Thursday, August 13, 2009

Indigenous Issues: Morocco - last dance for Berbers

By Daan Bauwens - IPS Republished permission Inter Press Service (IPS ) copyright Inter Press Service (IPS) and

RABAT, Aug 13 (IPS) - The satellite receiver has speeded up the process of wiping out the cultural heritage of Morocco's Berbers. Old traditions are now dying out under the influence of television imams.

Berbers are an indigenous people of North Africa. There are an estimated 30 to 40 million in the region, mostly in Algeria and Morocco. Now their old practices are considered in popular Islamic interpretation to be 'satanic' or 'heathen'.

Earlier this year the Moroccan government banned Berber names for newborn children in order to stress the Islamic identity of the nation's population.

Berbers have been resisting efforts to Arabise their communities ever since the arrival of Islam in the seventh century. But many Berbers now speak of a dramatic cultural change over the last few years, this time coming from within their own communities.

Tarama, a small isolated town in the south of Morocco, is becoming more silent by the day. "At home most people don't play music any more," says Abdelftah Aït Argane, a young Berber from Tarama. "It is changing very fast. People dance less, wedding feasts have dropped by at least 50 percent, and old ways are disappearing."

One old practice is tattooing on women's foreheads. Ten years ago this was common practice, now the custom has completely died out. Berbers used to believe in demonic possession. 'Witches' and 'magicians' were summoned to cure illnesses. Such centuries-old beliefs are now vanishing.

"It is reasonable and just," says Argane. "Nowadays Islamic prescriptions are being followed more strictly than before. People now understand that until a few years ago they were leading a sinful life full of pagan rituals. It's better now: people don't dance, because men and women mustn't mix. It is an improvement."

In the bustling city Marrakech, young people shun traditional wedding feasts. The Salafi, familiar as the Saudi Islamic way of dressing, is becoming dominant.

"There has never been a change like this," says Simohammed Zerrouni who has been living in Marrakech since birth. "Young people are turning to the strong principles of Islam in ever increasing numbers. It is for the best."

Zerrouni and Argane both say the change has been speeded up by the satellite receiver. "Over the past four years every Moroccan household has got a satellite receiver. There are 300 channels, of which 30 are strictly religious ones. Walk into a house in the city or in the countryside, and you will see the tv is always on. On a religious channel, mostly from Egypt or Saudi Arabia."

"This is cultural suicide," says Murad Errarhib, political analyst with the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FES) in Rabat, a non-governmental think tank.

FES studies in 2007 showed that foreign broadcasting has become a major source of religious information for more than 60 percent of Moroccans. And it showed that 68 percent of those between 18 and 24 years of age rely on television for religious information compared to 40 percent among those over 60.

The satellite receiver is destroying Morocco's cultural heritage, says Errarhib. "Day in, day out, people see televised imams telling them the difference between right and wrong. These imams come from places with a completely different religious, judicial and doctrinaire frame of reference.

"It is leading to the demise of centuries-old habits, and to cultural stress. Now people think what they have been practising for years is not allowed according to their own religion."

The teachings of Saudi and Egyptian television imams have changed the face of Islam in Morocco. "Islam was a shared, communal religion based on brotherhood," says Errarhib. "Now the message is: we have to find the enemy within; who is a bad Muslim, who is a good Muslim, and who is the perfect Muslim. This is not Moroccan Islam, but we see more and more people surrendering to this line of thought, speeding up the disappearance of our cultural heritage."

Mohamed Bekouchi, professor of sociology in Paris, Quebec and Rabat, says there are alternatives. "The state has to invest wisely in this country's cultural heritage," he tells IPS. "There is money to introduce dances and national culture in lessons at school, so young people begin to understand what their culture stands for, what its proper and specific values are. Without appreciation by themselves, it is bound to die out.

"It is Morocco's cultural void that makes people susceptible to radicalism on tv," Bekouchi tells IPS, "a cultural void that has been created by the swift changes Morocco has witnessed over the last 30 years: globalisation, industrialisation, tourism and urbanism. Our people are confused and need a stronghold. We can offer a stronghold by organising communities, by cultural initiatives. It is the only way."
Published by Mike Hitchen,
Putting principles before profits