Fears of ‘language war’ in Algeria over status of Tamazight

In Algeria, Islamists defend Arabic as the dominant language, pointing out that it is the language of the Quran.
Sunday 25/11/2018
The Berber flag flutters next to the national Algerian flag in Ath Mendes, south of Tizi-Ouzou. (AFP)
Difficult balance? The Berber flag flutters next to the national Algerian flag in Ath Mendes, south of Tizi-Ouzou. (AFP)

TUNIS - Berber students in Algeria’s mountainous Kabylie region walked out of school to protest the government’s neglect of their native tongue, Tamazight.

Protests began October 22 at a high school in Beni-Zmenzer, 15km south of Tizi Ouzou, Kabylie’s main city, and spread to schools in Tizi Ouzou, Bejaia and Bouira provinces. Students walked out of class and chanted slogans demanding Tamazight classes, which are not offered in all areas of the country.

“If there is no Tamazight everywhere, no to the other language here,” the students chanted, referring to Arabic.

The pro-Tamazight demonstrations occurred after parents in the eastern Arab-speaking Jijel province pulled their children out of schools to protest required Tamazight classes.

Their frustration was fuelled by Islamist parliament member Naima Salhi, who posted a video on social media lamenting the spread of the language.

“My daughter is a student at a private school where most students are (from) Kabylie,” said Salhi. “Out of innocence, she began learning Tamazight. I did not oppose that since teaching the language has become mandatory at school but I told her: ‘If I hear you uttering one word in Tamazight at home, I will kill you.’”

In Algeria, Islamists defend Arabic as the dominant language, pointing out that it is the language of the Quran. Reformists, however, say promoting Tamazight is key to preserving the country’s Berber identity and fostering multiculturalism, individual rights and decentralisation. Government leaders have lent credence to this view, with Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika blaming colonisation for destroying Algerian culture, identity, language and traditions.

In 2002, three years after Bouteflika took office, Algeria changed its constitution to name Tamazight as an “official and national” language alongside Arabic. The government vowed to “promote and develop the language in all its linguistic varieties” and established the “Algerian academy for the Tamazight language.”

However, analysts said the Algerian government’s official measures to promote Tamazight did not translate to change on the local level and that the quality Tamazight textbooks and teachers was lacking.

They noted that the recent protests showed more should be done to reduce tensions between ethnic groups and encourage tolerance and multiculturalism.

“It is a worrying development because the protests question the principle of pluralism, including linguistic plurality and tolerance and accepting others despite their differences,” said Algerian political writer Samir Leslous, adding that there was a level of outrage “not seen since the ‘Berber spring’ in April 1980.”

That year, Berber protesters demanded an end to what they called the “Arab-Islamic apartheid,” which they said jeopardised their language and identity. At least 116 people died during the demonstrations.

Boualem Messoudi, a teacher of mathematics and Tamazight writing, said the language protests “stemmed from a feeling of injustice among Berber youth.”

“Arabic was imposed on all Algerians while Tamazight is not promoted and generalised across all Algeria,” he said.

The moderate Berber movement Rally for Kabylie, however, warned Berber speakers against attempts to impose Tamazight on all Algerians.

“It is healthy and salutary to say loudly and clearly that enough is enough with the provocations, insults and disparaging of Berber identity and Tamazight language  but it is urgent and crucial to avoid being carried away into a language war,” the group said in a statement.

Algeria’s approach to Tamazight could be a test for Morocco and Libya, which have their own substantial Berber communities.

In 2011, the Tamazight language made a revival in both Morocco and Libya. Morocco recognised Tamazight as an official language and Berber activists in Libya introduced Tamazight textbooks, dictionaries, magazines and radio stations.

However, a national committee drafting Libya’s constitution ignored calls to officially recognise the language, which had been repressed during the 42-year rule of Muammar Qaddafi.