A New Morocco? Amazigh Activism, Political Pluralism and Anti-Anti-Semitism

Article excerpt

For all the initial optimism about the rise of democracy in the Middle East and North Africa, the recent uprisings in the region (often termed "the Arab Spring") have come to be characterized in the West as a threat. European observers present the war in Libya, the broader instability in the region, and the seemingly new and uncontrollable tide of refugees and migrants across the Mediterranean as veritable crises on Europe's southern frontier.1 Meanwhile, Western security officials fear that the power vacuums created by the fall of authoritarian regimes in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen will create openings for "radical" Islamist groups and al-Qaeda affiliates in particular.2 The storming of the Israeli embassy in Cairo and the burning of a synagogue in Tunisia seem to bode poorly for future Israeli security, and the rise of Iran and a newly assertive, independent-minded Turkey as regional power brokers appear to threaten an already tenuous Pax Americana.3

Yet to examine the uprisings solely through the lens of crisis and threat would be both misleading and shortsighted. In this essay I will draw on the case of Morocco and the decades-long struggle for Berber/Amazigh rights- particularly the Amazigh movement's avowed solidarity with Jews and other ethnic and religious minorities in the region-to argue that the uprisings mark the culmination of a long fight for cultural and political inclusion that bodes well for the future of pluralism in the region. The recent mass demonstrations in Morocco and across North Africa built on and expanded the claims for cultural rights made by the Amazigh movement and allied them with parallel demands for social justice, political transparency, and economic equity arising from emergent student, labor, feminist, and human rights movements.4

In this sense, examining the Berber/Amazigh case casts the uprisings as hopeful rather than threatening. The emergence of new political actors in the region could very well challenge the ideological hegemony of Arab nationalism and spur forward a stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Leaders of the newly elected al-Nahda party in Tunisia, while opposing the normalization of relations with Israel that some Amazigh activists have supported, have nonetheless reached out to local Jewish populations and publicly condemned the use of anti-Semitic chants in demonstrations.5 The rise of youth movements animated by social media has created vectors of solidarity across ethnic, national, religious, and ideological borders, with activists in Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco learning from the experiences of those in Serbia, the Ukraine, and Iran, and inspiring new movements in Greece, the United States, and Israel.6 Moreover, the movements have forced leaders across the region to scramble to introduce preemptive social, economic, and political reforms, which have expanded rights and protections for women and ethnic and religious minorities. These reforms, while yet to be fully enacted, promise precisely the kind of open, inclusive, and plural society for which Moroccan Amazigh activists have long hoped.

AMAZIGH ACTIVISM AND POLITICAL REFORM

The international media has portrayed Morocco as a cardinal example of a revolution averted and its king, Mohammed VI, as a paragon of political foresight and savvy. Lacking deep pockets to purchase quietude like those of his oil-rich monarchical counterparts in the Gulf, the Moroccan king has instead relied upon his symbolic religious capital as "Commander of the Faithful" and his burnished public image as a modern reformist committed to transforming the clientelist makhzen (the ruling establishment) into a transparent structure operating according to the rule of law.7 Indeed, since taking the throne in 1999, the king has pursued a series of public education initiatives targeting corruption and pollution; released a number of political prisoners and initiated a truth and reconciliation process to indemnify victims of his father's iron-fist rule; reformed the family code (al-mudawana) to promote greater equality between men and women in matters of marriage and divorce; and created the Royal Institute of Amazigh Culture (IRCAM) to introduce the three dialects of Berber (collectively known as Tamazight), the mother language of an estimated 40 percent of Moroccans, into state education and the media. …