Amazigh: The Berbers of Morocco


    According to an article appearing 17 November 2007, in a Spanish language web site that monitors events in northern Morocco: “If you take a stroll by the Moorish cafes of the marginal barrios of Melilla, you will discover all sorts of gossip and news concerning both sides of the frontier. When the news is real, it will spread [by] word of mouth much before it is published, especially if it concerns the Rif. Although the Moors of Melilla are Spanish Muslims, they are Rifians and it is no surprise they are interested in that land. As happened this summer, with the bellicose Rifian bands who raised again their aspirations for independence, led as always by the Beni Urriageul (Aith Waryaghar) who were the ones who sallied forth in the harka formations under the famous Abdel Krim.... And these days rumors have proliferated once more in the Berber lands of Morocco: it is said that students of the Amazigh Cultural Movement in some Moroccan universities have been mistreated and arrested, impeding the use of their millennial language…. And now, taking advantage of the international colloquium on ‘Federal and Autonomous Entities in the World and in Morocco,’ which took place in Nador this past summer, the Confederation of Amazigh Cultural Associations of Northern Morocco declared that the Great Rif exists as a geographic entity situated between the Atlantic and Algeria on one side and the Mediterranean and the southern slopes of the Rifian Mountains on the other side, but the right of peoples to self-determination has not been taken into account ... the Great Rif ... should be granted autonomous status, given its historic, geographic and cultural characteristics....”

    Ethnic nationalism has been defined euphemistically as a quest for an “imagined community.” Nationalism itself usually presupposes a collective desire for statehood. In general, ethnic nationalists want to create a nation-state based on their ethnicity. However, realism may dictate that complete independence may not be viable, for example, the stateless Kurds divided among several countries, all of them hostile to Kurdish nationalism. In such cases, regional autonomy is sought within the context of an overarching state. Accordingly, the cited Confederation of Amazigh Cultural Associations asked for autonomy for the Great Rif, not independence. The Rifians realize their homeland has insufficient resources to sustain an independent state and see themselves as inextricably linked to the Moroccan economy. In general, the Berber intellectuals who have spearheaded the ethnic nationalist movement have been careful not to present themselves as separatists. They insist they are not against the Arabic language and culture which is central to Moroccan national identity. What they seek is equality. They do not want to eliminate Arab influence; they simply do not accept it as predominant and intolerant. A key example of the forced Arabization which they reject is the 1996 decree banning the use of Berber names in registering newborn children, mandating all must be given Arabic names. Berbers view this decree, which still stands, as unjustified and abusive. Instead, they make sophisticated arguments, employing Western concepts and examples, arguing “strength through diversity.” Morocco, according to them, would be a better nation if it embraced its minority ethnic groups, and their traditions, rather than insist on a spurious homogeneity.

    As the Ashelhi case suggests, the Arab-Berber dichotomy continues to be a key factor in understanding Moroccan society in general, and Moroccan tribes in particular. The Berbers themselves argue, with increasing vigor, that they are a separate race of people, completely different from the Arabs, who have oppressed them ever since they arrived in the 7th century. Increasingly, educated, urban Berbers refuse to even use the term Berber, referring to it as a pejorative word imposed by foreign imperialists. Instead, they refer to themselves as Imazighen, “free men” in the Berber language (Amazigh being the singular). They are promoting, for the first time in history, a pan-Berber movement, which not only encompasses all Moroccan Berbers, but the rest of North Africa as well, and even the Canary Islands. This ethnic nationalism is a fundamental departure from the localism and tribalism which still holds sway in the traditional Berber communities of the Rif and the Atlas mountain ranges and the Sous valleys.