Identity, citizenship, and the Amazigh language in Morocco
On 24 January 2023, Morocco's House of Representatives passed a proposal requiring foreigners to have adequate proficiency in the Amazigh language (Tamazight), in addition to or instead of Arabic, as a prerequisite for Moroccan citizenship.
The centre-right Istiqlal Party, who initiated the proposal, lauded the House of Councillors’ unanimous approval of the bill as a step towards recognising indigenous culture and language and institutionalising the constitutional nature of Tamazight.
However, the party has had a rocky past with the Amazigh cause since its inception in 1937, often mirroring very anti-Amazigh politics. Its post-2014 opportunistic turn towards Amazigh ‘inclusion’ has been called out by people in the movement, who have labelled it political opportunism.
"Some are wary that this new bill could easily become a new instrument in marginalising and excluding certain groups from the notion of citizenship"
A 'good' or 'bad' legal milestone?
Press coverage maintained mainly a celebratory tone of this legislative move, but public opinion and analysts remain split on the impact of this legislation. Saad Tafoukt, an Amazigh activist, stated that those who refuse this policy have no grounds and that the implementation of the Tamazight language is imperative.
Lhsen Amqran, an Amazigh writer, said that the parliament should be more concerned about Amazigh people who are in the country, particularly in rural areas undergoing precarious conditions, and that “it doesn’t matter to Imazighen in Morocco who will obtain citizenship”.
On the other hand, the director of the Moroccan Centre for Human Rights Abdelilah El Khadri pointed out that this policy might impede the granting of nationality to foreign husbands of Moroccan women.
The question of citizenship has been the subject of much debate in Morocco. Recently, there has been a mushrooming of racist Facebook groups and online advocacy calling on the government to refuse naturalisation to Sub-Saharan African migrants, fuelled by racist hashtags and cartoons.
These troubling and dangerous far-right discourses invoke slavery, racial purity, and anti-Blackness, and stress that the fight is no longer between Arabs and Amazigh, but rather demonising sub-Saharan African migrants as the enemy.
They use images of mixed marriages between Moroccan women and Black migrants alongside claims that the Moroccan race and identity will no longer be pure. This racism is not new and has been particularly intensified with the anti-Black attacks in Tunisia as well as rhetoric in Algeria on fake nationality amongst ‘Africans’, where similar racist tropes are used.
Even before the passing of the new citizenship bill, the anti-Black and anti-immigrant sentiment was prominent, with language and citizenship issues taking a front seat.
In this context, some are wary that this new bill could easily become a new instrument in marginalising and excluding certain groups from the notion of citizenship. Particularly, there are concerns it could be weaponised against migrants, normalising their exclusion based on Tamazight language and cause.
Historically, post-colonial nation-state building in Morocco homogenised Moroccan-ness linguistically, culturally, and religiously and resulted in an Arabo-Islamic identity. This new strategically crafted identity came at the expense of the Amazigh people, languages, cultures, and identity.
The Qatar World Cup 2022 resurfaced these contestations, pitting the identities against each other with misguided questions about whether the Moroccan wins are Arab, Amazigh, or African.
With considerable Amazigh activist efforts, Tamazight was recognised as an official language in the 2011 Moroccan constitution. Yet, post-2011 progress has been slow and hampered by political, economic, and logistical obstacles.
Morocco had its first Tamazight-speaking prime minister, Saad Eddine Al Othmani, only in 2017. Lawmakers approved the confirmation of implementing Tamazight's constitutional status in 2019. Finally, in 2022, the government of Morocco initiated a real-time Tamazight interpretation service during parliamentary sessions.
"Tamazight has been consistently used as a yardstick for development in the Amazigh question, ignoring the on- the-ground realities and needs of marginalised rural communities"
Granted, projects of language reclamation are not only about language, but also are profoundly linked to material issues of public policy, indigenous self-determination, and community well-being and thus should be central to the Amazigh struggle.
And while they also take time, activists warn that these measures should not be used to marginalise other ostracised groups, nor should they replace changes that address the material conditions that many Imazighen face today.
Tamazight has been consistently used as a yardstick for development in the Amazigh question, ignoring the on-the-ground realities and needs of marginalised rural communities, particularly Amazigh women.
In addition, many Amazigh communities are facing forced displacement and land theft as their farms and grazing lands are being confiscated for commercial farming.
Akal, an Amazigh NGO in the south of Morocco, advocates for indigenous sovereignty and against Law 113.13, which it argues encourages the “confiscation of hundreds of thousands of hectares of Indigenous lands that [Amazigh] inherited from father to grandfather centuries ago, and the desecration of their lands, properties, sanctities, and honour due to the successive attacks on them by the rentier grazing mafia”.
But activists and local populations fighting against this law and their forced displacement have not been heard by the national government. Many believe that these issues of land theft are more important than recent legislation, but their concerns have been ignored.
In addition, the citizenship law is also seen as yet another distraction from the increasing economic precarity that the government seems incapable of handling. In recent months, several protests have been organised against the high cost of living, challenging economic and social conditions, and government policies.
The activists called attention to the unprecedentedly high prices of fuel and basic necessities and criticised the government for not taking measures to alleviate the suffering of Moroccan families. These deteriorating economic conditions and increases in prices still continue to this day.
Amazigh people in rural areas are particularly vulnerable to this economic precarity as they have historically been and continue to be marginalised in remote areas. A citizenship law celebrating the Tamazight language while failing to address issues of poverty and inequality seems like a great distraction.
"It is possible that with this legislation the government believed it could get two birds - immigration control and Amazigh recognition - with one stone; the Tamazight language"
Amidst the alarming socio-economic conditions of Amazigh and non-Amazigh-speaking Moroccans, this citizenship legal change starts to look more like a cop-out.
For many, this is nothing new - governments often co-opt Indigenous calls for sovereignty and autonomy, and reduce them to cultural and linguistic recognition alone. Capitalising on Amazigh language and culture has been a dominant approach in Morocco historically.
Through policies such as language for visas and citizenship, states can use language as a means of excluding or including certain groups of people based on their linguistic proficiency.
It is possible that with this legislation the government believed it could get two birds - immigration control and Amazigh recognition - with one stone; Tamazight language.
Amazigh activists say that it is time for the Moroccan parliament to stop manipulating Amazigh Indigenous sovereignty to fulfil other agendas and distract from its failings. It is time to seriously consider conditions, such as Law 113.13, that systematically infringe on Indigenous sovereignty, if the Amazigh cause is to be taken seriously.
Hatim Rachdi is a Master’s student in the Women, Society, and Development program at HBKU. His research interest lies at the nexus of migration, sexuality/gender, and health. Previously, he worked on Amazigh indigenous alternative media in Morocco, queer activism, and coloniality in higher education curricula.
Follow him on Twitter: @Timrachdi