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Tuesday, 2 January, 2001, 12:00 GMT
Moroccan Berbers press for rights
Berber women
Berbers are struggling against Arabisation (Photo: World Amazigh Congress)
By Nick Pelham in Rashidia

Protests are growing in Morocco over the authorities' policy of Arabisation.

More than 60% of Moroccans claim to be Berbers - the original inhabitants of North Africa.

But four years ago, the government introduced new measures outlawing Berber names and restricting Berber children to approved Arab and Muslim names.

At a police station in Rashidia, a town deep in the Atlas mountains, Mohand checks the blacklist of unacceptable names for his new-born son.

Atlas Mountain village
Berbers keep their traditions alive in the Atlas Mountains

The registry clerk tells him non-Arab names like Jurgurtha and Messina - Berber kings of the ancient world - are out. Hassan and Ahmed are in.

Jalali Saib, a leading activist and professor at Rabat University, says the ban amounts to institutionalised racism.

"It looks like the Moroccan authorities - at least the Ministry of Labour - don't want Berber names, especially historical ones, to be given to children.

"If you looked at the human rights charters, you would find that it is a violation of human rights to refuse names that parents would like to give their children. And to Berber militants this is a case of trying to completely eradicate any Berber heritage in Morocco," he says.

'Arab conquest'

In their cafes and conferences across the kingdom, Berber intellectuals like Hassan Ouzzat argue that Moroccans are facing a new Arab conquest.

"Little did they realise that the pan-Arabism based in the Middle East would expand in such fury to North Africa and result in this pan-Arab hysteria, trying to obliterate anything that is native to North Africa and especially its language," Mr Ouzzat says.

Morocco's King Mohammed VI
King Mohammed VI faces growing Berber activism

"This Middle Eastern movement generated a movement of culturally genocidal proportions. It is actually trying to subdue local identity in order to augment the numbers of so-called Arabs."

The authorities say Arabic has long been the dominant culture. They accuse the Berber movement of opposing standardisation and thereby disturbing national unity.

Unlike Algeria, the Berber movement in Morocco has been near dormant, but the struggle against Arabisation is now spawning a revival in Berber music so popular that even the authorities are finding it hard to ignore.

The Moroccan Prime Minister, Abderrahmane Youssoufi, recently acknowledged Berber culture as an essential ingredient of Moroccan identity. But he stopped short of lifting the blacklist on Berber names.

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See also:

20 Dec 00 | Middle East
Algerian singer's 'assassins' on trial
16 Oct 00 | Country profiles
Country profile: Morocco
02 May 00 | World
Berbers demand 'native rights'
24 Jul 99 | Africa
Testing time for new king
03 Apr 00 | Africa
Morocco's quest to be European
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