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.