Focused Discussions, Race & Society, Regional Studies

Social Currents in the Maghreb Working Group I

Social Currents in the Maghreb Working Group I

On January 7-8, 2014, CIRS held its inaugural Social Currents in the Maghreb Working Group in Washington D.C. While much of the mainstream media and recent scholarship on the Maghreb has focused on the political and security dimensions of the region, participants gathered over two days to discuss the social changes and fluxes in contemporary Morocco, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Mauritania. The Working Group provided an avenue of deliberation on social issues that precede the recent political transformations of the region, and sought to examine the complex trajectory of its existing societal conditions.

As highlighted above, much of the recent debates on the Maghreb have revolved around political transformations, and more specifically on their relation to Islamic movements in the context of the Arab Spring. While the historical trajectory of Islamic movements and parties has generally been accounted for, the internal dynamics of political parties have largely been neglected in the scholarship. Working Group participants highlighted the dynamics between Islamists and leaders of various political parties as well as generational dynamics within the parties. Political parties and movements as a unit of analysis need to incorporate internal notions of ideological hybridity that not only challenge the status-quo of the country’s political landscape, but also of the movements’ longstanding policies and strategies. These internal subtleties allude to the ideological innovation of Islamic movements that move beyond the traditional prism of analysis of “moderation through inclusion” or “radicalization through repression”.

In addition to political parties and political Islam, participants discussed religious practice and the anthropology of Salafism and Sufism. In the context of the latter, Sufi observances and religious pilgrimages by the Tijaniyyah who migrate from West Africa to the Maghreb, have created economic and social networks that permeate the two regions. While the Tijaniyyah movement has largely expanded to West Africa, these Sufi networks have also traditionally served as vital linkages of knowledge production.

Another thread connecting the Maghreb to West Africa and the Sahel is the transnational element of Amazigh movements. While most scholars have focused on political and social struggles of the Amazighs in Algeria and Morocco in isolation, their movements have become increasingly transnational in nature as they incorporate other Amazighs or social groups such as the Tuareg, in their politics. With these attempts to create transnational connections comes a sense of national ambivalence as questions of identity are pushed to the forefront with regards to “Africanity” and “Amazigh-ness”. These questions do not allude to deep ethnic tensions between a certain social group and their respective national counterparts, but rather serve to highlight contemporary politics and how it emerges in a changing political system with relative political openings or closings.

Hybrid identities were also discussed in the context of the Haratine in Mauritania. The Haratine, or people of slave descent, currently experience different levels of political and social subservience. The Haratine are also not a homogenous group and identify themselves as Arabs, Berbers, African, and Mauritanian. Identity, which may also be used as a political tool, directly affects the strategic alliances that the Haratine movement builds in order to further its political cause in Mauritania. While much of the movement’s emphasis has been on political and social subordination, economic emancipation has not been effectively addressed by the movement nor experienced by the Haratine today.

Other movements such as the Polisario in Western Sahara have not gained much footing in their political trajectory but have secured greater access to economic funds. Contrary to conventional wisdom about the armed movement, the Polisario has increasingly diversified its portfolio of economic and developmental funding to include non-state sources beyond Algeria. Resources from civil society organizations and family members abroad broaden the Polisario movement’s economic base of support and simultaneously affect the activities and investments of the movement.

In addition to identity politics, the politics of language and its historical, economic and social salience were discussed. The language of instruction in Moroccan schools for instance, has largely been caught between the dual and seemingly contradictory goals of cultural and linguistic preservation (e.g. Arabic or Berber) and the necessity of equipping graduates with languages that meet global market needs (e.g. French or English). The language of instruction in the Moroccan education system is fragmented where Arabic is utilized in public primary schools and French in higher education. This tends to exacerbate the hurdles that socio-economically disadvantaged populations face in attaining social mobility as they move from one educational level to another. This linguistic fragmentation in the education system can be contrasted to the linguistic hybridity that is increasingly incorporated into the artistic expression of the youth. The incorporation of the Darija (colloquial Arabic) into cultural forms produced by youth serves as a means to deconstruct issues of identity and provides an underlying commentary on the language of politics as being distant from the everyday life; this artistic utilization of linguistic hybridity by youth was identified as an element of youth’s cultural and social entrepreneurship in the contemporary Maghreb.

Parallel to the politics of linguistic preservation, participants discussed movements of cultural preservation, specifically as it relates to Jews of North Africa. Jewish presence in Morocco and Tunisia has significantly diluted since the pre-independence era, and concomitantly, efforts to conserve and renovate Jewish heritage sites have been on the rise. While these preservation projects serve to keep the memory of the Jewish community in North Africa alive, the politics of preservation also indicate that these movements seek to reify Jews to a past rather than an ongoing present.

Sports in relation to migration, identity and political transitions in the Maghreb were also topics tackled by the participants. While Europe has been the main destination for athletes, the GCC has more recently become a new lucrative destination for youth from the Maghreb. Issues related to reverse migration of athletes, their sense of belonging, and identity construction around religion and language are of interest in comparing the Gulf and Europe as prime sport destinations. Moreover, with the political transitions in the region, regimes have utilized sports for various strategic interests such as the promotion of reconciliation in Algeria or the rebuilding of the national sport system in Libya after decades of neglect by Qaddafi.

These societal threads, from social movements by marginalized groups to the language employed by youth in artistic expression, collectively shed light on the social underpinnings of the contemporary Maghreb. 

Participants and Discussants:

  • Osama Abi-Mershed, CCAS – Georgetown University
  • Lahouari Addi, Centre de Recherche en Anthropologie Sociale et Culturelle (CRASC)
  • Mahfoud Amara, Loughborough University
  • Néjib Ayachi, Maghreb Center
  • Zahra Babar, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Aomar Boum, University of Arizona
  • Charis Boutieri, King’s College London
  • Alice Bullard, IRA-USA
  • Francesco Cavatorta, Université Laval
  • Mehran Kamrava, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Ricardo René Larémont, Binghamton University
  • William Lawrence, George Washington University
  • Dwaa Osman, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Zekeria Ould Ahmed Salem, University of Nouakchott
  • Paul Silverstein, Reed College
  • Loubna Skalli-Hanna, American University
  • Elizabeth Wanucha, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Alice Wilson, University of Cambridge

Article by Dwaa Osman, Research Analyst at CIRS​