The Moorish Wanderer

The Amazigh Local Democracy

Posted in Moroccan History & Sociology, Moroccanology, Polfiction, Read & Heard, The Wanderer by Zouhair ABH on November 2, 2010

In a hypothetical genuine democratic Morocco, I would have switched political loyalties to Amazigh regionalist groups. First because I have an irrational antipathy towards the representatives of the Master Race – a mafia-like group of families that just got by before, during and after the protectorate with minimal damage and an increased span of wealth, power and notoriety. And second, because it is high time we ditched the hegemonic pan-Arab ideology that disfigured our national identities (if those were really existing) and exerted a positively dangerous influence over the Moroccan minds, so that even blood-related Amazighs tend to ignore their roots and just get swayed by Western or Arabian alluring culture. And last, because I’d say I took a fancy on my forefathers’ origin, a high-pitched village in the eternal snows of the Atlas chain.

Kasbah-Fortress looking on the High-Atlas Chain (Kasbah du Toubkal)

And I would very much like their culture to be valued and accepted as an autonomous part of Morocco’s heritage.

I have less and less time for reading besides economics, but I occasionally sacrifice to good books. Especially to those that took interest in Moroccan society, and really  looked in depth for its structures and inner mechanisms. One of the most prestigious scholars that studied pre-modern Morocco was Ernest Gellner, who, in his famous -to those that like to discuss politics with pondered minds- book “Saints Of the Atlas” (1969). Ernest Gellner was a Professor of Sociology & Anthoropology at the London School of Economics and Political Sciences. His Moroccan studies are marginal compared to other fields he was interested in, but his book about the High-Atlas population is worth reading. (I personally got an ACLS Published-one-Demand book, so it is quite difficult to get a good edition) I will not go as far as reveiwing the whole book, partly because I am in the process of re-reading it, and I still have to catch up with a lot of material mentioned there, and also because I am more interested in hghliting a chapter I am keen to discuss.

It has been a general observation among those foreigners that started discovering Morocco in the late years of the 19th century, at a time when Morocco –Bled Siba and Makhzen alike- was at the center of growing interest from imperialst western powers. Anthropologists like De Foucauld, pointed out that the mountain tribes, those that were most likely to rebel against the Makhzen central authority (and occasionally referred to as Bled Siba) developed ruling mechanisms that were close to western democracies. Maxwell Gavin, in his account, mentioned a more liberal society in the high mountains than in the plains.

E. Gellner 1925-1995

There was much literature about possible European features in these regions and the subsequent more liberal institutions there compared to the despotic and arbitrary Sultan reign. Gellner actually describes these institutions, and they do strike the observer how different they are from the discretionary and Ivan the terrible-like manners in the Imperial court.

Amusingly enough, Gellner starts off by asking a core question: “What is a Berber?” as indeed he needed to define the areas where he should had focused his study, he then goes on defining the characteristics of such population: “From the outside, one can only define a Berber by his speech. Even then, one must exclude the Jewish, Negroid (sic) and the Ibadi Berber-speaker […] This however, leaves the overwhelming majority of Berber-speakers. How they see themselves. They are, without serious exceptions, either tribesmen, or men who are but recently tribalised. […] Hence, basically the Berber-speaker is a tribesman. This provides the crucial clue to his own vision of himself, the concepts available to him for identification with wider groups. He is, of course, a member of the nested series of kin units which constitute his tribe“. [p. 14-15] Why the tedious introduction? (and I have given but a digested excerpts of it) Because there was a need to specify the essential feature of the Amazigh -I shall use the modern word for Berber- is their tie to the tribe, i.e. the small society where they evolve. The fact  individuals are part of a specific tribes also raises the question of the nature of interactions between themselves, namely the question of equality.Before elaborating on that, Gellner goes on about the nature of segmentary societies, i.e. when families regulate their internal affairs either by means of autonomous self-regulated mechanisms or by using tribal arbitrage of tools to deal with different matters. Gellner summons E. Pritchard on tribal systems: “typical of segmentary structures everywhere, [the tribal system] is a system of balanced opposition … and there cannot therefore  be any single authority in a tribe. Authority is distributed at every point of the tribal structure and political leadership is limited to situations in which a tribe or segment acts corporately… There cannot obviously be any absolute authority vested in a single Shaikh of a tribe when the fundamental principle of tribal structure is opposition between segments ” (p. 59) This means that, even though complete equality is not achieved, nor considered as such, tribe segments -usually not individuals- are considered to be effective balancing powers to tribal leadership, and thus provide a relative plurality as well as effective barriers to absolute rules, something that tribes in the plains failed to implement against Makhzen-appointed Caids, Pachas and so on.

These are the starting points of Gellner’s account of the very specific “Mountain Democracy”: a conscious knowledge of space and/or population frame of reference, as well as intrinsic mechanisms preventing power monopoly by means of relative equality.

in Chapter 4: “Holy & Lay”, Gellner mentions the kind nature Igurramen (the Igurram fulfils the state or public duties. The position can only be defined through what it does, or rather, with the task it is given to fulfil) maintain with the ordinary tribesmen. Indeed, the various duties an Igurram is bound to undertake cannot be performed without the support of a substantial part of the tribe they are supposed to manage. It goes even further, on the way elections are held:  “Suppose a tribe to consist of 3 sub-clans, A, B and C. If this year it is the turn of Q to provide the chief for the tribe as a whole, then the electors will be the men of B and C. Next year, the chief will be chosen from B, and it will be A and C who provide the electors; and so on. You can be part of the pool of candidates, or have the vote, but not both. This is complementarity.” This is crucial, as indeed Chiefs-Igurramen are chosen by the tribesmen -on whatever fashion they fancy- and are not imposed by the central authority. In addition, Igurramen position does not carry with it special privileges or any perks of the office as one might say. Indeed, it is more of a status rather than sub-tribal belonging, and cannot therefore derive any further authority than what the tribe allows for. the Chief is therefore constrained by the wishes of the clans.  There is a sense of self-government that is actually very close to local democracy and decentralization of power, as well as a wide-base popular legitimacy. One wouldn’t go as far as boast about primitive democratic settings, but these are certainly and by far more liberal than the traditional institutions of imperial Makhzen. One could almost see a cardinal bifurcation of powers: on the one hand, a bureaucratic, centralizing Makhzen, and on the other, a popular, decentralizing local/tribal democracy. and both had the unfortunate demise of many conflicts throughout the ages, as indeed Makhzen tried with more or less success to establish their control over the mountain tribes (especially by means of enabling Glaoui and Gundafi families to extend their domination in the name of the imperial Sultan over the High Atlas)

I raised the Amazigh question some time before –about the Berber Dahir– and I had some doubts about the kind of relationship between Arabic heritage and Amazigh identities. While I do agree some Amazigh-born Moroccans rose to prominent places as Islamic scholars (such as Mokhtar Soussi) or writers in Arabic, I  cast much concerns about how hegemonic Arabic culture – using Islam as the uncontested shuttlecock to its aims- perverted pre-Islamic Amazigh culture and managed quite successfully to tone it down and effectively, suppressing it. Arabic is now the national language, our official history firmly tied us to the pan-Arab project (whether because of the regime’s stand or that of prominent opposition parties, like the USFP or the PJD) and much is made about or National Identity. Nonetheless, and despite encouraging signs, little is said about a heritage that has been confined to marginal places by a hegemonic part of the Moroccan identities. Morocco had good -albeit traditional and certainly flawed- local democratic institutions that were destroyed through a patient and vengeful process in the name of ‘imarat al mouminine (Commander of the Faithful) and the Islamic obligation to submit to the ruler of the land.

A couple of pleasant instance to point out how resistant my ancestors were to the Arab oppressors: In Tachelhit, Baghough describes the Fox. another way of refering the the animal is Aliou taleb, which is Ali Ibnou Abi Taleb, the well-known nephew of prophet Muhammad. As for the snake, the usual name is Hlima, a reference to the prophet’s wet-nurse. Who said Amazigh people did not have a good sense of humour?

Lake Ifni. Wonderful place to fish and bath in.

Treacherous Dahir

We had just gone through an anniversary no one really cared about. How odd, considering how important it is for the official Moroccan history. I mean, if you’d have asked the average Istiqlali chum, they would have provided you with the very average answer i.e. it is the cornerstone of Moroccan nationalism. In case you didn’t have guessed -or the Istiqlali fellow failed in reaching the answer – I am referring to the Berber Dahir of May, 16th, 1930.

Much has been fantasized about this Dahir, and the whole debate around it. The monarchy and the traditionalist Istiqlal wing built a whole myth out of a document very little known to the Moroccan people. In facts, and without prejudice to the colonial project behind the document, I believe it to be a myth not of Moroccan nationalism, or any particular will of independence or emancipation, but merely an ex-post item of a political agenda pushing for a very thoughtful nationalist ideology, the one usually found in cities like Fès or Rabat. It is made to look as though:

1. the true founding moment of Moroccan ‘identity’  is there when Allal El-Fassi and other Quaraouine graduates rose to criticize the move, in a very nationalistic fashion; i.e. no Moroccan ever felt bound to defend their country against the imperialist foes but the fine families of Fès.

2. Moroccan nationalism is solely of pan-arabist nature. And if it was not for the post-1956 turmoil, Moroccans of Imazighen extraction would always be looked down with suspicion, and those who championed Arab nationalism -oh, and they are of specific urban areas, how odd!- would be held to be the true heroes of Moroccan pride.

But of course, I am going a bit ahead of myself. Since I am not a member of the master race, and since anything I say is usually held to be biased -besides being very radical, and if I may say so, entirely nihilist- let us first have a look at the Dahir itself, and then, call up some interesting references to discuss its content.

The Dahir on itself is of a very light content: 8 articles, merely a column and a half in the Bulletin Officiel n°918, May 1930. And in facts, the content are, if not harmless, of a very administrative nature. And in a nutshell, the May Dahir merely provides the administrative framework for an earlier decision, much more offensive to the theoretical imperial authority.Indeed:

“Louange à Dieu,
Que l’on sache par la présente, que notre Majesté Chérifienne, Considérant que le dahir de notre Auguste père, S.M. le Sultan Moulay Youssef, en date du 11 septembre 1914 a prescrit dans l’intérêt du bien de nos sujets et de la tranquillité de l’Etat de respecter le statut coutumier des tributs berbères pacifiées…, qu’il devient opportun de préciser aujourd’hui les conditions particulières dans les quelles la justice sera rendue dans les mêmes tribus A décrété ce qui suit :

Art. 1 : Dans les tribus de Notre Empire reconnues comme étant de coutume berbère, la répression des infractions commises par les sujets marocains(1) qui serait de la compétence des Caïds dans les autres parties de l’Empire, est de la compétence des chefs de tribus. Pour les autres infractions, la compétence et la répression sont réglées par les articles 4 et 6 du présent dahir.

Art. 2: Sous réserve des règles de compétence qui régissent les tribunaux français de Notre Empire, les actions civiles ou commerciales, mobilières ou immobilières sont jugées, en premier ou dernier ressort, suivant le taux qui sera fixé par arrêté viziriel, par les juridictions spéciales appelées tribunaux coutumiers. Ces tribunaux sont également compétents en tout matière de statut personnel ou successoral. Ils appliquent, dans les cas, la coutume locale.

Art. 3: L’appel des jugements rendus par les tribunaux coutumiers, dans les cas où il serait recevable, est portée devant les juridictions appelées tribunaux d’appel coutumiers.

Art. 4: En matière pénal, ces tribunaux d’appel sont également compétents, en premier et dernier ressort, pour la répression des infractions prévues à l’alinéa 2 de l’article premier ci-dessus, et en outre de toutes les infractions commises par des membres des tribunaux coutumiers dont la compétence normale est attribuée au chef de la tribu.

Art. 5: Auprès de chaque tribunal coutumier de première instance ou d’appel est placé un commissaire du Gouvernement, délégué par l’autorité régionale de contrôle de laquelle il dépend. Prés de chacune de ces juridictions est également placé un secrétaire-greffier, lequel remplit en outre les fonctions de notaire.

Art. 6: Les juridictions françaises statuant en matière pénale suivant les règles qui leur sont propres, sont compétentes pour la répression des crimes commis en pays berbère quelle que soit la condition de l’auteur du crime(2). Dans ces cas est applicable le dahir du 12 août 1913 (9 ramadan 1331) sur la procédure criminelle.

Art. 7: Les actions immobilières auxquelles seraient parties, soit comme demandeur, soit comme défendeur, des ressortissants des juridictions françaises, sont de la compétence de ces juridictions.

Art. 8: Toutes les règles d’organisations, de composition et de fonctionnement des tribunaux coutumiers seront fixés par arrêtés viziriels successifs, selon les cas et suivants les besoins”.

Of course, no one in the nationalist side said something at the time, nor was the first decree ever reported or on the record. Till 1912, the Moroccan Sultans had little power over their own territories. Of course, M’hallas in Harkas -expeditions for income tax collection- were organised from time to time to assert the Sultan’s authority over a particularly rebellious Caïd or tribe. The imperial power was virtual, subject only to the Sultan’s own ruthlessness (and on can account for some of their characters)or/and to the extent of good organisation their armies enjoyed. Other than that, large parts of Morocco lived in a very large autonomous state, and this included the Berber moutains, where Sharia was not a customary practise, and instead of Makhzen-appointed Cadi, the council tribe ruled rather. In ‘Siba‘ region, a form of local democracy, much less blood-thursty and more humane ruled the pride mounts of the Atlas. Even after the Fès Treaty was signed, the Berber regions maintained their own traditional structures. It seems our nationalists overlooked the fact that many tribes in the High and Middle atlas resisted French pacification and remained untamed till 1934. The fact the late Sultan Youssef recognised the local jurisdictions is merely de facto.

Istiqlal Leaders with Allal El Fassi

Let us roll back to the Dahir. It was mentioned before that the 1930 dahir was merely of administrative nature, and the Sultan already expressed his views -or those of the Résident Général, or both- on Imazighen tribes (sorry, it’s a bit anachronistic, but I prefer to use this term rather than ‘Berber’ which is quite demeaning) in an earlier Dahir (Bulletin Officiel n°73, September 1914). A dahir oddly enough published in Arabic only (to my knowledge anyway…)

The sultan admits, in his own words, Art.1: “The Berber tribes belonging to Our Sherifian realm manage their home affairs in full accordance with their own local law and customs, under the supervision of governmental delegates” (It doesn’t say whether the delegate is form the Makhzen, or from the Bureau des Affaires Indigènes)

Gilles Lafuente (1984) did point out that before 1930, the ongoing Residential policy was to categorize the tribes all over Morocco (Arab and Imazighen alike) for it was in Lyautey’s mind that an efficient colonialism imposes itself without damaging the local customs. (a useful axiom very few Residents Généraux took their own, much to the dispair of Lyautey legacy). There is no doubt some elements of the Residence wanted to wipe the Islamic influence out of the Imazighen tribes, for they notice some pageantry -quite far from orthodox Islam- in their customs. Some, like the next Résident Général -Lucien Saint-, even noticed Imazighen had indo-european features (blond, tall, fair skin and good health) and deduce France’s main mission is to set free these ‘primitive European’ yearning to be freed from the Arabo-Islamic chains. All of this didn’t look good for many Moroccans -especially the Salafists like El Fassi-. Why would they wait till 1930 to burst and protest in the strongest way possible –the famous قراءة اللطيف pray-?

An Officer of the "Bureau des Affaires Indigènes" with a young local

To be true, the Fassi-oriented nationalism is not so per se. The etymological concept of nationalism refers usually to a nation, or,  in modern concepts, to a state-nation. Boubker El Kadiri -a well-known and much respected nationalist figure- says so when he remembers how the Berber Dahir threatened his faith, his identity, and everything he holds dear for a Muslim family, country and community. Fassi nationalism it seems, is of a very religious nature. The 1930 intellectual uprising is not ex-nihilo. All over colonized Muslim countries, salafists -like the Muslim Brotherhood- started thinking about an Islamic renewal, a renaissance so to speak. El Fassi, heavily influence by this Oriental thinking, started building up the ideological paradigm that would be from then on the Istiqlal trademark. This doesn’t abstract itself from religion or ethnic belonging, quite the opposite. It seems -and I am sure some Imazighen activists would back me up on this one- the glorious opposition to this Dahir is merely that of an imperialism threatened by another. There is nothing fundamentally modern about it. How could someone say: “we all are Moroccans of one country”:

وبالفعل ظهر تجاوب جدي مع تحركنا، وتعاطف واسع مع الأفكار التي كنا ننادي بها، فالتحق بنا الشيوخ والشباب، والرجال والنساء.
وتسابق المصلون لترديد “اللهم يا لطيف نسألك اللطف بما جرت به المقادير، ولا تفرق بيننا وبين إخواننا البرابر“.

and on the same time state in the strongest way possible: “Moroccan identity is fundamentally Islamic and Arabic-speaking”

ومما زاد في غيضنا وتخوفنا من السياسة الاستعمارية، كوننا بتنا نسمع ونرى بأمهات أعيننا الدعوات التبشيرية إلى المسيحية، تمارس خاصة في المناطق البربرية، حيث كان يرغب الفرنسيون نزع الذات المغربية والقضاء على الدين الذي يعتقد به الجميع، فاهتز لذلك كيان عدد واسع من الشباب.

That’s what Istiqlal nationalism means: there can be no way Morocco had a history before Islam, and in anyway, any pre-Islamic culture or civilisation is worthless before it. the nationalist reaction looked as though they were afraid Imazighen tribes would escape their intellectual custody and join another one. There’s no altruistic project, only political agendum to be followed. It may be too for religions to wipe out an pageantry and instead impose itself as the ‘founding moment‘ myth?

Perhaps religion as got nothing to do with it; Perhaps it’s just a question of lobbies and competition over who rules what; Then some representative of the master race remember us from time to time that because of their “struggle” (and only theirs) Morocco was freed from colonialism… well, when it’s about being cheeky, I think the ‘djaj l’byed‘ set a record on their own…