Language policy in Morocco: From Colonization to Constitutionalization
By El Houssine Lahsini
At the beginning of the twentieth century, French colonialism faced severe rebellion by Amazigh and Arabs. Islam had been a primary motive behind this rebellion. To weaken such a resistance, France implemented a cultural-educational policy that was successful in Algeria and the south of Sudan (Marty, P.1925).This educational policy aimed at providing Amazigh a pure French education. The ultimate aim had been to separate Berbers from Arabs so that they could have no access to Arabic and Islam. This policy, as a result, has partitioned Arabs and Berbers. The clash has extended to the present time and took different dimensions.
Reconstruction of Identity
The Amazigh issue in Morocco dates back to the so called “French Scientific Expedition”. France invaded Morocco militarily and linguistically. Militarily, it was difficult to defeat Berber and Arab resistance in the middle Atlas. The fight, therefore, took other forms amongst which reference can be made to culture and language. Linguistically, France established the Berber schools in order to contain Berbers and separate them from Arabs and Islam, which had been a motive for resistance.
The success of the linguistic policy required French officials to double their efforts. Their utmost aim had been to create “Berber republics” controlled by the French law on the pretext that Morocco is a European territory. They established the “Berber Institute” in Paris and Rabat in order to successfully complete their project in North Africa. This institute would later publish the Berber Archive journal (1915-1918). The issues of this journal dealt with the Amazigh culture, art and music in separation from Arabs and Islam. All the studies published by the Berber Institute aimed at reconstructing a French Amazigh identity away from Arabs and Islam.
Micho Blair and Robert Montagne, two key figures, contributed to the French reconstruction of Amazigh Identity and the implementation of the linguistic policy. Micho Blair, can be considered the first person who created the “Arab/Berber” dichotomy, which in fact sparked conflicts between Arab nationalists and Franchized Berbers. Robert Montagne also in his book “The Berbers and the Makhzen” introduced the idea of “Berber republics” (Montagne, R.1930). This was one of the motives that encouraged rebellion of Amazigh against Arabs on the pretext that the Arab presence in Morocco is Marginal, whereas the Berber presence is an extension of the Western civilization.
The Amazigh issue first began in 1960s with the foundation of the Moroccan Association for Research and Cultural Exchange, then evolved in 1990s with the Charter of Linguistic and Cultural Rights, known as the Agadir Charter. A number of Amazigh movements and organizations were created. Their aim has been to negotiate identity and to officially adopt Tamazight at a national level.
According to Mohammed Masbah (2011:4), two main events contributed to the rise of the Amazigh issue. The first event was external, known as the “Amazigh spring” which took place in Algeria on April 1980 after the banning of a lecture that was to be delivered by the writer Mawlud Maamari on “old Amazigh literature” at the University of Tizi Ouzou. This event was followed by demonstrations and protests in Algeria. The second event was internal, known as the “Fateh incident”, which took place in the city of Rashidiya in May 1994. In this event, seven secondary school teachers who had been in a protest carrying placards with Tifinagh writing were arrested by Moroccan authorities. This gave birth to new Amazigh movements and brought the Amazigh issue to the forefront.
Few years later in 1999, Amazigh movements organized their first demonstration in Morocco, known as “Tawada demonstration”. This demonstration coincided with the death of the king Hassan II, which led to its postponement. However, in March 2000, Shafiq Mohamed, a former teacher of the current king, issued a statement in which he called for the Amazigh demands, amongst which they claimed Tamazight as an official language. This statement was known as “Shafiq statement” or “Amazigh statement”. It was signed by 229 people, including academics, writers, poets, artists, officials, and industrialists (Shafiq, M. 2000; Masbah, M.2011).
The Integration of Tamazight
The institutionalization of Tamazight remained at a distance until 2000, when two important figures, Mohammed Shafiq and Hassan Aourid, paved the way for the official adoption of Tamazight as an official language of the state. Mohammed Shafiq had strong relations with the current monarch and played a mediator between Amazigh movements and the Royal Palace. Hassan Aourid, a former classmate of King Mohammed VI, had also presented the demands of the Amazigh movement to the palace. As a result, King Mohammed VI founded the Royal Institute of Amazigh Culture in late 2001. But, the foundation of this institute was, to some extent, politicized and did not show any intention to institutionalize Tamazight.
Standardization of Tamazight
The French educational policy has resulted in conflicts between Muslim Arabs and secular Amazigh. It has created an identity crisis, which led to gradual standardization of Tamazight in order to pacify Amazigh movements. This was known as the “battle of the alphabet” (marakat al-harf), in 2003 over the script to be used. One group claimed the Arabic script, while a second group chose the Latin script, and third one went for the Tifinagh script. The conflict was finally resolved through royal arbitration, which agreed upon “Tifinagh” alphabet as a compromise solution (Masbah, M.2011).
The Arab Spring
With the Arab spring, the Amazigh movement in Morocco has entered a new dynamic, along with the February 20 Movement. It has raised banners calling for the urgent constitutionilization of Tamazight. With the 2011 referendum, the constitution embraced Tamazight as an official state language, claiming that there must be a protection of the Moroccan identity in which Amazigh, Hassani, Arab and Andalusi make its components. In this respect, article two of the constitution states:
The Kingdom of Morocco is an Islamic state enjoying full sovereignty, committed to its unity, national integrity, cohesion and the maintenance of the elements of its national identity, united by the cohesion of its Arab-Islamic, Amazigh, and Sahrawi Hassani component parts, and enriched by its African, Andalusian, Jewish and Mediterranean heritage.
The Impact of the International Community
The internationalization of the Amazigh issue comes as a response to external pressure. Human rights organizations as well as the United Nations supported the Amazigh movement’s demands. Amazigh activists participated in international seminars, calling for rights of indigenous peoples. They have developed relations with Israel to further the demands of the Amazigh movement led by activist working through the World Amazigh Congress.
Israeli researcher Bruce Weitzman published a study At Moshe Dayan Center, Tel Aviv, on July 2010; “the radical Amazigh” movement is shown to be supportive of Israel and betraying the Palestinian cause as well as criticizing Arabs and Muslims in Morocco. This study has, in fact, raised hot debates about Israel’s support of the radical movement within the Amazigh movement in Morocco (Aldagharni; 2009). It has brought the issue of normalizing relations with Israel foreground. Weitzman confirms that Amazigh activists view Israel as a strong ally in the face of Arab nationalism.
The conclusion to draw from this article is that Morocco has long been targeted by colonial super powers. Because Morocco has a strategic role in the Mediterranean, France, Spain, United States and Israel try to interfere indirectly in its policy and decision-making in order to secure their interests in the region. To achieve this policy, they tried to separate Berbers from Arabs in the name of human rights. The same case happened in other countries like Iraq, conflict between Sunnis and Shits, and in Sudan, separation between the North and the South.
Aldagharni (August 19, 2009) Relations with Israel are in Amazigh Interests,” HesPress electronic newspaper,
Maddy-Weitzman, B. (2010). “The limits and potentials of Israel-Maghreb relations,” IPRIS Maghreb Review,
Marty, P. (1925). Le Maroc de demain. Paris: Comité de l’Afrique française
Shafiq, M. (2000). “A Statement on the Need for Formal Recognition of Morocco’s Amazigh,”. Morocco: Amazigh basic requests,” Paris, March 12, 2011, Office of the Amazigh World Congress, www.congres-mondialamazigh.org
Montagne, R. (1930)“Berbers and the Makhzen in Southern Morocco: An essay on the sedentary Berbers political transformation group Chleuh” (Translated from French), (Paris: Libr. Felix Alcan).
Masbah, M.(2011). The Amazigh in Morocco: Between the External and the Internal. Douha Institute. Retrieved from www.dohainstitute.org
All views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Morocco News Tribune’s editorial policy