The turbulent relationship between Morocco and Spain dates back to before 1492, when Muslim King Boabdil of Granada formally handed over the keys of the city to Spain’s Catholic monarchs.
Rabat – Throughout history, relations between Morocco and Spain have always been marked by tensions, conflicts, and wars. The same dynamic has governed Morocco-Spain relations since the end of the Arab-Muslim presence in Spain, through the War of Tetouan in 1859, and then throughout the 20th century.
That said, we must not forget that the mistrust and misunderstanding between Moroccans and Spaniards have their roots in the historic perceptions the two nations hold for each other.
On the Spanish side, the collective consciousness has been building a negative image of Moroccans for over five centuries. Ingrained in a tumultuous history, the Spanish view of Morocco has been mainly conditioned by the political, ideological, and religious confrontations between Spain and Morocco since the fall of Granada in 1492.
Since that date, Spain has essentially whitewashed its own history, reconstructing its own identity around Catholic and European symbolism and collective self-image. Indeed, having just ended Muslim domination, Spanish society began to minimize, if not to deny, the Muslim influence on Spanish history, its identity, and its character.
Guided by the desire to separate themselves from the Muslim history that separated Spain from the rest of Roman Catholic Europe, the Spaniards of the late 1400s banished and destroyed anything that conjured up a relationship with Arab civilization.
The first step towards achieving this goal was to outlaw the use of the Arabic language in public spaces. Accordingly, Spaniards built their identity around denying what happened before the Reconquista, focusing, instead, on the “glory” of the Catholic monarchs and building a mythology of hostility vis-a-vis the “infidel” Muslim.
Because of its geographic proximity and being a Muslim country, Morocco suffered the brunt of the attacks and criticisms of chroniclers, theologians, and Spanish travelers, who used religious and cultural arguments to assert their supposed superiority over Moroccans.
It was from this time that a negative image of Moroccans took hold in Spain. Because of the religious and cultural differences from their neighbors across the Mediterranean, the Spanish stereotype of Moroccans became an example of “othering.”
This negative image of Moroccans in Spain resurfaced whenever the country was at war with Morocco. The successive wars between Morocco and Spain, especially since 1859, only served to confirm in Spain’s collective consciousness the image of Moroccans as “bloodthirsty savages.”
Nineteenth-century Spanish-Arabism played a significant role in updating a caricatured and demeaning image of Morocco and Moroccans. The movement’s leaders embodied the impossibility of suppressing the idea of arrival of Arab-Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula as an accident of history that deviated from the “normal” historical trajectory of Spain, making it impossible to integrate the Arab-Muslim component into its identity and historical personality.
One might argue that the historic tension and turbulence between Morocco and Spain could have been avoided if the two countries could have found common ground in their shared cultural and political history. However, added to the historic “othering,” the disputes have remained major obstacles to better understanding.
Relations between Morocco and Spain continue to be conditioned by the prominence of issues such as migration, fisheries, drug trafficking, and the question of Morocco’s sovereignty in Western Sahara, and Spain’s in Ceuta and Melilla. A simple overview of relations between the two countries since 1956 shows how these conflicts have deepened the misunderstanding between Moroccans and Spaniards and prevented Hispano-Moroccan relations from developing for the good of the two peoples.
The persistence of such disputes and the absence among Spanish and Moroccan officials of a genuine desire to seek equitable solutions and to focus their energies on converging strategic interests casts uncertainty on bilateral relations.
Even if there are in Spain a group of intellectuals and politicians who advocate for genuine rapprochement with Morocco, there are others who continue to view such relationships antagonistically and regard their neighbor across the sea as an enemy to the interests and safety of Spain.
Given the nature of political, cultural, and economic relations between the neighboring countries is one that reflects a deep lack of understanding and mutual respect, the two countries must work towards finding a new approach to diplomatic relations. They must give new impetus to bilateral relations and implement measures to achieve sustainable bilateral relations and cooperation.
They should also seek to settle the disputes at the heart of the bilateral tension, such as the question of illegal immigration, Ceuta and Melilla, and the delimitation of their maritime borders.
With their shared history and geographic proximity, the two peoples should promote dialogue to safeguard stability in the Mediterranean and establish a solid relationship built on trust and mutual respect.