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Mohamed Benaissa Awarded US Honorary Doctorate

Morocco's Mohamed Benaissa Awarded U.S. Honorary Doctorate

The weather was freezing in Minnesota, but Mohamed Benaissa was happy to be back in that snowy northern state for a visit that he called "very emotional, very moving."

A former foreign minister of Morocco and former Moroccan ambassador to the United States, Benaissa is also a graduate of the University of Minnesota, and he returned on December 4 to receive the highest honor the university can bestow: an honorary doctor of laws degree for public service.

The honorary degree "is a crown on what I have tried to achieve in my lifetime," Benaissa said during the ceremony. The university has awarded 235 honorary doctorates, and only 91 of these have been a doctor of laws degree, which recognizes achievement in public service "that has added materially to knowledge and to the betterment of society."

C. Eugene Allen, a university official who chaired the nominating committee for Benaissa's award, hailed his record of service "to his hometown, nation, and the world." Many of Benaissa's accomplishments, Allen said, "are related to his deep-seated interest in the preservation and promotion of his country's cultural heritage and wealth, and of expanded cross-cultural understanding. His is the kind of cultural sensitivity that is increasingly necessary for global leaders to be most effective."

This was only Benaissa's second visit to the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis since attending as a Fulbright Scholar and graduating in 1963 with a bachelor's degree in journalism. He returned in 1998 as his country's ambassador to the United States to offer Morocco's perspective on the global economy, but he began his speech by explaining how his experiences at the university influenced his diplomatic career.

Benaissa returned to that theme during his lecture at the doctoral ceremony, describing how in the early 1960s he "found fellow students who like me came from different backgrounds, cultures and value systems. And yet, the beauty of it all was that there was no drive to impose one's values on another."

In an increasingly globalized world, Benaissa continued, "there needs to be recognition of the importance of sharing values rather than imposing them." Knowledge and mutual respect are critical, he said, quoting Morocco's King Mohammed VI: "The world suffers not from a clash of civilization; the world suffers from ignorance of civilizations."

The United States and Morocco, Benaissa added, are a good example of "mutual respect between diverse cultures."

The two countries have "a beautiful history," he told USINFO in a telephone interview from Minneapolis December 5. Morocco was the first country to seek diplomatic relations with the new government of the United States of America in 1777, it hosted a World War II conference between President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and it stood by the United States during the Cold War, Benaissa pointed out.

"I say it from the bottom of my heart, America and Morocco have come through this period of time, over 200 years, not only hand in hand but heart in heart," he said.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Moroccan Minister for Foreign Affairs and Cooperation Mohamed Benaissa held bilateral discussions in Washington on May 2, 2006. The two discussed regional issues, including Sudan, cooperation between Algeria and Morocco, and the Western Sahara dispute; Iran; and United Nations reform.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Moroccan Foreign Minister Mohamed Benaissa met in May 2006.

Recalling his student experiences, Benaissa said, "I was somehow intellectually reborn in Minnesota. It was in Minnesota where I began to see another way of life, another value system, and appreciation of the individual." He also was impressed by the "lack of arrogance" among the professors, the American focus on hard work and self-reliance and the friendliness of the people in Minnesota.

"It's a cold country with warm hearts," he said.

This visit to the university has brought back many memories, Benaissa said. "I see streets that I remember: I was biking here, I was upset there, I didn't have a buck [a dollar] here."

His Fulbright stipend at the time was $175 a month, "from which I was paying for rent, food and books," he said. (Tuition was paid by the university.) "So I had to do some work. I used to work on a farm on weekends that was owned by parents of my roommate. We earned $1.25 an hour."

And what was that work? "I used to help with farming, I used to go with the people when they went hunting -- I carried their stuff," Benaissa said. "But it was not really a hardship. I came with their son, I was treated very well. I had a wonderful room."

During his remarks on December 4, Benaissa said that in awarding him an honorary degree, "the University of Minnesota honors the values of knowledge, openness and dialogue which it has fostered among so many students from so many diverse cultures."

He also noted that the university has educated "hundreds of Moroccan engineers and scientists operating in agronomy, agriculture and the veterinary sciences" through a program sponsored by U.S. and Moroccan institutions.

In closing, Benaissa also thanked his wife, Laila, a Moroccan who received her master's degree from the University of Maryland. She has "always encouraged me to be true to the values I have discussed here today," he said.


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