Berberism: An Historical Travesty in Algeria’s Time of Travail


Looking over Western press coverage of the terrorism and violence wracking Algeria, one finds headlines announcing, “Islamism Provoking Ethnic Troubles in Algeria,” and “The Berber Movement Threatens Algeria With Total War.”

The unwritten subtext in such headlines is that Berbers, the autochthonous inhabitants of North Africa, are not really Algerians. Knowing that such headlines emanate from the French press, one is forced to conclude that the old demons of colonialism and colonial historiography are returning to the scene of their crimes.

Such media depictions of the Berbers reflect the colonial ambitions of France’s Cardinal Lavigerie, who said in 1867, “Our mission is to take our civilization, which was that of their fathers, to the Berber populations. We cannot leave these people with their Qur’an. France must give them the Gospel or else they will roam the desert, far from the civilized world. This program of forced conversion will be coupled with the confiscation of land and the expulsion of the inhabitants to the mountainous and rocky areas, as per the injunction of Governor-General Tirman. It is necessary to instill terror in the natives!

French colonial policy was designed to make Algeria an extension of Metropolitan France on the southern side of the Mediterranean Sea. This could be accomplished only by sowing division between Arabs and Berbers and eradicating Arab-Muslim values and civilization from Algeria. This, in turn, could only be accomplished by a rewriting of North African history.

Under the French, use of the Arabic language became the symbol of backwardness, while the status of the non-Arab Berbers was elevated. This “brainwashing” was perfected in the schools where, for 132 years of French occupation, the “little natives” were made to repeat phrases like, “The Gauls were our ancestors” and “The nomadic and warlike Arabs still live in tents.” French-prepared history books described the invaders of “Romano-Christian Barbary” as the curiously “Asiatic” Muslim Arab tribe of Beni Hilal who, armed with long swords and sporting shaved heads save for one long plait of hair, menaced a terrified Berber population.

However, this curriculum of division did not prevent the outbreak of the Algerian war for independence, which began in the Aures mountains, home to the Shawia Berbers. The rallying cry for both Arab and Berber insurgents who fought the French from 1954 to 1962 was the phrase of Sheikh Abdelhamid Ben Badis, the Algerian religious reformer who was himself a Berber: “Algeria is our nation, Arabic is our language, Islam is our religion.”

An Historical Journey

French efforts to drive a wedge between Arab and Berber failed, in part, because they were in blatant contradiction to actual history. To trace the roots of the Berbers, one must travel back to the Classical period and the Kingdom of Numidia, which extended from Carthage in present-day Tunisia to Mauritania on the Atlantic coast. The proud and independent Numidians, with their capital in what is now eastern Algeria, fought ceaselessly against the imperial invaders of antiquity. The third century B.C. Numidian king Syphax battled valiantly against the Roman conqueror Scipio Africanus, while Jugurtha in the second century B.C. fought Roman legions, only to lose to Marius Gaius.

In the first century B.C., the Numidian Massinissa allied himself with Rome and Numidia became a Roman protectorate. The Numidians were then known to Rome as Berbers, from the Latin barbarus, meaning an alien land or people. Later, under the Numidian kings Juba I and Juba II, the Romans colonized Numidia, or Barbary, displacing a vast number of Berbers from the region’s most fertile land, which became known as “the breadbasket of Rome.”

The Berbers, impoverished and stripped of their lands, found refuge in the wildest, rockiest and most inhospitable terrain of the country. Some Berbers became quasi-nomads, others worked for the Romans in the colonial cities or in the fields, while the Numidian princes assimilated with their Roman conquerors.

Before long, one of the most famous early Christian Fathers, St. Augustine of Hippo (now Annaba, Algeria), was predicting a “time of catastrophe” for the apartheid system of Roman domination. This came to pass between 340 and 535 A.D., when the Vandals and the Visigoths systematically destroyed the Roman Empire and its social system. When the Germanic Vandals surged south from the Iberian peninsula and into Numidia, the Berbers were forced even deeper into the barren interior of North Africa.

Worse was to come, however. In the sixth century, the Vandals were supplanted in North Africa by the Byzantines, who sought to reconstruct a Romanized empire. The Byzantine general Belisarius carried out devastating massacres of Berbers, sowing the seeds for centuries of religious disputes, famine and persecution in North Africa. According to the Byzantine historian Procopius, five million inhabitants of Numidia perished during the reign of the Emperor Justinian alone.

Consigned to barren lands or working as slaves to export the land’s milk, honey and wheat, Berber communities survived only as scattered tribes in the mountains and deserts. Therefore, when the Arab Muslim conquerors swept across North Africa in the seventh century, it was not the “war between Arabs and Berbers” described in French colonial literature, but rather a strategic operation by the young Muslim empire to dislodge the remnants of Byzantine military power from the Mediterranean shores.

The expedition of Abdallah Ibn Sarh against what is now Tunisia was launched in 647, only 15 years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. The objective was to secure newly conquered Egypt and Syria through control of the southern coast of the Mediterranean, thus preventing a Byzantine attempt at reconquest.

The loss of Carthage to forces under Hassan Ibn Nu’man marked the beginning of the end for the Byzantines in North Africa. In 670, under the new Umayyad caliphate, Okba Ibn Nafi founded the city of Kairouan in Tunisia as a base for the conquest of the central Maghreb. Muslim troops quickly reached the Atlantic in what is now Morocco, but the Berber tribes of the Aures rose up under the leadership of Kosseyla, inflicting serious losses on the Muslims and killing Okba Ibn Nafi in 683.

The Kahina

Following the death in battle of Kosseyla, leadership of the Aures Berbers passed to the Kahina, a title meaning “priestess” or “prophetess,” who sought revenge and fought skillfully against the Muslims. After she first engaged the Muslims in battle, the Kahina adopted one of her Muslim prisoners as a brother to her two sons. Before the final battle, when the Kahina, facing defeat, committed suicide by throwing herself into a well (known today as “Bir al-Attar,” or the “Well of Perfume”), she sent her sons into the camp of the Muslim commander, Hassan Ibn Nu’man. After the battle, Hassan made the eldest son governor of the Aures.

The episode of the Kahina was seized upon by the French and Berber separatists alike to portray antagonism between the “Romano-Christian” Berbers and the Arab Muslims. In fact, the Kahina was an aberration. Relations between the Berber inhabitants of the region and the Muslim invaders were not marked just by struggle, but also by alliances and mutual recognition. Only the tribes of the Aures, with their history of prior harassment by Romans, Vandals and Byzantines, continued to resist the Arab incursion into their territory. It is in this context that the episode of the Kahina must be placed.

It is also instructive to look at the transformation of North Africa a century after the arrival of Islam in comparison with the preceding five centuries of what the colonialist historians termed “harmonious Romanization.” The pre-Islamic Berbers were by and large pagans, some of whom had some notion of Christian beliefs, but they converted en masse to Islamand adopted the use of Arabicwithin a century of the death of the Prophet.

Islam permitted North Africa to maintain its independence while at the same time providing a political framework into which tribal loyalties were subsumed. The Maghreb became the base for Islam’s expansion into Spain, and Berber contingents spearheaded the Muslim victories of the eighth century, which brought Islam into the heart of Europe. The North African Berber Tariq Ibn Ziyad commanded the force which crossed over from the Maghreb to sweep the Visigoths from Spain. This crossing is immortalized in the name of Gibraltar, derived from the Arabic Jabal Tariq, meaning “Tariq’s Mountain.”

As a result of their conversion to Islam, the Berbers were not dislodged from their lands, nor did they become vassals of the Muslims. Instead they were full and equal participants in one of the greatest civilizations in human history. While Berbers continued to speak their language among themselves, as a written language they adopted Arabic, the language of the universal Qur’an and the liturgical language of Islam.

From that time on, the artistic and scientific life of North Africa became inseparable from that of Muslim Andalusia and the eastern Arab world. The great cities of the MaghrebFez, Sijilmasa, Tlemcen, Tiaret, Bejaia, Constantine, Tunis, Ghadameswere also great cities of Islam and the Muslim world.

A North African Synthesis

Over time there was osmosis between Arab and Berber, creating a new and specifically North African blend of cultures. This synthesis can be seen in “Mauresque” architecture, poetry and literature, theology and Sufi mysticism. As a counterpart to the wonders of Andalusian Spain, the Arabophone Berbers of North Africa erected a series of brilliant dynasties: the Rustamids, Fatimids, Idrissids, Zirids, Almoravids, Almohads, Merinids and Hafsids all had their days in the sun, and all contributed to the patrimony of the Maghreb.

In the 14th century, however, North Africa was plunged into the struggle between the Christian and Muslim worlds. It was the era of the Crusades in Palestine and the Reconquista in Spain. Threatened by the rise of Christian Europe, the small powers of North Africa sought refuge with the Ottoman Empire, which governed most of the central Maghreb until the 19th century.

Then, a quarrel between the French consul and the Ottoman representative in Algiers (the dey struck the consul with a fly whisk during an argument) provided the pretext for an invasion by the French in 1830. Their rule lasted for 132 years until they were expelled from Algerian shores by the same Arabs and Berbers they had come to conquer.

Today, when one speaks of the “Arab Maghreb,” it is not a reference to a narrow ethnic definition, but to a shared Arabo-Berber history. When discussing the current political situation in Algeria, it is important to look realistically, not romantically, at the nation’s past, which is simultaneously Berber and Arab.

There is no contradiction in this. For the Shawia Berbers of the Aures mountainsof which I am one, having been born in the very fiefdom of the Kahinathere is no disruption of identity. Having spoken Berber and Arabic at home and French at school, my education and that of all of the pre-independence generation was rooted in an Arabo-Muslim Algerian identity. We were told by our forebears for centuries, “You are Algerians freed by the Arabic of the Qur’an” or, as it was said in the Aures, “Ana Shawi-Arbi Hour!” (I am a free Arabic Shawi Berber!). If there is a people that is proudest of the Arab and Muslim blood that runs in its veins, it is the Shawia of the Aures, for whom it is an insult to deny our Arab heritage, as Arabic is intimately tied to the Qur’an and thus to Islam itself.

In Algeria, we remember “who we are.” The patron “saint” of the capital, Algiers, is Sidi Abd al-Rahman al-Jurji, a theologian and founder of the Sufi order of the Rahmaniyyaand a Kabyle Berber. Algeria was the first country in post-independence North Africa to broadcast radio and television programming in Berber.

Attempts to portray the country’s current political crisis as ethnic in origin, with Islamist Arabs pitted against secularist Berbers, are disingenuous at best. Even the most prominent Islamist groups, including the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) and the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), have leaders who hail from the Berber regions of the Aures, the Kabylie and the Sahara. Algerian Islamism is neither an “anti-Berber” manifestation nor a religious virtue, but rather a political and social phenomenon.

The right to learn Berber languages in school is a legitimate demand, given Algerian history. If they are not now being taught, it is due to the lack of imagination of the government, and not a case of political suppression. Algerians speak French, for example, without a second thought. Language alone does not imply ethnic tension and antagonism.

There is no denying that Algeria is in the midst of a great upheaval. The political, social and economic destiny of the nation is being decided, but this does not extend into the realm of personal or communal identity. Algerians recognize that Berber separatist elements seeking to take advantage of the current weakness of the government to promote their own agenda are, wittingly or unwittingly, pointing their own followers in the direction of national suicide.

If Islamic fundamentalism is in the process of physically and morally destroying the Algerian people, Berberist anti-Arab fanaticism is in the process of dissolving the Algerian nation itself. In doing so, the separatists are repeating Berber historynot the glorious past of Jugurtha or the Kahina, but the dismal example of Juba I and Juba II, the “slave princes of the Romans” who dispersed their people and tribes into tiny villages in an inhospitable and fractured country. The Maghreb is ashamed of Berberism just as Islam is ashamed of Islamism.

Aicha Lemsine is an award-winning Algerian author. She lives in Algeria and publishes political analyses in the Algerian and international Arab press. She is a member of the PEN Club’s International Women’s Committee and vice-president of WORLD, the Women’s Organization for Rights, Literature and Development.