RABAT, Morocco: Three of Morocco's most prominent conservative clerics have publicly backed a demand that a journalist be put to death for supporting greater sexual freedom in the North African kingdom.
Mokhtar el-Ghzioui, the editor of the daily al-Ahdath al-Maghribia, publicly supported a call by a Moroccan human rights activist to decriminalize sex outside of marriage. He said in a TV interview last week he would be fine with his mother or sister having consensual sexual relations outside of wedlock.
A preacher in the far eastern city of Oujda near the Algeria border then made a YouTube video on June 28 condemning el-Ghzioui as a "dyouth" a religious term for someone who willingly lets his wife commit adultery, and called for his death.
The preacher, Abdullah Nahari, was then summoned by the local prosecutor to answer to the charge of inciting a crime.
Abou Hafs, Omar el-Heddouchi and Hassan al-Kettani, the three most prominent clerics of the ultraconservative Salafi strand of Islam in Morocco, all spoke out in support of Nahari on their Facebook pages late Thursday.
"The arrogance of the secularists has become intolerable," Kettani said. "A dyouth tells the world he would let his family sin and is then denounced by a sheikh and then it is the latter who is threatened with prison?"
The three men were imprisoned in 2003 and later implicated for inspiring a string of bombings by Islamist militants in Casablanca that killed 45 people. They were pardoned by the king in February.
On Thursday, journalists demonstrated outside the offices of the newspaper in support of el-Ghizioui.
Khadija Riyadi, the head of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights, called for the canceling of article 490 of the penal code criminalizing sex outside of marriage in an interview June 18, sparking an unexpected debate in the normally conservative state-run media.
She described the controversy as a part of the battle between the monarchy and the newly elected Islamist government that came to power in November elections, pointing out that her organization has often taken such stands and been ignored by the establishment media, which is dominated by the powerful royal court.
Opposition political parties with close ties to the palace often try to make the Islamist government look bad by portraying them as overly conservative on social issues.
"We know that the Islamist government is not universally liked by the higher levels of power, and I realize that many political actors, especially those connected with the palace, have exploited my statements to settle their scores with the elected government," she told The Associated Press.
"Still, that doesn't mean that it isn't necessary to have more debate on these subjects," she added.
A new constitution adopted under the pressure of Arab Spring demonstrations gives Morocco's elected politicians more powers, but ultimate authority still lies with the king and his powerful courtiers.
Morocco, a favored destination for European tourists, is overwhelmingly Muslim and both drinking alcohol and sex outside marriage are prohibited by law. The laws are not strictly enforced, however.