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Berbers Fight to Reassert Their Ethnic Identity Against Government Pushback

Algeria is at the epicenter of renewed efforts to re-establish the pre-Islamic Amazigh culture of indigenous North Africans.

BOUIRA, Algeria — The indigenous populations of many Maghreb and North African countries, such as Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Mali, are struggling to re-establish their pre-Islamic linguistic and cultural heritage against the repression exerted by the political regimes of these countries.

(Stock photo: Tatiana Zanon, Unpslash)

“Since the beginning of the [Arab Spring] revolutions, the North African region, which is of Amazigh Berber origins, has known deep questions about its identity and culture,” said Tamazight researcher Mouloud Allek, who received his doctorate at the German Bauhaus University in Weimar.

“North Africa was never Arab. This region was famous and known for its glorious Amazigh cultural and linguistic civilization. It was the Arabs who came afterward to conquer and (colonize) in these countries. With time and Islamic conquest, the majority of the population in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, as well as Libya, were Arabized under the force of the various Arabization programs established at that time to destroy the culture and language of origin-specific to that region.”

Algeria, Libya and Tunisia have experienced a new wave of protests in recent years, calling for the official recognition of their Amazigh, or Berber, identity and culture, represented in particular by their new blue, green and yellow flag. In Algeria, several activists and demonstrators have been arrested and imprisoned for carrying this Amazigh flag, including at the peaceful marches in February 2019 that led to the fall of Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s regime.

“These abuses and arrests are a flagrant violation of human rights in Algeria,” said Allek. “It is true that there is an identity awakening through the demonstrations organized in recent months in Tunisia, Libya and Algeria, as well as in Mali. The indigenous populations of these countries refuse to belong to the Arab nation adopted for many years as part of the Islamic conquests. They want to re-establish their true identity through collective and individual struggles despite the fierce repression exerted on them by the dictatorial authorities of these countries.”

While Algeria has made slow but steady progress in the struggle for the promotion of the Amazigh language and culture due to generations of political and human rights activists, the struggle is still only beginning in places like Tunisia and Libya, beginning after the popular uprisings in 2008 that led to the downfall of the regimes of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Muammar al-Gaddafi in Libya.

A number of Tunisian men and women carried the Amazigh flag during a January 2020 demonstration in Tunis in support of the peaceful marches then taking place in Algeria.

“Tamazight is our ancestral language and culture. These tyrants wanted to deprive us of our origins and erase our identity,” said Zouhour Jaouadi, a Tunisian student who is studying at Bauhaus University in Weimar, Germany. Jaouadi said she was proud to rediscover her culture and identity after researching her ancestry, going so far as to use a DNA test kit. “I was born in the small town of Maknassy in the middle of Tunisia. I was always fascinated by the many tattoos in the form of symbols and patterns that my grand had on her face and hands. My mother is a traditional woman. To this day, at the age of 70, she wears Amazigh and Berber dresses,” she said, referring to her grandmother and mother.

Berbers fight to re-establish their heritage. (Stock photo: Ruben Bagues, Unsplash)

The awakening of Amazigh identity has spread to Libya as well, where the people of Benghazi, Zintan, Sirte and several other regions of this war-torn country have been demanding recognition of their Amazigh language and identity since the fall of al-Gaddafi, who suppressed any such protests during his reign. Libyan authorities have yet to give any official response on this subject.

Mohamed Djellaoui, professor of Amazigh language and culture at the University of Bouira in Algeria, attributed this awareness of identity to factors linked to the fall of certain dictatorial political regimes in these countries, as well as the democratic and political openness observed in the Maghreb and North Africa region.

“The emergence of some historical truths hidden for centuries in imposture, and the strength of the web and new technologies are also an important factor, which has led to this awakening and general identity awareness in North Africa,” Djellaoui said.

Moroccan researcher, writer and activist Ahmed Assid agreed in the same direction, believing that the Amazigh language and culture should not be linked to the question of majority or minority, but rather to the question of belonging to this North African land of Berber origin.

“The Amazigh language is unique to the territory of North Africa,” said Assid. “Historically, this vast region has never been Arabic. Moreover, the scale of the Arabization projects and campaigns carried out over the years by nation-states has failed to Arabize the whole region and to make the mother tongue, which was Tamazight, disappear.”

(Edited by Matthew Dorough and Rachmad Tarecha)