Morocco's Languages and its 'Arab' Identity

A Carpet with Amazigh Designs taken by pietroizzo on Flickr
My most recent post about Morocco's identity as an Arab nation caused a bit of a stir, particularly, and not surprisingly, among Moroccans.

In the piece, I defended Moroccan Arabic in response to comments made by Dr. Reem Bassiouney in the Introduction to her book Arabic Sociolinguistics. She employed an anecdote of meeting a second-generation Moroccan woman in England to describe how she understands the fear that Arabs are losing touch with their nation, thereby insinuating that Moroccan's are somehow 'less Arab' than other Arabs.

I criticized Dr. Bassiouney for using such an example to support such a claim, and noted that her views conform with widely held beliefs about Morocco's 'inferiority' as an Arab nation. I argued that such views are tainted by nationalism and empirically unfounded.

I submitted the piece to MoroccoBoard, an English-language Moroccan news site whose readers seem to be mainly expats, and before it had earned some revealing and thought-provoking comments.

To clarify, my argument against Dr. Bassiouney was on the grounds of language. And though I didn't state this explicitly, I'm frustrated by the notion that Morocco is a bad place to learn Arabic. Thinking that Morocco is 'not very Arab' contributes to this view.

However, my description of the language situation in Morocco was overly simple and demands further explanation.

To state that Morocco is an 'Arab nation' is not accurate because it ignores two important realities. The first is that Amazigh peoples, previously and impolitely known as Berbers, make up roughly a third of the population. Many Amazigh grow up speaking one of several Berber dialects, and many, importantly, are not native Arabic speakers.

Historically, the Amazigh inhabited the countryside, whereas Arabs, who came to Morocco in the 8th century, established and inhabited cities. I would say that relations between Arabs and Amazigh have always been normal, both groups coexisting and intermingling in areas where they lived in proximity to each other. Geography kept the two groups separate, something that has changed with modernization and urbanization in the last century.

Linguistically speaking, Arabic always held an advantage because of Islam. The conversion of Amazigh to Islam introduced Arabic as a 'superior', 'divine' language. Though the Berber dialects remained spoken, they were not used as formal and, most importantly, written languages.

This comment from a reader named "Amazigh" illustrates the nature of Amazigh - Arab relations in Morocco:

Morocco and most north Africa have confused Islam with Arabic.
Being moslem does not make one "ARAB" and Morocco for political reasons has decided to join the Arab League following its independence from France, and Voila, it made a majority Amazigh population "arabic"
Moroccans are not Arab, the Kings after independence wanted to cement their legitimacy and decided to elevate Arabic and marginalize Amazigh.
The results today is that Morocco is full with 'arabized" amazighs.
Yes, darija is widespread in Morocco but for many, including myself, it is not our native language.
we were forced to learn it by various peer pressures, discrimination agains amazigh speakers, who are seen as backward country folks,...etc 
I can't speak to the popularity of opinions like these. Living in Fes, which is perhaps the most Arab city in Morocco, I haven't heard much talk like this. But I know that in the countryside, and particularly in Southern Morocco, Amazigh Nationalism is a living movement. For example, a good friend of mine taught English in Errachidia last year, in Southeast Morocco, near to the Algerian border. A colleague and friend of his was an Amazigh Nationalist and refused to speak Arabic. He viewed it as 'the language of the colonizer.' So instead, he spoke French.

Which brings us to the second reality: French is very much a second language in Morocco.

Though France colonized Morocco for only 44 years, it deeply impacted almost every aspect of Moroccan culture and society. When Morocco won its independence in 1956, it was clear that there would be no real return to Arab tradition. Though Arabic was made the country's official language, all eyes were looking North, to the former colonizer, as a model for modernization.

Like most other Arab countries, Morocco faced an impasse between continuing the development initiated by their foreign colonizers and returning to their Arab roots. The desire to modernize threatened its Arab identity. Though Arabic had itself been modernized in the 19th and early 20th century, it was inappropriate for conducting business on an international stage. No 'Arab' models for economic growth existed at the time. So by default, French, the colonial language, remained in use in administration, business, science, and all other 'modern' fields. And Arabic, though official, only really flourished in traditional fields like the Islamic Sciences.

This linguistic rift only continued to grow, and today, French is ubiquitous. To use Arabic in a business or administrative setting is more or less inappropriate (though necessary for some Moroccans and expats, like yours truly). To many, French represents the future, while Arabic the past. French is the promise of modernity, manifested in personal freedom and economic prosperity. Arabic is the pressure of tradition, which crushes individualism and offers few solutions for the problems of the contemporary world.

Two comments reflect this attitude best. A reader who calls himself 'bAHA' said:

Arabic is incontrovertibly less prestigious than French is in commercial and intellectual life. It is pragmatic not sentimental. Everything follows the economy's lead, including politics, education systems, culture, etc. The % of GDP that comes from the EU vs Arabs tells all you need to know.

He was followed by 'man en blanc' who said:

I wish the European Union would adopt us so we can finally prosper and shed the loser Arab moniker

Coincidentally, I had a conversation with a taxi driver on Tuesday on almost the identical subject. As we drove past the Medina he began talking about how terrible of a place it is, which is not an entirely uncommon opinion. However, his comments were more vehement than any I had heard before. He said he wished the Medina would be "destroyed" and "erased" completely and that something new would be built in its place. He told me that Morocco's "Arab heritage" was holding it back. "Progress is what we need," he said, "we need to look forward. Arabic, the Arabs - the Arabs are worthless."

I still believe that Morocco is undeniably Arab. Islamic and Arab civilization not only influenced but were centered and developed in Morocco for centuries. Some of Morocco's rulers were Arabs, others Amazigh. But all were Muslim and all supported high Arab culture. To look at the nation's history and write off centuries of Arab culture is terribly irresponsible.

At the same time, it's impossible to deny recognition to the Amazigh peoples and their language. This is why making Amazigh an official language was a good move, though sadly I think it happened for purely political reasons, and hollow ones at that.

Similarly, French cannot be ignored and probably will never go away.

So to call Morocco an 'Arab' nation is not accurate. But to deny its Arab identity is equally fallacious. As with most things, the reality of the situation is too complicated to boil down into a few words or sentences.