Divisions within Divisions

By Darwish, Adel | The Middle East, August 1998 | Go to article overview

Divisions within Divisions


Darwish, Adel, The Middle East


Civil wars are usually soul-searching times where sections of a given nation seek out their true identities. For Algerians, language is inextricably bound up with the conflicting visions of their country's identity. Half the population are Berber who despise the use of Arabic, while half the Arabs prefer French to Arabic for daily communication. So is Algeria Arab or Berber? Is it Islamic, as the armed Muslims would have it? Or is it Mediterranean, as most intellectuals prefer? Algeria may be all of the above, but 36 years after the departure of French colonisers who left a well founded legacy of dominant French language and culture, the country is still struggling to reconcile the various aspects of its personality.

For the onlookers the conflict seems simple to describe: Islamic militants using extreme violence to overthrow a secular, authoritarian regime and establish an Iranian style Islamic republic -- although a nasty and brutal conflict even by the standard of African civil wars.

In a both ill timed and ill advised move the military backed government of President Liamine Zeroual made language -- an important national identity tool -- another cause of conflict in the already religious-war torn nation.

On 5 July, a law came into force making Arabic the only language allowed in public life, fury exploded in the Berber-speaking mountain region of Kabylia.

The law bans any official use of French and the Berber language, Tamazight, which translated means "the language of free men".

As the law came to force Kabylia was already on fire following the killing of an immensely popular Berber singer, Lounes Matoub, on 25 June. His wife and two sisters-in-law were wounded in the attack. Although most Algerians, Berbers and Arabs alike, believe that the singer, an outspoken secularist, was killed by GIS militants, Berber anger swiftly turned against the state and its Arabisation policy. Protesters sacked government-owned shops and tore down Arabic signs. As tens of thousands of Kabyles poured into a mountain village for his burial, the divisions in Algerian society were never more obvious. Mourners shouted: "Pouvoir (the generic name given to the military-political power) -- assassins!"

The accusation seemed to be that the authorities had failed to protect the singer from his Islamist enemies. The crowds, carried banners declaring: "We are not Arabs," and chanted anti-government slogans in Berber and French.

The Berber, furthering their own interests, were on the government side in the conflict against the Islamists. They always opposed the programme of the FIS -- the-Islamic Salvation Front. FIS was cheated from a possible victory in a French style second round of General Elections in 1992 by a military coup -- which was demanded by trade unionists, womens' groups and secular movements fearing an Islamic takeover. The coup was tacitly supported by the French. The Islamists began a wave of terror that turned into a civil war.

The Islamists, known as GIS -- the armed Islamic group, and other Islamic parties in the region who take political asylum in the West try to distant themselves from the violence. The leaders argue that their "armed comrades" do not represent the true face of Islam which is all about tolerance, compassion and mercy. However, Berber, like Copts in Egypt and other minorities as well as women, journalists and artists in the region know better: FIS, like the Muslim Brothers never unequivocally condemned violence by Islamic extremists. So why should they be trusted?

Berber speakers, and many secular Algerians, regard the Arabisation law as a heavy-handed attempt to appease the government's Islamist opponents FIS. Berber, is an oral language still in the process of being codified. A succession of authoritarian central governments, uneasy with pluralism and eager to shore up their nationalist credentials, discouraged its use outside the private domain. …

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