Beyond Arabic vs. Berber: The Rich Complexities of Algerian Identity Should Be Celebrated, Not Dreaded


With the hindsight of half a century of post-independence policies, the most damaging and least forgivable failure of Algerian governance is arguably not economic or political (although there have certainly been many) but cultural and moral: the failure to honor Algeria’s founding ethnic and cultural diversity in all its rich and varied dimensions – in particular, the reluctance of the country’s successive political elites to appropriately tackle the “Berber question”.

Anyone who has a passing knowledge of Algerian – and even Maghrebian – history knows that it is a land of linguistic, ethnic and cultural hybridity: while almost all of the Algerian population is nominally Arabic-speaking, at least a quarter ( some unofficial estimates up to 75%) of Algerians are Berbers, the indigenous inhabitants of North Africa (although most prefer the term autochthonous: Amazigh). This has been the case for most of the fourteen centuries since the first waves of Arab-Muslim influence. foutouhats (conquests) reached North Africa in the early 8th century, leading the entire region to embrace Islam and, therefore, the Arabic language. Nonetheless, Tamazight – the family of disparate but connected Berber languages ​​and dialects – has persisted and remains dominant in a number of regional enclaves across the Maghreb.

Unsurprisingly, one of the key strategies of the first French colonialism in Algeria was to drive a wedge between Arab and Berber identities by vigorously constructing a narrative pitting an indigenous Berber population against an Arab and foreign population. This classic “divide and rule” approach proved militarily crucial for France’s ultimately successful conquest of the country in the 19th century, and its subsequent efforts to consolidate its colonization project. In keeping with the standard Orientalist model, significant French academic and intellectual efforts have been focused on refining this detected Berber-Arab dichotomy and the accompanying thesis that nothing like a Algerian Nation had never existed. This thesis, conveniently enough, was itself the cornerstone of the French Algeria myth-making, later deployed to undermine the legitimacy of Algerians’ growing appeals for their right to self-determination. Ultimately, by launching their War of Independence in November 1954, the Algerians categorically rejected this divisive bait, instead presenting an unwavering united front against French hegemony and rejecting numerous attempts to recast them into tribes in clashing war.

Once independence was obtained in 1962 – against all odds and at the cost of immense sacrifice – the challenge that awaited the young nation was enormous: in particular, the reversal of 132 years of systemic colonial assaults on heritage and Algerian indigenous cultural and linguistic identity. Many thus hailed the post-independence educational policies which reaffirmed and rehabilitated the Arab-Muslim identities of Algeria. However, on the Berber question, the expected recognition of what was, after all, an undeniable linguistic, historical and anthropological reality never materialized. Instead, the matter was simply ignored, swept under the carpet as a minor and unpleasant historical interlude that no one was allowed to mention or revisit. To add insult to injury, those who dared to challenge official orthodoxy have been routinely rejected and silenced as enemies of the revolution and agents of the foreign hand external powers).

In the years that followed, despite a plethora of national charters and constitutional revisions, recognition of Tamazight remained conspicuously absent from the menu of proposed reforms: a language spoken by millions of Algerians, often as their mother tongue, has officially fact does not exist. Instead, there were many opposing impulses: Successive governments embarked on provocative, irresponsible and opportunistic policies apparently intended to exacerbate differences, stoke resentment, and fuel regionalist rhetoric. The largely well-intentioned Arabization policy, aimed at reversing the damage inflicted by more than a century of colonial cultural suppression, has turned, for some, into a politicized desire to establish absurd supremacy in one facet of the world. Algerian identity over another.

Unsurprisingly, this perceived cultural injustice against the nation’s Berber heritage was seen by many as a mere confirmation of the systemic economic and political injustice against the Berber-speaking regions. Over the years, these grievances have given rise to numerous protest movements and initiatives – official and underground, cultural and political, peaceful and less – which have continued to grow and evolve. Earlier this week, Saturday April 20, Algeria celebrated the 33rd anniversary of the Berber Spring (the “Berber Spring”) of April 1980, a historic episode that saw the first major popular protest and strike movement in the country demanding recognition of tamazight as a national language, which was brutally suppressed by the security forces at the time.

On Saturday, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Tizi Ouzou, the capital of Greater Kabylia, to commemorate the events and reiterate their calls for Tamazight to obtain official constitutional status. In a disturbing development, there were, in fact, two parallel protests. The first was organized by the Rassemblement pour la Culture et la Démocratie (RCD), a national political party with an established constituency in the Kabylia region. The second, smaller demonstration was organized by the MAK (Movement for the Autonomy of Kabylia), a marginal movement that openly advocates the creation of a separate Kabyle state. For many observers, the fact that such an extremist movement as the MAK has gained enough political ground to organize such public protests is, more than anything, a grave indictment of the failure of successive national policies on the issue. from tamazight.

Official responses to these developments have generally been slow to take shape, but the signs, as always, do not encourage much optimism. Although a constitutional revision project is currently underway, there is no indication that the status of Tamazight will be seriously reconsidered. Such complacent inertia is hardly surprising: to examine the history of Algeria’s handling of the issue is to see a litany of missed opportunities. At every major historical turning point, the leaders of the time often hesitated, procrastinated and then – more often than not – opted for the status quo or the path of least resistance. With President Bouteflika set to run for an unprecedented fourth consecutive term in 2014, he, or any of his potential challengers, is unlikely to consider the matter urgent. There are, however, some positive points: Louisa Hanoun, the leader of the Workers’ Party (PT) – and, incidentally, the first woman candidate for the presidency of the Arab world – this week became the last political figure to support the official recognition of the tamazight.

In Algeria today, it is absurd to speak of strict territorial boundaries along ethnic or linguistic lines. The acceleration of the decades-long process of population movements from the rural hinterland to various urban agglomerations (itself a consequence of myopic politico-economic mismanagement), has meant that virtually every city has its fair share. of the ethno-linguistic palette of the country. And yet, due to the vulgarity of the discourse around the issue, the subject of national cultural identity remains largely taboo, to be avoided if one wants to be quiet or not to be treated as a troublemaker outcast.

One thing, however, is certain: Whatever happens in the immediate future, dealing with the issue of Tamazight will be a defining test of the courage and maturity (or not) of the next generation of Algerian political leaders. After half a century of petty, conflictual and irresponsible identity politics, a serious reconciliation project will be necessary if Algerians are to begin celebrating the fascinating multiplicities that make up their common identity and heritage rather than seeing them as perennial battle fronts. and toxic.

About Wesley V. Finley

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