Inventing Ethnic Identities in the Colonial Maghreb

The colonizing regimes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have often all too quickly been represented as monolithic blocs of power that envisioned all colonized subjects as inferiors. This thesis has been countered many times over, resulting in the ruling academic opinion that colonizer-colonized relations were not always straightforward. Moreover, it has been suggested that colonizing regimes played out internal cultural differences in order to categorize their subjects and organize daily life in the colony (Stoler & Cooper, 1997). The way in which colonial administrators and scholars thought about culture and ‘race’ were, however, far more ambiguous and ambivalent (Young, 1995). For instance, in French colonial discourse on Morocco and Algeria, ‘Arabs’ and ‘Berbers’ were at some point not merely seen as distinct cultural and ethnic ‘groups’. The difference was also objectified (Hammoudi, 1997; Laroui, 2011). French ethnologists and administrative staff re-interpreted existing social relations and political structures and henceforth obstructed a more lifelike representation of Moroccan society.

In the pre-colonial era, the transmission of baraka (religious blessing) from the sultan through religious brotherhoods and patron saints proved of particular importance in maintaining a balance of power. A division between secular and religious power probably had a hand in the way in which the French administrators conceived of local power. The sultan’s empire was thought of as precarious. Precisely because he was only widely recognized as a religious leader, the French were convinced his position had withheld Morocco from becoming a ‘true nation’ (Hammoudi, 1997).

The intertwinement of colonial policies and human sciences, and ethnographic practice in particular, was thoroughly acknowledged by Talal Asad in Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter, published in Asad, 1973. In Orientalism (Said, 1978) and Orientalism Reconsidered (Said, 1985), Edward Said argued that the context within which our historical, ethnographic and geographical knowledge was produced was in fact a violent one. Said poignantly stressed the bond between representation on the one hand and knowledge production on the other: the ties between Western ethnocentrism and a Western epistemic order (see discussion in Young, 2004: 165-168).

This evidently also holds true for French colonialism in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia and the French doctrine of assimilation that came to dominate the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The French viewed their acquisitions abroad as full-fledged French regions and extensions of the French Republic. Assimilation of local populations was seen as the key to civilization. Inspired by these ideas of assimilation and regionalism, French intellectuals and policymakers envisioned North Africa as a region naturally belonging to France. The concept of assimilation entailed the belief that all humans were inherently equal and that this could be achieved through education. Hence, French ethnologists developed the so-called ‘Berber canon’ in which the Berbers were described as more civilized and secularized than the Arabs.

Though often linked to French Enlightenment philosophy, the doctrine of assimilation was broadly held in the European continent from the midnineteenth century onwards. Together with the concept of regionalism, it underscored much of the political ideas during the French Third Republic: native elites could be, and were as a matter of fact, assimilated into colonial administrations (Betts, 2005). In both France and Spain, debates on how to administer colonial subjects and how to locate the colonies in homeland politics were tied to debates on national identity (Martin-Marquez, 2008; Silverstein, 2002). When the French acquired Morocco, their ideologies had already been put to the test in Algeria, Africa and in overseas colonies.

A sociology or ‘vulgate’ (Burke, 2007) of Islam, Arabs and Berbers took shape in between the Napoleonic expedition to Egypt and the independence of Algeria in 1962. The ‘colonial archive’ on Moroccan populations was compiled between 1880 and 1930 and counts among the largest and most impressive of all colonial archives. It was also greatly influenced by ethnographic knowledge produced earlier on in Algeria, where racism was rampant (Lorcin, 1995). Whereas Algeria was home to a culturally diverse and linguistically plural society of Arabs, Berbers, Jews, a minority of blacks and Andalusians (the descendants from exiled Moors), the French narrowed these ‘groups’ down to just two: Algerian Arabs and Algerian Berbers. The binary and dichotomous imagery created was developed into a myth throughout the years of French domination of Algeria. Lorcin (1995) speaks of a myth not so much because the French differentiated between Arabs and Berbers as such but because the imagery gave way to a view that the Arabs were inferior to the Berbers and that the Berbers were superior to the Arabs. If the French wanted this imagery to be upheld through time, they needed geographical, historical and ethnological sources to document it.

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