Lighthouse of Knowledge: The National Literacy Campaign in Postcolonial Morocco

By David Stenner
Submitted to Session P6383 (The Politics of Culture in Postcolonial Morocco and its Diasporas, 2021 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
When Morocco finally obtained its independence in March 1956, widespread enthusiasm engulfed the kingdom. More than two decades of popular anticolonial struggle had finally ended the French and Spanish protectorates. To many Moroccans, their country now formed part of the wave of decolonization sweeping across the globe. A new world based on freedom and justice seemed within the reach of the peoples of Asia and Africa. Nevertheless, Morocco was facing daunting challenges. The flight of Western capital, in combination with the steady emigration of European technocrats, was pushing the national economy to the brink of collapse. What could be done to prevent the deteriorating economic situation from undermining Morocco’s political achievements?

The kingdom's new political elites quickly identified Morocco’s sky-high illiteracy rate of 85% as a fundamental threat to its survival. The uneducated masses endangered not only the nation’s ability to participate in the global economy, but also its very sovereignty. Beginning in the summer of 1956, the country’s largest political party, Hizb al-Istiqlal, organized a national literacy campaign in coordination with the Ministry of Education. A central component was Manar al-Maghrib, a weekly newspaper dedicated to teaching all citizens to read and write. But it did much more than that. Printed in large letters with full vocalization (tashkil) and accompanied by numerous photos, each issue provided its readers with information about hygiene, agriculture, and current events.

My paper argues that Manar al-Maghrib operated on two levels: domestically, it sought to reform the uneducated rural masses in accordance with the universal standards of modernity, such as wage labor, the use of technology, female emancipation within the constraints of the nuclear family, formalized education, the use of Western medicine, and patriotism; internationally, it positioned Morocco as a worthy member of the global community of “progressive” nations. In so doing, it allowed the country’s urban elites to assert themselves as the guardians of the country’s future. They had already embraced the universal standards of modernity and would now strive to guide their less fortunate compatriots from the “darkness of ignorance” to the “light of knowledge”. Their leadership was the ultimate service to society. Soon enough, King Mohammed V joined their efforts to cement the royal family’s hegemony over public discourse. The national literacy campaign thus offers a unique window onto state-formation and social transformation in post-independence Morocco.