Imazighen in Morocco

0 109

The Maghreb region spans from the country of Morocco in North Western Africa to the eastern side of Libya, extending southwards into the country of Mauritania. The author grew up in the area knowing that the historical meaning of the term Maghreb is ‘West,’ and this is the official native title of the country of Morocco as a result of its large population of the Maghreb peoples among the other countries in the region. The Maghreb region offers a unique form in its meaning and location as it acts as the meeting point of the Arabic cultures to the east and the Western cultures of Europe in the North. Above this, the region stands out with its deeply embedded indigenous Maghreb culture, a culture that extends to thousands of years before civilization. A long time ago, before the invasion of the European empires in the region and the coming of the Arabic people into Africa, the Imazighen people, who are popularly referred to as the Berbers, inhabited the Maghreb region. The total number of the Berbers, who occupy the region at present day, is imprecise, with estimations about 32 million people (Earth culture, 2012). At whatever estimate of the population, the Berbers constitute the largest ethnic minority group in the Maghreb region, and Morocco has the largest number of the population.

The study of the Berber people and culture is important because it helps us understand the ethnic composition and the cultural diversity of Northern Africa, particularly Morocco. The written historical discourse refers to the area of Northern Africa as dominated by the Arab majority. There is little reference to other ethnic groups besides the Arabs. The presence of the Berber people in the region, therefore, offers a critical perspective as to the origin and structure of the social and political organizations in the country. Of importance is also the fact that the Berber people in the country form a significant part of the country’s history by the fact that the Berbers are the ancient group of people in the country (“Almohads,” 2013). The Berbers also have a high level of nationalism and could bear the bearing for the formation and structure of a number of the country’s institutions. Despite this role, as the author has experienced in Morocco, the Berber people and culture continue to be undermined by both the government and the dominant Arabic culture. It would, therefore, be interesting to unveil some of the reasons for such poor understanding of the Berber culture and people in the Maghreb region that are originally theirs, as well as to determine ways to alleviate the position of the Berber people and culture (Earth culture, 2012). This research will try to answer the following questions: How is the Berber culture perceived in the country by other ethnic groups and the state? What can the government do to integrate the Berber culture into its national framework, and what effect will nationalizing the Berber culture have on the country’s economic and sociopolitical structures? The purpose of this paper, therefore, shall be to explore the understanding of the Berber people and culture in Morocco as held by the local population and the government, analyze the various ways and interventions by which the government can integrate the Berber culture into the national culture, and examine the socio-political-economic effect that such an intervention by the government will have in the country at large.

In achieving the aims identified above, the paper will perform a literature review of secondary resources with documented information on the topic. Some of the features of the research that will be highlighted in the literature review will include the historical context of the Berber community in the Maghreb region, the relationship between the Berber population and the government and the larger Arab population, and political-socio-economic structure of the country, and the benefits that the nationalization of the Berber culture will have on the country on these three aspects.

 Review of Literature

Historical Context of the Imazighen

            In the author’s experience, in his native land of Morocco, the Imazighen people, as a group, are identified by their language. This means the Imazighen do not have an ethnic reality but a linguistic one. They are dispersed in all Morocco. Culturally, however, the Imazighen are quite diverse, and they engage and perform some different cultural beliefs and practices. The imazihgen language comprises 26 dialects (Lauermann, 2009). The people are Imazighen as we said early, and their language is Tamazight or Amazigh. There are at least three major dialects in Morocco: Tarifit, Tashelhit, and Tamazight. The Imazighen, in general, is known by their exhibition of a strong sense of nationalism not only to the countries in which they reside but also in their history and other subgroups in the area. The Imazighen were able to preserve their traditional culture even after being assimilated and displaced over two millennia of colonization (Lauermann, 2009). The countries, in which the Imazighen reside such as Morocco, have embraced the religion of Islam and adapted it to their political and social structures and institutions (Lauermann, 2009).

Prior to the Arab conquest in the 7th century, the Berbers were Christians, either animist or Jews. With the coming of the Arabs into the region, the Berbers were converted to Islam. Most of the Berber culture and native history was overlooked due to lack of written documents. The first forms of data for the Berber history are paintings on caves found in the regions of Tadrart Acacus in Libya (Earth Cultures, 2012). Through these paintings, scholars were able to depict that the predominant form of economic activity was farming and rearing domestic animals. Other paintings of a similar nature were found in Algeria, the second country with the highest Berber population as well as Morocco (Lauermann, 2009).

            Today, a vast majority of the Berbers in Morocco are Muslims, with the Jewish and Christian population having immigrated to countries abroad such as France (Cabot-Briggs, 2009). The Berber people have a strong sense of adherence to their social customs and practices, a feature that has seen the group withstand effects of colonialism and interaction with other cultures (Cabot-Briggs, 2009). The author also knows that the Berbers in Morocco share a lot of social aspects with other Berbers in neighboring countries. The predicament of the Berbers in Morocco is almost similar with that of the Berbers in other neighboring states; the state and the local people mostly undermine their culture and presence. A common feature among these countries is that they are all predominantly Arabized and as such bear more allegiance to Arabic culture than the native and local cultures as those of the Berbers (Cabot-Briggs, 2009). This means that the Berber in countries including Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, and Algeria are in no better status but even worst in recognition by their respective governments than are the Berbers in Morocco, in the author’s experience.

Factors Influencing Local Perception of Berber Culture

            Despite the fact that the Berber community has existed in the Maghreb region for hundreds of centuries and that their traditional structural systems inform some of the present day political and social structures in the area, the Berber culture is mostly held in contempt by the local people and the government (Cabot-Briggs, 2009). Scholars have been seeking to unearth the reasons for this situation, which is common not only in Morocco but also in the other countries where Berber group exists. One aspect that stands out in the Berber community in Morocco is that the people are mainly rural and, as such, regarded as uncivilized by the other ethnic groups, especially the Arab people majority (Lauermann, 2009). Although Morocco has seen substantial development as evidenced by the rapid growth of towns in many parts of the country, the Berber population lives in rural settings, keeping faith to its Berber traditions and culture (Jereb, 1995). This has created tension between the Berbers and the other groups in the country, who are fast embracing modernization, even as the Berber people hold on to their local and traditional customs (Hagan, 2006).

            The state, on the other hand, continues to emphasize that the education system of the country becomes Arabic, a situation that contradicts the Berber identity and its efforts to be recognized by the state (Silverstein, 2011). The Berber people lacks strength in its political expression, not because it lacks substantial numbers but because of its state of historical tribalism and tribal divisions and fragmentations (SuárezCollado, 2013). This means that the Berbers are not united in their fight for recognition, and that serves to undermine their efforts for recognition. At Morocco’s independence in 1956, the Berber population was divided into the manner in which it could relate to the newly formed government (Silverstein, 2011). The Riffians, which is a subculture of the Berbers, had been relatively autonomous during the period of colonization (Silverstein, 2011). This group was well represented in the armed forces and, as such, felt more superior to the other divisions of the Berbers. The Berbers in the Middle Atlas supported the Istiklal movement, a movement that opposed the Arab Elite of Rabat and Fez (SuárezCollado, 2013). When this elite group gained power in the country, it marginalized the Berber group for their support of the Istiklal (Silverstein, 2011). The effect of such marginalization was that the Berbers was denied any significant recognition and positions in the government, thus being pushed into poverty.

The author lived in Morocco and knows that the majority of the Berber population supported the monarchical leadership because, in the monarchy, they saw a way that the Berber traditions and customs would be preserved. The monarchy was, however, opposed by the radical Arab group, which supported the Arabization of the Moroccan state, which also means that the Berber culture had to be repressed along with that of the monarchy. The monarchy, therefore, relied on conservative Amazigh as tools to help him counter the radicalism of the Arab factions seeking to establish a secular state (Silverstein, 2011). This was the origin of hatred among the Berber people and the other residents, especially the Arabs, who continue to push for the abolition of the monarchy in favor of the establishment of a Muslim state of Morocco (Silverstein, 2011).

            Despite the good relations between the Berber and the government in these initial times, these relations seem to have deteriorated over the years. Arabic language, for example, became the only national language in the country (SuarezCollado, 2013). Although the Berbers and Arabs in the region share a rich history of coexistence, the two groups have maintained their distinct identities over the years and exhibit some level of animosity toward one another (SuárezCollado, 2013). The Arab people hold the Berbers in general contempt and do not observe and respect their culture and customs. Because most Berbers line in rural areas and do not have as vast levels of education as their Arab counterparts, they are considered to be backward and uncivilized (Silverstein, 2011).

The government has not favored the Berber people either, as the Moroccan government pursued policies that sought to undermine the Berber culture while incorporating Arabic culture into the national culture (“Almohads,” 2013). The government, for example, eliminated Berber language and culture from the country’s university system while establishing some education institutions that were Arabic in nature. The majority of the country’s teaching staff is Arab, who cannot use the local language when teaching in Berber regions (Earth Cultures, 2012). The author first-hand experience with the Government of Morocco does not register children born of Amazigh families by their Amazigh names, instead, encouraging the parents to adopt Arabic names for their children as his eldest brother’s daughter in last March that they could not register their daughter Shaden in the book of civil status. It is three months after the birth of his daughter, and civil servant still refused to register the name, claiming that Shaden foreclosed by the Supreme Committee for Civil Status. The author’s brother does not understand why they prevented him from naming his daughter Shaden. It does not conflict with ethics and do not penetrate any law and added that he appealed to the court for decision. The reaction to the refusal of Amazigh names is, of course, something unfortunate and contrary to justice, in the author’s opinion, the matter should be re-considered.
Ways the Government can give Berber Culture a National Outlook

There have been calls for the government to reconsider its stance toward the Amazigh population in the country and accord them recognition in the country. There are many ways that the government can do to reinforce the significance and importance of the Berber culture and peoples in the country. One way would be in the use of the mass media. The government can encourage the media to showcase programs that highlight the culture and heritage of the Berber people in the country and region, as well. Through these programs, features such as the economic and social organization and activities of the people can be shown to the nation at large so that the Berber too, can be recognized for their contribution to the economy and social structure of the country (Hagan, 2006). Using the media, the problems and tribulations facing the Berbers in the country can also be highlighted such as education and medical needs of the people will be brought to the attention of the relevant authorities to take the necessary action.

The government can also introduce schools and educational institutions in Amazigh to cater for the training needs of the Amazigh children. This would also require that the government trains and employs Amazigh teachers who will teach in these schools. Above all, the government should give the Amazigh people the freedom to live their culture and express it through their names and partaking in other social activities. The appointment of Berber persons into the country’s government positions would also play a significant role in giving the Berber people and culture a national outlook, as they will be empowered to partake in the governing process of the country.

The nationalization of the Berber culture will have more benefits than problems to the country of Morocco at large and the Berbers in particular (Earth Cultures, 2012). It is worthy to note that Berbers engage in broad economic activities. The Berber cuisine and artifacts are recognized globally for their finesse and would act as a major tourist attraction to the country (Hagan, 2006). The integration of the Berber culture into the national culture would mean that the two groups of Arabs and Berbers will become united. This will help to reduce the amount of animosity between the two groups, fostering possible cooperation between the two groups as they pursue their economic ambitions. The biggest benefit for such integration will be reduced political conflict and competition between the two groups. Currently, the Amazigh feel sidelined by the government, which is predominantly Arabic and in pursuant of Arabic culture (Earth Cultures, 2012).


            The differences between the Berbers and the Arabic population in Morocco date back to the time of colonialism. During this time, the French colonialists established separate institutions and governance structures for the Berber and Arab population (Lauermann, 2009). This was in efforts for the colonialists to ensure that they limit points of cooperation between the two groups. The French held and treated the Arabic group with greater respect than the Berber group, a situation that led to the establishment of institutional discrimination of the Berber population. In present day Morocco, the Berbers are less educated and still engage in their traditional customs in a number of aspects of their lives. This creates a perception of their being uncivilized, and as such, undeserving of the recognition and respect from the state and the Arab local community. Besides, the Berbers’ role in the previous regime monarchies, especially in King Hassan II, is to blame for their current state of being undermined by the present day government. Because of their strong fundamentalist and nationalist sentiments, the government and local Arab population fear that if they were given any more powers, they would hold the country hostage in efforts to revert it back to Berber traditions and customs.

            The government, however, seems to be working in order to restore the respect and recognition of the Berbers in Morocco. The government has accepted cultural associations of the Berber people at the national level (Earth Cultures, 2012), with the recent development being the setting up of the Royal Institute of Amazigh Culture by the King Mohamed VI. The institute will serve as an educational facility and center in efforts to promote Amazigh culture in the country. The government is also overseeing efforts to reintroduce Tamazight, which is the Amazigh language in the country’s educational system so that Amazigh children can get a chance to experience healthy teach as well (Cabot-Briggs, 2009).

            The country of Morocco stands to gain from the nationalization of the Berber culture and to integrate the Berber people into its national outlook. Despite the dominance of the Arabic community in the country and region, the Imazighen has succeeded in retaining their culture and customs as well as traditional values, an aspect that makes them quite interesting not only in Morocco but in the international arena. Tourists from around the world travel to the Maghreb region in search for the Maghreb experience through the customs and cultural practices of the Imazighen (Hagan, 2006). Because of the current state in the country where the government gives the Berbers less attention, it means that government support for their trade activities is minimal. If, however, the government was to step in and undertake activities such as marketing the cultural heritage of the Berbers, it would go a long way in creating a rich franchise for the Berber trading activities. The government would also be in a position to finance some of the Berbers’ trading activities and projects thus empowering them in their economic activities and bring more revenues to the country regarding increased trade (Hagan, 2006).

            It is critical to note that, unlike the past, the Berber population is now upfront in efforts to embrace progress in terms of education and increased interaction with peoples outside of their group. There is now a growing need for the government to establish formal teaching institutions in the regions considered to be Berber strongholds as the demand for education among the Berbers continues to increase (Jereb, 1995). Besides, some Berbers are starting to give up restrictive traditions and customs so that they can embrace development and be empowered to play a significant role in the country’s leadership and bureaucratic process.

Despite the success of the review of the literature, which facilitated the study, there were major challenges in the course of finding appropriate information. Most of the information on the Amazigh involves all Imazighen in the region and not only confined to those in Morocco. This means that the author had to take out information pertaining to Amazigh in Morocco from the vast information, a process that proved to be quite tedious. Most of the information available was outdated, and it refers to the ancient Imazighen and less about the present day Imazighen tribes in the region. Another important aspect to note was that most of the information on the Imazighen in Morocco was written with a biased mind. Individual scholars on this group of people tended to include their subjective thoughts and perspectives in the role of the Amazigh in the Moroccan government and the reasons for their subordination to the Arab population. It, therefore, was quite difficult to find articles and materials that offered a balanced view of the issue.


            The Amazigh people are a complex group as a result of internal diversity, decades of colonization, and amalgamation and co-existence with other groups, including the Arabs in North Africa. The Imazighan population in Morocco is a group that is fighting for what it considers its rightful place and recognition for the role that it has and continues to play in the country’s political, social, and economic fronts. The Arabic population and the government, however, view the Berbers as less civilized and, as such, not deserving of the respect and recognition that they seek. On the other hand, the Imazighen is considered by the government and the Arab community as a potential threat to the stability of the country’s political system, referring to the part that the Amazigh played in installing power to the monarchy in the past centuries. Despite these setbacks, the Berbers continue to be resilient in their efforts to preserve their cultural identity and even to have this identity given appropriate recognition and respect. The government has a task to accord the Amazigh population the appropriate legitimacy that they deserve in efforts to unite the country’s largest ethnic groups for the benefits of cooperation. In order to achieve this, the government has to develop various social strategies that will serve to integrate the cultural expression of the Amazigh and give such expression a national Framework.

It would be interesting to explore the possibility of the Imazighen taking over the government or having majority seats in the government. In the event of such a situation, the Amazigh will have created permanent enemies in the Arab population not only in Morocco but also in Maghreb region specifically and the Middle East area as a whole, who will then become subordinate in status to the Berbers. Governance by the Amazigh people, however, might not be as elite as that by the Arabic population considering their generally lower levels of education. The Monarchy will, however, be strengthened because the Amazigh have strived for a long time to preserve the Monarchy. Besides, the Imazighen will have a chance to alleviate their status using the national resources such as education and access to health care, which will generally improve their living standards.

You might also like More from author