Friday, May 02, 2014

Treating Mental Illness by Magic

At the Bouya Omar mausoleum in central Morocco followers claim the mentally ill are healed by the saint's supernatural powers.  Morocco's "possessed" -- from violent schizophrenics to hard drug users -- who are believed to be tormented by evil spirits are brought by relatives to await deliverance.

 But rights groups allege gross mistreatment of those taken there, with one former inmate describing months of "hell". Activists say hundreds of people have been kept in chains here, sometimes starved and beaten, making the place a byword for cruelty and highlighting the stigma attached to mental illness in Morocco.

Mohammed, a former drug addict from Tangiers, was taken to Bouya Omar by his brother in 2006 to be cured of his "demon".  He says he was shackled and beaten repeatedly, given barely enough food to survive and robbed of the little money he had. "I lived in hell for a year," Mohammed told AFP, adding that the experience had left him partially blind in one eye. He says his brother eventually returned and "saved" him.

A source at the ministry of religious affairs admitted "The patient is imprisoned in a way to protect him, and to restrain this force, which is a kind of blind force, to exorcise the spirit," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We leave people there because we can't look after them. But it's a traditional system and it has to change."

Reports about mistreatment, including one presented by a human rights organisation to the UN group on arbitrary detention visiting Morocco in December, prompted the health minister to announce that he would close Bouya Omar immediately -- if only he could. "I'm going to do everything I can to get this centre closed. Unfortunately the decision is not for the ministry of health," Hossein El Ouardi said.

"The health minister cannot close Bouya Omar because it serves a political purpose and exists for other social and cultural reasons that are deeply rooted in Moroccan society," says author and academic Zakaria Rhani.

Superstitious beliefs abound in Morocco, about good and bad genies ("jnun") capable of affecting one's daily life, and the power over them of marabouts, holy men like Bouya Omar, whose ubiquitous white tombs are credited with the same supernatural forces. Over the past decade, sociologists say, King Mohammed VI has encouraged such popular Islamic beliefs, commonly linked in Morocco to the world of healing, partly as a way of countering extremist ideology. The saint's modern-day followers, who embody his authority and profit handsomely from the money paid for healing, mediate between the "patients" and the jnun believed to have possessed them, in rituals focused around the tomb and aimed at casting out the evil spirits. Promoting the culture of sainthood strengthens the king's legitimacy, which is itself based on the mythology of sainthood and inherited religious authority, Rhani says, referring to the monarch's claim to be descended from the Muslim Prophet Mohammed.

The difficulty of properly looking after the patients, by getting them treatment at psychiatric facilities run by qualified personnel, stems from the backward state of Morocco's mental health sector after decades of neglect, medical experts say. Jallal Toufiq, head doctor at the Arrazi mental hospital in Rabat's twin city Sale, says there are only 400 psychiatrists in a country of 33 million people, while some of the psychiatric institutions are in a "very advanced state of disrepair". The US-trained doctor describes the practises at Bouya Omar as a "crime against humanity," lamenting the "extremely negative attitude towards mental illness" in Morocco, which he mainly attributes to poor education.

"The level of awareness in the general population is so low that a lot of people tend to interpret their syndromes, their delusions and anxieties, as a curse, as something that has nothing to do with medicine. So they seek healings in marabouts, and the problem is that they come to see us long after, when they're in bad shape."

Mohammed Oubouli, an activists with the Moroccan Association of Human Rights in Attaouia, a town near Bouya Omar, which he has has campaigned for years to get closed, explained "We're not against what the people believe; they can believe what they like. What bothers us is the suffering of those brought here."


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