Appearing in the January/February 1995 issue of The Washington Report on Middle
East Affairs, the article "Berberism: An Historical Travesty in Algeria's Time
of Travail" is a diatribe of the Berbers, denying them the right to their
identity, culture, and language. Lacking objectivity, the author, Aicha
Lemsine, presents a distorted view of the history of Algeria and deliberately
omits historical and cultural facts that are pertinent to the present cultural
and language problem. The present article gives an account of the Algerian
government's repressive policies towards the Berber language and culture and
the anti-Berber fanatic attitude of religious clerics and disproves Lemsine's
favorable presentation of the Arab conquest of North Africa.
The Berber Spring
Lemsine claims that North Africa shares an "Arabo-Berber" history. However,
when the Algerian government faced a Berber popular uprising in 1980, the
state-run media blamed the U.S., France, and Morocco and accused them of
fanning the unrest (1). Later known as the Berber Spring, the 1980 events were
sparked by the "lack of imagination" which the government exhibited when it
prevented the Berber writer and anthropologist Mouloud Mammeri from giving a
conference on ancient Berber poetry on March 10th of that year. The student
strike spread to high schools and by mid-April, its public support included
the industrial working class, hospital workers, and shopkeepers of Kabylia
and Algiers. On April 20, when government security forces stormed the campus
and the hospital of Tizi Ouzou, the city erupted in the most serious riots seen
in Algeria since its independence. More than 32 people died and more than 400
Today, the Berber Cultural Movement, which was born in the aftermath of the
Berber Spring, continues to claim peacefully the rights of the Berber people to
their culture and language and demands the recognition of Tamazight (Berber
language) with full education and cultural benefits. Since October 1994 more
than one million children have been boycotting schools to protest against
cultural and linguistic oppression. Peaceful rallies and street marches have
regularly been taking place in Kabylia.
In 1995 France is blamed for "reporting" the peaceful cultural and linguistic
demands of the Berbers. Lemsine's mentioning of the demon's (the old
colonizer) return back to the scene of the crime (Algeria) is more of a
Hollywood movie plot than reality. Surprisingly, the aim of winning the
sympathy of the American readership appears to have spared the U.S. an
France's Berber Policy: More Myth than Reality
Lemsine's suggestion that France has promoted or is promoting a "Berber
political agenda" is more of a myth with political connotations originating
from the Arabist and Islamist propaganda. During its 130-year occupation of
North Africa, France has ideologically and strategically made use of the
Arabo-Berber distinction. However, its policy towards the Berbers remained a
mere divisive speech. Neither a regular nor an experimental Berber school was
built. Neither books nor newspapers in Berber were published. Children were
taught in French and Arabic, never in Berber. In fact, written Arabic language
was introduced in the Berber regions by the French institutions, the so-called
"Bureaux Arabes." Her assertion that "the status of the Berbers was elevated"
is the upper-most indignity to the memory of the hundreds of thousands of
Berbers who died battling France. In fact, Kabylia was the last region to fall
under French control in 1871. Moreover, an elevated status would not have put
the Berbers at the forefront of the national movement for an independent
Algeria as early as 1920's. A realistic account of the Berber status is found
in the 1939 series of eleven reports, "Poverty in Kabylia," in the newspaper
Alger-Republicain (2). Written by the Algerian-born writer Albert Camus, the
series told about a people in horrifying destitution, who survived on edible
herbs and roots. On June 6 he reported that children and dogs fought over
garbage bins and on June 7 he mentioned that five children died from eating
Cardinal Lavigerie and Sheikh Bachir El-Ibrahimi
In her article Lemsine chose to cite the colonialist statement of Cardinal
Lavigerie in 1867, but willfully omitted a similar statement by the religious
reformer Sheikh Bachir El-Ibrahim. A successor to Sheikh Abdelhamid Ibn Badis
and the head of muslim clerics, he wrote in the 1948 issue of El-Bassair
"It is through the Arabic language that the Berbers learned what they did not
know [...]. Ahead of the Berber language, Arabic transformed democratically and
without any duress the Berber soul into an Arab soul [...]. It is also the
justice of Islam which made the Berbers submit to the Arabs [....]. Thanks to
the Islamic spiritual contribution and the beauty of the Arabic language, Islam
has definitely become the characteristic of this land and Arabic its language
above all else, allowing no other competition."
Sheikh El-Ibrahimi definitely shares Lavigerie's colonial ambitions: converting
the "savage and soulless" Berbers and denying them the right to their
identity, language, and culture. Unfortunately, policies based on such
ambitions have caused the extinction of many ethnic groups and the destitution
of many others around the world.
The Muslim Clerics' Pro-French Attitude
Contrary to Lemsine's crediting of the Muslim clerics with a "rallying cry,"
the aspiration for an independent Algeria surfaced among Algerian workers in
Paris and within the Federation of the Elected Natives in Algeria. In fact,
muslim clerics and the French administration had agreeable relations. Sheikh
Abdelhamid Ibn Badis clearly indicated it when he asserted: "the Algerian
people are a weak people and insufficiently developed (muta'khir). It faces the
vital necessity to be under the protective wing of a strong nation that permits
it to progress in the path of civilization and development" (3). The "strong
and civilized nation" was no other nation but France. A further evidence of the
relationship was the drawing of the salaries of the Muslim clerics from the
French administration's Algerian budget. In addition, when the Algerian Muslim
Congress was held on June 7, 1934, it passed a charter which claimed linkage to
France. During this congress Sheikh El-Okbi, another muslim cleric, said
"...all that we are and what we want to be is French muslims."
Arab Invasion of North Africa: Freedom or
Lemsine claims that the goal of the Arab invasion of North Africa was not a
"war between Arabs and Berbers." Actually, the Arab conquest did not develop in
the caliphate, but was, instead, initiated by the Arab military chiefs in
Egypt. Acting out of a genuine zeal for spreading Islam, they sought to gain
military prestige and booty (4, p.28). Because the remnants of the Byzantine
empire had only control of a few coastal towns, it was the Berbers who put up a
stiff resistance. When the Berber leader Kuceyla killed the Arab commander
Uqba Ibn Nafai, he succeeded in driving away the Arabs from the city of
Kairouan. The loss of Kairouan made the Arabs realize that establishment of
Islam in North Africa required military subjugation of the Berbers. After the
death of Kuceyla, the Berber queen Dihya (referred to as Kahena by the Arabs)
led the Berber resistance. Queen Dihya defeated Hassan Ibn Numan and his
troops, driving him out of North Africa. To discredit her the Arabs gave her
the name Kahena (sorceress). Queen Dihya, who is believed to be of Jewish
faith, died in a battle in 702 in the Aures Mountains, conflicting with
Lemsine's suicide story.
Later, when the Arabs conquered Berber territories through a conquest and not
capitulation, they were entitled to levy upon the Berbers both a poll-tax and a
land tax, in accordance with Islamic law. However, the Arab rulers' demands on
the Berbers went beyond the principles allowed by Islam. The Berbers had to
make human attribute of their daughters who became slaves to the sexual
pleasures of the Arab ruling class. Arab troops regularly raided Berber
settlements for booty.
Describing the Arab conquest of North Africa, Kateb Yacine, a well-known Berber
writer from the Aures region, just like Lemsine, once said "the Arabs did not
come to North Africa with roses and sweets in their hands," a contrast to
Lemsine's favorable presentation. Because Islam forbids forcing people to
believe, one can assuredly assert that the Arabs' motivation to conquer North
Africa was the hope for territorial expansion.
Algeria's "National Language and Culture"
The present Berber cultural and linguistic demands stem from the Berbers'
relentless struggle to preserve and save the remains of their ethnic identity.
These legitimate demands date as far back as the 1920's in the national
movement for independence. In 1949 they resurfaced as the "Berber crisis"
and pitted Berber militants against the movement's central committee. The
Berbers objected to qualifying the national movement as "Arab," insisting on a
more inclusive term "Algerian." As a result many Berber leaders were
After independence, the government could not achieve hegemony, due to the lack
of a unified culture and language of the Algerian society. Along with its
so-called "construction of socialism," it started a program of arabization of
education and public services. Graduates of Arabic and Islamic studies were
recycled in the government's party bureaucracy, the justice system, and the
primary education system, resulting in an Arabo-Islamist ruling class.
Today, despite a 30-year ideological "hammering" of the Arabo-Islamic
personality, the program failed. The greater number of newspapers in French and
their larger circulation in comparison to newspapers in Arabic clearly
indicates the people's rejection of a "national language and culture" notion.
In addition, with the advent of satellite dishes, which allow the reception of
French TV broadcasts, Algerians are able to tune out of the state-owned TV
broadcast. Ironically, the fundamentalism that is destroying Algeria today is
the result of the government's program of "national culture and language" and
its repression of cultural and democratic aspirations.
Algeria's Cultural Apartheid
The Algerian government has subjected my people to a cultural apartheid for 33
years. In my village in Kabylia, my mother taught me Berber at home. In school
I was taught French by a Rumanian, Arabic by an Egyptian, and English by a
Pakistani. Three decades later, I find myself writing and reading all the above
mentioned languages except my native language. I have been denied the right
to my language and identity. Today my speaking Arabic or French does not make
me an Arab nor a French. Similarly, a native American who speaks English does
not become English.
Below I give a brief overview of the government's repressive policies towards
my people and its attempt to stifle my culture and language.
- In 1964-1965 broadcasting hours of the Berber radio channel were reduced
from twelve to less than nine. The Berber radio channel existed before
Algeria's independence, contrary to Lemsine's indication.
- In 1971 a Berber language course taught at the University of Algiers was
- At the Popular Song Festival in 1972, a Berber female choir of the
Amirouche High School in Tizi-Ouzou was forced by authorities to sing a
large portion of its repertoire in Arabic.
- The live-sport coverage which used to be covered in Berber on the Berber
radio channel was unexpectedly switched to Arabic.
- In 1974, scheduled Berber singers were replaced by "official" singers to
sing at the Annual Cherry Festival in Larba Nait Iraten, Kabylia. A riot
- In the period 1975-1976 Berber students caught in possession of the
Berber Alphabet (Tifinagh) were arrested at high schools and universities
and subjected to harsh sentences.
- In 1978, Berber singer Ait-Menguellat's concert was forbidden.
- In the late 1970's, the government produced a "big-brother" list of
"Algerian" first names from which citizens had to choose names for their
newborns. Typical Berber names were forbidden.
Algeria must take heed of its multi-cultural and multi-lingual dimensions. It
must drop its program of an Arabo-Islamic "cocoon" and celebrate the African
and Mediterranean cultures. Its strategic location in the Mediterranean region
offers both industrial and business opportunities that can bring prosperity and
stability. To meet the challenging 21st century and a strong competitive global
world, Algeria's future lies not in one prefabricated Algerian personality,
but on a multi-cultural society that is free to put to use its strengths for
its own betterment and that of the world.