RABAT (Reuters Life!) - Just 200 copies of North Africa's first gay interest magazine have been sold in Morocco since April, but Islamists are already warning of a threat to traditional family values.
Homosexuality is taboo in the Arab world and Moroccan law punishes "lewd or unnatural acts with an individual of the same sex" with jail terms of up to three years and a fine.
The owners of the magazine Mithly (an Arabic word meaning "the same as me" which has come to mean gay) were prepared for a backlash and already had a back-up plan -- a Web version which will carry its second edition this week.
The paper edition circulated informally because it lacked a distribution license from the government, said Samir Bargachi, general coordinator of Kif-Kif, Morocco's only gay rights group and the magazine's publisher.
But he said Mithly's appearance is a sign of progress on homosexual rights in the conservative north African country, where most gay men and lesbians tend to keep their sexuality a secret for fear of rejection by family and friends.
"Many in Kif-Kif have had no problems with their families... Others have been thrown out of home, had problems at university or at work," said Barghachi by phone from Madrid where he lives.
Kif-Kif -- a north African expression that translates roughly as "all the same" -- is based in Spain, has not been legally recognized in Morocco and cannot campaign openly. Most of Mithly's writers live in Morocco but keep a low profile.
"What happens in the private lives (of homosexuals) is their concern," said Mustapha Khelfi, editor of Attajdid, a newspaper close to the main Islamist opposition party PJD. "Propagation and encouragement of homosexuality represents a threat."
He said Mithly's publishers should follow the law governing the legal distribution of newspapers because "without respect for the law, we can't predict how society will sometimes react".
Mithly's themes include controversy over Elton John playing at a music festival in Morocco, a study of suicide among gay Moroccans and a book by an Algerian transsexual named Randa.
The European Union sees Morocco's defense of individual freedoms as key to talks on deeper trade and investment ties.
"It seems that something is happening in Morocco that does not exist elsewhere in the Arab world," said Abdellah Taia, a gay Moroccan author who lives in Paris. "A new generation ... has achieved a certain freedom of expression thanks to the Internet, and this magazine is a result of that freedom."
Convictions for homosexual acts are rare in Morocco, but in late 2007 four men were jailed after a video appeared on You Tube showing what some said was a gay wedding.
The men denied this but the house where the celebration took place was attacked by an angry mob, prompting 150 public figures including intellectuals, politicians and artists to issue a manifesto warning of a "climate of hatred and inquisition".
Some human rights activists say homosexuality has always existed in Moroccan society, and references to it can even be found in traditional "Al Malhoun" songs, some of which tell of love affairs between men.
"Moroccans have always been tolerant toward homosexuals -- they were never persecuted," said rights campaigner Khadija Rouissi. "Why today are we not tolerant toward them? Because some people would like to import a fanatical brand of Islam."
For Bargachi, public awareness of homosexual rights has improved in Morocco in the last few years even though the conservative press whips up popular prejudices.
"We have organized a conference in Morocco called 'Reality Against Myths'," he said. "Lots of people still think homosexuals all carry AIDS or they are pedophiles."
Editing by Paul Casciato