Berber rebirth sparks identity issues in Algeria

Berber rebirth sparks identity issues in Algeria
Comment: Since the Berber Spring, there have been growing demands from Algerian Amazighs for greater language rights. All sides need to be wary of divisions, says Maen al-Bayari.
3 min read
27 Apr, 2015
The Berber symbol can be found across North Africa [Getty]

Political parties and civil groups are debating whether to make Amazigh, or Berber, an official language in Algeria.

Although the debate is purely Algerian, there is an essential Arab component to the debate, and a rekindling of identity politics.

This reveals the appalling cultural, political and social failures in Algeria, along with problems related to tyranny and oppression.

Identity still dominates Algeria, with tensions manifest in Amazigh majority areas.

Recent calls for Amazigh to be upgraded to an official language one coincides with the 35th anniversary of the Amazigh Spring, when Berber was upgraded to a national language.

The Amazigh Spring erupted when the Arab nationalist authorities made the foolish mistake of banning the Berber writer Mouloud Mammeri from giving a lecture in the province of Tizi Ouzou.

This sparked a series of strikes, which led to clashes with police and several deaths.

Algeria's Amazigh population is sizeable. Around 10 million of Algerians 38 million identify themselves as Berber, and the memories of this uprising is still fresh in their memories.

Berbers are no longer content with their language being a national one, instead they want it to be an equal partner with Arabic.

Even though one can understand the reasoning behind the calls to make Amazigh an official language, as it is a national component, there are valid reasons for rejecting it too.

Identity politics

There are fears that granting the Amazigh this "language right" would leads to calls for autonomy and then secession.

     We are faced with sectarianism and tribalism and are wary of further divisions in our beloved Algeria.

We, in the east, are concerned by both sides of the argument.

We are faced with sectarianism and tribalism and are wary of further divisions in our beloved Algeria.

The country has been a symbol of unified Arab conscience and an example to the Arab world of resistance and heroism. Media reports suggest that Algeria is taking a passive approach in the debate.

There is historical context to the issue. Moroccan intellectual, Mohammad Abed al-Jabiri, who had Berber origins, used to say that the Amazigh language was dead.

When France ruled Morocco they passed the Berber Decree in 1930 that discriminated between Amazigh and Arabs. But both Amazigh and Arab fought the French occupation.

Perhaps emotions and nostalgia take us back to these distant times, when Arabism was in line with the cultural narrative, rather than a tool for exploiting the masses, as the Baath party has done Syria and Iraq.

Our brothers in the Maghreb did not experience this form of tampering, domination and superior oppressive Arabism.

Yet they had their own societal problems that need to be resolved, and this includes the Amazigh question in Morocco.

This needs to be tackled by civil society, cultural figures and political authorities.

However, there are other matters in Algeria, which are of concern and we hope that our strength, Arab and Amazigh, will keep us united.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.