Not Only the Sahrawis: Morocco’s Treatment of the Amazigh Raises A Few Questions
By Adina Friedman
(Translation of my short article published in Hebrew in the Forum for Regional Thinking, originally written for an Israeli audience)
The Amazigh New Year – celebrated on January 13th – symbolizes the beginning of the agrarian year and is often an opportunity to raise awareness of the Amazigh struggle for equality and recognition. It is celebrated by millions throughout North Africa. In Morocco, considered perhaps the most moderate and inclusive country on the continent, it is not officially recognized despite its popularity. So what does this say about Israel’s new friend?
January 13th marks the Amazigh New Year – Eid Yanayir – which is celebrated by millions in Morocco and across North Africa. In Algeria it has been recognized since 2017 as a national holiday, though in Morocco, which is known as more tolerant and inclusive, it is still not recognized as such. There are those who claim the holiday is nothing but a French invention with no authentic historical value, and that the request to officially recognize it should therefore be denied, despite its wide popularity. Others claim the holiday’s origins lie in the Amazigh victory over the Egyptians in the year 950 BC. For most Imazighen the holiday symbolizes the beginning of the agrarian year, and it is celebrated mostly with festivals and other cultural events. While the holiday itself is not political, it serves as an opportunity to bring up various political and historical grievances connected to the Amazigh struggle for equality and for recognition of their heritage and culture.
In Israel and in the world, there is a tendency to view Morocco as a symbol of tolerance and multi-culturalism. In fact, at least on the official-declarative level Morocco has adopted a diverse and inclusive national identity. If we compare, for example, Morocco’s 2011constitution – which mentions the contributions of Amazigh, Jews, and others to Morocco’s heritage – to Israel’s Nation-State Law of 2018, it seems Morocco and Israel are moving in opposite directions. The Arabic language in Israel has lost its official status and there are continuous attempts (albeit not always successful) to exclude it from the public sphere. The Amazigh language in Morocco, on the other hand, has been upgraded to the status of an official language, and today it is learned in schools and appears on signage throughout the kingdom.
The treatment of Jews in Morocco attests to a positive attitude towards multi-culturalism. Many Jewish cemeteries and synagogues have been preserved by Muslims for decades and renovated under the king’s auspices in recent years. The inauguration of museums and Jewish houses of memory has been initiated by Jewish community leaders and attended by the king. Recently, Morocco decided to teach Jewish history as part of its school curriculum. There are many cultural and sustainable-development initiatives that bridge between different communities. Morocco reminds us that there are historical precedents of good relations between Muslims and Jews, and that Jewishness and “Arabness” (or Jewish and Amazigh identities) can coexist both
within the same person and within the same country.
Despite admirable co-existence, under the surface the complexities of Jewish-Muslim and Arab-Amazigh relations are revealed. When two Moroccans meet, they quickly “position” each other geographically and culturally, the relate to one another accordingly. In spite of declarations (which are mostly sincere) of mutual respect, behind closed doors there is often a degree of mistrust towards members of other communities. In other words, the salient identity of many Moroccans (mostly those who are under-privileged) continues to be ethnic-linguistic- geographical rather than all-Moroccan.
The influence of Amazigh culture and language are felt in every corner and aspect of the kingdom, which challenges Morocco’s official definition as an “Arab” country. But despite their high numbers and the fact that they predate others in Morocco, Imazighen in Morocco are marginalized and deprived in different ways. To some extent, the marginalization is the result of an existing reality rather than intentional policy, given that most of those living in Morocco’s geographical periphery – which are physically very distant from its center – are Amazigh. Although efforts to decentralize began decades ago, Morocco inherited from the French a highly centralized political, administrative, and economic system which is hard to uproot, so that poverty and underdevelopment have been cumulative over many years. Despite this, among Morocco’s political and economic elites there are many whose ethnic-linguistic origin is Amazigh. Often definitions of Amazigh versus Arabs, like Israeli categories of “Ashkenazim” and “Mizrahim,” are related more to class and privilege than to Ethnic origin per se.
The situation of the Amazigh people parallels in many respects that of Palestinians in Israel, in terms of their demands for equality and claims of indigenous rights, in the face of efforts to suppress their national aspirations; their inferior socio-economic status and their deprivation in development and in resource allocation; and until recently the marginalization of their culture and language. The “folklorization” of the Imazighen – which often renders them “exotic” objects while neutralizing them politically and intellectually – reminds us of the “folklorization” of Bedouin, Druze, Moroccans, or other “Easterners” (“Mizrahim”) in Israel, whose place is usually limited to the fields of food and folklore, while their literary and intellectual contributions have almost no place in the Israel Canon.
The affinity and empathy that many Imazighen feel towards Jews and Israel often stem more from their historical grievances towards the Arabs (which reminds us of “Mizrahi” affinity towards right-wing parties in Israel stemming more from grievances toward the “Left”). Likewise, claims and accusations of solidarity with Israel are a tool for the de-legitimization of Imazighen by others. For example, a visit I organized back in 2013 for a group of academics from Israel to an Amazigh cultural club in Tinghir, was publicized the next day as a visit by “Jewish academics”, likely in order to highlight the club’s multi-culturalism. On the other hand, in a number of Islamist (Arab) online outlets the same visit was publicized – by people who did not even attend it – as “a visit of Zionist military veterans”. Amazigh cultural activists our group had met in Rabat were described as anti-Islamists, and anti-Islamic insults - that had never been expressed - were attributed to them and to the Israelis. In other words, expressed attitudes toward Israel are often a manifestation of intra-Moroccan identity dynamics and rivalries between Arabs and Amazigh, or between Islamists and secularists/moderates.
Examining the complexities of Moroccan society can teach us a great deal about various inter-faith and inter-communal models for co-existence, and about the ways in which Morocco has chosen to encompass its multiple identities; but idealization of and the reminiscence over an imagined present of past do us a disservice. There are some in Israel who claim that, as part of the struggle for social justice, Israel needs to “Arabize” or “easternize”. In and of themselves, neither of these will ensure social justice that includes gender, distributional, religious, or cultural equality. What we should do, is aspire to a society that adequately represents the identities, cultures, and aspirations of its members and which does not deny or marginalize them.
Morocco faces many challenges, among them demands by its marginalized communities for inclusion and recognition, and the full implementation of the changes included in the 2011 constitution. At least on the formal level, it seems Morocco is progressing in the right direction. If it continues this way, it is possible that in the future Eid Yanayir will be celebrated as an official holiday symbolizing recognition, inclusion, and tolerance.