Illustration by Ahmed Bilal

Assigning a Rigid National Identity — Is Morocco Arab or African?

Whether Moroccans want to call themselves Arab or African is up to them because they can be both. It is up to no one else to assign our identities for us.

Dec 12, 2022

Disclaimer: While this article relies on facts and historical information, my views attempt to shed light on a broader issue that is worth diving into and discussing extensively. I am no expert, as such, this article comes as a very simplified version of the ethnic reality of my country. I will also disclaim that any personal opinion expressed in this article is mine and mine only, and although some Moroccans may identify with my feelings and what I say, I do not wish nor have the pretension to speak on behalf of all Moroccans, as many may feel entirely differently than I do.
As Morocco won against Canada and advanced to quarterfinals of the 2022 World Cup, some NYUAD members found it relevant to point out in an anonymous NYUAD Forum to not “mistake Morocco's success in the world cup for Arab victory; it is an African victory”. In response to this, others argued that Africans should not support it as it is an Arab country.
Comments advocating for the dual Africanness and Arabness of my country quickly rose up, sparking debate amongst what it implies both geographically and ethnically to be Moroccan. To be forthright, my initial reaction to those posts was “leave it to NYUAD hyper-politicized kids to ruin a World Cup victory for us with their nonsense.” However, I then took a step back and understood why some may have those views if they do not know about Moroccan history.
The Kingdom of Morocco has many peculiarities when it comes to geographical and ethnic identification. While it is largely Arab now, that was not always the case. Morocco has seen Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, and European colonial forces occupy its territory, and while all of those civilizations may have tried, none succeeded in radically transforming Morocco’s Amazigh ethnic composition, identity, and culture. Only Islam and Arabs were able to have a lasting impact on Moroccan culture and lay the foundations of the State those know today.
The Islamic Ummayyad Caliphate succeeded in gaining control of the Maghreb during the first half of the 18th century A.D., notwithstanding fierce defense of Amazighs (native North Africans) for their land. Amazigh folklore talks of a woman named Kahina, or Dihya, who united the Amazigh and Kabyle tribes of North Africa to resist the Arabs. I remember my father giving me a book when I was around 10 — on its cover there was a red-haired woman, her face tattooed in traditional Amazigh symbols, and she was holding a sword above her head. “Kahina Queen of Berbers,” the title read. My father, who is not Amazigh but wanted me to know more about my history, said: “This is a part of your legacy, this woman fought with great courage and strength for your people, and she represents the fierceness of Amazigh women, women like you, your mother, and your grandmother.”
After Arabs settled in Morocco centuries ago, intercultural marriages between Arabs and Amazighs, and peaceful adherence to Islamic religious principles on the part of indigenous people led to the interweaving of Amazigh and Arab culture. Still, some Amazighs across Morocco do not feel Arab, even though they are Muslim, as these two indentities can be entirely independent. This especially occurs in secluded mountainous areas where the Amazigh presence remains scarcely influenced by Arab culture. Some Amazigh speak very little to no Arabic at all — they speak Tamazight languages. They have their own art, cultural attire, and traditions, unscathed by Arabization.
Not being Arab does not imply that they are not Moroccan. Kahina was against Arabs, she was indigenously North African, yet most Moroccan, even those who are not Amazigh, respect and honor her — while our people have may have adhered to Islam and have adopted Arab cultural norms and practices, we still acknowledge our Africanness and our fight for freedom and independence. It would be wild to talk about the fights of Morocco for independence throughout centuries without acknowledging the long history of Amazigh rebellions. A more contemporary example would be the fight of Rifian Amazigh tribes in the 1920s, led by Moroccan Amazigh Abdelkrim El Khattabi, against Spanish colonial forces for the independence of Moroccan land.
While a Moroccan-African identity can be exclusive of an Arab identity in the people of Amazighs who refute an Arab identity, it would be almost impossible to dissociate an Arab-Moroccan identity to Africanness. Abdellah Tourabi, expert of political Islam in Morocco, explains that ancient history demonstrates how Morocco has formed through various mixes of races, cultures, and influences from all horizons; Islam and Arabness, however essential and important, are only a component of it.
Many Moroccans are direct descendants of Arab first waves of settlers, and some are even recognized as direct descendants of the Prophet Mohammed PBUH, who are called “shurafaa.” Moroccan popular culture is closely linked to the culture of the greater MENA. We consume Egyptian media, watch Gulf States’ TV channels, read and write Arabic poetry, and are taught about Antar Ibn Shaddad. We honor Arab savants, make music listened all over the MENA, fangirl over Oum Kalthoum and Fairuz, and we speak and write in fus’ha as our official language. We also cry for our Palestinian brothers and sisters, suffer from specific similar patriarchal values shackling women across the region, face Islamophobia and racism as Arabs, and are experiencing the trauma of colonization from Western forces who tried to control the Arab world and Africa. I don’t want to expand on our Islamic values as a defining feature of our Arabness, although it definitely is a factor, because firstly a country can be largely Muslim and not be Arab (e.g. Indonesia), but also because Arab culture and Islam is closely linked in Morocco, which could be a whole other conversation with many nuances. A crushing majority of Moroccans are Arabs, but while some Moroccans may claim they are not African, my personal opinion is that it is impossible to be Moroccan without being African. What I will say next is only a hypothesis stemming from my observations and understanding, and an overly simplified explanation of why some Moroccans refuse to call themselves African: within the confines of Morocco we typically refer to Africans as Sub-Saharan Africans. Because of internalized racism and centuries of slavery of Sub-Saharan Africans in Morocco, “Africanness,” when referred to it within the boundaries of our territory, is associated with “Blackness.” For that reason, when some Moroccans say “I am Arab, not African”, what they really may mean to say is “I am not Black.”
At the end of the day, whether Moroccans want to call themselves Arab or African is up to them because they can be both. It is up to no one else, and especially not undergraduate students who have no clue about what they are talking about, to assign our identities for us. And finally, for all troublemakers, when it comes to the World Cup, everyone can support our team, whether they are from Arab States, Africa, Europe, Asia, or the Americas — after all, this is Football we’re talking about.
Rania Kettani is a contributing writer. Please email her at
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