Morocco rarely figures into international news headlines these days, something of a virtue in this restive part of the world. The term Maghreb, which translates as “land of the setting sun,” eventually came to denote a stretch of land starting in the Western Sahara and running through the Atlas Mountains and ending before the Nile River Valley, encompassing modern-day Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. However, the Maghreb originally meant the lands that define Morocco, where the setting sun marked the Western frontier of the Islamic empire.

Morocco

This evening in Tangier, I watch as ribbons of intense red and orange weave through plum-tinted clouds and settle behind the mountains on the Spanish coastline. Those mountains that almost seem a stone’s throw away are where a Moroccan general, Tariq ibn Ziyad, massed his troops for a conquest ordered by the sixth Umayyad caliph in the early 8th century to expand the frontier of the caliphate to the Iberian Peninsula. Jebel al Tariq, Arabic for “the mountain of Tariq,” eventually came to be known as Gibraltar, the highly strategic narrow strait where the Atlantic and the Mediterranean meet. When the light is just right, you can see cerulean waters of the Mediterranean sharply contrasting with the dark moody waters of the Atlantic in a strategic aqua-hued borderland.

Morocco Map

Tangier and the Spanish-controlled city of Ceuta slightly to the east are the closest Africa gets to Europe. Consequently, this prized tip of the Maghreb was rarely held by Morocco’s local inhabitants, who were too weak and outnumbered to compete effectively with the seafaring powers of the Mediterranean that were more interested in building trading outposts en route to Iberia than in venturing into the Maghrebi hinterland. But Morocco is also much more than its coastline. The country is defined by its mountainous spine, flanked by the coastline to the north and the Sahara Desert to its south. The Atlas chain starts south of Marrakech and runs northeast into Algeria, breaking only at the Taza Gap, a narrow access point to the Atlantic.

The highlands are inhabited by Morocco’s local natives, given the name Berbers by Greeks and Romans who regarded them as “barbari,” Greek for “barbarians,” who refused to adapt to their ways. In contrast, Berbers often use the term “Imazighen,” which translates as “freemen,” to describe their tribal community that is defined by their fighting prowess and raw, independent spirit. Stuck between entrenched and defiant Berbers in the mountains and a coastline that frequently fell prey to the Europeans, early Muslim settlers focused on the plains and mountain passages in the interior, where the ancient cities of Fez and Marrakech developed as the political and cultural hubs of the Maghreb and linked trans-Saharan trade with maritime commerce in the Mediterranean.

The Virtue of Distance

Unlike in many of its ill-defined neighbors to its east and south, there is a geographic logic to Morocco’s boundaries that has allowed it to develop a strong identity over the centuries. With Islamic power centers far away to the east in Baghdad and Damascus, Morocco was able to cultivate a much more experimental relationship with Islam. The territory’s large Berber population was slow to adapt to the religion when it arrived in the 7th century, eventually developing their own heterodox interpretation of Islamic teachings. Early Moroccan dynasties meanwhile swung between dry literalist and philosophical Sufi interpretations of Islam. In the 12th century under the Almohad dynasty, Muhammad ibn Rushd, known as Averroes in Europe, founded a philosophical movement in the Maghreb that both popularly and controversially infused rational Aristotelian philosophy with Islamic theology. This tradition of liberalism in theology continues to this day as contemporary religious-political movements in Morocco espouse a postmodern Islamist model to attract youth who are semi-fluent in Western philosophy but who, out of frustration, are searching for an alternative to the current system.

Indeed, distance is a virtue for Morocco. Overstretched politically, financially and militarily, the Ottomans, nominal overlords from the 16th to 19th century, fell short of claiming Morocco as part of their empire and attempted instead to outsource control of the Maghrebi coastline to seafaring pirates. Not surprisingly, that strategy had its limitations and Turkish influence over the centuries failed to penetrate Morocco.

Distance also enabled Morocco to develop a uniquely cooperative relationship with Israel. As one older Berber man with leathery skin and kind eyes told me over mint tea, “You cannot dance to music that you cannot hear.” In other words, enough land lies between Morocco and Israel to insulate Morocco from the more vitriolic relationships Israel has with its Arab neighbors. Jews came after the Berbers and remain an influential community today. Even as contemporary Moroccan leaders have given token support to Pan-Arab conflicts with Israel, they relied on Moroccan Jewish links to the Israeli government to maintain a quiet and cooperative relationship behind the scenes.

The Peril of Proximity

While Morocco enjoys the distance from the main Muslim power centers to its east, it sits uncomfortably close to powerful European neighbors to the north. With no navigable rivers to facilitate inland development, Morocco has been and remains a capital-poor territory. The religious community compounded the fiscal restraints on the sultans, limiting their power to tax. And the risks of triggering unrest from raising taxes were too great in any case.

Moroccan leaders instead tried to consolidate control over the corsairs, whose piracy along the Mediterranean generated substantial profits. But that drew the wrath of the Spanish, French, Italian, English and Austrians, among others, who saw an imperative to control the Maghrebi coastline to secure their own wealth from sea predators and rival Mediterranean powers. As Morocco fell more and more in debt to the Europeans, it saw its sovereignty erode, a trend that culminated in the French and Spanish protectorates of the early 20th century.

Morocco’s vulnerability to Europe marked the foundation of its relationship with the United States. While the Europeans were busy fighting among themselves, Morocco looked eagerly across the Atlantic at 13 colonies developing along North America’s eastern seaboard. Morocco was desperate for a patron and ally with enough power, strategic interest — and enough distance from Morocco — to effectively balance against its European neighbors, and it found one in the United States.

As a sign of Morocco’s geopolitical foresight, the sultan ensured that Morocco was the first country to recognize the United States in December 1777, allowing American troops to dock at Moroccan ports without paying duties or tariffs. By 1797, the U.S. government had set up a consulate in Tangier, at the mouth of the Mediterranean, to ensure safe passage for American ships to and from the Mediterranean.

A Strategic Relationship

The world will be reminded of this strategic relationship when Morocco’s youthful King Mohammad VI makes an official visit to Washington on Nov. 22. With Libya overrun by militias, the Egyptian military reverting to repression to control its Islamist opposition, Tunisia in political paralysis and Mali and the surrounding Saharan region trying to fend off

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