The Berber community of North Africa has endured a long, hard and sometimes bitter struggle to preserve its identity. Originally spread across the south of the Mediterranean, the majority of the so-called Berbers have lived in Algeria and Morocco for thousands of years. Yet they have been denied the right to inhabit their culture and speak their language for centuries. And while these issues remain hotly debated between the people concerned and those who wield power, it must be acknowledged that meaningful progress has been made.
At the core of their struggle in recent years – amid a long history of colonial suppression – is their stated desire to no longer be referred to as Berbers but as Amazigh, meaning "free people", and for their language to be known as Tamazight. As to why these specific demands are important to the approximately 25 million people belonging to this community, the reason is simple: historically, the Amazigh people – alternatively called the Imazighen – were non-Semitics who dominated the Maghreb region, ranging from the Canary Islands off the coast of west Africa all the way to western Egypt, until they were conquered by Arabs in the seventh century CE. Since then, they have been waging a struggle to regain that which sets them apart.
In the context of Algeria, my native country, the status of the Imazighen has changed very little over time – whether it was under French colonial rule, which lasted more than a century until 1962, or even thereafter. The independent government simply refused to grant the community official recognition, which caused frequent volatile deadlocks. For the regime, particularly in the 1970s and 80s, it was convenient to pigeonhole Algerian history as Arabo-Islamic and exclude all other layers of national identity.
Nonetheless, the Imazighen continued to agitate. In March 1980, their repression resulted in what is known as the "Berber Spring", the outbreak of which was sparked by the authorities’ decision to forbid late Francophone author Mouloud Mammeri to give a lecture on ancient Berber poetry at the University of Tizi Ouzou, and which led to a massive crackdown by the state's machinery.
Intriguing perhaps is the fact that some Amazigh who were part of the country's power structure looked down on their own people's struggle. In June 2019, for instance, Lt Gen Ahmed Gaid Salah – the former army chief and Algeria's de facto ruler at the time – inexplicably banned the waving of the Amazigh flag. Gaid Salah, who died six months later, did not offer an explanation for doing so but many observers believe he worried that the flag would undermine national unity.
This ban led to the arrest of several young protesters in anti-government demonstrations across Algiers and other major cities. Last November, scores of them were fined and sentenced to one year in prison for threatening national unity. Their crime was merely to wave the Amazigh flag bearing a red emblem known as the Yaz, which symbolises "free man". That crackdown and subsequent sentencing only served to exacerbate the rancour of the broader anti-government protest movement, known as Hirak.
Part of the Imazighen's struggle has been the people's ignorance or dismissal of their own roots. When I was a grad student and a Fulbright grantee at the University of Texas at Austin years ago, I read the 14th-century Arab historian and sociologist Ibn Khaldun's seminal work, Al Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History. That was when I discovered that my forefathers belonged to Maghrawa, one of the first Amazigh tribes, who were Arabised and submitted to Islam in the seventh century. For many members of my family, who have always thought of themselves as "pure Arabs", this discovery came as a bolt from the blue.
There is also ignorance regarding the term Berber, which bears colonial baggage.
Even though the French called the Maghreb's indigenous people Berbers, it was the Romans who first used the term when they referred to the non-Latin population as "Barbaros" – translating to barbarians. Naturally, I do not think that my ancestors were barbarians and many like me find it hard to call ourselves Berbers, knowing that the term has historically been used to belittle and vilify my people.
Post-colonial studies and the works of scholars such as Albert Memmi, Frantz Fanon, Aime Cesaire, Edward Said and Homi Bhabha have been indispensable to this cause, and raised several historical reasons for why the people ought to rightfully be known as Imazighen. However, many in Algeria and Morocco continue to refer themselves as Berbers, which begets the question of how many of us know the importance of naming conventions – or realise that history has always been written by those in power.
Apart from ethnic identity, the Imazighen have also been focused on preserving their language, which dates back to at least 2000 BCE and has over time been called Tamacheq, Tamaheq and Tamazight. The preference these days is for the appellation Tamazight although, depending on where they live, they would say they speak Takbaylit, Tarifit, Tashelhit, Tuareg or Tumzabt. Few native speakers would refer to their language as Berber.
Another challenge for the Imazighen has been to resist the urge to use violence to further their cause, especially in the face of the Algerian government's tendency to respond with force. The Berber Spring of 1980, for instance, was met with police harassment and military assaults. Even as recently as 2001, an 18-year-old student named Massinissa German was killed while in police custody under circumstances that remain unclear. Unfortunately, the lack of opportunity has spurred some Amazigh groups – such as the Movement for the Autonomy of Kabylie, a region in Algeria's north – to pursue militancy and separatism.
However, there have been positive developments as well. In 2002 – a year after riots in Kabylie left 126 people dead – the Algerian government made a serious move to defuse the situation by recognising Tamazight as a national language. Three years ago, following the continued struggle of human rights advocates and democracy activists, it also became an official language. This was a major victory for the Amazigh – as was the recognition two years ago of the Amazigh New Year, usually celebrated in mid-January, as a public holiday.
So, while progress has been made, it has taken years of political mobilisation, activism, and – unfortunately – the loss of many lives to do so.
Dr Abdelkader Cheref is an Algerian independent scholar based in the US