Moroccan Identity Entanglement – Analysis


For a foreigner who visits Morocco for the first time, listening to Moroccans converse and talk to each other and trying to understand them is an extreme challenge that requires an acute state of mental acrobatics.

What language or languages do Moroccans speak, after all?

To be honest, answering this question is, also, a quite challenging task because Moroccans, being schizophrenic as they are, use in their daily conversations plenty of idioms, at the same time and with much ease.

Linguistic Melting Pot

All in all, one finds oneself facing a mixture of languages that are of two levels:

Mother tongues:

  • Tamazight, with its three dialects: Tarifit, Tashelhit and Tamazight; and,
  • Darija (Moroccan colloquial Arabic) with its different regional interpretations.

European languages:

  • French;
  • Spanish; and
  • English.

The mixture of mother tongues with European languages is a second nature for most Moroccans. They tend to do it automatically and with ease, without paying attention to the degree of communication.i

If some critics see this phenomenon to be the result of some sort of insanity and acculturation, on the contrary, Moroccans believe that this linguistic phenomenon confirms their degree of openness and tolerance which is almost innate in their psyche and way of life. A Moroccan wants to communicate totally, and all the means to achieve this are good for him and he has no qualms about this.

Morocco has always been a cultural and linguistic crossroads of many civilizations and religions since the beginning of time, and this is magnificently reflected on the behavior of its people as well as their cultural legacy.

Identity Entanglement

Actually, the Moroccan imbroglio is that everyone in this country talks about identity and language as if this riddle is totally cracked and solved, however, in reality, it has never been and the majority of people are not even bothered to find an acceptable answer to the perpetual question: who are they?

A Moroccan-American Jew celebrating with pride his Tamaghrabit
A Moroccan-American Jew celebrating with pride his Tamaghrabit

In short, these identity questions remain with no answers due to the important priorities of development that the country has met with since independence.ii

It is obvious that this big and important interrogation puts in breach this wrong idea that certain demagogues spread, practically since the beginning of independence, which says that Morocco is an exception in the region and that there are no questions about identity or any philosophical observations concerning this topic.

Wrong! That is totally wrong, the questions are there and very persistent, and the pursuit of answer to these questions is in progress, a real race in order to define oneself and establish one’s place in the world, before starting the long and painful journey of establishing a society accepted by all the Moroccans of today.

What is more, Moroccan millennials are establishing new rules for nation-building, setting up new identities away from religious taboos, cultural patriarchy and political absolutism. They want to come out of the closet with new sexual, cultural and religious identities and live their lives in the open.iii

Nevertheless, every Moroccan ought to ask the following question at some point in his life: who am I?

For some people, there are pre-made answers of demagogical or ideological nature, for others the whole identity issue has to be tackled carefully away from religion and politics.

However, the questions that should be asked are made of two tiers:

Ethnic-linguistic tier:

  • Are Moroccans Amazigh?
  • Are Moroccans Arab?
  • Are Moroccans Amazigh-Arab?
  • Are Moroccans Arab-Amazigh?

Geographical tier:

  • Are Moroccans Mediterranean?
  • Are Moroccans African?
  • Are Moroccans Arab-Muslim?

Religious tier:

  • Are Moroccans Muslim?
  • Are Moroccans Muslim by culture only?

Cultural tier:

  • Are Moroccans Middle-Eastern?
  • Are Moroccans European?
  • Are Moroccans African?
  • Are Moroccans something else?

These questions are buzzing all day long in the heads of Moroccans, who want answers but bump into many obstacles, sometimes of nationalist, sometimes of political, sometimes of religious and sometimes of ideological nature. Many people give answers that they don’t really believe in, and this is the start of a state of schizophrenia that has been crafted to please to all members of society and the outside world.

Moroccan bride in traditional attire
Moroccan bride in traditional attire

In spite of the fact that Moroccans are faced with all these identities, yet they stick to one strongly: tamaghrabit “Moroccaness” which brings the Amazigh, the Arabs, the Sahrawi, the Jews, etc. all together under the same banner and keeps the country united.

As a matter of fact, the tamaghrabit identity is unique in many ways and it is probably the extreme level of linguistic and cultural schizophrenia accepted by all wholeheartedly and of course not considered at all as a health condition but as a state of mind showing tolerance and love of the other and acceptance of his otherness. In reality tamaghrabit is the extreme feeling of togetherness and belonging to the same ideal away from the lurking dangers of ethnicity, religion, color, power, wealth, etc.

For Aziz Rabbah, one of the leaders of the Islamist party PJD (Parti de Justice et Développement) in an interview with Jeune Afrique he approves of this concept even in religion:iv

« Vous mettez l’accent sur la marocanité (Tamaghrabit) en soulignant la spécificité de l’« islam marocain différent de l’islam algérien ou de l’islam égyptien ». Pourquoi ?

Je ne fais que rappeler une vérité d’évidence. Les fondements de l’islam sont les mêmes partout, mais leur application réelle a changé selon les contrées et les époques. Or, depuis des siècles, les Marocains ont vécu leur islam de façon particulière…

Mais pourquoi éprouvez-vous le besoin de le clamer ?

D’abord par fierté. Ensuite pour rappeler le rayonnement de l’islam marocain, qui a répandu le message du Prophète jusqu’au Nigeria. »

Since his accession to the throne, King Mohammed VI has recognized the Amazigh culture and set up Institut Royal de la Culture Amazigh (IRCAM) in 2001 and even went further to recognize in the Constitution of 2011 the Moroccan cultural diversity and inscribe in gold in its preamble:v

“A sovereign Muslim State, attached to its national unity and to its territorial integrity, the Kingdom of Morocco intends to preserve, in its plentitude and its diversity, its one and indivisible national identity. Its unity, is forged by the convergence of its Arab-Islamist, Berber [amazighe] and Saharan-Hassanic [saharo-hassanie] components, nourished and enriched by its African, Andalusian, Hebraic and Mediterranean influences [affluents]. The preeminence accorded to the Muslim religion in the national reference is consistent with [va de pair] the attachment of the Moroccan people to the values of openness, of moderation, of tolerance and of dialog for mutual understanding between all the cultures and the civilizations of the world.”

Besides of course recognizing Tamazight (the Berber language) as an official language besides Arabic:vi

Article 5

Moroccan Amazigh militants
Moroccan Amazigh militants
  • Protection of language use Arabic is [demeure] the official language of the State. The State works for the protection and for the development of the Arabic language, as well as the promotion of its use. Likewise, Tamazight [Berber/amazighe] constitutes an official language of the State, being common patrimony of all Moroccans without exception. An organic law defines the process of implementation of the official character of this language, as well as the modalities of its integration into teaching and into the priority domains of public life, so that it may be permitted in time to fulfill its function as an official language.
  • Integration of ethnic communities The State works for the preservation of Hassani, as an integral component of the Moroccan cultural unity, as well as the protection of the speakers [of it] and of the practical cultural expression of Morocco. Likewise, it sees to the coherence of linguistic policy and national culture and to the learning and mastery of the foreign languages of greatest use in the world, as tools of communication, of integration and of interaction [by which] society [may] know, and to be open to different cultures and to contemporary civilizations.
  • Right to culture A National Council of Languages and of Moroccan Culture [Conseil national des langues et de la culture marocaine] is created, charged with[,] notably[,] the protection and the development of the Arabic and Tamazight languages and of the diverse Moroccan cultural expressions, which constitute one authentic patrimony and one source of contemporary inspiration. It brings together the institutions concerned in these domains. An organic law determines its attributions, composition and the modalities of [its] functioning.

The Linguistic Schizophrenia

In fact, whether they want it or not, Moroccans are a schizophrenic nation, and they seem to take this diagnostic with great ease and even pride. Actually, no one seems to be preoccupied by this mental situation, and no one seems to suggest a group or individual therapy for a schizophrenic nation.
If this situation has, however, existed in another country, sociologists, anthropologists, psychoanalysts, psychiatrics, and others, will seriously take care of this social phenomenon, which is very interesting and worrying at the same time.

The state communicates with the Moroccan people through the means of two totally opposite languages. It uses Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) for:

  • News;
  • Politics;
  • King’s activities and his speeches; and
  • Religious celebrations and discussions, or any topic related to Islam.

However, it uses French for:

  • Technology;
  • Scientific and medical topics;
  • Financial and economic topics; and
  • Foreign politics.

The underlying message is that the language of the Koran and Islam is not capable of transmitting technological and scientific information to the Moroccan people. This clearly shows that the government underestimates the official language and that this langue is only official in appearance and doesn’t have any linguistic capacity that other European languages have, apparently.

The government understands that the language of the “Christian European colonizer” is better placed to deal with these serious topics. This is the first example of the linguistic schizophrenia, government mode.

The second part of the linguistic schizophrenia of the government shows clearly in education. The ministry of National Education use one quarter of the budget of the state, without satisfying people’s needs, since there are more and more students graduating but are unable to get any employment whatsoever.

The government doesn’t want to admit that the Arabization of the education undertaken in the 70s of the last century, for political and not for pedagogical reasons, has absolutely lead the educational system to total bankruptcy, that no one wants to admit, but that everyone talks about.

But of course, however, politicians, and well-to-do people prefer to pay a lot of money for the education of their children in the European and American universities, knowing the debacle of the national educational system and that only training their offspring in international western universities will allow them to continue to control the economy and thereby politics in the country.

For Rabia Redouane, the linguistic situation in Morocco remains very critical:vii

Even though Morocco has carried on for the past decade various reforms to establish a multilingual policy recognizing officially both national languages to preserve its identity and culture, and promoting foreign languages to be open to the Modern world and to strive in this era of globalization, there is no doubt that Morocco linguistic situation remains a complex one with conflict of these varied languages and their speakers. Both MSA and Tamazight are recognized in the constitutional reform as the two official languages of the country, but none of the two languages assumes this responsibility and portrays the reality.

Final Word

The Moroccan linguistic schizophrenia is a terrifying daily reality and a serious pathology that no one want to treat clinically and, as such, the true identity issue remains defuse and uncertain, in many ways, and maybe this situation, after all, is not a bad thing for Morocco and Moroccans because, to be honest, it strengthens their sense of tolerance and the acceptance of the other in his otherness and that is why Morocco has always being an open country to everyone irrespective of their color, creed or culture.

So, linguistic and underlying cultural schizophrenia is not at all bitter but, on the contrary, has a sweet after taste, after all.

ii. Cf. Chtatou, M. (1994), “Language Policy in Morocco” in Morocco: Occasional Papers, No. 1, p. 43-62.
vi. Op. cited

Further reading:
Ait El Caid. Hamid. (2014). Language Policy in Morocco: Real Crisis or Potential Transformation? Morocco World News

Benzakour, Fouzia, Gaadi, Driss, & Queffélec, Ambroise. (2000). Le français au Maroc : lexique et contacts de langues. Bruxelles : De Boeck Université.

B Bourhis, R.Y. (1982). Language policies and language attitudes: Le monde de la francophonie. In Bouchard Ryan and H.Gilles (eds.) Attitudes Towards Language Variation: Social and Applied Contexts. London: Edward Arnold.

Boukous, Ahmed. (2001). Language policy, identity and education in Morocco. Languages and Linguistics, 8, 17- 27

Chakrani, Brahim. (2011). Covert Language Attitudes: A New Outlook on the Sociolinguistic space of Morocco. Selected Proceedings of the 40th Annual Conference on African Linguistics,

Chtatou, M. (1994), “Language Policy in Morocco” in Morocco: Occasional Papers, No. 1, p. 43-62.

Eyamba G. Bokamba et al. (Eds.),168-177. Charte Nationale d‘Education et Formation, Royaume du Maroc, Commission Spéciale d‘Education Formation (COSEF) (Retrieved July 28, 2000 from 9CB26780C33F/0/Chartenationale.htm.

Ennaji, Moha. (1988). Language Planning in Morocco and Changes in Arabic. International Journal of sociology of Language, 123, 23-40

Ennaji, Moha. (1991). Aspects of multilingualism in the Maghreb.International Journal of the Sociology of Language. Vol. 1991, No. 87, 7–26.

Ennaji, Moha. (2002). Language Contact, Arabization Policy and Education in Morocco. In Language Contact and Language Conflict in Arabic Variations on a Sociolinguistic Theme, Rouchdy Aleya (Ed.), 3-9, London: Curzon.

Errihani, Mohammed.(2006). Language Policy in Morocco: Problems & Prospects of Teaching Tamazight. The Journal of North African Studies. 11(2), 143-154.

Dr. Mohamed Chtatou

Dr. Mohamed Chtatou is a Professor of education science at the university in Rabat. He is currently a political analyst with Moroccan, Gulf, French, Italian and British media on politics and culture in the Middle East, Islam and Islamism as well as terrorism. He is, also, a specialist on political Islam in the MENA region with interest in the roots of terrorism and religious extremism.

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