Activism and Contemporary Challenges

Since the late nineties, Moroccan social movements have contested this view on Moroccan national identity and interpretation of history. Protest has mostly been organized by Berber cultural activists who aim to revive Berber identity and culture in Maghreb countries and the Maghrebi diaspora. Mohammed Chafik, a prominent historian within the Berber Movement and former director of the Royal Institute for Amazigh (Berber) Culture, and other historians and activists along with him, have not ceased to emphasize the need for the ‘decolonization’ of Moroccan national history. The ‘other’ (e.g. Roman, French, Arab) had perpetually written their history. In his A Brief Survey of Thirty-Three Centuries of Amazigh History, published by the Royal Institute in 2005 in a new edition, Chafik appealed to an international audience and claimed that the stakes of memory, in the identity formation of Morocco and among Moroccan communities abroad, were high. Chafik proposed a re-reading of North African history in which the Berbers were accorded agency. Denying the very authenticity of these countries would mean that North African nationstates were denying the existence of the majority of their citizens and those citizens living abroad.

In contemporary history and social sciences textbooks (Maddy-Weitzman, 2011), the narrative on the Berbers’ origins has been changed. The Berbers are no longer referred to as Barbar but solely as Imazighen, as ‘free people’. A narrative that grants them indigenousness replaces the story of the Arab origins of the Berbers. Consequently, the Berbers are granted historical priority over the Arabs in North Africa. The Maghreb is nowadays called bilad al-Amazigh— the land of the Berber. Contrary to the representation of Berber societies in the history textbooks used before, the Berbers are accorded other values than those related to honor because they defended Morocco and North Africa in general against foreign ‘invaders’. The Berbers’ resistance against ‘colonizing’ others throughout the region’s history is underscored and at the same time completed with notions such as democracy and solidarity. These values are conveyed through certain heroes that have traditionally underscored the Berber cultural and social movement’s counter-narratives, for instance, Amazigh kings such as Masinissa, Jugurtha and Juba, military leader Takfarinas. These are all said to have acted against foreign Roman rule in order to preserve Berber culture and territorial integrity. Antiquity belongs to the Berbers. But once the arrival of Islam is noted, the Berbers were pushed out of view as historical agents in the narrative although the Berber origins of the Almoravid and Almohad dynasties are noted. From the Islamic ‘awakening’ onwards, religion unites and ethnicity is erased.

The narrative also selectively ‘forgets’ episodes of internal religious strife, as these could be interpreted as ethnic divisions within a religious community of Muslims. Whereas the Berbers are granted historical priority, with origins located inside the Maghreb and not on the Arab Peninsula, the binary categories of Arabs and Berbers have up to this day not been erased but rather retained. By rewriting the narrative on the Berbers’ origins, by claiming historical priority and indigenousness, Moroccan citizens remain dependent on the canon of French ethnologists, geographers and historians as it was crystallized in the French mythe berbere. Hence, the ‘schematic narrative template’ (Wertsch, 2002) dialogically shapes the binary thinking in national narratives, the myths of the nation and the counter-memories of those who shape and contest them. Individuals and communities create a sense of belonging and construct their identity by imbuing the past with meaning in the act of narrating about it. Despite globalization, processes of migration and the so-called waning relevance of nation-states and the de-territorialization of identities, the national—as a frame of remembrance and reference—remains an important marker of identity.

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