Is Morocco Really an Arab Nation?

As a member of the Arab League and the Arab-Maghreb Union, with a population classified as 99% Arab or of mixed-Arab origin and Arabic as its official language, Morocco is almost universally and justifiably regarded as an Arab nation. However, there is a considerable amount of evidence to support the claim that Morocco is not particularly Arab at all.

 Image courtesy of Lhossine, © 2012, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Lhossine, © 2012, some rights reserved.

The Arab world is united, first and foremost (and often solely), by its language. Yet Moroccan Arabic, known locally as darija, is almost unintelligible to speakers of most other dialects. A rich and varied mixture of Classical Arabic, French, Spanish and indigenous Berber languages, darija differs dramatically from the formal Modern Standard Arabic (MSA, also referred to by its Arabic name, fus’ha), the official form of Arabic that is used in all Arabic-speaking nations. Although fus’ha is used within the government and in other formal (mostly written) settings, it is almost never spoken. This is of course the case in the majority of Arabic-speaking nations; but in Morocco the absence of Modern Standard Arabic is particularly evident. Despite being the official language of instruction in schools, a large number of Moroccans do not achieve the required level of fluency to enable effective communication, possibly because it is believed that the majority of teachers revert to the local vernacular in order to ensure that their pupils understand their lessons.

In any case, outside of the classroom the majority of Moroccan children are not exposed to fus’ha at all. Moroccan Arabic has a strong cultural and commercial presence; it is the language of most popular television shows, films, radio stations and newspapers. In recent years, darija has enjoyed a rise in popularity and legitimacy, developing from a spoken colloquial dialect to the beginnings of a written language. Although calls to introduce darija as an official language of education are currently being blocked by the Moroccan government, the controversy over what some believe to be prejudice against their mother tongue is becoming impossible to ignore. Critics of darija, including Morocco’s ruling poltical party as well as organisations such as the National Coalition for the Defence of the Arabic Language, believe that encouraging its use “will strip away Morocco’s Arabic [sic] and Islamic identity”. Yet, from a linguistic standpoint it appears that the nation’s people feel a stronger link to their Moroccan identity than to the wider “Arab identity”.

In fact, a large percentage of Moroccans do not identify as Arab at all. In recent years Morocco has seen various high-profile campaigns for greater recognition of its indigenous Amazigh (Berber) population. According to Morocco’s most recent census, 28% of its population identify as Amazigh, although Amazigh organisations claim that the true figure is around 65-70%. Until 2011, Morocco’s Amazigh community faced marginalisation dating back to the process of “Arabisation” that followed Morocco’s independence in 1956. Thanks to the 2011 constitution, Amazigh culture is enjoying a revival, but with the side-effect that the differences between the Berber and Arab cultures are becoming increasingly more apparent. Perhaps the most significant aspect, and one that has caused some controversy, is the greater freedom and higher position in society afforded to women by Amazigh culture.

The Amazigh community’s rejection of Arab co-identification extends beyond the cultural realm into politics. In what was arguably an attempt to control Amazigh activism, the Moroccan state created the Royal Institute of Amazigh Culture, known locally as IRCAM (the acronym for its French name). IRCAM’s primary goal is to maintain the campaign for further official recognition of Amazigh culture, but it remains relatively unheard of, particularly amongst the rural Amazigh communities who arguably need its representation most. However, IRCAM has succeeded in uniting and mobilising larger numbers of Amazigh political activists, many of whom have brought forward ideas that differ radically from those of the “Arabised” government. There are even particular groups who oppose the recognition of the Palestinian state, claiming that Morocco’s position on the matter comes as a result of “Arab imperialism”. Although this is a particularly strong example, it does serve to emphasise the extent of the differences between Arab and Amazigh politics, which in turn demonstrates the lack of representation that Morocco’s Amazigh community suffer from in the country’s entirely “Arabised” political sphere.

Finally, we must also consider Morocco’s historical and enduring relationship with Europe and European culture, which extends far beyond that of a former colony and its former colonial master. Morocco’s late King Hassan II described the nation as “a tree with roots in Africa and branches in Europe”, and although Morocco’s links with the rest of the African continent remain weak, it retains strong ties with the EU, particularly France and Spain. Culturally, Morocco is one of the most liberal Islamic nations, even producing and selling thousands of litres of locally-made wine and beer every year. French is very widely spoken and is often the favoured language of the middle class as well as the language of instruction in most Moroccan universities, whilst Spanish is still frequently used in the north. Politically, Morocco, who even applied to join the EU in its early days, is recognised as its close partner under the European Neighbourhood Policy and is the only country outside of Europe to have signed an open-skies agreement with the EU. Europe, not the Arab world, is Morocco’s principal trading partner, with total EU trade amounting to €27 billion in 2013.

Constitutionally Morocco may be an Arab nation, but evidently its population do not quite fit this same description. Not only are its Amazigh population categorically “not Arab”, it seems that its ethnically Arab population are leaning towards Europe rather than the Arab world for their future opportunities, suggesting that they have little interest in greater Arab integration. With the obvious benefits of closer ties to the EU, it will prove difficult for the Moroccan government and monarchy to prevent them from strengthening. Furthermore, if Morocco wishes to remain in the EU’s favour, it will be required to grant all due recognition to its indigenous population in the name of democracy and fair representation. Morocco’s classification is changing, whether it intends to or not.

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