Abdelkrim and the Amazigh Culture Movement: The Search for a Usable Past

By Bruce Maddy-Weitzman
Submitted to Session P2909 (Constructing Collective Identities, 2011 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Shared memory, says Anthony Smith, is as essential to the survival of a collective cultural identity as is the sense of a common destiny. As is the case with all ethno-national projects, the elaboration and dissemination of modern Berber identity is being accompanied by the fashioning of a "memory community." This involves a search for a useable past and enshrining it in new narratives, rituals and collective commemorations.
This paper will elucidate and evaluate the means by which the Amazigh culture movement in Morocco has sought to appropriate the legacy of Muhammad bin al-Khattabi, the leader of the five-year rebellion in Morocco's northern Rif region against European colonialism, from 1921-26. At first glance, appropriating Abdelkrim may not simple for secular Berberists, as he promoted Islamic reform at the expense of popular religious practice which Berber activists foreground as central to their specific heritage. Nor did Abdelkrim emphasize an explicitly Amazigh/Berber identity in his mobilizing efforts. But contemporary Amazigh activists have not been deterred. They portray Abdelkrim as a heroic leader of his people against the occupier, unlike the urban Arab class which sat on its hands. Theirs is an ongoing project, intimately connected to the themes of marginalization, discrimination at the country's Arab-Islamic elite and identity denial that characterize the contemporary Berberist discourse. Their methods range from writing children's cross-word puzzles with the theme of Abdelkrim, to campaigns to reinter Abdelkrim's remains (located in Cairo) and build a maseouleum-museum-cultural complex in his Ajdir redoubt, to demands for compensation for victims of chemical weapons used by Spain against Abdelkrim's followers and for the state's commemoration of the 1921 battle of Anoual as a national holiday. Some Rifian militants point to Abdelkrim as the inspiration for their promotion of autonomy for the region, and Facebook pages glorifying Abdelkrim and promoting Rifian identity abound.
Still, many questions remain, both within the Amazigh sphere and beyond: is Abdelkrim a Riffian or all-Amazigh hero? Is there a contradiction between Abdelkrim the Amazigh freedom fighter and Abdelkrim the Moroccan resister to colonial rule? What about Abdelkrim's Islamic credentials, which may make him attractive to Islamist and pious opponents of the Amazigh movement? How enabling is the Moroccan state willing to be, in educational curricula and elsewhere?
The paper will address these and other questions, employing a variety of printed and cyber-materials in French, Arabic and Tamazight, supplemented by interviews with movement activists.