Amazigh claim their rights in ‘Arab’ Morocco

June 23rd, 2008 - 11:11 am ICT by IANS  

Rabat, June 23 (DPA) Some years ago, a visitor to the Moroccan capital Rabat was unlikely to be reminded of the nation’s Amazigh (Berber) population by other than details of tourism interest, such as water sellers in colourful costumes with their brass cups and jangling bells. Today, however, researchers interested in the Amazigh people can visit the imposing building housing the Royal Institute of Amazigh Culture (IRCAM) in a sign that the authorities’ traditional lack of interest is giving way to a more inclusive attitude.

“Amazigh culture is part of the Moroccan national heritage,” IRCAM director Ahmed Boukouss says in his large office decorated with pictures of Amazigh representatives meeting with King Mohammed VI.

Many Moroccans still reject the suggestion that they could be of Amazigh as well as Arab origin, but Boukouss believes Moroccans are increasingly becoming “proud of the country’s Amazigh dimension.”

While Westerners usually speak of Berbers, a word derived from the pejorative term of barbarians, the people thus referred to call themselves Amazigh, the plural of which is Imazighen, meaning “free men.” Imazighen were the original inhabitants of North Africa who were conquered and converted to Islam by Arabs from the 7th century onwards.

The Imazighen are known for their resistance to foreign invaders, ranging from the Romans and Arabs to Spanish and French colonialists, who defeated an attempt to establish an independent republic in the largely Amazigh northern Rif region of Morocco in the 1920s.

Peoples related to the Moroccan Imazighen now live in more than half a dozen African countries, ranging from the Algerian Kabyles to Tuaregs in the Sahel. About 30 percent of Moroccans speak one of the country’s three Amazigh dialects as their mother tongue, and the vast majority of Moroccans have at least some Amazigh blood.

Nevertheless, Moroccans base their identity on Arab and French influences, denying their African Amazigh roots, Amazigh activists say.

“Arabs are seen as having brought civilization” despite the fact that the Imazighen had their own kingdoms before Arab arrival, explained Rachid Raha, editor-in-chief of the newspaper Le Monde Amazigh.

When 1961-99 King Hassan II was still crown prince, Amazigh analysts say, repression against the Imazighen went as far as ruthlessly quashing a revolt in the Rif. King Hassan subsequently neglected the mountainous region, leaving it mired in poverty and dependent on cannabis cultivation.

Hassan’s regime later took some timid steps towards the recognition of Amazigh culture. But it is only his son and successor Mohammed VI, whose mother is an Amazigh, that “clearly announced a new policy,” as Boukouss puts it. The Amazigh language is already being taught in some 3,500 schools, though a lack of adequately trained teachers is slowing down its dissemination, Boukouss explained.

The teaching programme has required choosing an alphabet - the Tuareg one, known as Tifinagh - and creating a standard written language out of the Amazigh dialects, a process that is still going on.

There are, however, people opposed to the promotion of Amazigh language and culture at government ministries, Raha said.

Activists say school textbooks neglect and distort Amazigh history. Some officials and judges still refuse to allow parents to give their children Amazigh names, and academic interest in Amazigh history is only picking up.

Some activists see the royal reforms as a way of trying to “tame” the Amazigh movement and to pre-empt the kind of Amazigh agitation that has occurred in Algeria.

“The Moroccan establishment only supports the cultural part in an attempt to place the Imazighen outside the political sphere,” Amazigh politician Ahmed Dgharni said at a meeting in the Spanish capital Madrid.

Dgharni’s attempt to launch an Amazigh political party was thwarted on the grounds that ethnically based parties are illegal in Morocco.

Activists like Raha and Dgharni are seeking the recognition of Amazigh as an official language alongside Arabic and its widespread use in the media.

Equality for the Imazighen would also include self-government for regions with large Amazigh populations, and even turning Muslim Morocco into a secular state, because Arabic is the language of the Koran, Raha and other activists said.

The idea of secularism, however, is unthinkable for most Moroccans. It has contributed to accusations that the Amazigh movement was anti-Islamic and manipulated by the West, which activists firmly deny.

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