Noam Chomsky, Linguistics, the ‘Arab Spring’ and Moroccan Sahara

By Mohamed Elmedlaoui

Mohamed Elmedlaoui, Bogotá, Colombia, diciembre 2019

Chomsky’s thought and political ethics

As a leading figure of the modern scientific revolution initiated during the fifties of the 20th century in the field of linguistics and human cognition (the concept of Universal Grammar), Noam Chomsky began to be discovered by few members of the Moroccan linguistic community only by the early seventies. But it was only his political writings on some special issues such as the Vietnam War and the Palestinian question that, once translated from English, made Chomsky’s name popular among a wide range of Moroccan intellectuals by the next decade, the eighties.

In this latter respect, and in addition to my own translation into Arabic of §.6 (“Language and unconscious knowledge”) of one of Chomsky’s main theoretical books on human language and cognition faculties (Chomsky 1980Rules and Representations),(1) my first published translation into Arabic of some texts among his political writings goes back to 1982 (the chapter “On Politics” in Language and Responsablity; Dialogue with Mitsou Ronate 1979),(2)  and the  last one I translated and published 20 years later was his “Al-Aqsa Intifad”.(3)

Noam Chomsky’s political writings, focused in majority on the US internal and foreign policy, reflect an original ethical thought independent of the main ideological frames and trends that marked the post Second World War period all over the world (Capitalism, McCarthism, Communism, Third-worldism, Zionism, Holocaust Denial or Sacralising, Clash of civilizations, etc.), and his intellectual analyses have always been thorough and well documented and based on reliable sources. As a scientist embracing also ethical issues, Chomsky, our times Aristotle in a sense, reminds in this respect another modern marshal scientist in another scientific field (physics), Albert Einstein, who contributed also many writings on ethics, politics, education and art, but in a stand less close to current geopolitical contingencies.

Chomsky, the “Arab Spring” and “Western Sahara”

Invited recently in an appearance on Al-Jazeera TV to comment the now so-called ‘Arab Spring’, Noam Chomsky made one major assertion, in arguing, as reported  already since 2012 in Gaza by the Electronic Intifada (see Here) that this movement did start actually, according to him, not in Tunisia in 2011but in the Western Sahara (watch Here) . He was certainly making allusion to the Agdeim Izik’s events of Oct. 2010 in Layoun city in Southern Morocco, grasped through his own own frame of perceiving facts, according to which (i) “Western Sahara [and not Ceuta nor Melilla] is the last occupied territory in Africa” and (ii) “there are two parts of the Arab world that remain effectively colonies: Western Sahara, where the democracy demonstrations of late 2010 were harshly repressed and the struggle of Sahrawis for freedom has been almost forgotten, and of course Palestine” (see Here).

Since Morocco is then exclusively considered, and no other country in the region (principally Algeria where violent popular uprisings are periodical since the 1980 so-called Tafsut Imazighen “Berber Spring”; see Here for 2001), it remains unclear, within the chomskiyan rational thought, what was Chomsky’s criterion for choosing precisely Layoun’s 2010-events in the Moroccan Sahara as the real point of departure of the so-called Arabe Spring.

Once Morocco is alleged, for some non expressed considerations, to constitute the genuine initial socio-political generating matrix for that regional movement still in process, one is allowed to ask, for example, why the 2010-Layoun’s events exactly are considered to represent the original ‘big-bang’ for that still ongoing movement, instead, for example, of the 2009-protests in Sidi Ifni district, another Saharan ancient Spanish colony in Southern Morocco about 500 km to the north of Layoun, recovered by Morocco only in 1969? And why not any other social protest among those that punctuated modern Morocco socio-political life, in Casablanca, Marrakech, Fes, Nador, etc.?

Certainly, the Saharan Layoun city of Morocco has special geopolitical connotations. Its events sound significantly in fact for Al-Jazeera TV conception of the “Arab Spring” and for some American activists’ action in the field of Human Rights abroad. Actually, because of the Algerian diplomatic lobbying and propaganda all over the world, including in the US since the mid seventies, and given the Al-Jazeera own conception of the contours to give to the Arab Spring, there could be no better locus, in terms of place and time, for that ‘big-bang’ identification, so as for it to convey an ambiguous geopolitical sense which comforts, simultaneously, the three external protagonists differently interested in the Sahran conflict and in the Arabe Spring.

About Americans’ general knowledge

It is common to speak about the so-called “Americans lack of general knowledge”, especially in the field of history and geography, and most of all outside America and its prior zones of interest. That is not a feature of ignorance but rather a feature of specializing and efficiency. I remember in this respect tow personal experiences: (i) the first time I visited the department of linguistics at MIT (during the very preparation of the first Iraq war), one notorious linguist to whom I’ve been introduced, was surprised by the fact that I was not black!, since for him Berbers are black according to a TV documentary he saw (he had heard or read some papers I had published on Berber phonology as a native speaker); (ii) once again, in a general conversation of acquaintance at UMASS University, another American colleague asked me about my country, and I answered: “from Morocco”. She immediately added with enthusiasm: “Oh, good! You have a beautiful queen; I saw here in a magazine”. I tried in vain to explain that in Morocco, we have no queen. I realized finally that she had never heard about Morocco, only Monaco had she read about in some people magazines.

It is not then surprising: given his own field of political investigation, analysis and writings, N. Chomsky should not, in fact, be seriously supposed to be well informed of the details of geopolitical and historical genesis of the Sahara conflict, so as for him to keep still in mind an old idea of the early seventies Moroccan left wing movement. I mean that movement’s old strategic idea of turning the process of the national liberation of the territories still under Spanish occupation into a “Foyer Révolutionnaire” (بؤرة ثورية) having, as a final target, to substitute a Marxist-Leninist system in Morocco to King Hassan II regime. The idea fits well, in fact, with the Cold War logic of the time, and the first states to have supported the Polisario front (“The Popular Front for Sagya Hamra and Rio de Oro Liberation”) and latter the 1976 proclaimed Arab Sahraoui Democratic Republic were significant in this respect, viz. Kadafi’s Lybia, Boumedien’s Algeria, German Democratic Republic, Castro’s Cuba, Mengistu Haile Mariam’ Etyhopia, etc.

The genesis of the “Foyer révolutionnaire” left wing idea in Morocco

The “Foyer révolutionnaire” idea is actually even older than the seventies period. In fact, immediately after the comeback of late King of Morocco, Mohammed V, from the French Protectorate exile and the subsequent proclamation of the Moroccan State Independence in 1955, the recovering of the remaining Moroccan territories under the Spanish colonial power became an internal political issue at stake in Morocco. The Moroccan NLA (National Liberation Army) moved immediately after, from the extreme north of Morocco in the Rif region in order to resume the fight in the South against Spain which still occupies Tarfaya (recovered in 1958), Sidi Ifni (recovered in 1969) and the Sagya Hamara and Rio de Oro. In 1958, a great battle opposed a French-Spanish coalition to this NLA who became ALSM (Armée de Libération du Sud Marocain).

In a nutshell, in order to understand the evolution of the 20th century’s Morocco, from the dawn of the colonial period until 1979 when Moroccans completed the process of reunification of their territorial integrity, no serious analysis is allowed to ignore the complementary following major facts.

At the very beginning of that era, when the Moroccan central authority began to weaken in the country’s capital, Fes, in front of the colonial powers (France and Spain), two first main movements of resistance engaged: (i) the southern resistance led by Ahmed El-Hiba against the French and (ii) the northern resistance led by Abelkrim Khattabi against the Spanish.

Thus, at the same year (1912) the French Protectorate treaty was imposed on Moroccans, giving the French virtual control of the country, Ahmed El-Hiba moved from the Saharan city Semara (to the east of Layoun), mobilized the populations of the Sahara, Souss and Daraa regions, and engaged a great battle he lost against the French army at Sidi Bouatmane locality (35 km to the north of Marrakesh). Less then ten years later (1921), Abdelkrim Khattabi defeated at first the Spanish forces in the north in the Anwal battle in the Rif (between Mellia and Alhoceima) before being forced to surrender to the French who intervened in support of Spain as they will do about forty years later in the fifties against the “Armée de Libération du Sud du Maroc as mentioned above.

The long historical process of national territorial liberation, initiated in Morocco at the early fifties through 1979 of the 20th century, has thus been in a tight dialectic connection with the political process of setting new bases for the modern State of traditional Morocco through its evolution toward democracy (see Here for details; a text in Arabic). The different constitutional amendments that punctuated that process together with the different achievements in the fields of government, public and individual rights (cultural and gender rights), as well as the new international geopolitical terms have all rendered obsolete the old political idea of the “Foyer révolutionnaire” for Moroccans. That is what explains the violent reaction of an offspring of the Moroccan old left wing movement, the Moroccan Writers Union (اتحاد كُـتّـاب المغرب) to Chomsky’s new ‘insights’ about the significance of the current socio-political life in Morocco with respect to the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ (the Union’s declaration was issued in January 22 2015, see Here).

To which extent, Chomsky is well informed about the Saharan affaire?

It seems therefore to me that Chomsky has been entailed, through this awkward story, in a ground where he lacks relevant realistic and comprehensive information, on the basis of which his ethical principles would have been correctly enforced through thorough political analyses.

In this last respect, as one of the ancient left wing Moroccan activists members, associated, to a certain extent, to the political evolution of the last episodes of the retrocession by Spain to Morocco in 1976 (7 years after Sidi Ifni’s retrocession) of its last colonial territories in Southern Morocco, viz. the previously called ‘Spanish Sahara’ (see Here), I was personally led, this last decade, to publish a series of articles on that episode, as samples of pieces of the Moroccan political evolution in my generation. All those published journalistic texts were however written in Arabic (as a sample, Here for details; a text in Arabic). Only the last one was in French. This last text (see Here) presents some details about the first tactical stand in the direction of the famous strategic “Foyer Révolutionnaire”. I mean the first formulation of a call for the «right to self determination for the Saharan population”. That call has not been issued in Laayoun, or in any other place in Southern Sahara. It was issued by the UNEM organization (Union National des Etudiants du Maroc) at its 15th congress (Rabat, Faculty of Science, mid-August 1972). I, Mohamed Elmedlaoui, was the head and reporter of the “Palestine Commission” in that congress, under the cover of which the Saharan affaire had been submitted to the congress by political precaution and to which my former friend in the Taroudant Islamic Institute secondary school, El-Ouali Mustapha Sayyid, participated. El-Ouali joined Kadafi’s Libya immediately after the congress, and then, the German Democratic Republic, in preparation for the creation, less than a year latter (May 1973), of the Polisario front (Frente Popular de Liberación de Saguía el Hamra y Río de Oro).

[[Addendum, two years later after this paper’s publication: a testimony by one of the Polisaro founders, Mahjoub Essalek, on France-24 plateau; click Here]] 

Three years later (Feb. 1976), I recognized, through a news report on the Algerian TV, another former friend and class roommate of mine at the same mentioned secondary school of Taroudant: El-Leïli Mahmoud (from the town of Tantan, a Saharan town, 250 km to the north of the controversial Sahara), but renamed this time as Mohammed El-Amin Ould Ahmed. The TV presented him in his capacity of Prime Minister in the proclaimed Democratic Arab Sahraoui Republic (more details Here). A 1967-class collective picture with our American English teacher, Miss Cunningham (from the American Peace Corps) is still available (For the regional homelands of the Polisario front main leaders, watch Here; in Arabic).

Questions about scientific and opinion discourse

Finally, in epistemological terms, this story seems to raises serious classical intellectual and cognitive questions. Chomsky’s original and revolutionary theory about Universal Grammar initiated in his 1965 Syntactic Structures, through his 1995 Minimalist Program, is hard to understand for the common people, but (and because) this theory’s categories and principles of construction are formal, and its hypotheses and statements refutable in that they make verifiable predictions with respect to relevant data. “What makes Syntactic Structures revolutionary is its conception of a grammar as a theory of a language, subject to the same constraints on construction and evaluation as any theory in natural sciences”.(4)

On the other side, Chomsky’s non-less original political analyses seem to be quite accessible to everybody and easy to translate to any language-culture whatever its scientific terminological fund is. In this last field and intellectual move, Chomsky is as easily accessible to the common people like many other writers such as Edward Said, Bernard Henry Levi, Tarik Ramadan or others for example, because no formal internal construction constraint is required, nor any evaluation possible.

In fact, when Chomsky makes, in this field, the following statement for example: [it is the structure A, and not B, that constitutes the point of departure of the process Z], anyone who is familiar with his linguistic and cognitive writings would ask: so, what are the explanatory adequacy of this descriptive hypothesis/statement, regarding facts and data? How for that hypothesis to be verified on the ground? What are its predictions? Etc.

In relation to this kind of evaluation’s questions regarding Chomsky’s conception of Western Sahara’s current status (“the last occupied territory in Africa”), could it be said, for example, that ‘Morocco’ would have been invaded by the ‘Saharans’ if El-Hiba anti colonial battle against the French from the south succeeded in Marrakech, or occupied by the ‘Rifians’ if Abdelkrim Khattabi had not been finally defeated by a French-Spanish coalition in the North? What is then ‘Morocco’ as an entity? 

In conclusion, and within the logic of Chomsky’s Rules and Representations, so as to speak, what is then ‘Morocco’, as an entity? Is it only the king and/or the central administration in the capital, or is it rather all the traditional and modern political and regional forces in their structural evolutionary interaction, including the El-Hiba, Khattabi, and the ALN movements and those recent political forces who imagined once a revolutionary alter in the Sahara? That is the question which is relevant for such a historical and geopolitical conception of facts and events. Such entity’s existential ontology and contours are not at all supposed to be part of the minimal general knowledge of everybody in America or elsewhere, but that entity does exist actually however since “the proof of the pudding is the eating”, namely, the historical fact that “The first U.S. treaty with a non-European nation was a Treaty of Friendship and Amity that was signed with Morocco on June 23, 1786. Morocco formally recognized the United States by signing a treaty of peace and friendship in 1786” (See Here). The fact that the US had once their Civil War, precisely between the Union of the North (Yankee) and the separatist Confederacy of the South in a special period of their socio-political evolution, did not constitute an argument to deny the existence of the American Nation’s whole entity, and did not therefore prevent other nations, including Morocco, to recognize that nation’s state as an integral entity.

Similarly, the “Vichy Government” in France on the one hand and “France Libre” abroad on the other hand in the early forties of the 20th century during the Nazi occupation, did not mean that France, as a nation-state, does not exist. Worded otherwise mutatis mutandis for the case in Morocco under the Franco Spanish colonial occupation, the proclamation of the Rifian Republic in Northern Morocco and/or the Ahmed El-Hiba military campaign from South ern Morocco, do not mean that Morocco does not exist as a nation-state. The same logic being valid for the “Armée de Libération du Sud Marocain” in the late fifties of the 20th century and for the Polisaro movement just fifteen years later.

Accordingly, scholars and analysts are then normally supposed to have a clear idea about Morocco’s background in its capacity of a Nation-State, in order for their analyses of Moroccan’s historical events to be coherent.

Once again, in the logics of Chomsky’s “Rules and Representations”, once the relevant socio-political categories, such as “Morocco/territories” and “People/populations”, are rightly represented, an adequate description of possible processes and rules follows up automatically. Unfortunately, up to now, it is not the case with Chomsky’s representation of the abstract socio-political categories at stake.

Paradoxically, this asymmetric intellectual move seems, at least ‘on the surface’, to be beneficial to the core contribution of Chomsky’s thought, viz. his contribution to the linguistic and cognitive science, in that it endows this thought with a ‘popular advertising’ aura that is pragmatically necessary, in a sense, for an emerging humanities discipline to be acknowledged as a formal scientific one. To give just a special and quite marginal example: before being heard about, thanks to some translations of certain of Chomsky’s political writings into Arabic by the early eighties of the 20th C. as mentioned above, the vague idea we had about modern linguistics in the academic circles in Morocco and in the Arab speaking world in general, was that modern linguistics is one of the satanic suspicious western imperialistic disciplines, together with ethnography, ethnology, anthropology and even sociology and psychology. That conception was in accordance with the main ideological ingredients of the time in that cultural space: a mixture of Arab Nationalism and Marxism. Modern linguistics was perceived in those circles as one of the ideological “reactionary bourgeois thought” intended, for certain, to obscure “the dialectical historic materialism” and to prevent “the awareness of the class struggle among popular masses”, and/or to disfigure the ancestral Arabic grammar, for others. Thus, for example, when generative grammar began to be heard about, linguistics was sometimes said to be lisaaniyaat hubal “Hubal’s linguistics” (Hubal: a pagan deity in ante-Islamic Arabia).



(1)  المدلاوي، محمد (1986) اللغة والمعرفة غير الواعية. دراسات أدبية ولسانية ؛ فاس، المغرب ع4 (1986) ص58-87 ترجمة للفصل الأخير : 217-254 من كتاب   Rules and Representations لتشومسكي Blackwell 1980

(2)  المدلاوي، محمد (1982) «أيديولوجية الدولة في الولايات المتحدة ، أو العنف الصامت». الثقــــافة الجديــــدة، المحمدية – المغرب؛ ع23 (1982)  ص4-35  (ترجمة للفصل الأول من كتاب  Language and Responsibility. Pantheon Books لتشومسكي 1979)

(3) المدلاوي، محمد(2000)  «انتفاضة الأقصى» (ترجمة عن الإنجليزية لنصّ لنوام تشومسكي Al-Aqsa Intifada.  نشر في كل من :الأحداث المغربية  20 /11/ 2000؛  القدس العربي ع: 3588 (22 /11/ 2000).


 Newmeyer, Frederick J. (1986) “Has there been a Chomskyan Revolution in Linguistics”. Language. Volume 62. Number 1 (1986): Pp. 1-18

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