The Berber Identity Movement and the Challenge to North African States

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The Berber Identity Movement and the Challenge to North African States

The resulting Fatimid dynasty ruled Ifriqiya throughout most of the century, beating back challenges of the Umayyads of al-Andalus and their allies, the local Fez-based Maghrawa Berber dy- nasty, and then moved into Egypt, where it went on to play a major role in Islamic history. The vacated area, encompassing parts of present-day Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya, was left to the local Zirid dynasty, which be- longed to the Talkata tribe, a sedentary part of the Sanhaja confederation. The Zirids cultivated the Sunni Maliki school of Islamic law madhhab and practices, unlike the Fatimids, and ultimately split with their former over- lords, recognizing the spiritual leadership of the Abbasid caliphate.

Subsequently, Berber dynasties great and small, underpinned by different combinations of tribal confederations, would arise within an overall Islamic milieu. The origins of the Barghwata kingdom were in the Kharijite revolt. Doctrinally, the new religion contained a number of variations on Islamic praxis, and was strictly enforced, befitting its Kharij- ite origins. The Barghwata kingdom survived for more than three hundred years before disappearing at the hands of the Almoravids in the middle of the eleventh century. But in recent years, scholars and Amazigh movement activists have taken a special interest in the Bar- ghwata, encouraging the publication of a variety of studies and tracts.

In their eyes, the Barghwata represent an authentic assertion of Berber iden- tity like no other during the millennium of Islamic rule, a cultural reaction emanating from the desire for self-preservation. The vast majority of the Muslim conquerors in the eighth century were Berber tribesmen, a fact that usually gets lost when mentioning the high Islamic culture that subsequently emerged there.

For example, a recent glowing account of the multicultural flourishing of Islamic Spain, in refer- ring to the Berbers, focused only on the violence and destruction wrought on Madinat al-Zahra and Cordoba by newly arrived Berber tribesmen in and and the repressive and religiously intolerant Berber Islamic dynasties that followed from North Africa. Otto Zwartjes states that the discord between Berbers and Arabs that had accompanied the conquest of North Africa by Muslim forces had never disappeared, and the conflict between them was continued in al-Andalus, while he acknowledges that mutual migrations and political unity led to the exchange of many cultural phenomena between the two sides of the Straits.

Scales stresses the altered social-political reality in al-Andalus, which dif- fered fundamentally from the nomadic, tribal way of life underpinned by Ibn Khaldunian asabiyya, suggesting that Berber ethnicity was being at- tenuated over time—i. The Berbers, he says, had ceased to exist in the eyes of the tenth-century Andalusi writers, who were focused on the urban components of society, leaving open the question of continued Berber tribal resilience in the rural areas. Such a pattern is familiar to students of Berber history and culture from ancient times until the present.

Indeed, Helena De Felipe makes this very point regarding the durability of Berber identity in frontier regions, noting the persistence of Berber personal names in genealogical charts. Berber units would be brought from North Africa again in in order to defend Granada. The images of Ber- bers held by the Arab and Arabized military and administrative elite, as well as by mostly native converts of the lower socioeconomic strata, were overwhelmingly negative.

But I would suggest that the heightened degree of anti-Berber expression was also drawing on older, durable themes for the relationship between origin myths and ethnic tensions in Andalusia, see below.

Who are the Amazigh of North Africa?

Their political achievements, the unification of North Africa and portions of Andalusia, were unprecedented. Architecturally, culturally, and intellectually, the mixing of North Africa and Andalusia produced great works. For our purposes, it should be noted that it was the first time in recorded history that the unifier of North Africa came not from the North or the East but from within the indigenous population— the Almoravids, a Sanhaja Berber dynasty from the Sahara Desert, and the Almohads, from the Middle Atlas Masmuda Berbers. Concurrently, the Hafsid dynasts would establish themselves in Ifriqiya, also proclaiming themselves as heirs to the Almohads.

Moreover, for a brief moment amidst the cataclysmic conquest of Baghdad by the Mongols in , the scion of a Berber family from the High Atlas, Mohamed al-Mustansir, Hafsid sultan from to , was the leading Muslim monarch, recognized as Caliph by the sharif governor of Mecca and Egyptian Mamlukes. But, as Maya Shatzmiller shows, this was no simple matter, involving, instead, complex dynamics of resistance, assertion, and acculturation.

Correctly, in my view, she sees the Berbers in ethnic terms, notwithstanding all of their variations and nuances, both in terms of self-definition and the perception of others. The Berber language was ac- cordingly permitted for use in religious books, and imams and khatibs who could recite the tawhid profession of faith in the Oneness of God in Ber- ber replaced existing Arabic-speaking functionaries in Fez. As recounted by Brett and Fentress, Berber speakers in the lowlands and level uplands of the Maghrib were either ab- sorbed into an Arab tribal structure speaking an Arabic dialect or almost entirely identified with the tribal peasant population and concentrated in more rugged and inaccessible regions, such as the Djurdjura to the east of Algiers.

The political unity attained by the Almoravids and Almohads, and the achievements of the Marinids, who had aspired to re-create the empires of their predecessors, had faded away. They were replaced by more localized dynasties: the Nasrids in Granada, the Wattasids in Morocco, the Zayyanids also known as Banu Abdul Wad of Tlemcen, and the Hafsids in Ifriqiya,77 accompanied by an increasing emphasis on sharifian origins by seekers of power in order to legitimize their claims.

This trend, occurring in the context of institutional disintegration and decadence, Iberian pres- sure and intervention, and Sufist development and dissemination,78 pene- trated down to the local tribal level, as Berber tribes concocted fictitious genealogies to link themselves with the Prophet. It was the outcome of hun- dreds of years of discussion regarding the subject. One commonly expressed view was that they descended from Jalut Goliath , whose followers had fled Canaan after being defeated by David.

Another version traced the Berbers to the aftermath of the Biblical Flood story. Accordingly, their ancestor was Ham, the son of Noah, who was said to have been born in, or chased to, the Maghrib. In both cases, they were most likely drawing on older Roman, Greek, and Jewish tradi- tions, which most likely were influenced by the immediately preceding and lengthy Punic period of North African history.

Ibn Khaldun also re- peated the legend of the Yemeni conqueror Ifriqish, who had left behind the ancestors of major Berber tribes such as the Kutama and Sanhaja, thus making them truly Arab in origin. The numerous Berber revolts against ruling authorities prompted a wealth of forged hadiths lambasting them as perfidious enemies of the faithful.

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In re- sponse, others extolled them as the most pure and devoted of Muslims, even claiming that the Berbers sent a delegation to the Prophet Mohamed asking to be among the first to join the new community of believers. Such was the power of Islam. To be sure, these competing ori- gin myths never percolated down to the masses of Berbers, as far as can be ascertained.

But over time, their thoroughgoing Islamization left most Berbers with no awareness of their actual past. All that they were left with were tribal genealogies, which increasingly included fabricated sharifian lineages. The Ottoman Period— Retreat to the Margins The Ottoman conquest of Cairo in from its Mamluke rulers inaugurated a four-hundred-year presence on the African continent and southern portion of the Mediterranean littoral.

Two years later, with- out prior planning, Ottoman rule was formally extended westward along the North African littoral, the consequence of rising Spanish and Habsburg power in the Central Maghrib and their struggle with the Ottoman fleet for control of the western Mediterranean, and the concurrent weaken- ing of the Tunis-based Hafsid sultanate and Tlemcen-based Abd al-Wadid dynasty.

Central figures to the story were the brothers Barbarossa, Khayr al-Din and Aruj, Aegean Muslim privateers who had established a pres- ence in the eastern Maghrib as early as and answered the pleas of the population of Algiers in to defend them against the looming Spanish threat. In need of backing, Khayr al-Din offered his services to the Otto- man sultan in , who appointed him beylerbey governor-general of North Africa and dispatched contingents of janissary forces to the country.

I Speak Tamazight, but in Arabic: Contesting the Cultural Terrain in Morocco

However, he would reconquer Algiers in , and achieve the submission of the Kuku to Ottoman authority. By the eighteenth century, Tunis and Tripoli would be ruled by independent hereditary dynasties, still loyal to the sultan but increasingly intertwined with native elites. By contrast, the Algeria ojaq, headed by a dey, largely remained a caste apart, dependent on the con- tinuous influx of new recruits from the Ottoman east, and ideologically committed to their Turkish identity and ties to Constantinople, even as the importance of the Algerian province to the Sublime Porte would de- cline over time.

Alone among North African entities, the Moroccan sultanate managed to remain outside of Ottoman suzerainty. Whether in the Ottoman domains or the Moroccan sultanate, Ber- ber populations were increasingly consigned to the periphery of society, and the Berbers as a named group gradually faded from view. This does not mean, of course, that on the cultural level, Berbers ceased to contribute to the shaping of North African societies.


As noted earlier, Hart pointed to the enduring, bedrock strata of Moroccan culture, par- ticularly those themes connected to tribal forms of social organization, and identifies them as Berber. The unchallenged supremacy in North Africa of the Maliki madhhab, unlike in other areas of the Muslim world, he postulates, derives directly from the fact that it best met the needs of Berber tribes- men.

Interested in the totality of Amazigh intellectual pro- duction as a tributary of Islamic culture, Chafik enumerates the numer- ous Amazigh Maliki scholars, while not forgetting to mention the Ibadi Kharijites as well. Of course, their own fractious intertribal con- flicts, later enshrined by colonial administrators and scholars as part of an allegedly ineffable Berber character, were also very much part of the story, and affected tribal-regime dynamics as well. To be sure, the challenges posed by Christian Euro- pean states had been felt as early as the fifteenth century, and the Otto- man arrival in North Africa was part of a larger maneuvering for power and influence throughout the Mediterranean region.

But now, the balance of power that had been established in earlier centuries began to irrevers- ibly fray. European power projection was increasingly felt, beginning with economic penetration, which would eventually culminate in full-blown occupation. The effect throughout North Africa, and on its Berber com- munities in particular, would be profound and transformative. Ironically, Algeria and Morocco both owe much of their existence as independent states exercising sovereignty over their entire territories to the colonial experience, notwithstanding the bloody resistance to French conquest and, generations later, following World War II, the struggle by national movements to rid themselves of the French yoke.

The brutal eight-year war — was, for a long time, painted by Algerian nationalists in exclusively heroic terms; only now are the darker sides of those years beginning to be acknowledged. The results, in both practical and ideological terms, would vary in both time and place. But, like all other elements of Moroccan and Algerian societies, the Berber populations would be profoundly shaped by the experience, within their own communities, regarding relations with non-Berber elements in society, and with the French.

Algeria On June 14, , a French expeditionary force numbering 34, combatants landed on the shores of Ottoman Algeria, 27 kilometers west of Algiers. Its ostensible justification was punitive: three years earlier, Hussein Dey of Algiers had struck the French consul Pierre Deval three times on the arm with a flyswatter, in anger over a perceived insult.

By July 5, it had conquered the city and its surroundings, expelled the Dey, and brought to an end nearly years of Ottoman sway over the region and 1, years of Islamic rule. Society was highly seg- mented, markets were fragile, and competition and rivalries among the different segments, and between them and the central government, were perpetual and often violent. Still, John Ruedy suggests, the widespread re- bellions of coalitions of tribal and religious elites during the initial decades of the nineteenth century occasioned responses from the central authori- ties that may have set Algeria on a new course, had they been allowed to play themselves out.

There were, he says, some indications that the office of the dey may have been on the way, between and , toward be- coming a proper monarchy, which would have rallied wider sectors of the population and formed the basis, eventually, for a more modern type of state-building project. Algeria would not be just another overseas European colony, or even a nearby protectorate, as Morocco and Tunisia would become.

Berbers and the Nation-State in North Africa - Oxford Research Encyclopedia of African History

Nowhere was this truer than in Kabylie, the Berber-speaking, mostly mountainous region east-southeast of Algiers. One eventual outcome was the gradual fashioning of a modern Kabyle identity, within the larger Algerian Muslim population. Over time, Kabyles would become the most politicized of all Ber- ber groups and heavily shape Berberist discourse and practice throughout North Africa and the Diaspora.

The population was organized into tribal groupings, numbering , 70 of which constituted political units organized into approximately 12 tribal confederations living in approximately 1, villages,8 with some kind of larger, albeit loose, col- lective solidarity expressed through their identification with Sufi brother- hoods and affiliated marabouts. More broadly, it is fair to say that the centuries-old processes of linguistic Arabization across North Africa had touched the Kabyle heartland far more slowly than in the lowlands. At the same time, the region was hardly a closed space.

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Owing to its forbidding topography, Kabylie was initially avoided as France struggled to extend its control across the northern portion of the country, from west to east. Most Kabyles them- selves had viewed the Emir Abd al-Qadir, the charismatic sharifian son of the head of the Qadriyya order based in the western Oran region and leader of an anti-French coalition between and , as another seeker of power, and thus remained largely aloof, a point that did not escape French attention. By this point, already, French military and civilian officials were hard at work gathering basic data regarding this new subject population for the purpose of more efficient control.

This enterprise took many forms and in- cluded a keen interest in the cultural underpinnings of the society. For ex- ample, Colonel Adolphe Hanoteau — collected over fifty Kabyle poems and songs, which he believed would reveal the essence of the Kabyle personality and level of intellectual and moral development. At the core of this worldview, which was in line with nineteenth-century racialist and social Darwinist theories, was the belief that the Berbers were higher on the pecking order of human civilization than Arabs.

Colonial policies would profoundly affect Kabyle society. Rather, the explanation for its particularity can be found in the convergence of several factors, including its partial and delayed Arabization, and conse- quently the survival of Berber culture; the contribution of colonial policies to the eventual formation of the Kabyle elite; its role as human reservoir for immigration, external and internal; and the underlying social cohesion of Kabyle society.

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