With Islamization comes Arabization. Since Arabic is the language of Allah and of his Qur’an, and the last and greatest Prophet was an Arab, Arab culture tends to spread with the spread of Islam. Islam then teaches that the pre-Islamic culture of any Islamic people is worthless: jahiliya, the pre-Islamic period of ignorance. This has led Muslims in Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere to denigrate and ignore what the rest of the world regards as immense cultural treasures. But among the North African Berbers today, there is a counter-movement. This from Reuters, with thanks to Fanabba:
“We’re not Arabs, bring out the real history,” chanted hundreds of Moroccan Berbers during Labor Day marches this year.
In the capital Rabat, passers-by showed mixed reactions to the unusual sight of Berbers shouting slogans in their Tamazight language and carrying banners written in Tifinagh, the Berber script.
Some expressed sympathy while others wondered why the Berbers were denying what has been their country’s official identity for more than 14 centuries.
“Why did police allow them to march? And here in Rabat?” one asked.
Berbers are the original inhabitants of North Africa, before the Arabs who invaded the fertile area in the seventh century in what is known as the Islamic Conquests.
The Moroccan constitution says the country is Arab and Islam is its religion. The proportion of Berbers in the population of 30 million is not officially known but independent sources say they represent the majority.
The number of Berbers in the world is estimated at 25 million. Apart from Morocco, most of them live in Algeria, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Tunisia, and in the Canary Islands.
Berber activists say all Moroccans are Berbers but that Berber influence in political and economic life remains limited.
“History books say only 200,000 Arabs invaded the whole of North Africa, so the impact on the local population was like a drop in the ocean,” said Lahcen Oulhaj, a Berber activist and university economics lecturer.
History textbooks hail the Arab roots of dynasties, which have ruled Morocco for the past 1,400 years.
The contribution of Berbers to the country and its cultural heritage is either not mentioned or limited to traditional dances and folk festivals, activists say.
They doubt the accuracy of the official line in the absence of Berber history books, which they say have been destroyed.
“They say Arabs found little resistance from the peaceful indigenous people to impose the new religion (Islam). This is nonsense,” said one Berber activist.
When the Romans arrived in North Africa, they met tough resistance and named the inhabitants of the region Barbarians, hence the word Berber.
However, Berbers prefer to be identified as Imazighen, or the Free Men in Tamazight.
Berber activists argue that the Arabic education system, the lack of programs in Tamazight on state radio and television and the absence of an entity in charge of preserving the Berber cultural heritage is threatening what is left of it.
But in a speech marking the second anniversary of his enthronement on July 30, King Muhammad promised the creation of a Royal Institute for Berber Culture.
Describing the Berber culture as a “national treasure,” he said the institute would preserve the Berber cultural heritage and coordinate with education bodies for the teaching of Tamazight.
Berber activists welcomed the announcement, saying they hoped the promise would be fulfilled.
“In 1978, parliament approved the creation of the national institute for Berber culture and studies which was never set up,” said Berber activist Mounir Kejji.
He noted that the king did not mention in his speech the issue of “recognizing Tamazight as the official language.”
“Why must a Berber woman, appearing in court in a Berber area in front of a Berber judge, speak Arabic?” asked human rights and Berber activist Ilyass Omari.
“If a European appears in court, they’ll get a translator.”
“Nobody in Morocco speaks Arabic… There is Darija (the Moroccan dialect) which is a mixture of Arabic, Berber, French and Spanish, and there is Berber,” he added.
Omari said the recognition of Tamazight was a priority.
“It is a sacred right. We want to recover our rights and feel proud to be what we are. This is our goal. If authorities refuse, well, to every action there’s a reaction,” he said.
The Labor Day marches coincided with the start of a popular revolt in neighboring Algeria, in the Berber area of Kabylie.
Algerian Kabyles, who say they have long been ignored by the central government, are pressing for the recognition of Tamazight but more broadly demand economic and social reforms.
Moroccan Berbers refuse any analogy with Algeria.
“What’s happening in Algeria is one thing and what’s happening here is another, but we sympathize a lot with our brothers there,” Kejji said.
“Morocco is home to the largest Berber community in the world. Unlike Algeria, Berbers here are the majority not the minority,” Oulhaj said.
Ali Lamrabet, the outspoken editor of the Moroccan weekly Demain, told the French newspaper Le Figaro recently that “whatever the differences between the two countries, we are sitting on the same powder keg, except that ours has not exploded yet.”
Berber activists disagree
“Those who say things like that are against Berbers’ rights. They demonize our movement and brandish the threat of unrest in Algeria to deter authorities from recognizing the Berber culture,” said historian Ali Sidqi Azaykou.
In Algeria, he argued, “Berbers are not the instigators of the unrest, the whole nation is fed up with the regime.”
The Moroccan authorities in June stopped Berber activists from holding a meeting to decide on the creation of a united group to press for the rights of the Berber ethnic group.
The meeting was to mark the first anniversary of the signing by Berber groups of the Amazigh Manifesto. The 2000 meeting announcing the signature of the manifesto was not banned.
A Western diplomat said the authorities “probably felt the context of the meeting was not right,” a reference to Algeria.
For Azaykou, however, any ill-conceived move by the authorities “might push the Berbers down unknown paths.”
“Still, this is not a separatist movement, we just want the Berber feature of our identity to be recognized,” he said.
UPDATE: This article came over the newsfeed with other new articles, but it is undated and I have since discovered that it dates from 2001. My apologies.