Morocco is a land of tolerance, acceptance and coexistence. King Hassan II has described it as a tree whose roots are in Africa, its trunk in Morocco, the side branches in the Middle East and its top foliage in Europe.
Sitting on the crossroads of so many cultures, religions and civilizations, Morocco has become through the centuries a haven for countless cultures, ethnicities and ways of life.
So, for many millennia and still today, Morocco accepts the "other" in all his "otherness."
Because of this mingling of cultures, Moroccans have acquired the disposition of accepting the "other," no matter how complex his difference might be and how alien his "otherness."
Moroccans are, by nature, friendly, open, and tolerant of other people. Their most important quality, by far, is their ability to welcome in other life experiences and adapt them to their lives.
As such, they have interacted positively with Phoenicians, Carthaginians, and Romans among others races, in beneficial exchanges; one still witnesses vestiges of them in the language, customs and beliefs, not to mention, the remains of entire cities such as Volubilis, Lixus, Sala Colonia and Mogador.
Lixus: Capital of cultural harmony of ancient Morocco
Lixus, built by the Phoenicians in the seventh century BC, served as a trading post for locals with the rest of the Mediterranean world. The site boasts tile-work displaying Greek gods, their mythology, the mythical gardens of the Hesperides, and the sanctuary of Herakles (Hercules) where he gathered the golden apples.
The ruins of Lixus, Morocco. (Image source: Pedro Varela/Flickr)
When the Phoenicians came, the locals taught them agricultural techniques such as irrigation and how to preserve water.
During the Punic phase, from the third to the second century BC, there was Carthaginian activity, both commercial and military. The invaders taught the locals to salt fish and grow vines for wine production. Around the first century BC, the Roman Empire extended its influence to Morocco. The Romans called it Mauretania Tingitana.
Lixus, like Volubilis, became an important Roman city. Trade and commerce flourished, thanks to peace. The Romans appointed local kings to rule, like Juba II, an Amazigh ruler considered one of the wisest and most just.
Juba II was succeeded, after his death, by his son Ptolemy. During the reign of these two Amazigh monarchs, Lixus became an important center of intercultural communication between the native population and Roman civilization, and, as a result, the city grew in political and commercial importance.
Temples were built for prayer, as well as an amphitheater and an arena for games, wrestling and display of local animals such as the lion of the Atlas Mountains and Barbary horses.
Lixus also had a church, baths and an extensive industrial area, where fish was salted and wine bottled before being shipped through the Loukous River to the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea.
Until the fall of the Roman Empire around the fifth century AD, the city prospered as an agora of cultural Mediterranean dialogue.
Islamic civilization propelling Moroccan culture north to the Iberian Peninsula
As early as the eighth century AD, horsemen coming from Arabia brought with them a new monotheistic religion to the region: Islam. They gradually converted the Christian and polytheist Amazigh people; the exception was the Jewish people, who kept their own monotheistic belief.
In turn, the newly converted Amazigh, under the leadership of their able general, Tarik Ibnou Ziyad, crossed the strait that, since, was named after him, Gibraltar, and spread Islam in the Iberian Peninsula, which remained under Islamic rule until the Reconquista in 1492.
In Spain, under the Amazigh dynasties of the Almoravids and the Almohads, Muslims, Jews and Christians lived in total harmony for centuries on end. They respected the beliefs of each other and cooperated for the well-being of all people. The Muslims were Emirs ruling Muslim Spain; Jews were their viziers and advisors, and Christians the commanders of their armies.
After the fall of Grenada to the Catholics in 1492, both Muslims and Jews, exiled from Spain, headed to Morocco (as well as other countries) where they found refuge, while the Inquisition set about persecuting those who stayed behind.
Those who were forced to leave were welcomed in by the native Moroccans, and managed to prosper in trade and finance, and occupy important posts in the Moroccan government of the time.
The Amazigh spread Islam to Africa
After the arrival of Islam, Moroccan Amazigh dynasties grew in power and moved southward, spreading this new religion in sub-Saharan Africa, at times by persuasion, and at other times by subjugating the Africans. In so doing, they enrolled the locals in their armies and brought home many others as slaves.
The African slaves, to keep their culture alive, in secret played their music and practiced rituals of exorcism. Centuries later, when they were freed, the Gnaoua, as they are called locally (a mispronunciation of Guinea, their land of origin), formed brotherhoods, and travelled throughout the country, playing their music to survive. Today, their music and culture has gone global, thanks to the yearly festival organized in Essaouira each June.
Today, however, black Africans come on their own to Morocco by the hundreds, with the hope of going to the European Eldorado through the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. Due to heavily guarded borders on both sides, many end up settling down in Morocco. The Moroccan government, in the face of the difficulties these clandestine migrants and their families endure, decided to issue them official residence cards and provide their children with education and healthcare. In spite of some forms of cultural racism and unfortunate racial incidents, the black migrants are generally well received.
There are also thousands of black African students, on Moroccan grants, studying in public and private higher education institutes and Moroccan universities.
Judaism is also a Moroccan religion
Life was difficult for Jews all over North Africa -- they were massacred, raped, looked down on and always treated as second-class citizens just because they were Jews. Yet Judaism and Jews are as old as Morocco itself.
Until their massive migration to Israel on the aftermath of the creation of this state in 1948, Jews lived all over the country in villages, towns and cities, engaging in commerce, trade and finance. Because of their wide experience in international trade, Moroccan Sultans appointed Jews as their financial and commercial agents (tujjar sultan).
An example of the good interfaith dialogue in Morocco can be witnessed in the city of Sefrou, situated thirty kilometers south of the spiritual capital of Morocco, Fes. In Sefrou, Muslims and Jews lived side by side in harmony, and often practiced their religious rituals in such unison with others that it was difficult to tell what was Islamic and what was Jewish.
They even venerated the same man, whom many considered a saint, buried in a grotto in a neighboring mountain. The site was tactfully called Kaf al-moumen (the grotto of the faithful) because it was a religious sanctuary for both Muslims and Jews, and times for worshipping in this area were equally divided.
The example of Sefrou is not unique in Morocco; it is found in other places such as Debdou, Azrou, Fes, Rabat, Meknes, and Marrakesh, among others.
Communities of Jews lived and they practiced their faith in all these places in complete peace and harmony. They were full Moroccans, and as such enjoyed the full rights and obligations of their Muslim brethren.
During the Second World War, when the Germans occupied France, the collaborationist Vichy government wanted to persecute Moroccan Jews. The late King Mohammed V resisted the order and called for the persecution of all Moroccans, if this were to happen, on the grounds that the Jews are no different from his other subjects, for whose safety he was fully responsible.
Morocco, then and now, land of dialogue, coexistence and tolerance
At the turn of the twentieth century, Morocco was subjected to European colonialism and divided up between France and Spain. More than 44 years of this Protectorate regime left a lasting and vivid imprint on the language, culture and way of life of Moroccans.
Today, Moroccans proudly highlight their multiple and composite identity: Amazigh, Arab, Islamic, Jewish, African, Andalusian and Mediterranean -- and their age-old openness and acceptance of the "other."
Dr. Mohamed Chtatou is a Professor at the University of Mohammed V in Rabat. He is currently a political analyst for Moroccan, Saudi and British media on politics and culture in the Middle East.