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Clans and Communities

Saharawi family / Photo HH
Saharawi family / Photo HH

Rural Morocco has historically been a tribal society, both in its settled regions and in the semi-nomadic desert areas. Constitutionally, Morocco is an Islamic country whose head of state, the King, is also Commander of the Faithful (amir al-muminin), guarantor of its Islamic identity, a role that members of his family have claimed since the 17th century. Both the present King, Mohammed VI, and his father, Hassan II, have emphasized this source of legitimacy but have also insisted on curbing Islamism and emphasizing both closeness to Morocco’s Western allies (particularly in Europe) and the special role of the Jewish religious minority.

Despite the emphasis on religious and social tolerance, there are deep divisions in Moroccan society, particularly along ethnic and cultural lines. The most important of these is the distinction between Arab- and Berber-speakers. Both groups are historically tribal and Muslims of the Maliki legal tradition. The distinction is essentially linguistic and cultural. After independence in 1956, Berber-speakers found themselves discriminated against, partly because Arab-speaking nationalists resented the way the French authorities had favoured the Berbers over the Arabs and established a separate legal structure for them. Since the liberalization of the late 1990s and particularly under King Mohammed VI, greater latitude has been allowed for the use of Berber language and cultural expression.

The historically important Jewish community is much reduced in numbers, and most Jews have left, mainly to Israel but also to North America and Europe. The rural Jewish communities have vanished almost entirely. Jews are not persecuted by the state, and individual Jews have occupied important political and administrative positions.

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