Moroccan Survey: African, But Not Completely

A survey recently conducted in Morocco has concluded that Moroccans consider themselves to be Muslims and Arabs before they are Berber or African, report Jules Crétois and Hassan Hamdani.

al-monitor Police stand guard as Amazigh Berbers call for the release of political prisoners and demanding more rights in Rabat, Feb. 3, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Stringer.

Topics covered

north africa, national identity, morocco, moroccan society, amazigh, africa

Feb 4, 2013

Is Morocco truly African?

This question is rhetorical when looking at the globe: the kingdom is situated at the peak of the continent, and it sprawls itself along the top of the Sahara desert all the way down to sub-Saharan Africa. It is disconnected from Europe by a small channel, which — although barely 14 kilometers [9 miles] wide — serves as a constant physical reminder of both its proximity to and its remoteness from the economic and cultural fortress that is the European Union.

Speaking of “Africanness” is far more imposing when studying Morocco’s natural linguistic space. The majority of its inhabitants are Amazigh-speaking; it shares a common language with 20 million Berber speakers spread across five million square kilometers [about 2 million square miles] of land from Egypt to the Canary Islands and from the Mediterranean Sea to the Niger river. They all live in the same continent. They’re all Africans — whether they are Soussis, Rifains, Kabyles, Tunisians, Libyans, Egyptians or the Tauregs of Niger and Mali.

Geography and language, however, have reasons that ideology ignores. If Morocco continues to deny its connection to Africa, it is because it has been silent for a long time about its Amazigh heritage. This denial of its identity dates back to the 1930s, when nationalists decreed that Moroccans were of Arab origin and descended from the “thigh of Jupiter," the conqueror who came in from the heart of the Arab desert to bring the word of God.

This ukase aimed at rejecting Morocco’s Amazigh heritage resulted in collateral damage: the disappearence of a country that was, first and foremost, African. “Our teaching manual emphasizes our Eastern past and our connection to the Arab peninsula, to the detriment of Africa. Some continue to defend the Pan-Arab theory that places the origin of the Amazighs in Yemen and Syria, refusing at the same time to recognize the African heritage of the populations who have called Morocco home for millennia,” explains the researcher Ahmed Assid.

The challenge

With one swipe, we have erased the period from prehistory up until the arrival of Islam in Morocco. “Archeology shows us that the origins of Amazigh society are not oriental. They are African. Here we’re talking about a period going back as far as 200,000 years. Amazigh is undoubtedly an African language. It is also valid to argue that the Tifinaghe script shares a common origin with other written scripts from Africa. The official historcial account supports the notion that the Amazigh alphabet is of Phoenician origin in order to give it the appearance of originating in the Orient,” explains Assid. We are African, even when we shake our hips to the beat of the ahouache dance or we see our mother take the reins at home. “The Amazigh share their music with Sub-Saharan Africa as well as a matriarchal system,” he concluded.

In their battle against Arabization and the façade of Morocco, Amazigh militants have frequently reclaimed their African identity as a way of protecting their Berber identity, which they wear as a sort of badge that they inherited from the continent. Among these Africanists, we find a prominent Amazigh militant figure, Mohammed Chafiq, who in the 1970s asserted his African identity. “For Chafiq, Morocco is Amazigh through its identity and people; it is impossible to be Amazigh and to not be African. Further, for him, it is completely unnecessary to prove that Morocco is African, given that the word 'Africa' itself is of Amazigh origin, adopted by Latin historians and reproduced to become what the continent is currently called,” according to the analysis of researcher Khalid Chegraoui of the Institute of African Studies (IEA).

Amazigh and then African

In the 1980s, a new stone slab in the back yard of official history was launched by the champion of négritude: the symbolist Leopold Sedar Senghor. Invited to a conference in Morocco by Mahjoubi Aherdane in 1982, the president of Senegal affirmed that “Berberness” is complementary to négritude in defining Africa’s continental identity. “We must once again touch on cultural identity and establish its roots in African civilizations, in négritude and 'berberitude,' whose aesthetics are similar...You should take on berberitude just as we take on négritude. It should be your political will,” said President Senghor to an audience of 250 Berber people and politicians in attendance at the conference.

Hassan II does not take the comparison well. According to his famous formula, he wanted to admit that “Morocco resembles a tree whose roots plunge deeply into the earth of Africa and which breathes thanks to its foliage, which benefits from the winds of Europe.” Amazigh culture, however, remains the only bad weed to pull up from the garden that is Morocco. He snuffs out the identity debate, supporting some and cracking down on other participants at the conference. The idea is still the same. In 1998, benefiting from the crumbling lead weight established by Hassan II on this question of identity, the cabinet chief of the crown prince, Hassan Aourid, reaffirmed his Amazigh identity by emphasizing the country’s African character. “Should we just forget about the Great Masinissa [an Amazigh king who fought against the Romans in North Africa] who was the first to serve Africa for Africans?” he asked in a chronicle published in Le Journal and addressed to the minister of human rights at the time.

To each their own continent

After a long and tumultuous struggle, the Amazigh have finally been recognized. In their latest victory, the 2011 constitution recognized Amazigh as an official language. African identity, however, has received precious little recognition. Fundamental law expresses this reluctantly. “The constitution of 2011 does away with our African composition under the vague and watered down term of 'affluent Africans,'” Assid points out. This excludes many from the melting pot of Morocco. “The people of southern Morocco define themselves as African because they have always looked toward those in Sub-Saharan Africa, with whom they have shared commercial ties since the Middle Ages. There is an abundance of proverbs evoking the richness of Africa in Sahrawi society,” details anthropologist Mustapha Naimi. The Moroccan dynasties from the south of the country, commercial routes and the trade of ivory, gold and slaves contributed to building a common history. “Sahrawi populations regard the Sahara to be a link, not a dividing zone between two civilizations,” explains Ajlaoui Moussaoui of the IEA in Rabat.

Today, however, this lively praise in the south has fallen on deaf ears in the north. In the study “Daily Islam: a survey of religious values and practices in Morocco,” Moroccans are defined first as Muslims, then as Arabs and only then as Moroccan and Berber. The African component to their identity comes last for more than half of those surveyed. A little less than a quarter of them put it in fourth place. Being African comes in third place for less than 3%.

Living with “the other”

“Africa has become a synonym for poverty and violence for many Moroccans who wish to dissociate themselves from these negative images. This affects the relationships they have with African migrants,” explains sociologist Fatima Ait Ben Lmadani, who studies Moroccan perceptions of Sub-Saharan immigrants.

The trend is on the rise. In 2008, the Moroccan Association of Migrant Studies and Research (AMERM) published a study that concluded that 40% of those surveyed did not relate to Sub-Saharan peoples as their neighbors. Moreover, 70% would refuse to share housing with someone from Sub-Saharan Africa and 60% would not marry someone from this region. Many of the researchers admit they are not surprised by these figures. It represents the refusal to be confused with a “poor African,” added to the dominant-dominated relationship that “pervades our imagination,” explains historian Maati Monjib. Its origins are deeply rooted in history: slavery, armed conquest, pillaging — a bloody trio that represents the darker side of their shared past. The examples are many: in the 16th century, Ahmed El Mansour touched the mineral riches of the Songhai empire (from West Africa). In the 17th century, the Alawite Sultan Moulay Ismail carried out campaigns to capture black Africans as slaves. Arab and Amazigh tribes were, at the time, a vital link in the slave trade. “Arab and Berber superiority as conquerors of Sub-Saharan slaves is anchored in the collective subconscious of Morocco,” explains Monjib.

Normalized racism

This feeling is not manifested equally. Youssouf, a young Senegalese worker, has felt this every day since coming to Morocco a decade ago. “Many Moroccans insist that we are all HIV positive, former mercenaries for Qaddafi, or marabouts ready to cast a spell on them!” However, Youssouf, a Sufi, is used to reading in the newspapers accounts of Tijaniyyah delegations to Rabat who listen to Senegalese imams reading from Moroccan ulemas, showing up early for the others with an image of Epinal on his head. He has always considered Morocco to be a natural extension of his country, thanks to the secular link that has united Senegal to the kingdom for centuries through religious associations. He quickly became disenchanted. “I expected to be welcomed as a brother with common values; however, in reality I’m approached as an 'azzi' who is only good for talking about Sufism!” lamented Youssouf.

In a study by AMERM, the vast majority of Sub-Saharans surveyed felt that they were “held in contempt” or “viewed as inferior or threatening” by Moroccans. Moustapha, a young Senegalese student, testifies to this: “There is a word in Wolof which designates the North Africans as 'Nare.' It is not pejorative whatsoever; however, today it has been turned into an acronym, ‘Non-African Rejected by Europe.'” He sums up the situation well: they refuse to be African while being incapable of being European.

Continue reading this article by registering at no cost and get unlimited access to:
  • Al-Monitor Archives
  • The Week in Review
  • Exclusive Events
  • Invitation-only Briefings

More from  Jules Crétois and Hassan Hamdani