Morocco’s World Cup success is fueling a debate about Arab identity

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THE SYMBOLS almost too much for one football game. A colonial power defended its title against the country it once belonged to. Some members of one squad could have been playing for their opponents in a hyphenated identity conflict. The underdogs adopted the symbol of regional struggle as their own, even as their countrymen argued whether they were really part of that region.

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At the group stage, this was a World Cup full of surprises. Saudi Arabia defeated Argentina; Japan defeated Spain and Germany to appear at the top of their level. In the semi-finals, however, the remaining teams looked mostly predictable: defending champions France, two-time winners Argentina and runners-up Croatia in 2018.

Mostly predictable – but not entirely. Morocco won four of their five matches, the first Arab or African team to reach the semi-finals. Although they fell to France on December 14, they played with a passion that matched their victories, which inspired wild celebrations in the Arab world, Africa, and among immigrants in Europe – but also strange arguments.

Most of Morocco’s 26-man squad were born abroad. Achraf Hakimi grew up in Madrid to poor Moroccan parents. He chose to play for his hometown team and on December 6 he scored the winning penalty kick against Spain. European football has become so diverse that most fans barely notice. Now Morocco has created its own team of players with a complex identity.

The Africanness of Morocco is evident if you look at a map. But it comes with a subtle tension. Some sub-Saharans spin that North Africans look down on them.

As for Morocco’s Arabness, that has been a topic of discussion in cafes, fan zones and on social media. For the positive: Morocco is a member of the Arab League, Arabic is its official language, and its rich culture has contributed greatly to the culture of the Arab world in general. Many Moroccans identify as Arabs, and their influence has been noted throughout the region.

But some Moroccans are uncomfortable with the label. A plurality (perhaps even a majority) are of Berber descent, and Arabization can mean erasing their identity. Tamazight, a Berber language, was long ago relegated to second-class status. It was only made an official language in 2011, as part of a package of reforms that went through to appease the public during the Arab spring.

It’s a strange debate. If it was Egypt, another country in northern Africa, that reduced Ronaldo to tears, no one would have hesitated to call it an Arab victory. Distance may explain some of the disagreement. In Riyadh on the night of Morocco’s stage victory, one Saudi declared it a victory for the entire Arab world, while another said he felt little kinship to a country as far away as Thailand. .

Prejudice plays its part. The Moroccan dialect is called dary, widely mocked by other Arabic speakers for being difficult to understand. Moroccan women are often harassed as prostitutes. A long-held stereotype in the Gulf suggests that they use witchcraft to seduce innocent men: “Moroccan mermaids can spell trouble, warn some women ,” read a ten-year-old headline in a Saudi newspaper.

Modern Arab nationalism, which emerged as the region emerged from centuries of Ottoman and European rule, has always been rooted in politics. He also appeared on the pitch. The Moroccan team unfurled the Palestinian flag after defeating Spain. This movement won the support of many Arabs, and the manner in which Israel took fifty years of Palestinian land remains an injustice. Perhaps it did not seem so noble to the people of Western Sahara, who have lived in Morocco for 46 years: a victim of colonialism can also be a colonial power (and it was once part of a Muslim empire that ruled much of what is now Spain. and Portugal).

Israelis are allowed to attend the tournament, although they do not usually visit Qatar. A good number have expressed surprise at their frosty treatment from Arab fans. Since four Arab countries (including Morocco) agreed in 2020 to normalize ties with Israel, many hoped that the region had forgotten about the Palestinians. The World Cup has been a reminder that even if many Arab rulers no longer care, many of their subjects still do.

Add one different note: the celebrations in Israel, by Jews of Moroccan descent, a reminder that the kingdom once had a vibrant Jewish community – and that less separates Israelis from their Arab neighbors than many care to admit. .

Talk of pan-Arabism can often feel dated, as it harkens back to the strong nationalist days of the 1950s, or the great caliphates of today. But enthusiasm for Morocco’s unlikely success shows that cultural ties still bind people in the region. Equally, however, the arguments about Morocco’s place in that region show how identity is still used to divide rather than unify.

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