Review of "A History of Modern Morocco" by Susan Gilson Miller
Published by Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0-521-00899-0
The 1830 start date for this narrative is a provoking choice. For Susan Miller chooses to unroll the scrolls of her history, not from a date hallowed by Moroccan nationalism, Islamic tradition, Arabic culture or Be
rber ethnic identity but from the first triumphant footfall of the French army in neighbouring Algeria.
Perhaps only an American could get away with this sort of reality check. It would choke up a European historian with inherited guilt. Yet it is a much-needed assertion of fact. For the nations of North Africa have themselves worked out a triumphant, if distorted narrative which make bearable the humiliations of the late 19th and early 20th-centuries. These national stories demonize the elements of society who are perceived to have weakened the region in the 19th century in contrast to the heroic martyr-defenders (men of the stamp of ‘Abd al Qadir, Omar al Mukhtar, Colonel Arabi and ‘Abd al-Karim) who fought for the doomed cause of freedom against the colonial invader and who still possess the collective imagination. Immediately after the fall of these tragic heroes, the nationalist text-books begin a loving chronicle of the long fight for freedom, so that the enormous economic and social transformations that occurred during the colonial period are ignored – as if they were no more than the gossip of thieves. So a high minded nationalist does a metaphorical blink (lasting between forty or a hundred years) in order to link the two groups of heroes together and airbrush out the colonial transformations.
But as Susan Miller so convincingly shows us, independence was won not by pure-minded, turban-wearing, Islamic martyr-heroes coming down from the mountains on horseback, but by those who adapted and learned to use foreign technology to their own ends. Independence was won using radio and newspapers, through trade unions and taking advantage of the train, bus and lorry networks that for the first time geographically united their countries. Just as the fighters had to mastering the bomb detonator charges, propaganda spin and sub-machine guns manufactured by the French. The generation that won the battle for Independence were the ones who had grown up relishing football, cinema, boulevard cafés, fast cars and the summer beach season that had all been imported by the invaders from the north. Many of these leaders had also personally experienced the enormous chasm between French civilization as it existed in the universities of the homeland and the ignorant, racist violence of the pied noir colonial settlers on the ground in the Maghreb.
A failure to study the social and logistical transformations achieved during the colonial era also makes it hard to understand the choices faced by the Maghreb before the arrival of the French. For, as Professor Susan Miller, reveals to us, the stark truth is that pre-industrialized Morocco had not the economic resources to fund a loyal, efficient salaried army or a nationwide police force, let alone to acquire the weaponry to defend itself against the technological blitzkrieg of European invasion. When viewed in this perspective, the 19th-century history of Morocco is not one of tragic defeat, but an almost miraculous example of improvisation, once the battle of Isly (in 1844) had revealed the Sultanate to be without effective military defences. In this light, the achievements of Muhammad IV in creating the nucleus of a financial ministry around the corps of market inspectors (in 1862) or in setting up an Islamic printing press (in 1865) are all the more exemplary. The same is true of Sultan Hassan I’s discharging of the Spanish indemnity in 1884 and the creation of a 25,000-strong army with which to maintain state authority backe by skillful diplomatic footwork which played the predatory powers - Spain, France, Britain and Germany, against each other.
Another danger of a too-subservient reading of the nationalist discourse is that it ordains the victors of the independence struggle as the predestined new leadership. But Susan Miller’s invaluable corrective reveals to us that there was nothing preordained, and that for all the quiet heroism of King Muhammad V, the role of the Istiqlal party machine, the revolutionary inclined fighters of the ALN and the socialist trade union movement, were all equally important elements of the struggle. And only the fittest of these powers would survive the fast-paced fight for supremacy in the immediate years after Independence and take over the well-organised structure left by the colonial administration.
After the death of their hero-King Muhammad V in February 1961, it seemed very possible that Morocco would either become a revolutionary socialist republic (under the command of Ben Barka) or a one-party state under the direction of the Istiqlal leader, Allal al Fasi a la Bourguiba. It was only the fierce political skills of the young crown prince Hassan II that allowed a consensus-driven, politically inclusive but authoritarian monarchy to emerge, seemingly in direct opposition to the spirit of the age, which championed the public and internationalist policies of Socialist Algeria and Nasserist Egypt. But thirty years later the pragmatism of the curious Moroccan political system began to prove its worth, while the Soviet block collapsed, Algeria imploded into civil war (with at least 100,000 deaths) and later Gadaffi’s revolutionary regime fell and Egypt was consumed by civil strife.
In Morocco democratic processes and a reasonably free press have slowly emerged, side by side with the growth in confidence of the literate, urban middle-class beneath the scarlet umbrella of royal authority. It is a very singular story, where individual character, friendships and chance matter rather more than abstract theory, and is told with wit, intimate knowledge, commendable brevity and pace by Susan Miller.
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by Barnaby Rogerson