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Morocco’s World Cup success sparks debate over Arab identity

Tonhis symbol Almost too much for a football game. A former colonial power defends its claim to the country it once occupied. Some members of a squad can also play for their opponents in a hyphenated identity clash. The weak see symbols of regional struggle as their own, even as their fellow citizens debate whether they really belong to that region.

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In the group stage, this is a World Cup full of surprises. Saudi Arabia beat Argentina; Japan beat Spain and Germany came out on top. By the semifinals, though, the remaining teams looked largely predictable: defending champions France, two-time champions Argentina and 2018 runners-up Croatia.

Mostly predictable — but not quite. Morocco won four of their first five games to become the first Arab or African team to reach the semi-finals. Despite their loss to France on December 14, they played with a passion commensurate with their victory, prompting raucous celebrations – but also the odd debate – among migrants in the Arab world, Africa and Europe.

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

Morocco’s African character is evident if you look at a map. But it comes with a subtle tension. Some sub-Saharan people scoff, North Africans look down on them.

As for Morocco’s Arabness, it’s been a topic of debate in cafes, fan zones and social media. What is certain: Morocco is a member of the Arab League, Arabic is the official language, and its rich culture contributes greatly to the wider Arab world. Many Moroccans consider themselves Arabs, and the entire region celebrated their victory.

However, some Moroccans are uncomfortable with the label. The majority (maybe even the majority) are of Berber descent, and Arabism could mean obliterating their identity. Berber Tamazight has long been relegated to a second-rate language. It only became an official language in 2011, as part of a reform package hastily passed to appease the public during the Arab Spring.

It’s a weird debate. If Egypt, another North African country, had brought Ronaldo to tears, no one would have hesitated to call it an Arab victory. Perhaps distance explains some of the disagreement. In Riyadh, on the night of Morocco’s knockout-stage win, one Saudi called it a victory for the entire Arab world, while another said he didn’t feel too fond of the country as far away as Thailand.

Prejudice played a role.Moroccan dialect, known as Dariha, is widely ridiculed as incomprehensible by other Arabic speakers. Moroccan women are often crudely vilified as prostitutes. A long-running stereotype in the Gulf suggests they use witchcraft to lure innocent men: “Moroccan maids may cause trouble, warn some women,” read a decade-old headline in a Saudi newspaper.

Modern Arab nationalism, which emerged as the region emerged from centuries of Ottoman and European domination, has always been rooted in politics. It also appears on the field. Morocco unfurled a Palestinian flag after beating Spain. The gesture has won strong support from many Arabs, for whom Israel’s half-century-long occupation of Palestinian land remains an injustice. To the people of Western Sahara, occupied by Morocco for 46 years, it might not seem so noble: a victim of ex-colonialism can also be a colonial state (and was once part of the Muslim empire that ruled much of what is now Spain ) and Portugal).

Israelis are free to play, but they are generally not allowed to visit Qatar. Quite a few expressed surprise at the apathy of the Arab fans. With four Arab states, including Morocco, agreeing to normalize relations with Israel in 2020, many hope the region has forgotten about the Palestinians. The World Cup reminds us that even though many Arab rulers no longer care, many of their subjects still do.

Add a contrasting note: the celebration of Jews of Moroccan descent in Israel is a reminder that the kingdom once had a vibrant Jewish community — and that Israelis are not as different from their Arab neighbors as many would like to admit like that.

Talk of pan-Arabism often feels outdated because it recalls the days of nationalist fervor in the 1950s, or the great caliphate of yore. Yet the enthusiasm for Morocco’s unlikely success shows the cultural affinity that still binds people in the region. But, equally, the debate over Morocco’s place in the region shows how identity is still used to divide rather than unite.

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