Tinmel is a small village in Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains and it serves as a starting point for understanding the complex dynamics between North Africa’s indigenous Amazigh people and the region’s largely Arabised political frameworks.
It was from here, almost a millennium ago, that a “Berber” dynasty with claims to religious legitimacy would spread to control a large section of northwest Africa and Iberia.
This is a microcosm of the Maghreb’s complicated intersection of ethnic, national, religious and colonial identities: founded by non-Arabs yet with imperial and Islamic identities.
In order to explore the various protests, civil unrest and claims for greater representation that have been part of the Amazigh experience in the postcolonial Maghreb, we must trace the region’s historical roots.
The pre-colonial history of North Africa since the Arab invasions of the 7th century onwards is broadly represented in two disputed strands: one a story of peaceful coexistence between Amazigh and Arab, the other of dispossession and subjugation. The former stresses a wide acceptance of Islam and the development of national identities as unifying forces. Meanwhile, the concept of a universal Amazigh people is minimised, instead emphasising various regional, tribal identities – Kabyle or Rifi rather than Amazigh.
Whether it was the historic Almohad and Almoravid dynasties in Morocco or the modern anti-colonial movement in Algeria, the indigenous Amazigh have been a fundamental part of political representation in the Maghreb. This representation has, however, arguably always been in an Arabised form. The indigenous people of North Africa were free to be partake in political power, but only so long as it was done through the guise of strengthening an Arabised infrastructure.
As the alternative story goes, Amazigh culture was displaced by Arab-Islamic civilisation. Amazigh languages were marginalised as Arabic dominated. This narrative has gained momentum in recent decades as part of an “Amazigh awakening” which has sought to reclaim culture through such matters as formal recognition of the Amazigh New Year (it is currently 2968!).[i]
These two versions of history are of great political relevance as we move into the colonial and, later, postcolonial periods. In keeping with the “Berberist” history emphasising Arab conquest, it might be said that European colonial powers – in particular, the French – merely brought into the foreground pre-existing ethnic and cultural fault-lines that had lay dormant under Arab-Islamic hegemony. Indeed, some Amazigh have orientated themselves towards Europe in opposition to that power structure – which, itself, is a form of psychological colonialism.
The narrative of benevolent coloniser arriving to liberate a subjugated foreign people is one which we should be immediately sceptical of. French interference, in reality, had more to do with divide-and-conquer colonialism that rather emphasised differences between an Arabised and non-Arabised Amazigh people. North Africans that identify as Arab actually have near identical blood to the indigenous Amazigh.
This manipulation found particular expression in the “Berber myth” which dismissed Arabs as tyrannical Orientals as opposed to the supposedly more European indigenous peoples.[ii] Whatever fault-lines of ethnic separation existed, it can hardly be doubted that European colonialists exploited them for their own gain.
The Berber myth forms the inverse part of a racist-supremacist worldview in which Arabs and Islam are seen as inferior. What comes next in the postcolonial age – oversensitivity to deviance from Arab national unity – is a reaction to this colonial legacy.[iii] Indeed, to this day, the initial response to Amazigh activism in much of the Maghreb will most likely be an accusation of sowing division – of falling for the trick played by the colonisers and allowing the fires which they stoked to burn.
Amazigh political representation
In tracing Amazigh representation in Arab politics, we must note the prominence of indigenous North Africans in the anti-colonial movements. A prime example is Algeria’s National Liberation Front (FLN) with its early Kabylie (Amazigh) heartland; they often had national aspirations which definitively rejected European identity.[iv]
As with the Almohads, a simple opposition between Amazigh people and Arab-Islamic civilisation does not stand up: one of the major strands of Algerian nationalism was a conservative Islamic one led by an Amazigh, Abdelhamid Ben Badis.[v] There is no clear dividing line by which we might separate the centuries of ethnic, religious, national and colonial intersections of North Africa.
Despite acknowledgement of the longer history, it is clear that the postcolonial age has brought state repression upon the Amazigh. With anti-colonial struggle and independence came a stress on unified identity which excessively emphasised the Arab-Islamic story at the expense of Amazigh culture.
Gaddafi’s Libya enacted severe repression[vi] and revolutionary Algeria orientated itself strongly towards Arab nationalism, whilst Morocco’s Arab-orientated urban nationalist Istiqlal (Independence) party dominated politically.[vii] In reaction to European colonialism, the pendulum swung too far the other way as Arab identity was conflated with anti-colonialism. Talk of Amazigh recognition thereby came to be seen as divisive as too divisive, a typically colonial pathology, as Morocco’s Nasser Zefzafi recently learned.
As we survey the contemporary landscape, there is much progress to be made in Amazigh representation. Unrest in Algeria’s Kabyle has periodically resurfaced, such as the 1980 “Berber Spring” protests following restrictions on the teaching of Amazigh poetry.
This episode in Algeria led to the creation of activist organisations such as the Berber Cultural Movement and later the political party Rally for Culture and Democracy, considered to be liberal representatives of the Amazigh.
Perhaps, similarly, the “Black Spring” unrest of 2001 led to the creation of the Arouch Citizens’ Movement and the Movement for the Autonomy of Kabylie. Reaching back to Algeria’s broader historical context, we can compare these modern activist movements to the more institutionalised representatives of the country’s Amazigh, the Socialist Forces Front (FFS), a political party born of the postcolonial identity struggle.
The Algerian scene mirrors a wider trend: where continued under-representation causes periodic unrest, but with significant gains and marks of progress becoming visible. Most importantly, the government recognised Tamazight as an official language in 2016 and an academy has been set up for its study.[viii]
Morocco has made similar strides, at least on the surface,[ix] such as constitutional recognition of Tamazight in 2011 and its own Royal Institute of Amazigh Culture.
There is little explicit Amazigh representation here in a country where the Amazigh-Arab cultural divide runs starkly along rural-urban lines; the Popular Movement, insofar as it represents rural interests, is considered the nearest mainstream version.
Parties defined along ethnic or religious lines are banned and as such the Moroccan Amazigh Democrat Party (PDAM) was dissolved in 2008. They have since reincarnated as a green party named Izigzawen but the political establishment remains hostile to explicit Amazigh political agitation.
The continued need for recognition is most visible through the frequent civil strife which has occurred in the long-neglected northern Amazigh Rif region. The ongoing Hirak (Movement) protest, led by Rifi activist Nasser Zefzafi, runs at least partly on ethnic lines in the Tarifit-speaking region.
Language rights are the best indicator of improved representation but the continued presence of Amazigh unrest suggests that repression is far from eradicated. The situation in Libya, whose population is around ten percent Amazigh, is more volatile as various factions continue to fight over how the country’s post-revolutionary pieces are to be put back together.
Following the extremes of Gaddafi’s repressive Arabisation and subsequent Africanisation, the focus is now on constitutional recognition of Amazigh languages and culture led by the Amazigh Supreme Council.[x]
Tunisia, again with a smaller Amazigh population, faces a struggle to keep Amazigh languages in use and also struggles over how its indigenous history remains largely untaught.[xi] Transnational organisations have formed in recent decades (such as the World Amazigh Congress) and an increasingly technologically connected and politically conscious youth suggest that momentum will push towards greater recognition.
Some of the Maghreb states’ manoeuvring seems more like window-dressing than substantial change, but a realisation does seem to have taken place that heavy-handed repression might lead only to division in the form of unrest and sectarian politics.
The question is whether North African nations will be able to open up to a more pluralistic self-understanding that acknowledges the region’s unique, multifaceted identities – and greater representation of Amazigh culture and language will be at the heart of this.
[i] Al Jazeera, “Berbers welcome Amazigh New Year,” January 12, 2018, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/01/berbers-amazigh-year-180112073125573.html
[ii] Willis, Michael, ch. 6 “The Berber Question” in Politics and Power in the Maghreb: Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco from Independence to the Arab Spring, Oxford University Press: New York, 2014
Al Jazeera, “Algeria’s Berbers cautiously optimistic about reforms,” February 16, 2016, https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2016/02/algeria-berbers-cautiously-optimistic-reforms-constitution-160211064614393.html
[iii] Qantara, “Ethnic conflict in Algeria: a struggle for power and recognition,” July 23, 2014, https://en.qantara.de/content/ethnic-conflict-in-algeria-a-struggle-for-power-and-recognition
[iv] Ibid. Willis, 2014
[v] Horne, Alistair, p. 38 in A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962, New York Review of Books: New York, 2006
[vi] Al-Monitor, “Amazigh awakening: Libya’s largest minority wants recognition,” March 2, 2018, https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2018/03/libya-amagigh-warn-boycott-parliamentary-elections-rights.html
[vii] Ibid. Willis, 2014
[viii] Al Jazeera, “Algeria’s Berbers protest for Tamazight language rights,” December 16, 2017, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/12/algeria-berbers-protest-tamazight-language-rights-171213185709684.html
[ix] Al Jazeera, “Morocco’s Berbers urge broader reforms,” May 6, 2014, https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2014/03/moroccos-berbers-urge-broader-reforms-2014357321228806.html
[x] Ibid. Al-Monitor, “Amazigh awakening…” 2018
[xi] Arab Weekly, “Activists seek recognition of Amazigh culture in Tunisia,” February 4, 2018, https://thearabweekly.com/activists-seek-recognition-amazigh-culture-tunisia