North Africa has long been the neglected stepchild of Anglo-American Middle East academe and policy institutes. This region, commonly known as the Maghreb, was traditionally the near-exclusive preserve of European (mainly French) policymakers and scholars, owing to proximity, colonial experiences, linguistic familiarity and economic interests.
This neglect is now coming to end. North African studies have flourished recently in the scholarly realm, in English as well as French. On the policy side, the wake-up call came for some with the radical Islamist challenge and bloodletting in Algeria during the 1990s. For others, it came with the discovery of young men of Moroccan and Algerian origins in the ranks of al-Qaeda. For democracy and civil society promoters, Morocco under King Mohamed VI offered a model to emulate. But if any of these didn’t happen to grab your attention, there was Tunisia 2011, which provided the spark for the explosions of popular protest rumbling across the entire Arab world and parts of the Muslim world beyond….
Constitutionally, Algeria and Morocco are certainly Arab-Islamic states, with Arabic being the sole official language. Organizationally, they are both members of the 22-nation League of Arab States, as well as the largely moribund five-nation Arab Maghreb Union (along with Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania). Beginning in the 1930s, the ideologues of Algeria’s national movement proclaimed the Arabic language, along with Islam and territorial nationalism, as the central pillars of their challenge to a century of French settler-colonialism and incorporation into metropolitan France. Morocco’s urban nationalist elite had a similar Arab-Islamic orientation.
Upon achieving independence, both countries directed their educational and cultural nation-building efforts toward the east, toward the Mashriq, linking their societies’ roots to the rise of Islam and the spread of its Arabic-language civilization across North Africa beginning in the late 7th century. Both Algeria and Morocco had to work hard at “becoming Arab”, importing thousands of teachers from the Mashriq to instill a standardized version of written Arabic to replace French as the language of administration. This Arabic differed sharply from the North African dialectical Arabic (darija) spoken in daily life—let alone from the widely spoken Berber dialects. There are three primary dialects in Morocco, and two primary ones in Algeria, along with two additional ones spoken by smaller groups.
So who are the Berbers, and why are they worthy of attention? Simply put, the Berbers are North Africa’s “natives”, the population encountered by the region’s various conquerors and “civilizers”: Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Vandals, Arab-Muslims and Europeans. Berber social organization was classically tribal, and they spoke varieties of a single, mainly unwritten language classified today as Afro-Asian. Their encounters with foreign forces, which generally were more powerful, produced a variety of responses ranging from resistance and retreat to acceptance and assimilation. Overall, Berbers straddled multiple worlds, assimilating the “other” with whom they were engaged in one form of accommodation or another, but retaining distinct attributes of their own.
Inevitably, given their relative weakness, this collection of tribal groupings was branded by a derogatory term: “Berbers”, from the Greek and Roman appellations for “barbarians.” Subsequent Arab-Muslim conquerors quickly adopted the term, and it has stuck ever since. Not surprisingly, modern-day Berber militants reject such stigmatization imposed from the outside, and prefer to call themselves Amazigh, which translates into “free men.”
The Amazigh are worthy of our attention for several reasons, one of which is their underappreciated demographic significance. Speakers of one of the Berber/Tamazight dialects constitute approximately 40–45 percent of the population in Morocco, 20–25 percent in Algeria, 8–9 percent in Libya and about 1–5 percent in Tunisia. They total some 15–20 million persons, a number that exceeds the total population, for the sake of comparison, of Greece or Portugal. These numbers, while considerable, are significantly lower as a percentage than they were a century ago, thanks to complex processes of economic and political integration that have occurred throughout the region.
Indeed, it is this very decline that has helped spur the modern Amazigh identity movement, one which explicitly foregrounds a collective Amazigh “self”, complete with a flag, anthems, collective memory sites (lieux de memoire), a “national” narrative and ancient and modern icons. Thus the movement seeks to renegotiate the terms of Berber accommodation with various “others”: the nation-state, Islam and modernity. The movement’s central demands are recognition by state authorities of the existence of the Amazigh people as a collective and of the historical and cultural Amazighité of North Africa. The most immediate and concrete manifestations of that recognition would be to make Tamazight an official language equal to Arabic and to begin redressing the multitude of injustices which they say have been inflicted on the Berbers in both the colonial and independence eras through corrective educational, social and economic policies. More generally, the movement challenges the fundamental national narratives of these countries, which until recently consigned Berber cultural expressions to state-sponsored folklore festivals, complemented by National Geographic-type television programs on remote and exotic mountain villages, on par with the nomadic Touareg “blue men” of the desert.
In their efforts to fashion a “modern” ethno-cultural collective identity out of the older building blocks of their societies, the Amazigh activists are part of a more general trend that challenges hegemonic Arab-centered nationalism. Ironically, the ever-accelerating processes of globalization, which some thinkers have heralded as the harbinger of a long-awaited post-national age, are also generating an intensified “politics of identity.” The new politics of identity in the Muslim world is marked by the ethno-cultural assertion of formerly marginalized minority groups, combined with a demand for the democratization of political life. For some, like the Kurds, this has reached a critical mass, morphing into full-fledged nationalism. For others, like the Muslim residents of Ethiopia’s Ogaden region, this kind of nationalism is forming fast. Berbers have not yet reached that stage, and they may never reach it. But they, too, have achieved a measure of recognition and self-definition that was inconceivable a generation ago.