Since December 2013, deadly clashes have occurred in Algeria’s central Ghardaia region, breaking the calm tension after Algeria’s recent history of religious violence and civil war in the 1990s. These clashes have been between the Arab-identified Maliki and Amazigh Ibadi communities—religious communities in the region with doctrinal differences. With at least 13 people killed and thousands of Algerian police and gendarmes deployed to the province, the situation in Ghardaia requires attention from a foreign policy perspective, as it points to an underlying issue of religious stability in North Africa. While there are superficial doctrinal disputes between the Maliki and Ibadi groups, the fundamental issues in Ghardaia are ethnic and sociopolitical.
Religious violence is not a new phenomenon in the country: the legacy of the Algerian Civil War throughout the 1990s continues to impact politics through the memories and political landscape of the people. This history is inextricably intertwined with the ethnolinguistic politics of the region, with conflicts surrounding state oppression of the indigenous Amazigh people of North Africa, including Algeria. Secular-religious dynamics of the Amazigh movement point to a strong association between indigenous activists and a promotion of secular ideas, often tied to a philosophy of religious pluralism. Relevantly, earlier this year, Algerian Minister of Religious Affairs Bouabdallah Ghlamallah recalled the history of cohabitation and religious tolerance in the region. In the central Ghardaia region, the Mozabite people are an Amazigh group who are associated with the minority sect of Ibadism, and the religious conflict also manifests as an Arab-Amazigh conflict. Imazighen, the indigenous people of North Africa, are overwhelmingly Muslim, as are those who identify as Arab in the region. Within this generally Islamic milieu, there are often distinct religious philosophies, which, in turn, influence ethnic dynamics. A sense of disenfranchisement amongst the Amazigh people underlies much of the economic, religious, and political strife in North Africa today. Since the 1960s, Amazigh people have been denied cultural rights, banned from using their language, Tamazight, in mass media and education, and have even been prohibited from giving their children Amazigh names.
The Amazigh activists working for linguistic equality and the right of cultural expression are commonly associated with more pluralistic religious ideals and secularism. Even outside of activist circles, in North Africa, there is a general conception that Imazighen are more likely to hold moderate religious beliefs and shun religious violence. In recent decades, unfortunately, religious violence has been no stranger to the region and we have seen the rise of numerous militant Islamist organizations, most prominently Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Between 2012 to 2013, the Amazigh-led National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA) fought AQIM for control of Azawad, a self-declared independent territory, which seceded from Mali. This series of events makes clear the religious dimension of the national conflict, as does the MNLA’s attempt to align itself with explicitly secular values.
There have been numerous terrorist attacks by Islamist groups in North Africa in recent years, with particularly notable examples in Morocco, Algeria, Libya, and Europe. So how is this phenomenon of radicalization consistent with the idea that Amazigh communities are more religiously tolerant? Due to the history of discrimination against Imazighen, many Amazigh youth are forced to move to the cities, reject their language in favor of French and Arabic, and abandon their cultural values and traditions. This loss of cultural identity occurs through the educational system—which imposes French and Arabic, foreign languages—and economic pressures of subsistence agriculture, thus squeezing Imazighen from their traditional lands and into urban labor systems. This simultaneously destroys the stability of long-standing community relationships and leaves Amazigh youth in limbo in a globalized and competitive world. It is thus no wonder that young Imazighen suffer from lowered self-esteem and alienation in societies that associate indigenous Amazigh people with backwardness, rurality, and poverty. With each generation, more North Africans identify as Arab rather than Amazigh, opting to assimilate into a dominant power structure in order to access certain social and economic resources, including most education and job sectors. Arab-identified youth are then also pushed to conform to an Arab-Islamic hegemony, which includes religiously-centered education, religious intolerance, and an increased presence of militant Islamic organizations. While there are many putative contributions to the attraction of Islamist terrorist factions, cultural alienation must be considered as an underlying factor to the rise of Islamist terror in a North African context, including the ongoing clashes in Ghardaia.
Strategies to combat radical Islamic influences in North Africa would be more effective by strengthening the indigenous Amazigh traditions and cultural institutions, which have long been banned or otherwise repressed across the region. This could include widespread support of the Tamazight language, state support of Amazigh holidays, and inclusion of Amazigh history in school curricula. Both government and civil society support of Tamazight language education, extensive support for mass media, and the promotion of Amazigh arts and pluralistic religious institutions are initial steps to the revitalization of Amazigh culture and language. In recent years there has been progress, albeit minimal, towards the support of governmental and civil institutions involved in the revitalization of Amazigh culture. For example, the development of the Royal Institute of Amazigh Culture in Morocco and advancement of formal Tamazight language education, the latter of which has already been recognized in one study as having the potential to, “curtail the growth of Islamic fundamentalism in Morocco, and to encourage a more pluralistic and tolerant outlook.” In the two years intervening between the 2011-2013 uprisings across North Africa, much has been written on the role of educated, but unemployed, young people in initiating democratic movements. Yet without direction, a strong cultural identity, and the freedom to express traditional belief systems, participation in extremist groups and terrorist acts will continue to hold an appeal to alienated youth in this context. The propagation of moderate religious and secular philosophies, values deeply rooted in Amazigh culture, could only aid in resistance to the encroachment of religious violence and intolerance in the region.
Eden Almasude is a medical student at the University of Minnesota interested in international relations and health policy. She has an MA in African Studies and has a research interest in Amazigh issues and North African politics.