In my own life, I start from the premise that identity is a fluid thing. It starts with our origins in family and culture, is informed by our qualities as man or woman, straight or gay, rational or sentimental, introvert or extrovert — our inborn talents and defects — and evolves over time according to our life experiences, our encounters with all the other identities out there in the world. Since humans are learning creatures, identity is a journey, a changing thing.
So what is “Moroccan identity”? From the above definition, it follows that there are as many Moroccan identities as there are Moroccans. There are also identities for groups of Moroccans, such as Rifians, Fassis, Soussis, Moroccans living abroad, Moroccan women, Moroccan youth, Islamists, secularists, nonbelievers, urban elites, rural poor, Moroccan artists, Moroccan entrepreneurs, and so forth. Because these definitions slice through society in various ways, any one Moroccan is likely to belong to several of these groups. Finally there is the identity of Morocco as a whole, which is itself changing, evolving over time along with its parts.
What makes a Moroccan a Moroccan? Shared history, culture and physical space, a common language (darija) and religion (Islam) — though here we must note Morocco’s Tamazight speakers and important Jewish minority. But whatever differences exist, the common cultural threads ensure that a Moroccan from Marrakech knows he is still in Morocco when visiting Nador, and a Moroccan from Figuig can go to Casablanca without leaving his country. This can’t be said for a trip to Egypt or Mali, much less to Mexico or China.
In the past, the official line spoke of Moroccan identity in political terms, and insisted on unity. This can be seen in the famous “red lines” of monarchy, religion and the Sahara. The king is the ultimate symbol of national unity, Islam is Morocco’s unifying religion, and the territorial unity of the nation is not to be questioned. The same thinking can be seen in the phrase “Allah, al-Watan, al-Malik” (“God, Nation, King”) to be seen on hillsides around Morocco. Still, this thinking is rather old school, and I think even the state realizes it. It comes from a fear that Morocco may splinter through tribal or regional rivalry, but that is no longer the case.
Moroccans today are known for their mobility, whether from the countryside to the cities, from region to region, or even to nations around the world. Casablanca is a melting pot where one in every four Moroccans lives. Most Moroccans have family living in other parts of the country. Young people, more than half the population, interact with the world through the internet and commercial media, and define their Moroccanness against that background. With all this movement and interaction, Moroccan identity today is more personal than political, and it comes from within. That makes for a stronger unity than any dogma.
Yet there are tensions, as in any nation. Some Moroccans see Islam as the center of their lives, and insist on its superiority to all other religions. Some value their Amazigh roots and traditions, and consider Arab culture to be an intruder, fourteen centuries after the fact. Some see themselves as part of an urban elite that is helping to move Morocco forward, and disdain the superstition and backwardness of simple folk. At times, these contrasting visions come into conflict and create shocks. How can the same nation that has wireless modems, have old men with donkey carts roaming the streets? How can young people express themselves freely through music and cinema, when the views of religious conservatives still dominate the debate?
Two conversations I had a week apart will help to illustrate the problem. The first was with a young man who works in an open-air restaurant in Jemaa el Fna, the famous plaza of Marrakech. It was during the Israeli invasion of Gaza, and he expressed his anger that the West was enabling that massacre. He said the West had lost its way and needed to turn to Islam. I said that Islam wasn’t the answer to everything, and there would still be injustice in the world even if everyone was a Muslim. He insisted that Islam was the answer. I told him that for me, what matters in life is to ask questions and to seek to do what’s best. I’ve studied Islam and read the Qur’an, but I see it as one of many possible paths. I’m not looking for one set of answers, because the questioning itself is what’s important. He accused me of studying Islam in bad faith, or I would have accepted its proofs and become a Muslim. “Thank God I’m a Muslim,” he said, “because I have all the answers I need. You’re twice my age and still asking questions!”
The second conversation was with a young programmer from Rabat who has turned away from Islam entirely. He mentioned that his boss, as a reward for his work, was offering him a few days’ vacation at a five-star hotel near Marrakech. The hotel featured a circus act with nude female trapeze artists. I expressed shock that such a thing was possible in Morocco (in fact I doubt that it’s true), and he asked me why. I said that in a country with such large divisions between rich and poor, those who can afford a five-star hotel shouldn’t indulge in tastes that fly in the face of what ordinary people consider common decency. I was trying to point out that by turning itself into a playground for foreign tourists and local elites, Morocco risks alienating its poor and conservative majority, who will feel excluded both economically and morally. If he wanted to show me signs of Moroccan progress, maybe he should find examples that do more to serve the common interest? He accused me of being an Islamist and cut off the conversation. (We have since made up.)
So in the space of one week, I was accused of being an Islamist by one friend, and a denier of Islam by another, all while trying to stake out what I saw as a moderate position. This shows the contrasts that exist in Morocco, as people seek to define their Moroccan identity. If my two friends ever came in contact, surely they would have nothing to say to each other. One would see the other as having strayed from his faith, while the other would see the first as a dogmatic fool. Still, both of my friends share a Moroccan identity. They are products of the same culture, the same basic reality, even though they have made different choices from there. And Morocco has room for both of them.
Having lived in Morocco for four of the past seven years, I can say without question that it is a remarkably peaceful country. Moroccans are by nature tolerant, and tend to back away from conflict. They coexist even at times when coexistence is uneasy. This is a great help when dealing with the growing pains of moving a country with ancient traditions into the global age. The shock of contrasts is real, but so is the coexistence. The old man wandering the streets with his donkey cart, the rural shepherd, the urban rapper, the Islamist doctor, the human rights crusader, the ambitious fashion designer, the painter who drinks too much, are all real — and they all share the same space.
All these individual Moroccan identities share a common identity, which is also Moroccan. Moroccan identity is diverse, and changing with the times. Celebrating this as a strength will ensure Morocco its place in a changing world.