“Our Brothers, the Berbers”: Amazighité, Arab Identity, and the Moroccan Nationalist Movement, 1930–56

Saturday, January 6, 2018: 3:50 PM
Columbia 8 (Washington Hilton)
Adrienne Tyrey, Michigan State University
A key founding myth of the Moroccan nationalist independence movement appears in every history of the era: a 1930 royal decree, the Berber Dahir, enshrined a separate legal system for Moroccan Berbers, administered by the French Protectorate authorities rather than the shari’a courts run by the Sultan’s makhzen government. The nascent nationalist movement, based in cities like Rabat and Fes, took to the streets and the newspapers, and instituted a weekly Latif prayer throughout the country, praying “do not separate us from our brothers, the Berbers.” This upwelling of dissent garnered international attention that further galvanized the Moroccan movement. Leaders of this protest went on to form the Istiqlalparty, which gained parliamentary power upon independence in 1956.

The Latif prayer’s call for unity and brotherhood between Arab and Berber is particularly revelatory of the attitudes of the early nationalist movement. By referring to “our brothers, the Berbers,” the movement’s leaders make clear that they consider themselves and those praying with them to be Arab. This is illustrative of a driving thread that wove throughout the rise of Morocco’s nationalist movement – an assumption of and preference for Arab ethnicity and language that contributed to an ongoing elision of Berber identity. From the movement’s birth under the French Protectorate to its ascent to political power after independence, Arab-centrism became the justification for marginalizing Morocco’s substantial Berber population. This paper demonstrates how Berber actors worked against French imperialism without adopting the Arab-centric narrative of the mainstream nationalist movement. For instance, students, alumni, and staff of the Collège Berbère d’Azrou joined widespread nationalist protest during World War II on their own terms. I argue that Berber-speakers were active in the earliest moments of Morocco’s nationalist movement, and from the beginning pushed back against attempts to center Arabness at the expense of Amazighité.