Moving beyond Stigma: The slow healing process of a community

Sidi Moumen


Meryem Saadi

On a warm and dusty Spring day of May 2010, I visited Sidi Moumen for the first time in my life. Like most Moroccans, I had become aware of the existence of this slum in the periphery of Casablanca in 2003, after the terrorists’ attacks that took place in the city, claiming 33 lives and injuring around one hundred people. The twelve young suicide bombers who carried out simultaneous attacks that night were all from Sidi Moumen. In the following days, the whole country realised with horror that the district had become a site of production for radical Islam (Salafism in this particular case), spread through speeches shared in Mosques, in-house meetings, and informal circulation of books, audio and video tapes coming mainly from Saudi Arabia.

Seven years after the terrorist attacks, I was going to Sidi Moumen as a journalist, to write an article about local organisations whose mission was to prevent the district’s youth from turning to radical Islam. I had a meeting with Larbi, a local activist who was going introduce me to several organisations. I was very curious to learn more about this area of 47 km² and its 300.000 inhabitants. But he was a bit late, and I felt awkward standing alone in one of the main streets of this area. Was I in the right place? It did not look at all as I had expected. I still had in mind the images that were shown in the media in 2003: those of a scary slum, without any paved roads or proper buildings. When Larbi arrived and we started talking, I understood the reasons for my confusion. A year after the terrorists’ attacks, the State introduced an ambitious national program called “Ville sans Bidonvilles” (Cities without Slums). Almost overnight, several important social housing units were built in the area, and some parts of the slums erased. I was glad to hear that, but my relief did not last long. After walking for almost ten minutes down the main road, there I was, in the middle of the slum that all the country considered to be a “terrorist’s safe haven.” It had not disappeared; it was just smaller than in 2003, and hidden between high social housing buildings. All I could see was an immense ocean of chaotic blocks composed of bricks, corrugated iron, and tin roofs; a strange mix between what could have been a city after a natural disaster and a conflict zone.

While we walked through tiny muddy alleys, we met many kids and teenagers who were randomly hanging out, playing cards or football. It was a very odd scene, since it was a weekday morning. We also crossed paths with a lot of young men, gathering in corners and smoking cigarettes or hashish. Anticipating my questions, Larbi said: “There are not enough schools for all the kids here, so most of them are illiterate. And when they grow up, it is hard from them to find jobs. There are no opportunities in the area, and outside of it everyone thinks that a young man from Sidi Moumen is a potential suicide bomber. Who would hire one?” He stopped for a while and continued: “It’s really ironic. The actual terrorists became radicalised because they were poor, uneducated and marginalised by the rest of society. What they did was a sort of cry of help, to show the world that they mattered. But seven years later, what they did is making it even worse for those who are born here.”

We kept on walking silently until we arrived at the office of the first local organisation that we were going to meet that day. It has been nine years since I visited Sidi Moumen. And honestly, I don’t remember much of the long conversations I had with the local members of the organisations except this word, “Al Hogra,” which came up numerous times; almost with every person I talked to, no matter their gender, age or occupation. Widely used in North-African societies, this one word expresses at the same time injustice, indignation, resentment, and oppression. Local activists in Sidi Moumen used this term to explain why the twelve suicide bombers were led to do what they did, and what the local youth was still experiencing. They were all on the same page on one point: the only way to fight the spread of radical Islam is to create spaces where “Al Hogra” doesn’t exist. Practically, that meant to provide the community with cultural, educational and sport activities that would enable the production of a local knowledge that could “counter” the spread of radical Islam and help the community to heal. Nowadays, several local organisations (Idmaj, Oum El Ghait, les Etoiles de Sidi Moumen …) are trying to fill in the void by offering different workshops and activities to the youth for a symbolic fee. But is the (impressive) work of these local organisations enough to halt the spread of radical Islamist knowledge in Sidi Moumen and stop the stigmatisation surrounding its residents? I asked myself this question when I met Larbi 10 years ago, and I find myself still wondering today. It seems that it is time for me to go back there again.