and not the society was a very common one. The political organizations that later monopolized the demonstrations and protests were not concerned with the idea that a democratic society was the ultimate goal. Therefore, the package delivered by the state and which included a reformed constitution yielded only a formal democracy that immediately died down after the uprisings. Those who believed that democracy meant more than a new constitution, free elections and a change of government were faced with fierce repression and violence both by the state and by the political parties whose aim was mainly getting to power.
Yet, despite the general climate of state monitoring, CS worked to maintain and consolidate the political opening, its activism remained dynamic and intents on playing a major role in democratizing the society. Thus, civil society grew both qualitatively and quantitatively, and a new associative culture emerged, determined less by political allegiances and more by common goals and strategies. This new environment aimed at promoting the collaborative engagement of individual citizens and communities.
Thus, the initiators and leaders of the 20th of February movement were a group of young men and women with no political affiliation, and learned the lesson that political action may trigger political reform but not social change. Real social change needs cultural awareness and activism. Hence the emergence of a number of NGOs in Morocco, but also in Tunisia, Egypt and Lebanon. The most important one is “Racines/Jodour” (roots) which, in 2014, released its first report titled “The Etats Généraux de la Culture in Morocco,” as the outcome of two years of research, inventory, diagnosis, professional and regional meetings, as well as sectoral studies concerning 18 artistic disciplines and transversal studies on cultural governance, training, art education, cultural diversity. Its objective was to initiate a national action plan for culture, based on the comprehensive study carried out by the NGO and its partners and the recommendations made by professionals, individuals, and institutions during the meetings.
In 2016, the same NGO launched its 2nd Edition of “Etats Généraux de la Culture”. For 3 days, the public in Casablanca and from other parts of the country had free access to a varied artistic programming. Tens of associations and professionals of arts and culture, were able to communicate and exchange ideas through a space of networking, but also to participate in workshops on reflection and discussion around the state of the cultural life and its impact on the people. The events targeted and sought to integrate young people from the slum areas where the events took place (the old Art Deco Slaughter House of Casablanca transformed into a space for all genres of performing arts; music, theater, painting workshops, dance, graffiti, circus, parkour and art exhibits). The NGO took that opportunity to publish the results of its vast study entitled “the Cultural Practices of Moroccans”; a nation-wide survey of the citizens’ access to culture or lack thereof in order to evaluate cultural policies and monitor the implementation of its previous recommendations. This was the second phase in its long term programme focused on the cultural practices of ordinary citizens in different regions of the country. Aadel Essaadani, co-founder of Racines and instigator of the initiative, explained that "at the end of the first phase, we managed to create an inventory of the cultural actions, according to the cultural and artistic disciplines and the existing infrastructures. Today, it is a matter of knowing more about the cultural practices of Moroccans by region. We did not know, for example, how many books a Moroccan reads, how many plays he sees, etc... "
One of the major takeaways of the report was that even though the state spends large sums of money on big cultural events such as music festivals, the construction of youth centers, museums and massive theatres, the impact on the average citizen and young people is insignificant. One of the many outcomes of the survey was that top-down cultural policies are inefficient and the policy of infrastructure cannot replace a real cultural policy. Another take away was that the public needs to be empowered to exercise its right to control or at least have a say in public policies. Therefore, The NGO’s aim was to provide citizens with relevant criteria and indicators so that they can assess, on their own and at the local level, the actions of the Ministry of Culture and other public administrations in the field of cultural policies. That way, the citizens can appropriate cultural action as a universal human right and as a duty to be accomplished and / or favored by the public institutions.
In short, the idea is to make citizens evaluators, not just commentators, of public policies in general and those of culture in particular, by asking the right questions and demanding accountability from decision-makers and requiring from them that they explain their choices or lack thereof, while also highlighting bad decisions whether deliberate or resulting from incompetence. The origin of this initiative is certainly to be found in the general dissatisfaction with the work of the Ministries of Culture, Education, Youth and Sport globally and in particular in the fields of cultural action and its proximity to different audiences. It is also related the frustration of the general public in its incapacity to articulate with precision its needs and proposals. This way, culture will no longer be exclusively the business of specialists whose authoritative discourse and sophisticated aesthetic judgment represent and assert the supremacy of scholars over the others, and of confirmed artists on novices.
Therefore, it is necessary to underscore that the project of empowering the public is not about aesthetic judgment, but about giving the citizens access to knowledge and cultural activities as a public service and universal human right. The cultural activities covered here include a set of actions or policies such as art education, amateur practices, the animation of a city, television programming or public radio stations... so that people can ask questions like what is the purpose of this festival? Why doesn’t the only existing youth center in the commune work? What obstacles prevent it from accomplishing the goals it was established for? Or, who decides the cultural programming, and how? Is there a music conservatory in my commune? If so, how does it work and for whom? What are the obligations of the ministry or collectivity that manages it? Do we have enough public libraries in our city?
While the NGO’s appreciation is not objective, and is even undeniably biased. However, on the positive side it comes at a time when the post Arab Spring phase is filled with all kinds of social conflict, as trust in the state has reached a record low. That is what compels CSOs to direct the attention to public policies, and especially culture policies so that it can target what they consider urgent: citizens, society and the public space. This stems from the awareness of what a cultural strategy could yield in terms of raising the level of emancipation of citizens and the liberation of creativity and positive energies.
One may argue, and justly so, that NGOs also have their own political or ideological agendas, and that a report cannot faithfully represent reality with its statistics, analyses and indicators. However, Racines’ initiative is more of an introduction to the basics of a bottom-up cultural policy or action, and even if its take on the situation may prove to be wrong, its first concern is to launch a public debate on the place of culture in the development of society and the country. It is a bold project considering that in societies thought to be largely conservative or religious, cultural policies are conceived with the objective of limiting freedom of creation and expression (even though these are guaranteed by the constitution) and the safeguarding of security, and moral principles. But, as true artistic creation is unpredictable, it can shake up, to varying degrees, beliefs and habits. Therefore, citizens’ empowerment is the only guarantee that the authorities will not put limits to everything, for when the authorities resort systematically to preemptive prohibiting, the consequence is not only censorship but self-censorship which is the worst enemy of resolving controversial issues through public debate.
To conclude, the large scale movement or initiative called “Culture is the solution” is the attempt by civil society networks to put forward culture as a viable means of integration mainly of populations with no access to cultural entertainment. It is also a call to turn culture into a productive sector that can create jobs and value where all social policies have failed. As an oppositional echo to the motto of radical Islamists “Islam is the solution,” its philosophy is that without cultural empowerment there will be no political awareness nor effective participation. In other words, culture opens the minds and favors critical thinking and creativity; the two main enemies of totalitarian ideologies. The culture is the solution movement, therefore, seeks with its modest and even fragile means to invest the spaces left vacant by the state. What it strives to do is bring forth through practical solutions and hands-on experience the opacity of culture and society in order to fight reductionist discourses of the extremists and mainstream media.
Evidently the project faces a great deal of resistance coming from religious fundamentalists, but also from the state’s lukewarm support and suspicion of any idea of cultural and social change. What academia needs to do is to shake off its apathy, get out of its isolation and find ways and means to fill the gap that separates it from civil society in order to offer better alternative to the hegemony of the populist agendas that threaten to rip society apart.

Dr. Larbi Touaf : University Professor at  Mohammed I university, Oujda
Paper presented at The Selicup 2018 Conference, Majorca, Spain Portblue Club Pollentia Resort (Alcudia, Majorca, Spain) 24-26 October 2018

Dr. Larbi Touaf