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New Texts Out Now: Jonathan Wyrtzen, Making Morocco: Colonial Intervention and the Politics of Identity

Jonathan Wyrtzen, Making Morocco: Colonial Intervention and the Politics of Identity. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2016.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Jonathan Wyrtzen (JW): This book was deeply influenced by my experiences over the course of a decade that began in 2001. A few weeks before the attacks of 11 September, my wife and I moved to Morocco to teach at Al Akhawayn University, up in the town of Ifrane in the Middle Atlas Mountains. That initial period shaped a set of questions for me about Moroccan identity.

Anyone who drives around the country quickly becomes of aware of the ubiquitous national motto,  “Allah, al-Watan, al-Malik” (God, Nation, King), emblazoned on the hillsides. Living close to the king’s mountain palace in Ifrane, we frequently saw the huge royal motorcade—a modern, motorized version of the traditional mahalla—roll into town, with crowds lining the street and waving Moroccan flags. Those first two years in Morocco made me increasingly intrigued by how Moroccan identity came to be defined around the core pillars of Islam, a territorial and communal sense of the nation, and the 'Alawi monarchy. Perhaps most puzzling was how the monarchy had survived colonization and then survived decolonization, when so many other dynasties had been eradicated.

In those first years of Mohamed VI’s rule in the early 2000s, several significant shifts with regard to national identity were happening. Just after we arrived, the king traveled in October 2001 to the Middle Atlas to announce the creation of a Royal Institute for Amazigh Culture tasked with developing and promoting Berber language and culture. This move responded to pressures exerted by the Moroccan Berber Cultural Movement since the early 1990s and represented a historic shift by the monarchy from an official promotion of a singular Arab and Islamic Moroccan identity to a bi-ethnic framing of national identity. Two years later, in 2003, the king announced a substantive reform of the conservative Personal Status Law (mudawana) enacted after independence in 1957, this time responding at last to pressures exerted by Moroccan women’s rights groups from the 1980s. The mudawana reform explicitly signaled the king’s prerogative as “Commander of the Faithful” to define Moroccan Islam in the wake of the May 2003 Casablanca bombings and against prior Islamist opposition to the reforms. 

When I came back to start a History PhD at Georgetown in 2003, months after the US invasion of Iraq, these interests in collective identity shaped by my time in North Africa became entwined with questions about the effects of Western military intervention in the region including resistance and counterinsurgency, the politicization of ethnic and sectarian boundaries, debates over gender and identity, and the political and social role of Islam. The combination of my experiences in Morocco and what was happening in the Middle East in the wake of the US invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq drew me to look at the legacies of an earlier episode of Western intervention in the region.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

JW: The fundamental question the book addresses is how four and a half decades (1912-1956) of French and Spanish colonial intervention transformed notions of identity in Moroccan society. It examines how particular ethnic, religious, and gendered boundaries were politicized during this critical period with long-lasting effects. Today, we see these legacies in debates about Morocco’s Arab and Amazigh (Berber) identity, the idea of “Moroccan Islam,” the position of Morocco’s Jewish minority, and reforms focused on women’s rights.

The book engages with several academic literatures including area studies work on North Africa and the Middle East; colonial studies and post-colonial studies; and historically-oriented sociology and political science work focused on empire and colonialism. There are two broad tendencies across these literatures. One is a top-down focus on colonial structures, policies, and administrators and how colonial power reorders, represents, and produces knowledge about the colonized. The other option is a bottom-up focus on resistance (nationalist or subaltern), subjectivities, accommodations, and interpretations of colonial rule within the colonized society. 

I was interested in a “both/and” framework for analyzing colonial intervention that, instead of emphasizing one side or the other, could capture the complex and dynamic interactions among colonial and local actors, bringing elites and non-elites into the field of view. In the book, I propose the concept of a colonial political field as a heuristic to help do this. It clarifies the Moroccan context but also provides an apparatus for asking comparative questions about other colonial cases.

The basic idea is that colonial intervention creates a new type of political field with three characteristics: physical and social space, ordering forces, and competition. Military conquest defines the territorial space of the field, and colonial symbolic and classificatory logics shape the organizing forces constituting the rules of the game in that physical and social space. These two dimensions don’t dictate outcomes though. Rather, they establish the space for a playing field in which collective identities are transformed through interactive struggles among multiple actors.

The book starts with a quote by the first French resident general, Hubert Lyautey, about the French “making Morocco,” (see excerpt below) but the argument is that making Morocco involved the French, Spanish, and a wide constellation of Moroccans. This included the Moroccan elites typically represented in histories of this period (like the king, Mohamed V, and the Arabic-speaking urban nationalist leaders), but the main contribution of the book is to turn attention to the critical role of rural and urban non-elites—including Berber-speakers, Morocco’s Jewish community, and women—that were both at the center of struggles over Moroccan identity and themselves actively engaged in these struggles. By looking at complex interactions among these groups during the colonial period, the book demonstrates why and how four fundamental dimensions of Moroccan identity—religion, ethnicity, territory, and the role of the Alawid monarchy—became indelibly politicized and have subsequently been focal points for ongoing struggles over Moroccan identity.   

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

JW: I hope it is read by people interested in how major political transformations like colonial intervention interact with notions of collective identity. This would include area-specialists working on North Africa and the Middle East, scholars working on colonial history and postcolonial studies in other areas, and social scientists working on empire and colonialism. For these audiences, I think this study of Morocco is accessible and opens up lines of comparison with other former colonial units regarding the politicization of ethnic and sectarian boundaries; the importance gendered legal and educational policies for marking social boundaries; the position of religious minorities; and the trajectories of different regime types after independence.

While I hope this proves a helpful model outside of the Moroccan case, I also really want this book to be read by specialists working on Morocco and North Africa. My goal in Making Morocco was to write a new type of colonial history that is both post-colonialist and post-nationalist, that captures the contingencies and complexities of this pivotal period. This is an extremely exciting time to be working on North Africa, as there is a new cohort of scholars reengaging older questions in the literature and breaking new ground. I hope one of the book’s primary contributions is to provide a framework for integrated this new work into a larger narrative about Morocco’s colonial history. Though I turn attention to marginalized histories outside established narratives, I also wanted to keep the big picture in view. Finally, for similar reasons, I hope the book can be translated so a wider audience of Moroccans can read this modest attempt at a new, inclusive historical synthesis that incorporates the multiple perspectives and tensions about Moroccan identity that are still getting worked out today.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

JW: I am currently completing a book titled, Reimagining Political Space: Jihads, Empires, and the Interwar Making of the Modern Middle East and North Africa. This project attempts a different type of transnational history of the post-WWI period focused, not on stable units of analysis like nation-states or empires, but on sites of friction and conflict on the still undefined postwar political map.

I got the idea while working on chapters in Making Morocco focused on anti-colonial resistance movements in the Rif and Atlas Mountains in the 1920s. I realized the processes at work in Morocco—namely, attempts to enclose state-governed territorial space and opposing efforts defending alternative structures of local autonomy—were happening synchronically from northwest Africa to the Zagros mountains in the decade after World War I as new forms of political order were defined and came into conflict. The book thus brings the Maghreb and Mashriq together into the same frame of analysis, looking at linkages from Morocco to Iraq among anti-colonial jihads and colonial and local state-formation projects in the interwar period.

The idea of reimagining political space works on two levels. First, it refers to how postwar political space was actively reimagined over and over again through the 1920s and into the 1930s, not only by European diplomatic and military officials, but also by a wide arrange of local actors like Abd al-Krim al-Khattabi, Omar al-Mukhtar, Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Shaykh Said, and a range of others. The second level is a theoretical intervention about conceptualizing political space that shifts from a static to a dynamic conception of political units, incorporates political orders above and below the nation-state, and focuses on interactions within and across these scales of political space. My substantive argument is that, against the dominant “Sykes-Picot narrative” that the British and French imposed artificial boundaries on the region, political orders in the MENA region were (and continue to be) forged through these interactions between local, regional, and transnational fields of power.

After this book, I plan to return to the theme of the influence of colonial legacies on identity politics that I engaged in Making Morocco. I would like apply the idea of the colonial political field in a multi-country comparative study that looks at different frameworks of colonial rule in the Middle East and North Africa and outcomes related to regime type and the varied salience of ethno-linguistic, religious, and gendered identity markers in post-independence national contexts. 

Excerpt: From the Introduction

The Politics of Identity in a Colonial Political Field

Et maintenant nous allons faire le Maroc.
And now we are going to make Morocco.

—Comment by Hubert Lyautey, the first French resident general, as he watched Mawlay ʿAbd al-Hafiz, the sultan he had just deposed and replaced, board a ship taking him into exile in August 1912
(Rivet 1996)

In late September 1930, after three months of weekly demonstrations in Morocco’s northern cities, a delegation of eight men traveled from Fes to Rabat to meet with the young sultan, Mohamed ben Youssef. The petition they presented him protested how the French, in the phrase Lyautey used eighteen years earlier, had been “making Morocco.” The catalyst for the discontent was France’s so-called Berber policy, a colonial politics of recognition that reified an ethnic distinction between Arabs and Berbers. Since 1914, French authorities had installed a system of tribal courts in the middle and central High Atlas Mountains after these regions, which the French designated as “of Berber custom,” had been “pacified” (conquered militarily) and brought under French administration. In the 1920s, they also began to install a fledgling separate educational system of Franco-Berber schools in these same areas, which offered little to no instruction in Arabic or Islam. These ethnically based juridical and educational distinctions provoked little response from the Moroccan public until 1930, when the residency promulgated a decree (dahir), which the sultan signed on May 16, that put the Berber customary legal system on an equal footing with other jurisdictions and channeled criminal cases into the French courts. 

This effort to further formalize a policy of ethnic differentiation catalyzed a firestorm of popular protest that roiled many of Morocco’s cities for weeks that summer. In June, a group of young, urban, Arabic-speaking activists began to campaign against what they called the Berber dahir. In their eyes the May 16 decree was a fundamental threat to the unity of the Moroccan umma, or Muslim community: they claimed it removed the Berbers from the jurisdiction of shariʿa and was part of a broader French strategy to Christianize the Berbers. To publicize the danger and rally crowds against the decree, they improvised on the Latif, a traditional prayer used in times of trouble or calamity, standing up in mosques and chanting, “Oh Allah, the Benevolent, we ask of You benevolence in whatever fate brings, and do not separate us from our brothers, the Berbers” (Brown 1972; Lafuente 1999, 190–91). In July, the protests spread from Salé and Rabat to several interior cities, and on August 7, 7,000 Moroccans gathered to chant the Latif at the Qarawayn mosque in Fes (Ageron 1972, 138–39). In response to the escalating protests, the French authorities officially prohibited the prayer throughout the country. The next week, the sultan, under pressure from the French, ordered imams to publically read a letter defending the policies expressed in the May 16 decree and castigating the protestors for politicizing the “religious space” of the mosque. By the end of the summer, the issue had been picked up by Chakib Arslan, a Geneva-based pan-Islamic propagandist, who railed against French neo-crusaderism in his La Nation Arabe and began to make the “Berber Crisis” a cause célèbre, energizing anti-French demonstrations and petitions across the Muslim world, from Cairo to Surabaya.

In late September, protectorate authorities allowed a delegation of protest leaders to meet with the sultan. Their demands, which they presented in a petition to the sultan and resident general, were clear. Speaking in the name of the Moroccan people, they emphasized the significance of the Berber Question for the country’s religious unity, recounting the history of the Islamization of Morocco’s population, including the Berbers, from the ninth century. They also reiterated the sultan’s sacred obligation, as the duly constituted Muslim ruler, to ensure that Islamic law was uniformly applied in Moroccan territory. Appealing to the promise France had made in the 1912 Treaty of Fes to respect the sultan’s temporal and spiritual authority, their concrete policy demands protested France’s divide-and-rule legal, educational, and administrative policies and insisted instead on state-led policies of Arabo-Islamic national assimilation. These included a unified judiciary that would apply Islamic law to all Moroccans (with the exception of Jews, who would keep their own courts), a unified educational system that would teach Arabic and Islam in both urban and rural areas, the adoption of Arabic as the protectorate’s official language, and a prohibition against any official use of Berber “dialects” or their transcription into Latin characters. Reflecting intense anxieties in the early 1930s about Christian proselytization, the protestors also called for an end to missionary activity, for Muslim control of orphanages and schools the Franciscans had established in the Atlas Mountains, and for an end to the protectorate’s financial support of the Catholic Church. Finally, the protestors demanded an end to internal travel restrictions in the French zone and the replacement of obligatory travel permits with identity cards that would allow free movement between city and countryside (Lafuente 1999, 196). After reading the petition, the sultan communicated his sympathy, but the delegation returned to Fes empty handed, and the protests petered out that fall. Although it seems to have been a failure in terms of immediate goals, the so-called Berber Crisis catalyzed the birth of an urban nationalist movement that developed over the next decade. This cycle of protest also forged a cultural agenda—an insistence on Morocco’s Arab and Islamic identity (and the concomitant suppression of its Berber patrimony)—that eventually shaped the identity politics of the post-independence Moroccan state when the nationalist movement leadership came into power in 1956.

This cycle of protests against France’s infamous Berber policy in the early 1930s captures key elements of the interactive politics of identity that played out during the country’s protectorate period (1912–1956). First, this episode demonstrates that the “we” Lyautey referred to at the onset of the protectorate in his pretentious comment about “making Morocco” did not just include representatives of the French colonial power such as himself. The making of Morocco also involved a constellation of Moroccan actors: the Alawid sultan, the nominal ruler; an urban Arabic-speaking elite that was beginning to mobilize popular support and to make claims about the trajectories of state and nation-building; and, less obviously, groups including Berber speakers and Jews whose marginal ethnic or religious position in society put them at the crux of identity struggles. Second, the 1930 “Berber Crisis” reveals what was at stake. After just two decades of colonial intervention, a set of identity-related issues had become profoundly politicized, including categories of ethnicity such as “Arab” and “Berber,” the function of language and religion in educational and judicial systems, the state’s control over territory and internal movement, and the appropriate temporal and spiritual roles of the sultan. From this point forward, contention over these concerns dominated political struggles throughout the rest of the protectorate, and they continued to do so after independence.

In this book I address an underlying question brought to the fore by the actors, issues, and interactions linked in the “Berber Crisis” of the early 1930s: How did four and half decades of European colonial intervention in the twentieth century transform Moroccan identity? As was the case for other places in North Africa and in the wider developing world, the colonial period in Morocco (1912–1956) established a new type of political field in which notions about and relationships among politics and identity formation were fundamentally transformed. Instead of privileging top-down processes of colonial state formation or bottom-up processes of local resistance, my analysis focuses on interactions between state and society that occurred in this field. By looking at the formal and informal rules of the game, different styles of play, and the stakes of struggle in this field, I demonstrate how interactions during the protectorate period among a wide range of European and local actors indelibly politicized four key dimensions of Moroccan identity: religion, ethnicity, territory, and the role of the Alawid monarchy. These colonial legacies are significant because these arenas of identity formation continue to be at the center of struggles to defend, contest, and negotiate the legitimacy of Morocco’s political order.

In its focus on the politicization of identity in the colonial period, the book makes two substantive interventions. First, it demonstrates that the anti-colonial nationalist definition of Moroccan identity centered on Arabo-Islamic high culture (Gellner 1983) and Alawid dynastic rule—expressed in the cultural agenda of urban nationalists and supported later by the post-independence Moroccan state—was a contingent outcome. It problematizes the notion that this definition of identity represented a direct continuity with precolonial identity configurations and instead demonstrates that it was an outcome of spatial, classificatory, and symbolic struggles that occurred in the colonial political field.

Second, in tracing how and why religious and ethnic markers of identity—Muslim, Jewish, Arab, and Berber—became politicized and how gender was often at the center of struggles over these categories, this book brings to light a plurality of other identity configurations in play in protectorate Morocco—subnational and supranational, ethnolinguistic and non-ethnolinguistic, Muslim and non-Muslim, and nonmonarchic—that were eventually marginalized or elided in the process of anti-colonial nation building. The book examines literate and text-producing Moroccan and European elites, but it also integrates non-elite groups in Moroccan society into its central analysis. By analyzing hitherto neglected primary sources, it brings forth the unique perspectives of rural Berber speakers, Jews, and women who were marginalized by the political elite even though they were symbolically at the center of identity struggles. By locating the origins of an Arabo-Islamic configuration of Moroccan national identity and those it marginalized in the colonial period, this study sheds new light on perennial questions in Moroccan historiography, including the salience of the Arab-Berber distinction, the status of Jews, the position of women, and the survival of the monarchy.

These interventions historicize dominant post-independence narratives of Moroccan national identity and depict the central importance of subaltern, or subordinated, groups in forging this identity. These findings are relevant because they help demonstrate a more complex and nuanced view of Morocco’s colonial past. Equally importantly, these four axes of identity—religion, ethnicity, territory, and the monarchy—that were activated during the protectorate period remain the focus of contemporary Moroccan political struggles. This is reflected in ongoing debates over the public role of Islam, religious tolerance, and the memory of Morocco’s Jews; recent reforms regarding women’s legal status; the monarchy’s multiculturalist recognition of Tamazight (Berber) as a national language alongside Arabic; the still-unresolved territorial dispute over the Western Sahara; and the monarchy’s continued symbolic and practical dominance, as Commander of the Faithful, of the Moroccan political field. Finally, by examining linkages among colonial and postcolonial political developments in Morocco, this book isolates and clarifies historical processes that are relevant to numerous other postcolonial contexts.

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