Free People: The Imazighen of North Africa
North Africa is widely portrayed as a part of the ‘Arab world’ or even together or associated with the Middle East, with the unfortunate misconception that Arabs are indigenous to North Africa. Yet there is an extensive ‘non-Arab’ population in North Africa: the true Indigenous people of the region.
We are called Amazigh, plural Imazighen, a word which means “free people” in the Indigenous Tamazight language. Among outsiders, the more common – though incorrect – name for Imazighen is Berber, a term that is largely rejected by Imazighen for its negative connotations. It's related to the word ‘barbarian’.
Although some may find words like Amazigh and Tamazight difficult to pronounce at first, it is far better to struggle with these words than to use a derogatory term which amounts to an ethnic slur.
The Indigenous land of Imazighen is a region called Tamazgha, encompassing Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Western Sahara, Mauritania, the Canary Islands, and parts of Egypt, Mali, and Niger.
Although various sources claim there are approximately 30 million self-identified Imazighen, this is a very low estimate considering that at least 60% of the Moroccan population identifies as Amazigh, translating to a conservative 18 million in Morocco alone. Within the Amazigh ethnic group, there are various regional sub-groups like the Kabyles, Rifians, and Tamasheq (also known as ‘Tuareg’). Outside of Tamazgha, there are other Indigenous groups in North Africa like the Nubians with their own struggles against Arab colonialism.
In the 7th century C.E., Arab armies from the Arabian peninsula began invading Tamazgha as part of the Muslim conquests, spreading religion on the backs of colonized peoples. However, even after the majority of Imazighen had converted to Islam, Tamazight remained the lingua franca. During the ‘Scramble for Africa’ in the 19th and 20th centuries, Tamazgha was divided and colonized by France, Spain, Italy, and Britain. Although Imazighen were prominent in resisting European colonialism and were key in anti-colonial liberation movements, nevertheless Arab nationalist regimes came to power in post-‘independence’ North African states. This Arab nationalism arose out of a wave of pan-Arabist ideology which served to oppress and marginalize other non-Arab groups like the Kurds.
Imazighen are not only Indigenous to North Africa, but have not significantly ‘mixed’ with Arab populations. In fact, the vast majority of North Africans are of Amazigh descent, with little Arab genetic contributions. While North Africans may claim that they are ‘mixed’ or that there are no ‘pure’ Amazigh people, the reality is different: Imazighen are not Arab and we have our own Indigenous culture and language for which we have been persecuted.
There are countless examples of Amazigh repression and violations of human rights under North African regimes. Under the rule of King Hassan II in Morocco, a period known as the Years of Lead, thousands of Imazighen were imprisoned, tortured, and/or killed by state violence. For example, in 1959 then-Crown Prince Hassan II led the Moroccan army to the Rif to ‘subdue’ Rifian Imazighen who rose up against their marginalization. The Moroccan army killed thousands of Rifian civilians. In the early 2000s in Kabylia, an Amazigh region in Algeria, 126 people were killed in the Black Spring during Amazigh protests. An unknown number of Kel Tamasheq were killed in reprisal massacres by Mali and Niger after Tamasheq uprisings for self-determination. The marginalization of Imazighen is multifaceted and has long been characterized by extreme violence.
Even after European colonialism formally ended, Imazighen still do not have independence from Arab dominance in North Africa. Aside from being split across many states, which weakens resistance, post-‘independence’ Arabization policies imposed Arabic-language education across North African states. These language policies were supposedly intended to ‘decolonize’ by replacing French with Arabic, a flawed idea considering that Arabic is not an Indigenous language in Tamazgha. In actuality, Arabization policies served to further engrain Arab colonialism in North Africa by imposing yet another foreign language, Arabic, while even banning Tamazight.
Due to the significant oppression of Imazighen for our language and ethnicity, a great deal of Amazigh activism has focused on language rights. The current state of Amazigh language rights varies between countries, but Tamazight is not systematically taught in any North African country and no Amazigh children receive mother tongue education. This provides a significant disadvantage to Amazigh children, who are often banned from speaking their mother tongue in school and are violently punished for doing so.
Linguistic repression has meant that Tamazight has largely not benefitted from language development such as mass media production. As a result, the different dialects of Tamazight are not always mutually intelligible and a natural process of language standardization cannot occur. Opponents of Amazigh language rights argue that Tamazight is too difficult to learn or that the dialects are too disparate, but of course these issues cannot be addressed when there still exists legal discrimination against Tamazight.
Resistance and Decolonization
One step of decolonization, as I have argued previously, is the rejection of colonial languages such as Arabic. This, however, is not the only thing needed for decolonization and the attainment of Indigenous rights. In addition to language issues, Amazigh activists fight against progressive Arabization and Islamization processes and often call for women’s rights and secularism as Indigenous values.
In parts of Tamazgha like the Canary Islands, which are occupied by Spain, and Kabylia there are movements for independence or autonomy, attempting to actually reclaim Amazigh land and gain self-determination. In both past and present, Imazighen have fought for the freedom to practice our culture and speak our language on our own land. From 1921-1926 Rifian Imazighen rose up against Spanish colonialism and established a state of their own: The Repubic of the Rif. This Amazigh state was only destroyed by Spain’s use of chemical weapons, targeting civilian populations. The Kel Tamasheq, Indigenous to the Sahara, have risen up against the Malian and Nigerien governments in a quest for self-determination, which most recently culminated in the creation of a state of Azawad in early 2012. The secular Azawadien state, without outside support, fought against Islamist militants and was then invaded by French, Malian, and West African military forces.
Other organizations are fighting for greater rights of Amazigh people within current political systems. Diasporic Amazigh organizations in Europe and North America have various goals, such as to revive Amazigh culture and advocate for Amazigh political rights in Tamazgha. The struggle for Amazigh rights and to be recognized on our own land will continue until, as our name implies, we can truly be free people.
Nuunja Kahina is an Amazigh activist and writer. She writes for This Is Africa and tweets @NuunjaK