[Against] Essentializing North Africa

This blogger is sympathetic to efforts to preserve and promote Berber languages and empower marginalized Berber-speaking people. He is against all forms of essentialising and careless generalization about Berber ethnicities, languages and other North African cultures and peoples. There have long been efforts by writers with various agendas to promote essentialist narratives about North African identity using Arab or Islamic or Berber identity, usually by simplifying them and ripping appart their contexts and nuances. It is recently fashionable to write about Berber (Amazigh) identity in this way and one sees among Berber political activists, foreign writers and politicians.

A functioning Libyan state will not, of course, be easy to build but Tunisia deserves all the help it can get from the west. One success story would act as a catalyst for the region as a whole. If the broader regional initiative is to have any hope of success, north Africa will have to acknowledge its common Berber heritage. The Berber language is the anthropological bedrock of Maghrebi identity: Arab nationalism has failed, as has the radical Islamic project in Algeria. Algerian leaders behave as if their country was still training PLO commandos as it did in the 1960s: they need to be urged and nudged to hand over to a younger generation, the sooner the better.

Dreaming of a united north Africa,” Francis Ghiles, FT, 13 September, 2011.

This is quite simplistic and frustrating. All three of the dominant strands of identity politics in North Africa — Arabism, Islamism, Berberism — tend to have that quality. Virtually all the North African states do recognize Berber or Amazigh culture and language in some official capacity, and in Algeria and Morocco, the two countries where Berbers are a large minority (and the ones really holding up economic integration in the Maghreb), this is done constitutionally (and in so far as it is done institutionally it is done with as little competence as most other things). One can expect the new Libya to do the same. This issue has been discussed on this blog before. Any effort to marginalize or delegitimize Arab identity in North Africa will be fruitless despite the opinions of intellectuals and identity politicians. Most Algerians do not regard Arab identity as a ‘failure’ and hold to it strongly, which is a large part of why many Algerian politicians attempt to appeal to Algerian identity using Arab nationalist tropes. Their sympathy and attachment to Arab causes is not imagined or put on by the regime. A substantial minority of Algerians have Berber heritage and speak Berber languages, which also explains why there are politicians who attempt to exploit Berber identity toward similar ends. Kabyle yearning for recognition and more responsive government is not dreamed up in Geneva. Morocco has a far larger Berber population with its own dynamics along with a very large part of the population of Arab heritage whose identity as such as just as valid and legitimate as that of anybody else; it is not ‘artificial’. Arab and Berber identities are equally valid and legitimate and should not be treated as if one must negate or dominate or be in conflict with the Other, or be placed into such narratives arbitrarily. There is no one single ‘bedrock’ to Maghrebi identity — though Qadhafi, Mhenni and others would like to pretend to have special claim to such a Truth. Maghreb unity hinges on resolving the domestic economic foundations of resistance to and disinterest in regionalization; namely the statist rentier tendency in Algeria and the nationalistic issues attached to the Western Sahara problem in Algeria and Morocco. There is no simple solution to division in the Maghreb but something the region does not need is more essentialist identity politics.

UPDATE: Some readers may take issue with this post. DZCalling, took this blogger to task on Twitter over this post shortly after it went up. It was an edifying exchange and readers should note the substantial range of opinions on identity and the role of identity politics in resolving internal political questions among North Africans.


2 thoughts on “[Against] Essentializing North Africa

  1. I finally had chance to read Ghiles’ article in full and I am even more surprised now by the reaction expressed in this post (the tone of which reminds me too much of the dark days of FLN propaganda of the 70s). Ghiles does not strike me as advocating the use of “identity politics” (in the most pejorative meaning of the term) but seems rather to be suggesting that the emerging states (assuming the full transition from the previous autocratic states is eventually completed) might give more prominence to their Berber identity than has been the case until now and use it a rallying point. Bringing up the fact that some official recognition of Berber culture and language already exists constitutionally in Algeria and Morocco is disingenuous and misleading. I’ll limit myself to the case of Algeria. After refusing to acknowledge anything about Berber culture and language for years the regime grudgingly opened up (after the 1980 events followed by a number of events and strikes led by the Berber Cultural Movement in the 90s) but only to placate the demands by drawing a fine distinction between a national language versus an official language and setting up a totally ineffective and toothless office for Tamazight. If we were to bring up that recognition as evidence we could also accept the claim that Algeria has a fully functional democracy.

    I actually think that Ghiles has a point in his comment about the death of Arab nationalism. To respond by bringing up the fact that Algerian leaders appeal to Arab nationalism tropes is to ignore the dismal lack of imagination of Algerian leaders. They are simply recycling old recipes and boiler plate arguments. The one thing that has certainly not changed in Algeria is the feeling of solidarity toward the Palestinian cause, but attachment to an Arab identity has been seriously dented in my opinion. The changes in Egypt may have partially healed the wounds caused when Egyptian leaders & intellectuals question the “Arabic” character of Algeria during the fracas over the soccer game in 2009, but I doubt the stung is completely gone. It is probably true for some segments of the population, but I am not sure that one can categorically claim that Algerians hold strongly to their Arab identity. In fact one could argue that, to some extent, a stronger, more militant Muslim identity has emerged at the expense of Arab identity The monopoly exerted by the regime on the teaching of history has certainly helped it maintain its favorite dogma concerning the identity of Algeria, but we may be progressively moving toward the day when most Algerians will recognize or acknowledge that Algeria is inhabited by a predominantly ethnically Berber population that has been Arabized over the past 14 centuries.

    Identity politics may have a stigma attached to it in some circles, but the reality is that even in advanced societies with a fully functional civil society it is often an engine of change. For better or worse, life in the US would be quite different without the civil rights movement, black nationalism, feminism, and today’s LBGT movement. In Algeria, demands for a recognition of Berber identity and its full inclusion within the definition of Algerian identity has been a continuous struggle since about 1949. Civil society is slowly emerging from the long post-independence interlude of autocratic regimes, and has yet to figure out its bearings. Whether one likes it or not, identity is going to be one of the first parameters in the development of this civil society. To arbitrarily remove it from the table at this stage (even if only as a tool of analysis, since the reality on the ground will follow its own dynamic anyway) is not a wise move.

    To jump from this to the issue of Maghreb unity is probably premature. The societies in each country have to come to term with their newly found realities (or soon to be in an unknown future in the case of Algeria) and resolve some of their internal issues before looking beyond their borders and worry about Maghreb unity.

  2. From Tahalil Hebdo – Mauritania. What is going on? Keenan, Gèze, Mellah and others conspiracy theories seem to have been right from the start. What to say?

    Réorganisation des filières de drogue dans le Sahel après la crise libyenne
    Les trafiquants de drogue sont en train de réorganiser leurs filières dans les pays du Sahel, profitant de la crise libyenne qui a rendu encore plus incontrôlable que jamais cet immense espace désertique, selon plusieurs responsables de la lutte anti-drogue de la région

    “Avec la crise libyenne, un important verrou a sauté, c’est le dispositif de sécurité contre les trafiquants que le colonel (Mouammar) Kadhafi avait installé à la frontière sud” de son pays, a expliqué à l’AFP Macalou Diakité, de l’Office national de Répression du trafic de drogue et de stupéfiants du Mali (ONRTDS), rencontré à Gao (nord). Un colonel libyen connu sous le nom “Nadjim”, d’origine malienne, chargé par Kadhafi de lutter avec ses troupes contre l’entrée de la drogue par le sud du territoire libyen, via le Niger, a abandonné ses positions depuis la chute du régime du leader libyen qui reste introuvable, a précisé une source sécuritaire nigérienne. “Le colonel Nadjim et une partie de ses hommes sont revenus au Mali. C’est un coup dur porté à la lutte contre le narcotrafic”, selon une source sécuritaire malienne. Les trafiquants sont en train de mettre en place un dispositif “drogue contre armes” dans la bande sahélo-saharienne, selon cette source malienne. “C’est vrai, les services de sécurité du Niger l’ont confirmé: venant du Sahel, des véhicules remplis de haschich se dirigent de plus en plus vers le plateau de Djado, zone située à la frontière avec le Tchad, et en reviennent avec des véhicules chargés d’armes”, affirme Fanta Maïga, qui travaille pour une ONG internationale basée à Gao dont elle ne souhaite pas citer le nom. “Les armes viennent de Libye. Et, de plus en plus, ce sont des armes sophistiquées qui ne peuvent semer que la terreur dans la région “, ajoute-t-elle. Une autre filière, dite “Polisario”, est également en train de s’organiser. Elle est alimentée par des membres de ce mouvement qui combat pour l’indépendance du Sahara occidental, territoire du sud du Maroc. Plusieurs d’entre eux, dont des officiers en uniforme, ont été arrêtés récemment au Mali pour leur implication dans un trafic de plus d’une tonne de drogue. “Ce qu’on remarque aujourd’hui chez les gens de cette filière, c’est qu’ils ramènent de la zone d’influence du Polisario (frontière sud entre le Maroc et l’Algérie) du haschich à destination du Sahel, et y retournent avec de la cocaïne destinée à l’Europe”, affirme Oumar Ould Haby, des services des douanes dans le nord du Mali. Cette filière est également impliquée dans le trafic d’armes qui intéresse Al-Qaïda au Maghreb islamique (Aqmi), très active dans la bande sahélo-saharienne où, depuis des bases dans le nord du Mali, elle commet des enlèvements – essentiellement des Occidentaux -, des attentats et divers trafics. Une dernière filière composée de Maliens, Nigériens et Algériens est également en pleine réorganisation. Elle “est en est en train de se spécialiser dans la location de véhicules de transport, l’acheminement et surtout le dédouanement privé des convois de drogue”, selon Oumar Ould Haby. “Le dédouanement privé” est un racket organisé qui consiste à intercepter les convois de drogue pour exiger de l’argent avant de les laisser poursuivre leur route. Cette filière diversifie également ses activités en se livrant au trafic de cigarettes de contrebande et au transport de candidats fortunés à l’émigration clandestine en Europe. Autant de filières et d’activités criminelles qui font dire à Oumar Ould Haby: “A ce rythme, le Sahel n’appartiendra plus aux Etats, mais aux trafiquants et à Al-Qaïda”.

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