Last year, Morocco became embroiled in a linguistic debate after a local educational foundation urged the country to integrate darija, the colloquial form of Arabic, into early childhood education.
This challenge to the universality of fus'ha, or Modern Standard Arabic, drew intense criticism from members of parliament. The fiercest attack came from MP Moqri Abouzayd of the ruling Justice and Development Party (PJD) party, who decried the proposal as "an attempt to destroy the foundations of the nation and a conspiracy against Islam". Moroccan Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane rejected it as a threat to "the very foundations of the Moroccan state".
Lacking the support of any prominent politicians, the initiative died before it even made it to the floor of parliament.
RELATED: Arabic is the tie that binds
The complex and unresolved relationship between fus'ha and darija has long fuelled controversy in Morocco.
While some advocate the large-scale use of darija, others believe the promotion of an unwritten dialect with regional variation is an attempt to divide Moroccan society, isolating it from its Arab and Islamic heritage.
During last year's debate, Noureddine Ayouch, founder of the Zakoura Education Foundation, said the integration of darija into early education could help to alleviate Morocco's education crisis. A World Bank study ranked Morocco 11th among 14 countries in the Middle East and North Africa in terms of access, equity, efficiency and quality of the provision of education. The report cited a number of acute problems linked to insufficient coverage, gender disparity and high dropout and repetition rates, leading to a weak integration of graduates in the labour market.
Darija is fascinating in the sense that it is very close to the Moroccan psyche. It simply strikes a chord with readers and has a huge impact.
Ayouch highlighted the findings of a study by UNESCO, the UN's cultural agency, which recommended the use of the mother tongue in early childhood education, noting Moroccan students are often confused by the transition from darija at home to fus'ha at school.
For many Moroccans, including Fouad Abou Ali, president of the National Coalition for the Defence of Arabic Language, a grassroots advocacy organisation, it is not just a linguistic issue, but a political one. Fus'ha is "the language of Islam", Abou Ali said, "and attempts to alienate it target the cultural and religious value system it represents, and will strip away Morocco's Arabic and Islamic identity".
The initial academic interest in darija emerged in Morocco during the French occupation. As early as the 1920s, France showed an interest in darija and its different regional variations. Researchers with the National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilisations have since provided a comprehensive survey of the different dialects and established specialised dictionaries.
Darija has made significant strides since the 2000s. It has become widely used in advertising, talk shows, online media, cartoons and even rap songs. Mexican and Turkish soap operas have been recently dubbed into darija instead of fus'ha, while new radio stations have started to host talk shows entirely in darija to broaden their audience.
Some view darija as a way to embrace the Moroccan identity, said Ahmed Najim, the director of Goud, an online magazine that includes articles written in darija alongside pieces written in fus'ha. "Darija is fascinating in the sense that it is very close to the Moroccan psyche. It simply strikes a chord with readers and has a huge impact," he argues. Even Islamic political parties that purport to defend fus'ha sometimes use darija to reach as many people as possible in their political campaigns.
RELATED: Living the language
According to Mohammed Balboul, a professor of linguistics at Mohammed V University in Rabat, similar language debates have gripped many other Arab countries, and will continue to spur controversy for years to come. But he and other language experts say the debate lacks a proper scientific foundation.
From a linguistic point of view, there are many similarities between fus'ha and darija, said Taoufik El Yazidy, a sociolinguistics professor at Mohammed V University's Arabisation Institute. They both share a large Arabic vocabulary and have a similar structure. The two should be viewed as complementary, he noted.
"Darija plays a communicative role, while fus'ha is more prominently used in education, administration, and the media," El Yazidy said.
He does not believe darija should be expanded into the academic realm, noting: "Darija is not rich enough to be used in academia, and is unable to offer the knowledge base that [standard] Arabic is currently providing."
Balboul believes the two dialects should be a source of pride for Moroccans, not a cause of disagreements. Both fus'ha and darija constitute "who we are as Moroccans," he said.
"We should equally take care of both of them and not use one at the expense of the other," Balboul said.