David Stenner, Globalizing Morocco: Transnational Activism and the Postcolonial State (Stanford University Press, 2019).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
David Stenner (DS): About nine years ago, I came across an astonishing collection of private letters exchanged between a certain Rom Landau—an eccentric British gentleman of Polish origin who had written extensively on plastic arts, sexuality, and Islam, before somehow becoming an academic in California—and the leaders of the Moroccan nationalist movement. So, I decided to follow up and soon discovered a worldwide anticolonial solidarity network that brought together a fascinating array of individuals, including French Catholics, CIA agents, Egyptian Islamists, US political elites, and many others. This story was fascinating in and by itself, but it also added a completely new dimension to the history of Moroccan nationalism: its global reach.
On a larger level, it integrates Morocco into the broader history of decolonization. With the notable exception of the Algerian revolution, modern North Africa has received very little scholarly attention and is rarely put into conversation with the historiography on the Middle East and beyond. My book allowed me to overcome this gaping divide by integrating Morocco’s liberation struggle into the trajectory of post-1945 Arab and world politics.
The research process was quite rewarding and took me to places as far apart as Upstate New York and a vineyard in southwestern France. Given the dearth of public archives in Morocco covering this period, I had to chase down leads across the entire kingdom until I discovered a few invaluable private collections and family foundations. That is where I found the most useful sources. I realized that I need to learn Spanish and conduct research in Madrid, which opened up an entirely new dimension to the project. In other words, the production of the book mirrored the geographical scope of its content in many ways.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
DS: Globalizing Morocco shows how Moroccan nationalist parties actively constructed an international anticolonial network of supporters, who helped them present their case for independence on the global stage and thereby put intense public pressure on France and Spain at the United Nations and beyond. This campaign played a vital role in ending the colonial regimes. Yet, after independence in March 1956, King Muhammad V coopted the network’s central nodes (i.e. its key players), thus weakening the Istiqlal (Independence) party and instead establishing the authoritarian monarchy that persists until today.
The book thus engages with several fields. Firstly, it adds the international dimension to the rather outdated historiography of Moroccan nationalism. By doing so, it also integrates both the French and Spanish protectorates into a single narrative for the first time. Another result is that it bridges the gap between the late colonial era and the period of postcolonial state formation, by showing how the dynamics of the former shaped the latter. Secondly, the book participates in current conversations about the relationship between the Cold War and decolonization as exemplified by works such as A Diplomatic Revolution and Mecca of Revolution and a whole range of other articles and books that have appeared in recent years. Thirdly, it adopts methodologies developed by social network analysis, which originated in the social sciences but have made their way into the humanities in recent years. The Historical Network Research blog offers an excellent introduction to those interested in this approach.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
DS: My most important work prior to this book was my master’s thesis on anti-Mubarak online activism in Egypt. I conducted extensive fieldwork among the bloggers of Cairo and Alexandria in 2008 and 2009 and found both the topic and the research process quite exciting. And while I still regret that I never had the opportunity to publish my findings, especially considering what happened in February 2011, it sparked my interest in informal political activism—which is also the main theme of Globalizing Morocco. Eventually, though, I decided that I needed to study history to truly understand the dynamics of contemporary Arab politics. And after eighteen months in Egypt, I definitely needed a change of location, which is how I ultimately ended up in Morocco.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
DS: Apart from the obvious suspects, namely my fellow Maghribists, I hope that it will be read by those studying international relations and Cold War history as it focuses on the role played by Third World non-state actors in the making of twentieth-century world politics. Meanwhile, scholars of nationalism will find an example of how intrinsically intertwined local and global events were in the making of an independent modern nation. And those interested in transnational political activism can study in detail a historical precursor of what is too often considered a recent phenomenon. By keeping it free of jargon, I also think that my book can be easily read by students at all levels (my wife seemingly confirmed this when she recently told friends that the book was not as “boring” as most history books, which I consider a ringing endorsement). Finally, I sincerely hope that it will find a substantial readership in Morocco, so that I can share my work with those interested in their own history. I have already published a number of articles in the popular history magazine Zamane, which sparked a lot of interest in the story. So, hopefully, I will be able to publish an Arabic version soon that could appeal to a larger audience.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
DS: I am working on two articles, one on the legacy of Maghribi-Palestinian solidarity in Cairo during the interwar years, and another one about the construction of postcolonial womanhood in Morocco during the 1950s. Hopefully, I can finish both of them next year. But my main project is a social history of World War II in North Africa, which surprisingly has not yet been written. All we have available are diplomatic and military histories, whereas I want study the lives of ordinary folks: Muslims, Jews, and European settlers. Ultimately, my goal is to show how these formative six years transformed the region’s social fabric and thereby shaped its decolonization during the subsequent two decades. This project also encouraged me to move beyond Morocco and conduct research in Tunisia and Algeria as well, which is great. However, the quantity of available sources is quite overwhelming and will probably keep me busy for the foreseeable future.
J: What were your most surprising findings when writing this book?
DS: The strange amalgam of characters that appear throughout the story. Rom Landau, for example, is well-known to senior scholars of Morocco, because his books were often the only ones to be found in Western libraries until the late 1970s, despite their rather questionable quality. He was not just an observer, though, but a main protagonist in the stories about which he wrote. In other words, a British citizen with strong ties to the Alaoui royal family—one acquaintance once called him a “court historian”—dominated the scholarship on twentieth-century Morocco for several decades.
I was also surprised by the substantial amount of attention Morocco’s struggle for independence received in the United States. Even a former First Lady and a US Supreme Court judge aided the nationalists’ efforts, whose publications can still be found in university libraries from Madison, Wisconsin, to Santa Barbara, California.
Moreover, it was fascinating to see how actively the CIA supported the Moroccan nationalists despite the fact that both the State Department and two consecutive White House administrations clearly sided with France. Specifically, a Casablanca-based Coca-Cola manager, Kenneth Pendar, facilitated the links between Langley and the Moroccan political elites, thus making the American soda the “drink of the Moroccan patriot,” as one French observer noted. Ultimately, this explains the extremely close relationship between the US and Moroccan intelligence agencies during the Cold War and why the kingdom decided to host a CIA “black site” just outside of Rabat when the so-called “War on Terror” began. I was actually interviewed about this topic in Morocco, but the editors ultimately removed my mentioning of the Temara interrogation site from the final text. Certain things are apparently better left unsaid in contemporary Morocco.
Excerpt from the book (pp. 1-10)
In November 1952, a group of Moroccan anticolonial activists gathered in New York to advocate before the United Nations for their country’s independence from French and Spanish colonial rule. They had come to receive the global body’s approval of their demands less than a decade after the formation of the Moroccan nationalist movement during World War II. Notwithstanding the dark suits and leather briefcases that made them look like regular diplomats, they had no legal standing in the new headquarters of international diplomacy due to their country’s colonial status. But the representatives of several sovereign states offered their assistance and provided the nationalists with passports that identified them as members of the Saudi, Indonesian, Pakistani, Iraqi, or Yemeni delegations. They could thus attend committee meetings dealing with colonial affairs. Pakistan’s eloquent foreign minister at the time, Mohammed Zafrullah Khan, threw the full weight of the Islamic world behind their demands during a debate in the UN General Assembly on the situation in North Africa. Despite considerable French efforts to keep the Moroccan question off the agenda, the nationalists gained a partial victory when the gathered delegates adopted a resolution confirming “the fundamental liberties of the people of Morocco. From the nationalist viewpoint, “the very fact . . . [that] the UN considered itself competent to deal with the Moroccan problem and pass a resolution” constituted a “victory” for their cause, even though the declaration had failed to explicitly condemn France.
Many of their compatriots back home followed the campaign in New York with great excitement. A close confidant of Sultan Mohammed ben Youssef informed the activists of the “delight of our Excellency about the presentation of the [Moroccan] case [abroad]”; poets recited verses in praise of the UN; and a nationalist communiqué celebrated the fact that “our brothers in America issue a weekly news publication every Friday [which] is distributed to . . . public and university libraries . . . and important personalities who follow our case.” The anticolonial weekly al-Istiqlal frequently published articles and editorials from US newspapers to keep its readership informed about “the reactions of American [public] opinion.” As one nationalist informed his brother in New York, “The people here pay a lot of attention to the news and we often hear the details in the street before we read them in the newspapers, all of which comes from listening to the various radio stations. . . . They follow the situation in America and the people here attach great hope [to it].”
The Moroccan struggle for independence had gone global. But how exactly did the nationalists internationalize their case so successfully that even the UN eventually deliberated the issue? How did they communicate their message abroad given that almost none of them spoke any English? Why did the international media eventually engage with the demands of activists from a somewhat obscure kingdom in northwestern Africa as an Iron Curtain descended over Europe and the ensuing tensions threatened to drag the entire planet into yet another world war? While certainly impressive in hindsight, the eventual success of their anticolonial campaign had not been predetermined when it began in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Few contemporary observers would have anticipated that the Moroccan question might soon attract considerable international attention.
To overcome the obstacles in their path, the Moroccans adopted an innovative strategy that positioned them in the vanguard of worldwide anticolonial movements, many of which would emulate them in future decades. They succeeded by creating a network of sympathizers that enabled them to raise global awareness for their case. Former intelligence agents, British journalists, Asian diplomats, Egyptian Islamists, Coca-Cola executives, Western labor activists, Catholic intellectuals, French socialists, a Nobel laureate, a US Supreme Court judge, Chilean businessmen, a former American First Lady, and many others supported their efforts. These allies not only translated the nationalists’ demands into their specific cultural contexts but also legitimized the calls for an independent Morocco among their compatriots by speaking out against colonial rule in the Maghrib. The result was an international alliance that spanned across four continents and successfully brought the nationalists’ case to the attention of world public opinion. Ultimately, it even convinced the UN General Assembly to address the status of the North African kingdom.
This diplomatic victory was the outcome of years of lobbying that had led the activists across the entire globe. Organized around offices in Tangier, Paris, Cairo, and New York, the Moroccans successfully advocated for their country’s independence. Those executing this campaign, however, were not the leaders of the nationalist movement, known to us from the standard accounts of Maghribi historiography. Instead, a number of young activists relocated abroad to generate worldwide interest in the Moroccan question by assembling a global alliance demanding the abrogation of the colonial regime. Moreover, after the North African kingdom had finally achieved independence in March 1956, all of them played important roles in the creation of the postcolonial state. Hitherto deemed to have been of minor relevance, these transnational activists made vital contributions to Moroccan history.
The rapidly shifting international landscape of the post–World War II decade shaped the Moroccans’ struggle for independence. From a global perspective, it was exactly the right moment to make their case abroad: the European empires displayed clear symptoms of decay, while two new superpowers outbid each other to gain the sympathies of the decolonizing peoples. The bipolar conflict thus provided nationalist movements with leverage to gain independence on their own terms despite the constraints it imposed on them. It was now or never—the Moroccans had to seize this unique opportunity by appealing directly to the conscience of what came to be known as world public opinion. Thereby, they would exert international pressure that might force France and Spain to relinquish their respective protectorates. The solution was the formation of an international network of supporters that allowed them to successfully advocate for Moroccan independence on the global stage.
But whereas this networked approach proved very useful throughout the liberation struggle, it became a liability after the end of the protectorates as the country descended into a power struggle that pitted the political elites against each other. Although they had closely cooperated during the years of the anticolonial campaign, the royal palace and the nationalists now vied to fill the vacuum created by the withdrawal of the colonial authorities. The country’s monarch ultimately emerged victorious as he took control of the levers of power by co-opting the central nodes of the advocacy network, thus weakening the Istiqlal and turning it into an opposition party. Its informal nature, lack of a clearly defined membership, and failure to establish a coherent ideology had once constituted advantages but suddenly turned into liabilities; the skills, resources, and personal connections acquired by the nationalists during their campaign abroad strengthened the monarch’s hand as soon as he had drawn the network’s central participants to his side. Through a careful analysis of the liaisons of activists working on the global level, we can understand how the Istiqlalis managed to win the battle for independence but then abruptly lose the prize of political dominance over the postcolonial state. Instead, Sidi Mohammed laid the groundwork for the authoritarian monarchy that still rules the country today.