The Amazigh Voice, December 1995 - March 1995
Cultural Apartheid in North Africa


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 were injured.

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 accusation.

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 poisonous roots.

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 Slavery?

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 eliminated.

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.

  1. 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.

  2. In 1971 a Berber language course taught at the University of Algiers was cancelled.

  3. 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.

  4. The live-sport coverage which used to be covered in Berber on the Berber radio channel was unexpectedly switched to Arabic.

  5. In 1974, scheduled Berber singers were replaced by "official" singers to sing at the Annual Cherry Festival in Larba Nait Iraten, Kabylia. A riot resulted.

  6. 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.

  7. In 1978, Berber singer Ait-Menguellat's concert was forbidden.

  8. 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's future

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.


  1. ``Algeria Accuses US., and others in Berbers' Unrest,'' New York Times, April 25, 1980, Page A6.
  2. Albert Camus, ``Misere en Kabylie,'' Alger-Republicain, June 5-15, 1939.
  3. Rachid Tlemcani, State and Revolution in Algeria, Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado, 1986.
  4. Jamil A. Abun-nasr, A history of the Maghreb in the Islamic period, Cambridge University Press, 1987.