In the past year, my brother-in-law went to Morocco for his work. He only visited Rabat, and he is the first to admit that he saw very little of the country in the few days he was there. A few weeks or so ago we were chatting over a drink in his backyard, and he told me that some of his Moroccan colleagues had explained to him that Morocco’s unique character lay in the fact that the place had been a nation-state since the Middle Ages, and he seemed ready to accept that as reasonable and repeat it to me as having some kind of explanatory value.
Of course, that characterization is quite inaccurate, and anyone familiar with modern European history knows that the very idea of the nation-state dates from about the time of the French Revolution, as does its correlate nationalism. The idea of a people, united by history and culture, constituting a nation on specific territory was a radical one in the nineteenth century. It spawned the creation of new countries as well as the breakup of old empires, and, of course, it culminated during the twentieth century in two of the worst wars mankind has experienced, though there is still time, as George’s Brassens has written, for another: Du fond de son sac à malices/Mars va sans doute, à l’occasion/En sortir une, un vrai délice…
That said, Morocco’s status as an outlier is beyond question, and it has been one for a very long time, indeed.
In antiquity, after being a site for Punic trading posts, it was eventually incorporated into the Roman Empire. The area around the ancient city of Volubilis prospered to the extent that a sizeable city grew up there. With the end of the Pax Romana, however, the Empire lost control of the territory that was then known as Mauritania Tingitana. On the Empire’s edge, Volubilis simply could not be defended from the tribal groups around it. When the western empire fell, Byzantine power only extended to coastal areas of Morocco and Volubilis was quickly lost to the Vandals and Arab invaders. It would be 1500 years before Moroccans could become citizens again.
In a story, probably apocryphal, the early Muslim general Oqba bin Nafi rode his horse into the swells of the Atlantic, calling on God to witness that he had brought Islam to the farthest ends of the earth. The Arab armies then turned northward, perhaps welcomed into Spain by a population oppressed by the Visigoths. On the far western limits of the Arab empire, Morocco became a backwater to the Iberian kingdoms of Al-Andalus, where the last of the Umayyads survived the Abbasid massacres of their kinsmen to continue as a rival Caliphate, and a rich and culturally diverse civilization arose. Morocco remained a dead end, a cul-de-sac, limited by the vastness of the Atlantic and the fastness of the Sahara. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Berber dynasties arose to intervene in Al-Andalus, but after 1492, Morocco found itself at the end of the Arab world, a very long way from the Middle East.
The rise of the Ottomans had a profound influence on the other parts of the Maghreb, but Morocco never succumbed to Ottoman power. In the territory of Morocco, the Maghreb al-Aqsa, dynasties continued to rise and fall according to the rhythm of Ibn Khaldun. The last of these, the Alaouites, appeared in the 17th century. Facing the expansionist ambitions of Spain and Portugal as well as the Ottomans, the Alaouite sultans also had to contend with a mountainous hinterland controlled by powerful Berber tribes that constituted a perpetual threat. When the sultan was powerful, his kingdom expanded, and when his power declined, the tribes became an existential threat.
The sultan’s power was urban centered, and his legitimacy came from his dynasty’s claimed descent from Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law, and to the strong folk belief in the holy force of baraka, passed through descent from the prophet Mohammed himself. There was no nation in a modern sense. There was a kingdom, with an itinerant ruler, much as the kingdoms of medieval Europe. People were not citizens but subjects, and primary identification was to one’s family or tribe or village or city. No one claimed to be Moroccan in pre-modern Morocco. Indeed, the very word Morocco, is derived from the name of a city, Marrakesh, and is European in origin. Moroccans literally call themselves westerners, and have to differentiate themselves from the rest of the Maghreb, the Arab West.
By the 19th century, the sultans had grown weak, and Morocco’s territory had become a prize for European imperialists. Deeply indebted, the kingdom fell to the French which had already ruled Algeria for half a century. France secured its colonial claims on Tunisia as well. Theoretically a protectorate, French Morocco was a colony in everything but name. The French did not seize it from the Ottomans or their heirs as Algeria and Tunisia had been taken. French intervention in Morocco aimed to secure the sultan’s empire—for the benefit of the French, but eventually for the Alaouite dynasty and the Moroccan elites.
The creation of the protectorate created the basis of a nation-state, and endowed the Moroccan elites with an administrative apparatus that in fact made it a nation upon its independence in 1956. The French destroyed the old duality of the land of insolence (es-siba) and the land of the government (al-makhzen), and brought the sultan’s territory firmly under their control, and, coincidentally, under the sultan’s control, at last. Brazen efforts by the French to exploit Berber and Arab cultural differences foundered on religion and the sultan’s legitimacy.
Modern Moroccan nationalism arose in opposition to French and Spanish imperialism, and the sultan gave it a unifying theme. The king, Mohammad V, led Morocco to independence, despite being deposed and exiled, and he secured for the state, as well as for himself, an important legitimacy. In conversations with me, Moroccans usually spoke with reverence of him, and sometimes made a strong contrast with their opinion of his son and successor, Hassan II.
Considerable violence, subsumed by the benign term, pacification, took place early in the protectorate, but largely in tribal areas, where the French were successful in a way that the sultans never were. The independence movement itself was relatively peaceful, unlike that of neighboring Algeria.
While Moroccans were never cut off from Arab brethren in the East, the modern ruling elites arose under French tutelage, and looked to Paris as much, if not more, than to Cairo, Beirut, or Damascus for guidance. In that respect, they were not so difference from the rest of the Maghreb, and they did not have any of the ancient ties, real or imagined, of Syria or Lebanon. Algeria, a part of France, stood between them and the east.
Independent Morocco has also escaped, so far at least, the violence and chaos of the modern Middle East. The current dynasty survived two serious coup attempts in 1970 and 1971, and still rules. Only the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan can boast of that kind of good fortune, and Morocco lays claim to a valuable and almost unique stability in a region torn by conflicts. Although Morocco proclaims solidarity with the Palestinians, the Arab-Israeli conflict has always been far away. Its major impact has been to make life more difficult for the Moroccan Jewish population, now just a shadow of its former self.
Tying Morocco closer to Europe are the thousands of migrants and emigrants to Europe. Early Moroccan wage labor migration began during World War I, when France experienced critical labor shortages, and continued throughout the century. Early on, the migration consisted of single men. They lived thrifty lives, sent money home to their families, and visited during the summer vacations. In the 1960s, one could easily be stuck in traffic jams on the Ceuta border caused by migrants coming home from or returning to Europe. The magnitude of these migration streams was unrivaled by any Middle Eastern country, aside from Turkey, and its roots were older and more deeply implanted. Morocco sits on the doorstep of Europe, just a short car ferry from Spain. Later in the 20th century, emigration came to play a bigger role in Morocco. In a recent poll, reported on in The Guardian, 70% of Moroccan under 30 years of age think of migrating!
Morocco bears an analogous position to Sicily, perhaps, sitting at the end of a long and diverse dialectical and cultural chain, owing much of its uniqueness to its geographical position. Morocco’s fertile plains border the Atlantic, and the Rif Mountains present a relatively inhospitable barrier along the Mediterranean. On the south, the Sahara presents a barrier. Morocco is a country connected to the East by religion and culture, but it faces north and west.
Finally, Moroccan Muslims are all Sunni, following the same school of law. Not even Algeria and Tunisia show this complete religious homogeneity. Indeed, few Middle Eastern countries are so homogeneous. Moroccans think in terms of Muslims, Jews, and Christians, and a country such as Lebanon is beyond their experience. Saudi Arabia, with its large Shi’a population, cannot manifest such religious uniformity.
For the better and for the worse, geography and history made Morocco what it is, and what has distinguished it from its neighbors since Roman times. Two millennia of history crystallized in the form of a nation-state in the mid-twentieth century, a state molded by the French and inherited by Moroccan elites.