Beyond Arab vs Berber: the rich complexities of Algerian identity should be celebrated, not feared

In launching their war of independence in November 1954, Algerians emphatically rejected this divisive bait, presenting instead an unshakeably united front against French hegemony, and rejecting numerous attempts to re-cast them into warring tribes fighting one another.

Looking back on half a century of post-independence policies, the most damaging, and least forgiveable failure of Algerian governance is arguably not economic or political (though there have certainly been plenty of those) but a cultural and moral one: the failure to honour Algeria’s foundational ethnic and cultural diversity in all its rich and varied dimensions - in particular, the unwillingness of the country’s successive political elites to properly address Algeria’s “Question Berbère”.

Anyone with a passing knowledge of Algerian - and, indeed, Maghreb - history knows it is a land of linguistic, ethnic and cultural hybridity: whilst virtually the entire Algerian population is nominally Arabic-speaking, at least a quarter (some unofficial estimates put this as high as 75%) of Algerians are Berbers, the indigenous inhabitants of North Africa (though most prefer the autochthonous term: Amazigh). This has been the case for most of the fourteen centuries since the early waves of Arab-Muslim foutouhats (conquests) reached North Africa in the early eighth century, leading to the whole region embracing Islam and, as a direct result, the Arabic language. Nevertheless, 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 early French colonialism in Algeria has been to drive a wedge between Arab and Berber identities by vigorously constructing a narrative pitting an indigenous Berber population against an Arab, alien one. This classic ‘divide and rule’ approach proved militarily crucial to France’s ultimately successful conquest of the country over the course of the nineteenth century, and its subsequent efforts to consolidate its colonisation project. In line with the standard Orientalist blueprint, significant French academic and intellectual efforts were centred on sharpening this detected Berber-Arab dichotomy, and pushing its accompanying thesis that no such a thing as a Nation Algerienne had ever existed. This thesis, conveniently enough, was itself the cornerstone of the Algerie Francaise myth-making, later deployed to undermine the legitimacy of Algerians’ mounting calls for their right to self-determination. Ultimately, in launching their war of independence in November 1954, Algerians emphatically rejected this divisive bait, presenting instead an unshakeably united front against French hegemony, and rejecting numerous attempts to re-cast them into warring tribes fighting one another.

Once independence was clinched in 1962- against overwhelming odds and at the cost of immense sacrifice - the challenge awaiting the young nation was enormous: in particular, the reversal of 132 years of systemic colonial assaults on Algerians’ indigenous cultural and linguistic heritage and identity. Many thus welcomed post-independence education policies that reaffirmed and rehabilitated Algeria’s Arab and Muslim identities. However, on the Berber question, the expected acknowledgement of what was, after all, an undeniable linguistic, historical and anthropological reality never materialised. Instead, the question was simply ignored, swept under the carpet like an unpleasant, minor historical interlude nobody was allowed to mention or revisit. To add insult to injury, those who dared challenge the official orthodoxy were routinely dismissed and silenced as enemies of the revolution and agents of la main étrangère (the ‘foreign hand’ of external powers).

In the years since, in spite of a plethora of national charters and constitutional revisions, the recognition of Tamazight remained conspicuously absent from the menu of reforms on offer: a language that was spoken by millions of Algerians, often as their native tongue, officially did not exist. Instead, there was plenty of the opposite impulse: successive governments engaging in provocative, irresponsible, opportunistic policies seemingly intended to exacerbate differences, stoke up resentment and feed regionalist discourses. The largely well-intentioned Arabisation policy, aimed at overturning the damage inflicted by more than a century of colonial cultural suppression, morphed, for some, into a politicised drive to entrench an absurd supremacy of one facet of 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 Berber-speaking regions. Over the years, these grievances have given birth to a number of protest movements and initiatives – official and clandestine, cultural and political, peaceful and less so – that have continued to grow and evolve. Earlier this week, on Saturday 20 April, Algeria marked the 33rd anniversary of the Printemps Berbère (the ‘Berber Spring’) of April 1980, a landmark episode that saw the country’s first major popular protest and strike movement demanding the recognition of Tamazight as a national language, which was brutally repressed by security forces at the time.

On Saturday, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Tizi Ouzou, the capital of the Grande Kabylie, to commemorate the events, and to reiterate their calls for Tamazight to be constitutionally granted official status. In an ominous development, there were, in fact, two parallel protests. The first was organised by the Rassemblement pour la Culture et la Democratie (RCD), a national political party with an established constituency in the Kabylie region. The second, smaller demonstration was organised by the MAK (Mouvement pour l'autonomie de la Kabylie), a fringe movement that openly advocates the creation of a separate Kabyle state. For many observers, that a movement as extremist as the MAK has gained enough political ground to stage such public demonstrations is, more than anything, a serious indictment of the failure of successive national policies on the question of Tamazight.

Official responses to these developments have been typically slow in taking shape but the signs, as always, do not encourage much optimism. Although a constitutional revision project is currently under way, there has been little 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 question is to behold a litany of missed opportunities. At every major historical turn, the leadership of the day often wavered, prevaricated and then - more often than not - opted for the status quo or for the path of least resistance. With President Bouteflika poised to run for an unprecedented fourth consecutive term in 2014, it remains unlikely that he, or any of his potential challengers, will think of the question as an urgent one. There are some positives, however: Louisa Hanoun, the leader of the Parti des Travailleurs (PT) - and, incidentally, the first female presidential candidate in the Arab world - this week became the latest political figure to support the official recognition of Tamazight.

In today’s Algeria, it is nonsensical to speak of strict territorial delineations along ethnic or linguistic lines. The acceleration of the decades-long process of population movements from rural hinterlands to various urban agglomerations (itself a consequence of myopic politico-economic mismanagement), has meant that virtually every town has its fair share of the country’s ethno-linguistic palette. And yet, due to the coarsening of the discourse around the issue, the subject of national cultural identity remains largely taboo, best avoided if one wants to be left in peace or not treated as a trouble-making pariah.

One thing, however, is certain: whatever happens in the immediate future, the handling of the issue of Tamazight will be a defining test of the courage and maturity (or otherwise) of the next generation of Algerian political leaders. After half a century of petty, divisive, irresponsible identity politics, a serious reconciliation project will be needed if Algerians are to start celebrating the fascinating multiplicities that make up their shared identity and heritage rather than seeing them as perennial, toxic battlefronts.

About the author

Hicham Yezza is an Algerian writer and human rights activist. He is the editor-in-chief of Ceasefire Magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @HichamYezza and @Ceasefire_Mag

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