Morocco’s Language Politics

In some countries, school systems strive to produce bilingual students. In Morocco, students are now expected to be quadrilingual, and it is causing friction among the country’s conservative and Islamist-leaning politicians.

The lower chamber of Parliament recently passed an education bill mandating that secondary school students gain proficiency in at least two foreign languages, in addition to Arabic and Tamazight (a North African language sometimes referred to as Berber). The problem comes not from the scale of the educational task, but from the provision to teach some core subjects, such as the sciences, in French and English rather than in Arabic.

Advocates for the bill—including many Moroccan politicians—argue that training students to study math, science, and technology in English and French will better prepare them for the global job market. Opponents to the bill claim that instruction in foreign languages will sideline Arabic, which many Moroccans consider to be an integral part of their cultural and religious identity.

The legislation presented a problem for the Islamist-leaning Justice and Development Party (PJD), which has led the government since 2011. The party split between members who claimed that the bill undercuts Arab-Islamic identity and those who, for reasons of politics or practicality, preferred compromise. Though language has been a topic of contention since Moroccan independence, the recent controversy strikes at the ideological and political core of Islamist-inspired political parties.

Language has a complicated history in Morocco. Before the Islamic conquest in the seventh century, most Moroccans spoke various indigenous languages. Over the centuries, a distinct oral dialect called darija emerged that blended several languages, mostly Arabic and Tamazight, while “classical” Arabic was the province of religious authorities. Colonization and trade in the 19th century introduced French in most areas, alongside Spanish in northern Morocco. Over time, French became the language of Morocco’s Westernized elite, and it is still widely used in administration. As conservative and Islamist forces gained strength in the 1970s, the government increased the Arabic content in schools and government offices. Arabic has since dominated the Moroccan public education system.

Post-graduation, though, French and English have become the languages of science, technology, and ultimately job prospects in Morocco’s increasingly globalized economy. Arabic, by contrast, remains the language of religion and the social sciences—fields producing fewer, lower-paying jobs. The split between students proficient in French and English and those who only speak Arabic is a socioeconomic one with political ramifications. Students from wealthier urban families tend to have a higher rate of literacy in Western languages and, therefore, greater opportunities in the educational and professional spheres. Students who come from poorer or rural communities may only speak Arabic and Tamazight and often find themselves in the informal sector or with less job security.

King Mohammed VI has acknowledged these linguistic and educational challenges. As early as 2001, he began discussing education reforms that would emphasize the importance of mastering foreign languages while protecting Arabic’s sacred status. Tamazight was also made more prominent in 2011, when it was recognized as an official language alongside Arabic, partially in response to Morocco’s February 20 protest movement.

While the nationalist Istiqlal party wholly rejected the recent bill, the PJD was caught in a quandary. The PJD heads the government, but it also effectively operates as a loyal opposition to the monarchy.

Party leader and Prime Minister Saad Eddine al-Othmani took a pragmatic, institutional approach. He supported the bill, citing his responsibility to protect the party’s values while also putting country first. The PJD’s popular former prime minister, Abdelilah Benkirane, attacked him, calling the bill a crime against national identity. “How can a party with an Islamic reference,” asked Benkirane, “relinquish Arabic in education and replace it with the language of colonization?”

Othmani crafted a political response. The prime minister ordered PJD members to vote for the overall bill, but to abstain from voting on the controversial articles, which had more than enough votes to pass into law. When the legislation was finally put to a vote on July 22, 95 of the PJD’s 125 parliamentarians abstained from voting on the two articles relating to language instruction. Only two PJD members cast opposing votes.

While the prime minister’s approach may have been intended to give the appearance of party unity, divisions were still visible. Notably, the head of PJD’s parliamentary bloc, Idriss al-Azami al-Idrissi, resigned from his post in protest over Othmani’s position.

The vote illustrates how the PJD and other Islamist-inspired parties in the region try to balance their religious and political agendas. As a religiously-inspired movement, the party seeks to enhance the role that faith and culture plays in public life. As a political party, though, the PJD has to navigate carefully to avoid direct clashes with the monarchy, appeal to centrist voters, and preserve support from the party’s conservative base.
Legislation involving language is especially sensitive because it touches core identity issues that are fiercely contested. Morocco’s history has been one of adaptation that has fused multiple sources of identity into a uniquely Moroccan expression. The burden now is on Morocco’s legislators to find a practical strategy to support education goals that advance young people’s prospects while preserving important elements of Morocco’s cultural identity. For conservative and Islamist-inspired parties, the challenge is particularly acute. Ultimately, their legacy will be judged by how well they reconcile the need for modernization with traditional values.  

This commentary is part of a year-long study examining how states in Africa seek to manage religious affairs. The project is made possible with the generous support of the Henry Luce Foundation.

Hannah Porter

Haim Malka