Michael Collins Dunn, editor of the prestigious Middle East Journal, wrote an interesting “Backgrounder” on the Berriane violence at his Middle East Institute Editor’s Blog. It is a strong piece, but imperfect (as all things are). While it provides a solid background on the more distant origins of Ghardaia’s Berber-speaking Ibadite Muslim community (though it is somewhat vague), it does not exactly provide guidance on the immediate conflict, or Ghardaia’s particular circumstance within the context of Algeria’s historically large Berber-speaking communities (Kabyle, Chaouia, Tumbazit and arguably Chenoua or Tuareg). In this regard it represents much of the conversation in Anglophone Near and Middle Eastern studies when it comes to North Africa: Well versed on theology and medieval nuances but lacking somewhat in the modern context.
Ghardaia’s particular history in the Berber context is left out. His discussion of the Berber experience is monopolized by the Kabyle narrative, as is sometimes the case in accounts of Algerian Berber affairs. There are factual and contextual errors that occur when this is applied to Ghardaia and the Mzab. Collins Dunn writes about “Berber” attitudes towards Arabization and French, but leaves out that the attitude he describes is a particularly Kabyle one that is the result of the colonial experience in Kabylia which was not seen in the other large Berber zones in Algeria, the Aures and the Mzab and that this colors those attitudes. The attitude towards Arabization in Kabylia is radically different than it is in most of the rest of Algeria. That Kabylia’s second language is French and not Arabic is largely the result of this. The use of French has given many Kabyles an upper hand in the bureaucracy and in the private sector. Many Mzabites and Chaouias have been relatively content with Arabization often for reasons of religious sensibility or nationalistic hostility towards French. In contrast, many Kabyles have been among the staunchest defenders of French.
The attachment to French is partially the result of colonial education policies, which established French language schools in Kabylia and not in the rest of the country, because of legislation that required councils made up of pieds-noirs to vote on whether or not to allow such institutions to be created. Where there were large numbers of French settlers, the vote was almost always no. Settlers were sparse in Kabylia and so this was not as much a problem there. In other areas, the only available education was usually Qur’an schools, taught in Arabic often by Islamic reformists. This was the case in the Aures and is why Arabization was greeted with some enthusiasm by the population there, both Arab and Berber. The Mzab has operated somewhat separately from the rest of what John Ruedy calls “historical Algeria” (referring to Algeria north of the Sahara). It was never under Ottoman rule and it was not conquered by the French until relatively late in the colonial period (even after that it was administered separately from the rest of the country). The fervent opposition to “Arabization” of the schools, street signs and government is an especially Kabyle concern, and I doubt this is at the root of the violence in Berriane.
There is undoubtedly an ethnic component to the violence, but it is more the result of the fact that Berriane’s population has increased in recent years and that most of the newcomers are Arabs, not Berbers. Berriane was historically a Mzabite settlement but as the nomadic Arab tribes in its vicinity began settle there in the last couple of decades this has become less the case. The resulting pressure on housing, employment and the informal economy has pit newcomers against the town’s historic families and clans in a competition for resources. It is a problem of change more than demands for linguistic recognition or theological struggle.
Furthermore, I would argue that the following is simply not true:
“Arabic is essential … if they’re [Berbers] going to be anything other than rural peasants”.
While the Kabyles and the Chaouia were generally rural people until relatively recently, recent years have vastly increased their numbers in the urban centers in Algeria, and France. Great numbers of Kabyles have advanced within Algerian society using French. While Arabic is increasingly important, French remains heavily influential in academic settings, where French dominates the hard sciences. The second language of Kabylia is French, and is often preferred for business and high culture. Learning Arabic has very little whatsoever to do with over coming peasant status in Kabylia. This pattern was true in pre-colonial times and is still true to an extent in Morocco and Tunisia (from what I understand; I was told by a friend from southern Tunisia that to say one came from Berber origins was like saying they were of peasant background), where Berber is associated with a host of stereotypes surrounding rural people, illiteracy, traditional clothing and all the other things opposite of urban life which has historically been dominated by Arabic speakers. But this is much less so in Algeria today. One would be hard pressed to find a Chaouia or Mzabite who did not have some command of Arabic. Where he would find a Kabyle who did not have strong facility in Arabic there would very likely be Derja in its place. And being a “rural peasant” would have little to do with it. That Kabyle could rise to middle class status without ever learning good Arabic, especially if he worked in the professions (assuming he could find work to begin with). It differs from region to region what language best represents the most clear prospects for social mobility, but in much of Algeria it remains the case that one can use either in this regard. Many would like it to be either or, but this is not how the reality works out. One of major bones of contention in the 1980’s was over the inequality in economic opportunity between the so-called arabisants and fransisants, the latter of whom often enjoyed better job opportunities and of whom many were Kabyle Berbers.
The statement is even less true in the Mzab: The Mzabites are the only historic urban population of the Sahara, and they are known for their mercantile disposition, not for being rural peasants. The problems in Berriane, settled more recently than the rest of the Mzab, are mostly those of rapid urban growth, a lagging national economy and a historical tension between the established and new comers. This is what much of the reportage, conversations with Algerians who know about the area and some digging into recent history (albeit in French or Arabic) indicates.
Collins Dunn also comments on the lack of knowledge found in English-speaking countries when it comes to the Maghreb and Berbers.
But some of these issues, especially those involving Berber-Arab issues, are little known in the West, or at least the English-speaking West. (France, with its large population of Algerian-origin residents, is more familiar with them.)
I would argue that there is less known in the English-speaking world mainly because a) the British colonial experience was relatively limited in the Maghreb and there is therefore a dearth of demographic, ethnographic and historical work in on the region in English and b) there is a lack of interest, politically, culturally and so on in North America resulting from this. One instead finds many works on the Ottoman Empire and the Arabic-speaking East, because records were better kept and because of the deep colonial and post-colonial political ties between Britain and the US in that part of the world. One finds occasional dissertations, theses or what have you on Morocco, Tunisia or Algeria but the focus is primarily on the Islamist question or some obscure historical aspect of one of the three countries, generally having nothing to do with the Berbers except in passing. P. Lorcin’s Imperial Identities is particularly path breaking in this regard, one of the most relevant books written in English on Algeria in the last 30-odd years. So too is P. A. Silverstein’s Algeria in France, which takes some of Lorcin’s work and conclusions and applies them in a modern sociological context.
Berbers factor in a major way into works about Algeria and Morocco, but in works on the rest of the region, they are usually put to the side. It is shocking how little one finds on Libyan Berbers in English-language works. They do not even make it into many indexes: There, too, the emphasis is either in foreign policy or the eccentricities of Qadhafi and not the treatment, social position or politics of the Berber-speaking peoples of Libya. Some works do exist in this regard, but they are hard to come by. But this is all the product of history and national interest: Area studies produces knowledge for strategic purposes. The Maghreb is on the periphery of what law makers and diplomats consider to be the American national interest; It is closer to the core in France. In some cases, though, it is the result of laziness in weaving societal nuances into historical narratives (one sees this in parts of Martin Stone’s The Agony of Algeria).
This is particularly true when one looks at English-language volumes on the history of Tunisia. The primary references to Berbers in many of the most recent works are in listing Berbers in a line of ancestors to modern Arab Tunisians, along with Romans, Carthaginians, Greeks and dinosaurs. After introductions they tend to disappear unless Djerba is mentioned. Berber dynasties are not discussed as such, but in some broader and brisker way, leaving much to be desired, until Ottoman times during which records were better kept and the experience of which forms the basis for much of the Tunisian state.
The Mzab suffers from this lack of interest because of its obscurity even within the Maghreb itself. Berriane is even more removed because it is not actually in the Mzab, though it is of the Mzab. An oasis town numbering less than 40,000 does not garner the attention of outsiders as the action in the Algerian metropole does, because their interest is mainly in Islamist movements and in the country’s foreign policy and little attempt is made to investigate the rest.