I cringe every time the word “identity” is buzzed in a conversation about Morocco. How can one speak of a unified identity in a country as culturally, linguistically, and ethnically diverse as Morocco? The Hassaniya dialect spoken by Morocco’s Sahrawa is not understood by the Moroccan Berbers of the Rif or the Arabs of the center; the Tamazight of the Rif is different from the Tachelhit of Souss; the Arabic dialect of Fez and Meknes contrast with that of Marakesh and Safi; the food, the dress, the dance and the music are all different.
Culture is critical in the formation of identity; it entails social processes and requires the participation of all individuals who share that particular culture. Since not all Moroccans participate in the different social processes idiosyncratic to the different cultures in the country, it is safe to say that there is no such thing as a Moroccan cultural identity. But we flaunt diversity like an Olympic flame. Our celebration of it is only aesthetic thanks to decades worth of a Hassanian campaign to infuse into the Moroccan psyche an inflated sense of national identity. Years of nationalistic epics, odes, and indoctrinating news extolling the king and glorifying our national unity. We see its manifestation today when Moroccan flags are incongruously waved on the stage of studio 2M and other venues that are supposedly apolitical.
It is, in my opinion, impossible to characterize today’s Moroccan identity without discussing the histories, cultures, and ethnicities by which it has been influenced and in which it is deeply anchored. We can not freeze a single frame of the Moroccan identity, brand it, and apply that definition to all the previous or even the future frames. The Moroccan identity has gone through significant formative phases and continues to transmogrify in response to not just the national environment, but the international one as well.
Prior to 1912, the Moroccan identity as we recognize it today did not exist. The country was host to a multitude of identities that were malignantly tribal with a predominantly exclusive imperative for cultural, linguistic and economic survival. During those benighted times, the hostilities between clans vying for regional ascendancy transcended ethnicity and religion as an individual’s circle of fealty had shrunk to the village and family levels. Diversity was not especially in vogue and brutal and long lasting clashes raged between Moroccan Arab tribes, as well as Berber ones, over wells, agricultural lots, markets, supply routes, and security. Different tribes and ethnicities did form coalitions in response to common threats – such as the Alaouite central government, France, and Spain, but they still remained separate entities.
Administering such fragmented regions proved to be a challenge to Sultan Abdelhafid. He was unable to control rebellious tribes – Berber and Arab – by whom he was never attorned. The country’s economy was sucked into a vortex of utter insolvency. It is within this context of political and ethnic division that France tightened its grip on the country. By 1905, it had control over the majority of Morocco’s institutions to include the military. Although the March 30, 1912 treaty of Fez maintained Morocco’s legal standing as a sovereign country, Sultan Abdelhafid, who a year earlier was besieged by revolting tribesmen in Fez and was rescued by an urgent deployment of French troops, abdicated and sailed off to France. His brother Moulay Youssef took over, but during his 15 year reign he was not involved in the decision making process affecting the country.
To maximize on the economic and political exploitation of Morocco, Resident-General Hubert Lyautey undertook exhaustive social, economic, and political reforms the effects of which are still visible today.
While a few tribes acquiesced in their own subordination due to a dearth of insurgency ingenuity and military means, others stood as bastions against the colonizers’ advances. The Sahraoui tribes, led by Ma Al-Aaynayn, launched relentless attacks against the French starting in the 1910s and came close to conquering Marrakesh; it took a joint French-Spanish military effort to finally subdue them in 1934, the year Smara fell. Similarly, a coalition of Jebli Tribes in northern Morocco, led by Abdelkrim Al-Khattabi and his brother Mohammad, rose with stubborn ferocity against the Spanish troops in 1921 and spectacularly defeated them in the battle of Annual. Initially, Abdelkarim’s military goal was to interdict Spanish troops from advancing into Beni Waryaghil territory. The mobilization of thousands of Sahraouis in the south and Jeblis in the north was, at first, nothing more than a tribal response to a foreign incursion. It was not triggered by militant nationalistic ideals.
A number of tribal visionaries saw in the French and Spanish presence a strategic threat to their autonomy and realized that, against such numerous and well-equipped foes, an armed union was a necessary bulwark, but a national political representation that would engage the colonizers at a diplomatic front would yield better results. The Moroccan Action Committee was created in 1934 and the publication of its Moroccan Reform Plan planted the seed of Morocco’s national identity.
Kings Mohammed V and Hassan II learned from the mistakes of Sultans Abdelhafid and Yousef. They understood that the Alaouite rule is dependent on the homogenizing quality of a national identity that emphasizes Morocco’s territorial integrity free of any foreign interference and the unifying value of the king. They had a good grasp of the principles that tie strategic politics and economy with national identity. Economists Rachel Kranton of Duke University and George Akerlof, a 2001 Nobel Laureate in Economic, explained those principles in their recently published book “Identity Economics.” They argue that when people consider themselves an integral part of a social, economic, or political group, they tend to optimize their identity utility by applying a higher level of effort to the benefit of the group.
The national identity was enforced as a strategic policy immediately after the independence when those tribesmen who engaged the French and Spanish troops in bloody armed skirmishes were massacred by Morocco’s Royal Armed Forces – an army trained and equipped by France – when they refused to integrate the ranks of the king’s military. Whole villages were annihilated and scores of tribal political leaders fled to neighboring countries or were assassinated. Others were offered unstinting political and economic incentives to reward them for their cooperation. The systematic suppression of politicized identity reclamations, Berber or Arab, that were deemed by the government to highlight cultural differences and therefore were divisive and posit a strategic threat, was more pronounced under the watch of Hassan II.
After the passing of Hassan II, the government relaxed its measures. Morocco entered a conciliatory phase that was, it was hoped, opportune to providing Moroccans with a greater sense of shared citizenship based on the mutual respect and common destiny of the different ethnicities and cultures that compose it. But despite its recognition, in 2001, of the Berber culture as an integral aspect of the Moroccan identity, the formation of the Royal Institute of the Berber Culture, and allowing Tachelhit to be taught in primary schools, the exclusive national identity policy Hassan II so fanatically imposed remains in effect. The Moroccan Civil Registry still rejects, in accordance with law 99-37, ethnically flavored names because, as Driss Bajdi once said, “they contradict the Moroccan identity.” An identity that unifies all and rejects all.