Throughout history, North Africa’s native Berber-speaking populations have been central to the mix of political, social, cultural, and linguistic attributes that rendered the region distinct. At the dawn of the 20th century, Berbers still constituted a substantial majority of sharifian Morocco’s population, and a significant minority of French Algeria’s Muslim populace; their numbers were smaller in Ottoman Libya and smaller still in France’s Tunisian protectorate. Nationalism began to spread in North Africa during the first decades of the 20th century. Each nationalist movement was shaped by a particular combination of factors; all of them, however, foregrounded the Arab and Islamic components of their collective identities, downplaying or ignoring the Berber ones. Berbers actively participated in the struggles for independence in both Algeria and Morocco, often in leadership roles. This pattern would continue during the decades after independence, even as both the Algerian and Moroccan states placed supreme value on the Arabization of the educational system, and of public life in general. The state’s overall view of Berber identity was that it should be consigned to the realm of folklore. However, even as the number of Berber speakers continued to decline, there arose a modern Berber (Amazigh) identity movement that demanded a reexamination of the underlying premises of their countries’ collective identities, one that would bring the Berber language and culture to center stage. It also demanded genuine amelioration of the dire conditions of poverty that characterized much of the rural Berber world. As ruling regimes struggled to maintain their legitimacy after a half century of independence, the Berber “question” now took on a new salience in North Africa’s increasingly contested political space.
North Africa is a diverse region with a rich history and society, part of a set of varied landscapes that make up a compounded and multiplex socio-ecosystem. Its position as a meeting point—of the desert and the sea, of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, of North and South, of East and West—makes it a complex and rewarding area of study. This multiplicity of environments and societies means there is no one history of North Africa, it is rather a structure of imbricating stories, no one of which records the whole. The environmental history of the region is no different, as the many different ecosystems—and human relations within them—give rise to different stories and different ways to tell them. Indeed, the strength of the environmental approach to the history of the region is that it allows scholars to introduce important factors into the narrative that are otherwise left out. If history is to capture the richness of past lives, tell a compelling story of people in the world, then it needs to embrace those elements of the world that were important to people. These can be the everyday concerns with watering a garden, the spectacular catastrophes of multiyear drought, or the contemplation of what factors make a place one place and not another. While there is this bottomless well of potential stories to tell within the environmental history of North Africa, there are some centripetal forces that hold it together. One is the geographical setting, defined by the desert, seas, and Atlas Mountains. Within this setting the relative aridity of the region is its central concern; each history has a place for water within it. The other generalizing trend over the modern period is the increasing centralization of decision-making about the management of that aridity: since 1800, small-scale and localized knowledge, practice, and control over hydrology has been eroded. More and more the local ecosystem has become the regional ecosystem, managed according to a logic shared on a global scale. The tension between these generalized trends and the multiplicity of local ecologies and stories is what gives the environmental history of North Africa its power and appeal.
Between 1510–1822, Morocco went through significant changes that laid the foundation for its modern nation state. Most noteworthy among these changes was a shift from the Berber dynasties that had dominated the country for almost five hundred years to governments headed by shurafā’, Arab leaders who claimed lineal descent from the Prophet Muhammad. A combination of external threats (e.g., colonization from Portugal and Spain, and the threat of Ottoman expansion) and internal developments (e.g., the rising influence of murābitūn and shurafā’ within the country), along with the perceived inability of the Berber Wattasids to meet the Portuguese challenge, contributed to this dynastic change. In the five hundred years leading up to the early 21st century, two separate sharifian dynasties have governed Morocco, and the country has vacillated between periods of strong central rule and times of unrest (fitna) and weak central government. However, since the rise of the ʿAlawi dynasty in the late 17th century, ʿAlawi supremacy has not been seriously challenged, even during extensive periods of fitna or foreign colonization. Although Morocco developed a flexible system of government that helped unify the country during this period, it still fell behind European states in terms of technology, science, economy, and military strength. A degree of intellectual and social stagnation set in, such that European visitors in the 19th century perceived Morocco to be a country stuck in its medieval past. This weakness vis-à-vis its near neighbors to the north (particularly England and France) eventually set the stage for the direct colonization of Morocco by Europeans in the early 20th century.
Zacharias P. Pieri
On June 29, 2014, The Islamic State (IS), also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), Islamic State of Iraq and the Islamic Levant (ISIL), and Daesh, proclaimed the establishment of a caliphate in areas straddling Iraq and Syria. IS is a Sunni Muslim extremist movement that was under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi until his killing in 2019, and it is driven by a vision to unite all extremist Muslims under its caliphate, which was grounded in Syria. IS was, for a period, the most robust and adept insurgent force in Syria and Iraq, and by 2015, it controlled a landmass and population larger than that of many existing states. At the height of its power, it included a vast coastline in Libya, a portion of Nigeria’s northeast where affiliated Boko Haram declared an Islamic territory, and a city in the Philippines. Beyond this, IS was able to establish franchises in different parts of the world including North Africa and the Sahel. Leaders of IS called on extremist Muslims from across the world to leave their homes, and to travel to the so-called caliphate to take up residency there as jihadists and citizens of a proto-state. Those that could not physically join were encouraged to participate online, and others were instructed by Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the IS’s chief spokesman, to find an infidel and smash his head with a rock. IS, from its inception, has looked to the Maghreb and the Sahel as strategic geographic areas for the expansion of its ideology, incorporation of territory into its caliphate, and operational purposes. It is clear that the notion of an Islamic state was popular for a segment of the population in the Maghreb, with many leaving the countries of Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, and beyond to join, train, and fight with IS in Syria and Iraq. Tunisia had the highest number of IS foreign fighters, estimated at approximately 6,000; Morocco had 1,200; Libya and Egypt had 600; and Algeria had 170. Returning fighters are destabilizing North Africa. Libya was an early focus of IS due in part to the fall of the Gadhafi regime in 2011, and the ensuing political chaos, which caused a weak and fragile state. Libya served as the first addition to the territories of IS’s caliphate outside Syria and Iraq. Tunisia faced several large-scale attacks linked to IS activities in the country. In 2015 a number of terrorist attacks were carried out, including the massacre of 38 tourists at a beach resort in Sousse, the bombing of a bus containing presidential guards in Tunis, and an attack on the Bardo museum in Tunis. Algeria has had to monitor the country’s borders to prevent the entry of jihadists affiliated with IS who operate in neighboring countries. At the time of writing, concerns were being raised about different franchises of IS that are seeking to better integrate and to take advantage of insecurity in the Sahel, especially around the borders of Mali, Burkina Faso, and into Niger and Nigeria.
The workings of modern empire can better be viewed through the lens of gender because gendered hierarchies illuminate broad, intersecting aspects of the colonial project. Community, kinship, household economies, religion, education, sexuality, social engineering, nationalism, and transnational reform movements were all inflected by imperial patriarchy in various guises. This perspective is especially rich for “French” North Africa (Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco) from 1830 until 1962 since the region and its peoples were subjected to intense forms of “European” settler colonialism. From the start, the “woman question” assumed particularly fraught and contentious dimensions whose repercussions can be detected even today. Nevertheless, colonial North Africa did not represent a self-enclosed container. Transimperial and global processes shaped the sociopolitical terrain, and in turn. Policies, practices, and resistance in the Maghrib exerted a powerful torque far beyond its limits. Key to understanding women, gender, and settler colonialism is the state of the “archive,” the sprawling corpus of records, writings, words, things, and images left in an empire’s wake. The voices of women, children, and “ordinary” people, those labeled “the colonized,” have until recently been missing in conventional narratives. As Antoinette Burton observed, the archives themselves structure “the conceptual frameworks of women’s and gender history.” In the imperial historical context, the task of recuperating and restoring lost voices is all the more problematic, yet urgent. One might also add that the fundamental question is “whether ‘women’ is a category at all.”
The Tangier American Legation Museum reflects the evolution of Moroccan–American relations over two centuries. Morocco, the first country to recognize the independence of the United States (1777), became the site of the first overseas American diplomatic mission in 1821 when the sultan gave the US government title to the museum’s current home—8 rue d’Amérique (zankat America)—in the old city of Tangier. The building went on to house the US consulate (1821–1905), legation (1905–1956), a State Department Foreign Service language school (1961–1970), and a Peace Corps training center (1970–1973), before becoming a museum dedicated to displaying art and artifacts about Morocco and Moroccan–American relations (1976). Despite the official story of the origin of the forty-one-room museum, its holdings and activities since the late 20th century derive more from unofficial American relationships with Morocco than from US government policy. The private actions of individual Americans and Moroccans, with some State Department support, led the museum to become in the late 20th century a research and cultural center serving academics and the broad public, including the people in its neighborhood (Beni Ider). In 1981 the US Department of the Interior put the Legation on the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1982 it became the only site outside the United States designated as a National Historic Landmark due to its past diplomatic and military significance, as well as to the building’s blend of Moroccan and Spanish architectural styles.
The Maghrib, “land of the setting sun” in Arabic, is the region of northwest Africa consisting of the countries of Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Libya, and, often, Mauritania. Even in flat, desert regions and plains of the Maghrib, the dominant geographical feature of the Maghrib is the Atlas Mountain range, looming over the horizon. These mountains not only create the geographic conditions for the desert, in terms of human geography, but they also form a massive, natural backbone and fortress from southern Morocco into Tunisia. For most of classical history the Atlas Mountains have been a great stumbling block for rulers. This changed in the early 12th century with the coming of the Almohads, who controlled the mountains and turned them into the heart of their empire. Before the Almohads, no power, not even the Romans, could claim to control the mountains. Instead, successive rulers tried to go around the range or to build fortifications at mountain passes, often in vain. Originating within the Atlas Mountains and maintaining their power all along its spine and into the southern Sierra Nevada of Iberia, the Almohads were the first to use the Atlas Mountains to their advantage. In doing so, they created the first unified, single polity across the Maghrib, originating too the idea that the Maghrib could be a politically united geographical space. Connections with Sahara and the Mediterranean could also now be strategically controlled. This era of Almohad unification, however, did not last long, a short fifty or sixty years from 1147 to the first decades of the 13th century, when the Almohad empire faced defeat from external forces and began a process of breaking apart into successor dynasties. Despite many later attempts to revive the Almohad model, no subsequent power was able to effectively restore the Almohad Empire’s reach across the Maghrib. Nonetheless, that unlikely and extraordinary success created the dream, or memory, of unification, one that continues to influence the people of the Maghrib.