Saturday, March 26, 2016

Morocco - A Question of Identity

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. (Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)
We are not an Arab country, but rather Maghrebi, and our history comes from Berber origins” - Samira Sitail
When Samira Sitail, Director of Information at Morocco’s second national TV channel, 2M, said in an interview on Radio Aswat, that Morocco is not an Arab country, her comments met with a mixed reaction. While many Moroccans claimed that she was correct, others disputed it.

Samira Sitail emphasised Morocco’s Amazigh roots

The question of identity in Morocco is complex, given the historical melting pot of cultures that have contributed to the Kingdom. According to the preamble of the Moroccan constitution adopted in July 2011, Morocco is a “sovereign Muslim state whose unity was forged by the convergence of its Arab-Islamic, Amazigh and Saharan-Hassani components, which were enriched by its African, Andalusian, Hebraic and Mediterranean influences.”

“We must be proud of our roots and our origins and move away from useless debates now,” Sitail said. But within days of her remarks being reported by Morocco World News an Algerian TV anchor, Khadija Benguenna, refuted Sitail's the statement.

The anchor, who works with the Doha-based Al Jazerra channel, said, “Morocco is a genuine Arab country, whether people like it or not.”

The Algerian journalist’s statement on her Facebook page where she has over 7.5 million followers, went viral on social media with several thousand people sharing it or commenting on it. Comment varied between people who support her statement and those who challenge her and ask her to provide historical facts that support it.

Khadija Benguenna challenged Samira Sitail

The word Imazighen (singular Amazigh) means "free born" and is the preferred term to the more commonly used "Berbers" which is an offensive hangover from the Romans and Greeks, who labeled almost everyone they didn't understand as "barbarians".

The Imazighen desire to establish a national identity gained ground in 2001 and 2002 with demonstrations taking place in Morocco and Algeria, calling for official acceptance of Imazighen identity and state-funded education in the Amazigh language. However, before Morocco's adoption of the 2011 constitution it was uncommon to see prominent personalities challenge the idea that Morocco is an Arab country. Now that is changing.

On the streets of Fez, people of both Arab and Amazigh backgrounds are quick to point out that "we are not Arab, neither are we African - we are Maghrebi!"

Getting accurate statistics of the number of Imazighen is problematic as a proper census does not appear to have been taken. Numbers claimed vary widely and are complicated by the fact that the number of people identifying as Imazighen is lower than the actual number. Some sources claim Imazighen represent as many as 80% of the population in Morocco and Algeria, more than 60% in Tunisia and Libya and 2% in Egypt, altogether some 50 million people.  It is also suggested that centuries of cultural "Arabisation" has persuaded many Imazighen, particularly in the cities, to adopt the Arabic language. The number of people perceiving themselves as Amazigh is hence much lower.

A 1995 report suggests about 30% of Moroccans are Amazigh-speaking, with the main Amazigh dialects being Tarifit, Techelhit and Central Morocco Tamazight. Director of the Royal Institute of the Amazigh Culture, Ahmed Boukoss, believes that Moroccans who previously may have rejected the notion that they may have Amazigh ancestry, are warming to the idea and developing a pride in Morocco’s Amazigh dimension. Although Moroccans commonly base their identity on French and Arab influences, it is believed that the majority of Moroccans have Amazigh ancestry

Wikipedia claims there are between 13 to 20 million Imazighen in Morocco.
There are some twenty-five to thirty million Berber speakers in North Africa. The number of ethnic Berbers (including non-Berber speakers) is far greater, as a large part of the Berbers have acquired other languages over the course of many decades or centuries, and no longer speak Berber today. The majority of North Africa's population is believed to be Berber in origin, although due to Arabisation most ethnic Berbers identify as Arabised Berbers - Wikipedia
The Amazigh flag

The Imazighen identity is however, wider than language and ethnicity, and encompasses the entire history and geography of North Africa. Imazighen are not an entirely homogeneous ethnicity and they encompass a range of phenotypes, societies and ancestries. The unifying forces for the Imazighen people may be their shared language, belonging to the Imazighen homeland, or a collective identification with heritage and history.

On the Middle East Research and Information Project website Paul Silverstein and David Crawford wrote lucidly about the changing stature of the Imazighen culture in Morocco. They trace the major change back to October 17th, 2001, when King Mohammed VI set up the Royal Institute of the Amazigh Culture, known in Morocco by its French name, l’Institut Royal de la Culture Amazigh, or IRCAM.

When primary school students in the major Tamazight-speaking regions of Morocco returned to class in September 2004, for the first time ever they were required to study the Tamazight language. The mandatory language classes in the Rif, the Middle Atlas, the High Atlas and the Sous Valley represented the first significant policy change implemented IRCAM

Silverstein and Crawford point out that this royal edict, or dahir, represented a dramatic reversal of legal discrimination against Imazighen and an explicit attempt to reclaim their culture as “a principal element of national culture, as a cultural heritage present across all stages of Moroccan history and civilisation.” Since Moroccan nationalist discourse has tended to emphasise links to the high culture of Arab-Islamic civilisation, and in particular the royal patriline leading back to the Prophet Muhammad, the dahir indicated a shift in, or at least an amendment to, the official national imaginary. Instead of posing Imazighen culture as a challenge to national unity, the king promoted embracing it as a necessary step in his project for a “democratic and modernist society.”

Imilchil Festival 

Critics of IRCAM say it has undermined the work of some Imazighen NGOs and further divided the gap between rural and urban communities. They also say that IRCAM is turning some aspects of the culture into "folkloric tourist events". Silverstein and Crawford say a potent example of this monopolisation is the Imilchil festival, the annual High Atlas moussem, where young Berber men and women marry supposedly outside of familial negotiations. "Promoted by the Moroccan state over the last ten years as a tourist destination, the festival had become an opportunity for local cultural associations to support their yearly activities by vending High Atlas Berber arts and crafts, or by being paid by the state for their musical and dance performances. In 2004, however, the moussem was taken over by IRCAM and the Rabat-based Centre Tarik bin Zyad run by Hassan Aourid, which promoted it as an “Amazigh” event, bringing in performance groups from across Morocco, Algeria, France and Canada. Local associations were excluded from the organization and enactment of the festival, a symbolic and financial blow that has elicited much criticism".

Many other Imazighen activists are happy with the changes and the inclusion of language in schools. There is, however, an ongoing dispute about the Tifinagh alphabet being used. There are at least eight different versions of the Tifinagh alphabet and the one chosen by IRCAM is the ancient  script while almost all dictionaries and books available are in the Latin alphabet. Many experts argue that using the Latin script would make learning Tifinagh much easier and promote the spread of the language.

Amina Zioual, President of The Voice of the Amazigh Woman 

The struggle for Amazigh culture is also a feminist issue and there are many strong women's voices in the ongoing debates.

“Women’s groups always speak of ‘the Arab woman’ but we are not Arab women — we have an Amazigh culture, language and identity which has nothing to do with the Arab woman from the Middle East,” says Amina Zioual, President of The Voice of the Amazigh Woman .

Suggested further reading : An interesting article "Morocco’s indigenous Amazigh women unite against Islamists and Arab elites"

While saying there is still much to be done, many scholars are quick to point out that they feel the last decade has been one of progress. One thing is beyond question; the Amazigh culture is an essential and valuable part of Moroccan identity - in the past and in the future.

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