Linguistic and Identity Conflicts: Berberism

Tassadit Yacine

Ethnologist, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris

Berber linguistic and identity demands are one of the elements that generated major debate in Algeria in the second half of the 20th century. The marginalisation of one of the native languages of the country to the benefit of Arabic and French has been denounced, so that it can take up the position that corresponds to it as the original language of the region. But this is difficult, as Berber lacks both the international prestige of French and the sacred and unifying character of Algerian identity which has been attached to Arabic with the aim of breaking away from the dominant colonising French-speaking culture. In this context, the recent recognition of Berber culture is more a consequence of the struggle between the different factions of power than the real will to promote it. 

The richness and multiplicity of languages and cultures in Algeria has often been the origin of conflicts due to the complexity of the history of the country and the anthropological diversity of its “people”. Indeed, Algerians typically use at least four linguistic instruments (Berber, educated Arabic, spoken Arabic and French). The oldest language, Berber, still used by peoples who live in the mountains or in the most distant regions of southern Algeria, is essentially oral, although it was written in the historical era [1]. During the reign of the great Masinisa (238-148 BC), King of Numidia, Punic was already used as the official language. This abandonment of the endogenous language would be repeated throughout history. The oral language/written language opposition imposed itself, so to speak, in practice, and continued with Latin (two centuries before Christ and two centuries after) and then with Arabic which, from the 7th century, prevailed during the Islamic conquest. Once Islamicised, Berbers also adopted Arabic, the language of the Koran and liturgy. A spoken Arabic would then emerge that would give specificity to the language; that is, a local particularism to each one of the regions of North Africa. It is a language that spread even more from the 11th century with the arrival of peoples more important than the preceding ones, the Hilalian tribes, who propagated their oral language, characterised by a marked linguistic mixing. [2] In 1830, with the conquest of Algiers, French was added to this cultural source as an official language together with other languages, limited from that moment to oral expression (Sicilian, Spanish, Maltese, and so on).

How can this heritage represented by this linguistic and cultural capital be managed? What models will serve as reference to the Algerians in their desire to recover a national identity? How can they distance from the coloniser trying to repair the injustices committed? How, finally, can they confront the challenge without taking on the old colonial power? All these questions must be considered to understand the reasons for the genesis of a situation as complex as that of Algeria, which took options which in principle contrary to its expansion. If its economic development is copied from the countries of the East, its cultural model, in contrast, is a mixture of Arab-Islamic-Baathist (from Irak and Egypt) and French cultural centralism of the Third Republic, particularly in terms of the unification of language, which demands the eradication of dialects.   

Since the beginnings of independence these cultural practices have coexisted: on the one hand, French-speaking communities, characteristic of more or less favoured environments whose native language is usually spoken Arabic[3] or Berber and, on the other, Arab-speaking communities, formed by the less privileged, whose native language is usually spoken Arabic and on occasions Berber. The ruling power has openly prohibited the teaching of the Berber language, as well as damaging in a latent form educated Arabic, dispensing – within an exacerbated wilfulness – a lower quality education and, above all, giving it a religious hue. Apparently, the forms of manipulation of the Arabic language and Islam are different; although in both cases there have been attempts to control at all costs the education system through intervention in the different social discrepancies.  

The forms of distribution of linguistic capital allows better understanding of the economic and social history of this country that, in any case, is complex, although it is obvious that this explanation is not enough. Nevertheless, it is important to note that a social category, an identity, corresponds to each of the languages spoken in Algeria. The possession of one of these languages means a real and symbolic challenge that corresponds to different tendencies according to current interests. The struggles of these groups, latent but real, are now fully revealed, including the use of French and Berber by one of the power clans.

French, for example, the language of a minority, is spoken in the cities, old centres of colonisation and inheritors of a school tradition started at the end of the 19th century, as we will see later, in very isolated rural regions, such as Kabylie. French speakers favoured by the education programme are those that access the best jobs; of these, the most coveted are in the public sector. The children of this first generation, corresponding to notables, unqualified workers and immigrant workers, are those that would constitute an active sector before and after independence. In the cities, thanks to the creation of schools for Europeans, some disadvantaged Algerians (the urban sub-proletariat) managed to infiltrate the breaches of the colonial system. In 1962 this privileged sector received special consideration when taking up the reigns of the country again (this included determined sectors such as the army, which used the return of the military chiefs incorporated belatedly into the National Liberation Army). The system found itself with a real dilemma: how to make the state work without this technocracy, which was nevertheless useful, and respond to the expectations of a people that had been promised the reestablishment of their language and religion, in another time vectors of mobilisation, for having been disdained and outlawed by the coloniser?

This is a question that has never been directly asked in these terms, although it has behind the scenes. Algeria would work with two languages, although national interest demanded the imposition of so-called “classical” Arabic as the national and official language of all Algerians. Those excluded from the  school system in general (and those who failed secondary school, the Arabisers in particular) were recovered by the religious schools, who took charge of training numerous leaders aimed at swelling the ranks of an increasingly more important religious body. The bilingual sector, for its part, attracted a clientele recruited from the most favoured backgrounds: the Algerian nomenklatura [4] and, of course, the lower and upper middle class, in addition to other social groups associated with it, such as the youth of the neighbourhoods of Algiers, designated by the popular masses with the name of tchi-tchi. This group represented at the same time a social category and also a culture different to traditional Algerian culture. Their specific cultural feature is that they speak French, have leisure areas and customs linked in part to the West. It would be false to affirm, however, that the use of French only corresponds to the dominant minority (although they speak it and transmit it like a native language), as this language to some extent has been “Algerianalised”. In times of colonisation in Algeria there was already a popular French transmitted orally within the cities, which gave Algeria its condition as a French-speaking country. It is the language spoken by taxi drivers, messengers, those who work in sales offices, bar and restaurant staff, masters of works, servants, clairvoyants, and so on; that is, a “popular” French removed from that spoken by the tchi-tchi since philosophy, sociology, psychology, history and geography were “Arabised”. 

Mosques became formidable cultural stations where the rudiments of religious culture were dispensed and an Islamic doctrine was propagated that would be the vehicle of current slogans

The primary and secondary school programmes offered religious education for several years. Moreover, theology faculties were created in Constantine and in Algiers. All this promoted the development of a “para-culture” that, together with the construction of more than ten thousand mosques, filled the vacuum left by the state instructions, as once secondary school was completed more than three hundred thousand adolescents were sent home. Therefore, mosques became formidable cultural stations where the rudiments of religious culture were dispensed and an Islamic doctrine was propagated that would be the vehicle of current slogans: the fight against depravity of customs, corruption and injustice. First latent and later more open, these political demands had as a focus point the culture dispensed by the power and transmitted by the “westernised” minority, converted into a privileged goal. Another culture would link with this, not Islamist, or Arabist, or Berberist, but in some way “rejectionist”, as it not only rejected power – responsible for its misfortunes – but also all those who had prevented its way of life. This rejection of everything takes refuge in “trabendisme”, a word given to all kinds of illegal activities to acquire essential or sometimes superfluous products. It is a category that embraces everyone from businesspeople to drugs traffickers. Smugglers (the people of “trabendo”) are protected by army officers or by security services that share the earnings with them.

All these elements allow us to understand why Arabisation has been a challenge and why the officials still defend it. In 1994, General Zéroual announced the total Arabisation of the country but, despite his intention, the system continues to use French, as a façade for a “modern French culture”, especially since 1993. French is currently in an ambiguous position: it is still an instrument of communication at international level and, still today, allows creators and journalists to continue a cultural tradition that has deep roots in Algeria. However, almost everybody minimises its importance, above all in official spheres. Although the opposition to this language is clear at a political level, it is not in practice, as French was and continues to be the real language of thought and creation of the Algerian elite. The most sought after graduates, the most valued managers, are those trained in French schools and, especially, in military schools (such as Saint-Cyr and the Military School). The admiration awoken by the French-speaking elite is clear when you see the composition of the different ministries. The most important posts, or those judged most important, are in the hands of French-speaking or bilingual people (those responsible for the economy, housing, foreign affairs, and so on). National education, information, religious affairs and justice are reserved for Arabists; [5] that is, the management of society, today reserved for the Islamists recognised by the power and the so-called “moderates”. 

French was and continues to be the real language of thought and creation of the Algerian elite. The most sought after graduates, the most valued managers, are those trained in French schools

Perhaps, without being aware of it, the state created, thanks to the school, a social discrimination for which it is solely responsible. Like it or not, owing to its cultural and social interests, the Algerian elite is in general French-speaking and, in order to survive, feels obliged to manifest its solidarity with the ruling class. Arabisation is reserved for the deceived majority, who are not taken into account and at present are the prey of the Islamists, who exploit any occasion to respond to a demand for social justice attacking those who possess the power and those who represent it. For example, a large number of journalists who have been assassinated to date were French-speaking. As can be seen, social discrepancy and cultural discrepancy are related. Added to this confusion is the crucial question of the Berber language, on which the political manipulations are focused.  

Why is there a Berber problem? Where are the historical and political foundations of Berber demands? It is certainly difficult to understand today the links between language and power in Algeria and, in particular, the place occupied by Berber (or, as is currently said, Tamazight) demands at the heart of global Algerian culture; how far this is so is determined by the misunderstandings that the political powers foster with the objective of keeping themselves in their place [6]. If we attempt to analyse the ideological prejudices that have surrounded this question in Algeria, among them we find the recurrent opposition between Arabs and Kabyles, Berbers and Arabs or, rather, between Algerians and Berbers, as if they were distinct ethnic groups. Understanding the foundations of the Berber linguistic demands presupposes knowledge of the historical context and its emergence and, subsequently, the reconstitution of the conditions in which this demand has evolved since the independence of Algeria until the present.

When approaching the Berber question, the spectre of “divide and rule” of colonialism reappears, with the range of stigmas and prejudices recovered by the latter and quite intentionally picked up by the nationals. Although the Berber has often been associated with French-speaking communities, this has almost always been a mistake, although it cannot be denied that there is a basis of truth, as the coloniser, in revealing the Berber (and more particularly Kabyle) specificity, has vainly tried to use it in his policy of division. 

The nation-state, call it what you will, was not built on a homogenous people, as there were always regional cultures. The “national” conscience and Algerian identity have been forged within a dynamic of resistance and response to the culturally dominant coloniser. This wilful juxtaposition of cultures and groups that lived far from the central powers did not resist, faced with the unifying trend of the National Liberation Front, until the day after independence. The Kabyles, for different reasons, did not have a good press despite their active participation in the national movement and also despite the role played by the region during the war of Algeria. The oldest party in the region, the Socialist Forces Front (FFS) of Hocine Aït Ahmed, fought, just like the autonomous area of Algiers, against the taking of power of the frontiers by the army in 1962.

The nation-state, call it what you will, was not built on a homogenous people, as there were always regional cultures. The “national” conscience and Algerian identity have been forged within a dynamic of resistance and response to the culturally dominant coloniser

Culturally, entering the Arabic and Muslim pattern seemed impossible to imagine in these regions jealous of their cultural specificity. More than Aurès, Mzab or the distant Hoggar, Kabylie, for its geographical situation near to Algiers, its school distribution, its demographic density within the mountain people, its lack of cultivable lands and, finally, for the rural exodus and resulting immigration, has been pushed to open up to the contemporary world questioning some of its traditional values. The Jules Ferry school was welcomed in the area after having been rejected in other regions. In France, the trade unions have served as a link in the politicisation of these proletarianised peasants. This convergence of historical and sociological events resulted in a progressive transformation of Kabylie favoured by the ruling power. The wilful particularism exhibited today cannot be related to the rebellion that took place in the area in summer 1963. The conversion operated was flagrant: the cultural became political – an ambit from which the system managed to obtain the corresponding benefits.

Without going back to the start of the century, we can say that, since 1962, the recognition of Berber culture has represented one of the essential problems facing the state [7]. During this time in Algeria the prevailing conservative trend was that of fundamentalists (known by the name of Ulama), very well illustrated by Bâchir Al-Ibrâhîmî, who declared that the Arabic language was, in Algeria, “a free woman without rival.” [8] Therefore, the two languages are presented as competitors that dispute legitimacy: the first (the Berber, here the rival) bases itself on its thousand-year old history, while the second (the Arabic, which comes to be the legitimate wife) does so in its sacred and erudite character, which gives it a status of universality. Berber linguistic and identity demands were expressed from the 1950s from the heart of the national movement that called for the independence of Algeria. They were primarily eliminated within the management of the party through the efforts of supporters of Arab-Islamism, who in this respect followed the fundamentalisms of the time. From the crisis of 1948, in which the militants of the national movement were excluded from the political terrain, the Berber question continued to be rejected until 1980. Nevertheless, it was still present every time there was a political problem, both at regional and national level. From 1963 to 1988, the central power did not stop denying the importance of the problem posed and reduced it to a simple regionalist demand.

Berber linguistic and identity demands were expressed from the 1950s from the heart of the national movement that called for the independence of Algeria

It would be necessary to wait until 1980 – that is, around twenty years – that the Berber question would be posed again with force, despite the police abuse, humiliations and repressions of all kinds that the militants and sympathisers of this cause had to suffer. It is easy to understand then that this year there were important popular demonstrations after the prohibition of the writer Mouloud Mammeri from giving a lecture on Kabyle literature. 

This demand, first started by an elite of rural origin, mostly composed of teachers trained under the Third Republic and later by political leaders of the national movement trained in French schools, became a popular protest thanks to the errors of the system. Although Berber speakers also speak popular – or, for some, educated – Arabic, they are still linked to their native language and their language of culture, French. With the exception of some rare Arabisers, the Kabyle elite is above all French-speaking.[9] Moreover, thanks to French-speaking communities the recovery of the native language has been achieved, while classical Arabic encourages the repression of spoken languages, including popular Arabic.

As a consequence of the strong discontent provoked by numerous disappointments, a real popular movement was unleashed called Berber Spring, with a very broad base and distinct slogans. To the linguistic and identity issues were added other complaints, widely shared by an Algerian youth scorned and harassed by the system. This movement, soon repressed by the forces of order, managed to reunite discontented people of all kinds (trade unionists, journalists, including women), except Islamists, which is why the power of the time mobilised against it. From 1982, it began to use the Islamists against the Berberists, as well as against any other form of protest of democratic essence. It can also be said that Islamists felt strong enough to make their political opinions prevail in the universities by basing themselves on religious legitimacy. 

The main difficulty posed to the Berber cultural movement is that, in the last few years, like all forces with a solid base that defy power, it has been hindered by politics, above all since 1982, a date when some militants such as Saïd Sadi opted for political incorporation into power and abandoned the Socialist Forces Front to organise as a political force. Thus, numerous internal dissensions emerged in which the power represented by the political police intervened with great skill. It is not difficult to guess the continuation of the events. 

As a consequence of the strong discontent provoked by numerous disappointments, a real popular movement was unleashed called Berber Spring, with a very broad base and distinct slogans

It is clear that this fragmentation did not benefit the population, but above all the political power. And also those who, tired of a long and unsatisfying opposition, felt the temptation to attribute to themselves more or less important positions in the institutions of the state. By accepting them, they lost view of their original demands. With the mutinies of 1988, during which political games were shaped with great precision, this question became a real challenge to power: for some (members of the Rally for Culture and Democracy [RCD] party) it was a means of accessing it; for the power installed it was a means of manipulating the youth of the region.

The most important social link in Kabylie is culture rather than politics, an aspect which the power in Algeria is fully aware of. The Berber Cultural Movement, one of the main forces of Kabylie, suffered in its turn, from 1993, some scissions as a consequence of the lack of sensibility of the Rally for Culture and Democracy. The mission of the latter was to recover the Berber Cultural Movement by passing itself off as the only standard bearer for the Berber question. For this it had to take care of conserving the monopoly of cultural legitimacy combating all that was outside its ambit. It is not surprising, therefore, that since that moment the Berber Cultural Movement was divided, and that the fragmentation of Kabylie into various political parties and various cultural trends would favour the power by allowing it to intervene in the divisions. With the terrorism and violence that tore up Algeria, the situation became complicated and the political divergences between the Rally for Culture and Democracy and the Socialist Forces Front became more acute than in 1988. Terrorism would serve to camouflage the real political problems and, in compromising the conditions, hinder the advent of democracy. RCD and FFS played their respective cards: the first recommended “the eradication” of Islamism, denounced power, supporting at the same time the initiatives of the hardest faction of the army, and served in this way as a pretence of democracy (on this, look at the last two elections); the second, opting for a practical solution, defended the Constitution and denounced the suspension of the electoral process in December 1991, proposing a national dialogue to which all the political persuasions would be invited to participate, including the Islamist. These two parties have included recognition of the Tamazight into their programme [10], although the RCD seemed more interested in political games and the rejection of any negotiated solution to the conflict.

Berber culture, like many problematic aspects in Algeria, is used in the struggles between the different factions of power. But we cannot truly talk of a real will to recognise this culture but rather to merely destabilise Kabylie for having been hostile to the Islamists during the 1991 elections. Therefore, Algerian power, which has a short memory, forgets its marginalisation policy, carried out for more than thirty years. For this reason, the exploitation of the unrest and the promises of political promotion to certain local leaders always give to the power hopes of raising Kabylie against the Islamists, which it is believed will allow it to avoid the stain of a dirty war to which, however, it has already fully committed itself. 

It is not enough to recognise a language or a culture using abstract slogans. We must make sure they are put into practice. If we must separate the religious from the political, it is also necessary to separate the latter from the cultural

It is not easy to put recognition of Berber culture in its place, still supposing that the institutions bring up the necessary efforts. It has been necessary to wait almost thirty years to see the havoc caused by poor management of education. It is not enough to recognise a language or a culture using abstract slogans. We must make sure they are put into practice. If we must separate the religious from the political, it is also necessary to separate the latter from the cultural. 

To expand, Algerians need their native language (Berber and spoken Arabic) while at the same time opening to other, even foreign, cultures in the same way that French has become the language of political expression, creation and liberation. Why has English found its place in Arab and Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, Jordan and many others, while French is denied entrance in a country where it has profound roots? Depriving Algeria of its cultural and linguistic diversity is equivalent to condemning it inexorably to dictatorship and the denial of basic rights of the individual, as linguistic and cultural plurality is an element that precedes the advent of democracy and political pluralism. 


[1] Although the old Berber alphabet has disappeared in North Africa, it is still spoken in the south of the Sahara, where it is known by the name of Tifinagh.

[2] This language comes from Arabic with an important Berber substratum; also present are Phoenician, Hebrew and different Latin dialects spoken in the Mediterranean. It is a spoken language common to various countries of North Africa (Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania) with its local specificities.

[3] Spoken Arabic is the language of the majority of Algerians. Together with Berber, it is a stigmatised spoken language and, despite being widely practised by the population, is not recognised.

[4] This elite prefers to school their children in French schools. The Lycée Français Descartes has had a very important function in this respect.

[5] At first sight, this may seem to be a demagogic attitude, but it is not only this. From the outset, the system was trapped by the commitments acquired by the ideologues of the national movement. From the Young Muslims of the 1920s, including the fundamentalists of 1940, until the National Liberation Front of 1954, the demands of Arabic and Islam has been one of the elements of recovery of the national identity. In the representations it is considered that classical Arabic is the basis of the Koran. Challenging its status as a sacred language to make it a profane language was, for many, sacrilege.

[6] I am thinking about the colonial power and the national Algerian power that, to resolve the question, had to turn to the stereotypes forged by the colonisers without closely examining the contribution of those who really understand the issue, who are precisely those who have the instruments that enable us to understand it. I am thinking of the works of Émile Masqueray, Jacques Berque, Gabriel Camps, Charles-Robert Ageron, Germaine Tillion, Pierre Bourdieu, and so on. There have been eminent intellectuals who adopted a posture in favour of the self-determination of Algeria but did not have followers in their plural and complex vision of Algerian culture. In Algeria the Jacobin vision of the French state has predominated. Therefore, to the detriment of the variety of languages, cultures and religious practices, it has been sought to impose a single language (Arabic), a single people (Arab people) and a single religion (Islam). Bâchir Al-Ibrâhîmî declares: “The truth is that the [Algerian] nation is Arabic and the Kabyles are Muslim Arabs, their book is the Koran, they read it in Arabic and write in Arabic and want no alternative either to their religion or their language”, Awal, No. 15, 1997, p. 90.

[7] The same thing happens in other Maghreb countries where, at present, the Berber language is not recognised as an official, national or teaching language. Only in the south of the Sahara, in Niger and Mali, is Tuareg considered a national language together with other African languages.

[8] Al-Basâ’ir newspaper. Cf. Awal, No. 15, 1997, pp. 8-87.

[9] There are a few Kabyle intellectuals that are Arabising, but there have been some Arabising Kabyle ministers that the system has taken advantage of to combat demands.

[10] They are not the only ones, as the National Liberation Front and even the Islamic Salvation Front also demanded that the Tamazight be recognised together with Arabic and Islam.