Focused Discussions, Race & Society, Regional Studies

Social Currents in the Maghreb Working Group II

Social Currents in the Maghreb Working Group II

On June 22-23, 2014, CIRS held the concluding Social Currents in the Maghreb research initiative working group in Washington D.C. Participants gathered for the second time to discuss their research findings and solicit feedback from a multi-disciplinary cohort of working group members. The topics and themes discussed ranged from the mobilization of social movements in the Maghreb to language as politics and dissent in cultural production.

Following the Arab uprisings, the rise of Islamist parties has led to renewed interest in Islamist politics and a proliferation of debates surrounding the role of Islamist parties and movements in North African politics and society. Despite increased scholarly attention to Islamist politics, the literature remains predominantly narrow in its scope, neglecting ideological and political innovations within Islamist parties, and the diversity and divisions that exist within the Islamist sphere as a whole. One of the ways in which Islamist parties in North Africa have exhibited ideological innovation is by adopting new ideological references that are based on a national framework, rather than the commonly adopted “eastern” interpretations on the relationship between Islam and politics. By primarily referencing Algerian Malek Bennabi’s work, and Ghannouchi’s earlier writings, al-Nahda is “nationalizing an essentially internationalist project”. This is indicative of a change in the flow of ideas in the Maghreb and the shaping of Islamism based on local experiences. While ideological innovation is taking place in the formal political sphere, younger generations of Maghrebis are increasingly distancing themselves from institutional politics and finding alternative ways of performing “every-day Islamism” through associations that are more focused on the betterment of society, rather than the hierarchical mechanisms of institutional politics. Decreased trust in the formal political sphere as an agent of change has led to this diffusion of what it means to be “Islamist” and a growing perception of the distance from “politicking” as a source of success for these associations.

On the other hand, for young people who believe that religion should play a more central role in politics, Salafism has become a significant outlet to achieve political objectives. Participants discussed Salafism in relation to its three broad categories of scriptural, Jihadi, and political Salafism. Of particular salience is the adoption of Jihadi Salafism by young Islamists who are unsatisfied with the Islamist parties in power and the absence of radical change. The rise of Jihadi Salafism in the Maghreb– even before the Arab Uprisings – has led to the co-optation of Sufism by the state to counterweigh the rising threat of Jihadi Salafism; this has led to what some participants claimed was a “revival” of Sufism in the political sphere. Despite seeming state co-optation, participants problematized “Sufism” as a term and discussed that it entails much more than mere reflective esoteric practices but rather, has institutional politics embedded within – complicating what is generally perceived as a “quietist” movement. 

Working group members also discussed the Polisario movement and the question of the Western Sahara. While the Polisario is predominantly thought of as an “Algeria-backed movement”, it has increasingly diversified its support base since the 1990s, to include non-state actors such as activist NGOs, the Sahrawi diaspora and international aid agencies. This flexibility and adaptability has contributed to the movement’s resilience and accordingly this transformation has largely blurred the movement’s boundaries between being an armed and un-armed movement.

In questioning dominant narrow conceptions of North Africa, participants further problematized terms such as the “Arab” uprisings, which fail to recognize the linguistic and cultural heterogeneity of the region. Decades of Amazigh activism throughout the Maghreb has challenged the Arab nationalist ideologies of Maghrebi states. By utilizing a discourse of democracy, pluralism, and diversity throughout the decades and particularly in the “Berber Spring” of the 1980s, their movement largely dovetails with demonstrations of the “Arab Spring” that call for social justice and rule of law. Similarly in Mauritania, the Haratin have played a dominant role in shaping the way human rights issues are debated in Mauritanian society and in the political quest for democracy.

Different states of the Maghreb, such as Algeria and Morocco, have appropriated cultural diversity and co-opted various Amazigh activists, bringing forth the fragmentation and internal divides that exist within the Amazigh movement itself, particularly with regards to generation and class. In addition to the heterogeneity that exists within the Amazigh movement and the Maghrebi states, the Amazigh movement is a transnational one that expands the cultural-geographic space of Barbary, essentially raising questions about the boundaries of those nation states and how territorial boundedness relates to the lived experience. In the Mauritanian context, while the Haratin are characterized as those of “slave descent”, they do not constitute a homogenous group, but rather identify as Arabs, Berbers, Africans and Mauritanian. Participants noted that in shifting social and political landscapes the politics of self-racialization come in to play, where in different moments the Haratins are racialized as “black Africans”.

With the neo-liberalization of culture, “Berberness” does not merely represent an object of struggle, but is also an “aestheticized iconography of the visual urban field”. Paralleling the commodification of Berber heritage is Jewish heritage tourism and cultural conservation in Morocco. While Moroccan Jewish history is a valued economic asset that has become central to national tourism revenues, local support and discourses continue to be overshadowed by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, largely overlying Moroccan Jewish history.  Due to this low level of national multicultural consciousness, there are a number of Moroccan Amazigh and Muslim activists that focus their activities on incorporating the local history of Jews in school and university curricula in order to broaden and deepen the understanding of Jews within Morocco’s historical cultural diversity.

While official promotion of multiculturalism has largely led to celebratory interpretations that presume it as a precursor to social justice and democratization, its intersection with elements of neo-liberalism masks deeper negative socio-economic repercussions. In Morocco for instance, official rhetoric that promotes multilingualism has further stratified society by placing a heavy burden on students and young Moroccons to manage multiple languages. Due to language requirements in the education system, structural inequalities and limitations exist that discriminate against those who cannot afford private schooling, essentially excluding them from national and international economic arenas. While the poorer populations of the Maghreb continue to be excluded from global mobility due to these structural limitations, other populations – particularly those of the sport elite – have widened their scope of migration destinations. In the context of sport migrant communities, participants discussed the states of the GCC as increasingly becoming part of the Maghrebi social imaginary, and in some ways replacing Europe as the prime target for migration.

Preceding and during the Arab uprisings, labor movements have mobilized to address socio-economic woes in the Maghreb. In Morocco, labor unions pressed for material demands and partially achieved them through a series of strikes, sit-ins and protests during the uprisings of 2011. What is important to highlight is that labor was always able to mobilize and connect with the struggle of other groups. Perhaps in recognition of such, the Moroccan government has become particularly capable and effective in its ‘divide and conquer’ tactics to avert the creation of a broad alliance that seeks to connect actors in the political sphere. As such, participants highlighted the importance of not only investigating the negotiations that take place between labor movements and the government, but between labor and the myriad of social movements that exist in the Maghreb, as it may affect the labor movement’s strategies in broadening their concrete demands beyond the economic sphere.

The case-study of labor movements highlights that socio-economic woes have always been present in Maghrebi society, and more importantly so, that groups mobilized to address their demands prior to the Arab uprisings. Beyond formal mobilization, cultural production in the Maghreb also indicates that other forms of dissent were also prevalent within society. In looking at post-colonial film and dissent in Tunisia, participants discussed the works of Moufida Ttali, Nouri Bouzid, Ferid Boughedir, Mahamd Zran, and Moncef Dhouib. These films challenge the sociocultural status quo by contesting taboos, expanding social boundaries and forming “the critical basis for challenging the governmental and political state apparatus itself”. How these films are received by the Tunisian public and whether or not they inspired political action is much more obscure; what is evident however is that dissent was prevalent in the consciousness and works of many Maghrebi artists.



Participants and Discussants:

  • Osama Abi-Mershed, CCAS – Georgetown University
  • Jean R. AbiNader, Moroccan American Trade and Investment Center (MATIC)
  • Mahfoud Amara, Loughborough University
  • Alice Bullard, IRA-USA
  • Zahra Babar, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Aomar Boum, University of Arizona
  • Charis Boutieri, King’s College London
  • Matt Buehler, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Francesco Cavatorta, Université Laval
  • Nouri Gana, University of California, Los Angeles
  • Mehran Kamrava, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Ricardo René Larémont, Binghamton University
  • Dwaa Osman, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Zekeria Ould Ahmed Salem, University of Nouakchott
  • Paul Silverstein, Reed College
  • Elizabeth F. Thompson, University of Virginia
  • Elizabeth Wanucha, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Alice Wilson, University of Cambridge


Article by Dwaa Osman, Research Analyst at CIRS