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Morocco. Berbers and Arabs between past and present

By Michele Lipori and Luigi Sandri

From the magazine “Confronti”, courtesy of the newspaper.

 

A Country with an ancient history where populations of different origins, mainly Muslim, are intermingled, but with important Jewish and Christian presences. The relationship between theocracy and democracy. The growing economic development and the persistence of social contradictions. The commitment to growth of moderate Islam.

The geography itself helps to understand Morocco’s particularity: the Country is the westernmost part – the Maghreb, of that Islam’s belt: This belt, starting from the Atlantic shores, tightens Africa in the north, the Middle East and, through Afghanistan and Pakistan, reach India, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia and finally the southern Philippines and the Pacific. Not just the geographical location characterizes Morocco.

Berbers and Arabs. Theocracy and democracy

Not many remember that even the northern part of modern Morocco was part of the Roman Empire, as evidenced by ruins of palaces and temples. If Rome was in command, the native people were mainly Berber, a population that then inhabited a large part of North Africa , and was dominated by various kings. Some of them gave a hard time to foreign rulers who – as far as Morocco is concerned – never dared to venture into the valleys of the Atlas Mountains.
Then came the Byzantines and the natives Arabs became Muslims; this was about seventy years after the death of Mohammed (632 of the Christian era). From the eighth century onwards and for almost a millennium, Morocco has an alternation of Arab and Berber dynasties.
In 711 Arabs and Berbers arrived in Spain, occupied a large part of the Country; gradually they were rejected by the victorious Hispanic reconquista, in 1492 and also lost Granada, their last bastion in the Iberian Peninsula. Just over a century later, the Alawite dynasty (not to be confused with the Alawites of Syria!), took over Morocco and still reign now. But since 1912 the Country became a French protectorate, until 1956, when it gained independence.

From the constitutional point of view, the sovereign (Mohammed VI, since 1999), as well as the highest political authority, is also the “guide of believers”, that is the Muslims of Morocco, because he claims of descending from the Prophet Mohammed. According to the revised Constitution, approved by a referendum in 2011, “the king nominates a prime minister, an expression of the majority party, but maintains a strict control over the executive, creating a conflict of competences that slows political activity” ( Atlante De Agostini 2015 Calendar). The last political elections, in 2011, brought to Parliament deputies of a dozen parties, the first of which is the PJD, the Party of Justice and Development, moderate Islamist (Moroccan branch of the Muslim Brotherhood movement), which therefore expressed the premier, Abdelilah Benkirane. Although in part different for programs, all political formations must absolutely respect the dynasty in power: an anti-monarchist movement would not be allowed.

The king represents two authorities in one single person; the political one of a constitutional monarchy and the religious one over the Muslim community; this establishment is a singular mixture of democracy and theocracy. However, Muslim North Africa is Sunni, and not Shiite. It is not accepted that a Muslim changes religion. From their point of view, non-Muslims are respected, and can freely follow their religion, provided that they do not proselytize. For non-Muslims, it is forbidden to enter mosques (a prohibition that does not exist in many other Muslim majority countries), except in the astonishing – for architectural daring and wealth of ornaments – Casablanca mosque built by Hassan II and inaugurated in 1993. The peaceful coexistence between different ethnic groups and religions, in a Country that is also heavily Muslim, is a fixed point for the Moroccan regime: this is the leitmotif that we are constantly repeating, and confirmed by members of the minority confessions. Just as we were in Rabat, the photo of Mohammed VI was in the newspapers, accompanied by his lady and son, who in Ankara made a private visit to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was also accompanied by his wife. Well, the Turkish first lady wears the veil; the queen of Morocco, on the other hand, is dressed as a western ruler, and without a veil. Clothing aside, many observers believe that the sovereign’s wife has a beneficial influence on him to promote “liberal” reforms, as has happened with regard to women’s rights.

“God, homeland, king”: Morocco’s motto is to be seen everywhere, you can view it’s meaning on the ridges of some mountains of the Middle and High Atlas that we have crossed, being impressed by the beauty of snowy peaks, green valleys and fertile crops ( wonderful expanses of olive trees!). As a matter of fact, the “Arab springs” did not involve Morocco: have you asked yourself why? Some suggest that many reforms requested by the demonstrators in other Arab countries, in Morocco are already reality: “Why protest, then?”

Rabat’s authorities consider Morocco different from other non-“oil” Arab countries: it has a stable economic growth, currently about 4% per annum; free school and health care; facilities for crafts that otherwise would risk disappearing; regulations that favor foreign investments. Also to consider the halving of the oil cost, imported from Saudi Arabia and gas from Algeria.
Morocco is the first African Country for exports to Russia, in particular fruit and vegetables; products that cannot pass through Europe, given the EU sanctions against Moscow. In the Moroccan cities, a high level of life can be seen in some neighborhoods; but there are also poor areas and for the people who live on the villages scattered on the Atlas, health care is very problematic.

In foreign affairs, although Morocco is part of the Arab League, it has a relatively moderate attitude towards Israel (various leaders of this Country have gone to Rabat); and is keen to have friendly relations with the United States of America and with the European Union; it also welcomes Chinese investment willingly.

Reading Le Matin, a French newspaper published in Rabat, we noticed a curious particular: they publish the Western date (i.e. December 30th , 2014); the Muslim calendar, i.e. 7 Rabii (month) 1436; also the Jewish date, 8 Tevet 5775, and even the Berbers’ date, which has a particular reckoning of time: 2964. Of the latter we read the year, but not the month, written in tifinagh, the Berber alphabet, for us indecipherable. Today in Morocco about 45% of the population is Berber, just as Arab, then there are other minorities. The dominating language is Arabic, then Berber. Berber has several dialectal ramifications; there are no newspapers in Berber. The two ethnic groups – mix together in the cities, while in the mountains, people in villages are only Berber; they live in peaceful coexistence: and this is a good way of life for the future. Because difficult challenges and complex geopolitical situations are common to and in Morocco; but the wisdom of its people is also great.
Hopefully this will prevail.

(published on “Confronti, February 2015)

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Glossary

Berbers: word used by the Greeks and Romans to indicate foreign foreign; the Berber people were founded on egalitarian principles, partly also of a Christian nature.