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date: 24 March 2019

Berbers and the Nation-State in North Africa

Summary and Keywords

Throughout history, North Africa’s native Berber-speaking populations have been central to the mix of political, social, cultural, and linguistic attributes that rendered the region distinct. At the dawn of the 20th century, Berbers still constituted a substantial majority of sharifian Morocco’s population, and a significant minority of French Algeria’s Muslim populace; their numbers were smaller in Ottoman Libya and smaller still in France’s Tunisian protectorate.

Nationalism began to spread in North Africa during the first decades of the 20th century. Each nationalist movement was shaped by a particular combination of factors; all of them, however, foregrounded the Arab and Islamic components of their collective identities, downplaying or ignoring the Berber ones.

Berbers actively participated in the struggles for independence in both Algeria and Morocco, often in leadership roles. This pattern would continue during the decades after independence, even as both the Algerian and Moroccan states placed supreme value on the Arabization of the educational system, and of public life in general. The state’s overall view of Berber identity was that it should be consigned to the realm of folklore.

However, even as the number of Berber speakers continued to decline, there arose a modern Berber (Amazigh) identity movement that demanded a reexamination of the underlying premises of their countries’ collective identities, one that would bring the Berber language and culture to center stage. It also demanded genuine amelioration of the dire conditions of poverty that characterized much of the rural Berber world. As ruling regimes struggled to maintain their legitimacy after a half century of independence, the Berber “question” now took on a new salience in North Africa’s increasingly contested political space.

Keywords: Berber, Amazigh, North Africa, Morocco, Algeria, Libya, nationalism, identity, colonialism


North Africa’s native Berber-speaking peoples (Amazigh; lit. “free men”) form the basis of “the whole North African edifice.”1 Since the beginning of recorded history, they have been central to the mix of political, social, cultural, and linguistic attributes that ultimately distinguished the Maghrib (Islamic West) from the Mashriq (the Arab-Islamic East), as well as sub-Saharan Africa and the northern Mediterranean coastline.2 At the same time, their origins, history, current status, and even their very name have been the subject of much debate. Some of this is due to the fact that the varieties of their language (now known as Tamazight) were transmitted, until recently, almost exclusively orally, and that their history was traditionally written from the perspectives of their conquerors.

Nationalist movements in Morocco and Algeria, the two countries that together contain the bulk of the twenty million-plus Berbers in the world today, first arose in the 1930s. In defining their collective identities in opposition to French colonialism, they emphasized their societies’ common Muslim identity, religiously and culturally, which in turn was bound up with the Arabic language, as per the tenets of the Islamic modernist current that had spread to North Africa from the Arab East. Any manifestations of Berber specificity and agency were viewed with suspicion, if not hostility, particularly as the colonial authorities were believed to have given preferential treatment to Berbers.

Nonetheless, Berbers actively participated in the struggles for independence in both Algeria and Morocco, often in leadership roles, and notwithstanding occasional undercurrents of ethno-communal tension within the nationalist movements.

In the aftermath of achieving independence (Morocco in 1956, Algeria in 1962), the two countries’ ruling groups pursued domestic and regional policies that placed them sharply at odds with each other. Still, in spite of the polar opposite nature of their regimes—conservative monarchical Morocco and revolutionary socialist Algeria—their respective legitimacy formulas shared an emphasis on their heroic struggle against colonialism and a broader affinity with Arab nationalism. Both governments adopted educational and cultural policies designed to make Arabic a fully functioning tool in every aspect of life, which went hand in hand with efforts to attain mass literacy. Berber aspects of Algerian and Moroccan society, culture, and history were thus given short shrift.

However, the saliency of the regimes’ legitimacy formula has been eroded with the passage of time. More specifically, Morocco and Algeria are both characterized by entrenched authoritarian regimes lacking genuine democratic legitimacy and are confronted by a host of socioeconomic and political problems.

Berbers and the Nation-State in North AfricaClick to view larger

Map 1. Distribution of Berber groups in North Africa.

Map legend: Dark Blue: Tuaregs; Orange: Saharian Berbers (Sanhaja, Mozabite people, Siwis); Green: Chaoui people; Red: Kabyle people; Light purple: Chenouas; Yellow: Riffian people; Purple: Zayanes (Middle-Atlas mountains Berbers, also called Amazighs in a specifically sense or Brabers); Light Blue: Shilha people.

Source: Rosso Robot. Creative Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Against the background of state shortcomings in both the material and symbolic spheres, new ways of Berber “imagining” have emerged in recent decades among portions of their diverse populations. The transnational Berber/Amazigh Culture Movement is an amorphous, many-headed phenomenon with a clear core demand: the official recognition of the existence of the Amazigh people as a collective and of the historical and cultural Amazighité (Berberity) of North Africa, and the adoption of policies that will ameliorate their social, economic, and cultural marginalization.

In Algeria, Berber demands are more overtly political, owing to the long-running confrontation between the regime and Kabyle Berbers, who constitute the territorial and cultural core of resurgent Berberism. By contrast, Berberism has penetrated to a far lesser extent in the Aures (Chaoui) region, the second largest Berberophone region in Algeria. In Morocco, the scene has been less confrontational, and less overtly political, but has significantly evolved in that direction in recent years.

To be sure, “Berberism” poses no current threat to the territorial integrity of any of the Maghrib states or to the grip on power by ruling elites, which themselves contain important Berber components. Nonetheless, it has become part of the larger political and social spectrums in North Africa’s two leading countries, and has also begun to reverberate in Libya, and even among the Touareg of the Sahel region. The interaction of this evolving, ethnic-type identity with other forms of collective affiliation—tribal, national and religious—will be an important component of state–society relations in North Africa for years to come.

Berber Origins and Evolution

The Ancient World

As far as can be determined, the geographical and anthropological origins of North Africa’s Berbers are multiple, emanating from the Mediterranean, Nile Valley, and the Sahara. A composite population emerged during Neolithic times that was tribally organized and spoke variations of a language known as “Libyan (‘Libu,’ in ancient Egyptian).”3 Given what Brett and Fentress call the “remarkable similarity” of Berber languages, they suggest that their spread across North Africa was relatively uniform and over a relatively short period of time, with the decisive break between them and Old Egyptian coming prior to the definitive drying out of the Sahara between 2,000 bce. The founding of the Pharaonic “Libyan Dynasties” by Sheshonk I, from the Meshwesh tribe, in 943 bce marked a peak in the interaction between northern Saharan tribes and Egypt. According to Abdallah Laroui, the Maghrib had achieved a linguistic and cultural unity prior to the arrival of the Phoenicians and Romans, accompanied by an economic duality of agriculturalists versus pastoralists.4

Carthage (adjacent to modern-day Tunis) was founded by Phoenicians sailing from the eastern Mediterranean port city of Tyre, traditionally in 814 bce. By the 5th century bce, it had become the dominant commercial power of the central Mediterranean and would remain so until its destruction by Rome in the Punic Wars, between 261 and 146 bce. Apart from a century of domination by Vandal invaders, Roman/Byzantine rule of the North African littoral lasted until the Arab conquests in the late 7th century ad.

Herodotus and subsequent Greek and Roman historians variously refer to the native populations there as “Africans,” “Numidians,” and “Moors,” as well as a number of tribal designations. Along with others outside the empire, they were classified as “barbarians” (barbaroi), an appellation that would eventually be adopted by Arab conquerors centuries later.

North Africa’s urban areas, beginning with Carthage, appear to have been social, economic, and cultural entrepôts, resulting in a range of cultural and political outcomes. Native Berber populations emulated Carthage’s territorial consolidation with larger Hellenic-style monarchic entities of their own. Eventually, they were incorporated in one form or another into Roman Africa. It is clear that under Rome, there were various degrees of cooption and interaction, and that the vast bulk of Roman population, both civil and in the army, was of local origin.

By the mid-3rd century, Christianity had become the dominant religion of the urban poor; by the end of the century, it had spread to the countryside as well, indicating a widespread discontent with the authorities. The Donatist schism during the 4th century ad was frequently intertwined with outbreaks of tribal unrest and rebellion. The Donatists are sometimes linked to the so-called rebellious Berber spirit, but, as has always been the case throughout North African history, Berbers could be found in all camps—martyrs, saints, bishops, leaders, rebels, and so on.

From its height in the 2nd century, Roman authority in the areas beyond the North African coast weakened. North Africa during subsequent centuries slipped back towards the pre-Roman pattern of fragmentation into tribal groupings, with an increasing degree of pastoral nomadism, and a decline in urban society.

The Islamic Period

The conquest of Byzantine North Africa by Arab armies bearing the banner of Islam resulted in the gradual religio-cultural unification of the entire region, and its partial Arabization. The Berber populations’ responses ranged from fierce resistance to the victorious Arab conquerors, embodied in the semi-mythical story of the Kahina;5 joining their ranks, as they swept across North Africa and across the Straits of Gibraltar (named after the Berber commander of the Muslim forces, Tariq bin Ziyad) into the Iberian Peninsula, inaugurating more than seven centuries of Islamic rule of al-Andalus; revolts against oppressive rulers and religious heresies; establishing Islamic states and empires; and finally, a renewed marginalization in the centuries preceding European conquest.

The varied reactions by the Berber populations to the Arab invaders and subsequent processes of Islamization combined “circumstance, dialectic and tribal society.”6 Unlike previous conquests of North Africa, the Islamic one was made by a society that itself was tribally organized, helping shape the nature of the encounter between invader and native. In addition, religious praxis in North Africa appears to have been highly syncretist, combining elements of Judaism, Christianity, and paganism, and marked by active proselytizing by both of the monotheistic faiths. Hence, the message of Islam may have found a fertile soil in North Africa. From another angle, the fact that Arab conquerors carried a universalist message left little or no room for autonomous existence of the mostly non-monotheistic Berber tribes. A faux Berber Islam, the Barghawata, would thrive in parts of today’s Morocco between the 9th and 11th centuries; otherwise, Berber collective identities would eventually come to be expressed within an exclusively Islamist milieu.

The first of the three great Berber Islamic dynasties was the Almoravids (murabitun), originating from among the Sanhaja Berbers in the western Sahara Desert in the mid–11th century. They were replaced by the Almohads (muwahhidun), from the Middle Atlas Masmuda Berbers, less than one hundred years later. Their political achievements, including 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. Abd al-Mu’min, the successor to the Alomhad dynasty’s founder Ibn Tumart, was the first non-Arab to appropriate the Qur’anic title of amir al-mu’minin.7

The third great Berber Islamic state, which arose on a portion of the ruins of Almohad rule, were the Marinids (Banu Marin), a heterogeneous confederation of Zanata Berber tribes, which ruled from Fez and projected considerable power throughout the Maghrib and Andalusia between the 13th and 15th centuries. Concurrently, the Berber Hafsid dynasty established itself in Ifriqiya, proclaiming themselves as heirs to the Almohads. Moreover, for a brief moment amid the cataclysmic conquest of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258, Mohamed al-Mustansir, the Hafsid sultan from 1250 to 1277 and scion of a Berber family from the High Atlas Mountains, was the leading Muslim monarch, recognized as Caliph by the governor of Mecca and Egyptian Mamelukes.

It was especially thanks to these dynasties that Ibn Khaldun classified the Berbers as a “great nation.” The Almohads’ winning formula consisted of “a combination of a royal household, a hierarchical religious organization, a tribal military elite with Berber and Arab tribal allies, and a Spanish-type administration.”8 It was from this point onward that the Berbers became more fully Islamized, which in turn gave impetus to the process of linguistic Arabization, particularly in sacred matters. But, as Maya Shatzmiller shows, this was no simple matter, involving, instead, complex dynamics of Berber resistance and assertion within mainstream Islam.9

The provision of an eastern Arab origin myth was central to Ibn Khaldun’s classification of the Berbers. It was the outcome of hundreds of years of discussion regarding the subject, and was bound up with extant political issues and ethnic tensions, in both North Africa and Andalusia. The denigration and denial of the Berbers’ Islamic pedigree by Arab Andalusian genealogists was countered by “Boasts of the Berbers” (Mafakhir al-Barbar) literature. Eventually, the Semitic and Arab origins of the Berbers was accepted, allowing the learned Muslim class to downplay the less benign aspects of the Arab-Muslim conquest of North Africa and promote a reconciliation based on the return of long-lost cousins to the fold.10

As Islam became institutionalized and great centers of learning were established in Fez and other urban centers, accompanied by the continuous influx of Arab tribesmen from the East, Arabic was confirmed as North Africa’s preeminent language for faith, commerce, and politics. Berber dialects, on the other hand, remained largely oral, and the preserve of local tribal and familial settings. Berber speakers in the lowlands and level uplands of the Maghreb were gradually Arabized and absorbed into an Arab tribal structure speaking an Arabic dialect; those that remained were almost entirely identified with the tribal peasant populations and concentrated in more rugged and inaccessible regions.11

By the 15th century, the age of Berber Islamic dynasties was coming to an end. More localized dynasties predominated and were shaped by an increasing emphasis on sharifian origins by seekers of power in order to legitimize their claims. Berber tribes concocted fictitious genealogies to link themselves with the Prophet, in order to improve their social, political, and material standing. Culturally and religiously, however, Berbers continued to shape North African societies. The Maliki legal school (madhhab) of Islam came to predominate, thanks in large measure to its suitability to Berber tribesmen.12 In Morocco, the rise of murabits (saints/holy men), the centrality of Sufi Islamic orders, and various types of religious heteropraxis may also be understood as a synthesis of Berber culture and Islamic notions.13

The Ottoman Period

The Ottoman Empire’s expansion into North Africa began in 1517, with the conquest of Cairo. Its eventual establishment of regencies in Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli laid important groundwork for the future modern-day territorial states of Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. Both there and in the Moroccan sultanate, Berber populations were increasingly consigned to the periphery of society, although some tribes maintained alliances with the central authorities and provided auxiliary troops to them. As a named group, the Berbers gradually faded from view, even as the notoriety of “Barbary states,” a name apparently derived from the Arabic word for “Berber,” spread throughout Europe, thanks to large-scale privateering by corsairs (“pirates,” in the European discourse) against “infidel” shipping in the Mediterranean.14

The Colonial Period

France’s imperial adventure in North Africa was launched in 1830 with the conquest of the Ottoman Regency of Algiers. The territory would be officially attached to metropolitan France in 1848, and eventually be expanded southward into the Sahara, to be disgorged only in 1962 after a bloody eight-year struggle with Algeria’s independence movement. France’s colonial enterprise would subsequently extend westward into Morocco, eastward to Tunisia, and farther south into the Sahel. Algerian and Moroccan Berber populations would be profoundly shaped by the experience.


This was particularly true in Kabylie (Kabylia), the Berber-speaking, mostly mountainous region east/southeast of Algiers. Constituting approximately two-thirds of all of Algeria’s Berberophones, Kabyles were both violently subjugated and the focus of France’s “civilizing mission.” Moreover, Kabyles were central to the Algerian nationalist movement, and Kabylie was a crucial arena in the war for independence.

Kabyles (the name is derived from the Arabic qaba’il (“tribes”) or alternatively jiba’il (“mountain people”) were organized into approximately twelve tribal confederations living in 1,700 villages with some kind of larger, albeit loose, collective solidarity expressed through their identification with Sufi brotherhoods and affiliated marabouts. Moreover, Hugh Robert’s recent research highlights the importance of precolonial Kabyle political institutions, particularly village councils, in fashioning a distinct political culture and collective identity.15

One outcome of the efforts by French officials in Algeria to better understand and thus better subdue and control the native populations was the “Kabyle Myth,” or “Vulgate,” a belief that the Berbers were higher on the pecking order of human civilization than Arabs. French ideologues built up an elaborate image of the Kabyles as a people whose origins were European, and had once been mainly Christian and had been Islamized only superficially, as demonstrated by what was seen as their essentially primitive, naturalistic folk religion. Accordingly, they constituted appropriate raw material for the guiding hand of civilization to be provided by enlightened French administration. A series of dichotomies supposedly depicting the main contours of the population of the newly conquered areas were thus laid out: sedentary versus nomad, mountain versus plain, Berber versus Arab, Occident versus Orient, folk religion and Christianity versus Islam.16

Colonial policies would profoundly affect Kabyle society. But according to Mohamed Harbi, the explanation for Kabyle particularity is deeper, and includes multiple factors: the region’s partial and delayed Arabization, and consequently 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.17

The Algerian nationalist movement emerged in the first half of the 1930s. It articulated a modern collective identity based on territory, Islam, the centrality of the Arab language and affiliation with the Arab world. As James McDougall has shown, the question of Berber identity was very much on the mind of the Algerian salafi reformers, who strove to tie Algeria and its Berber populations to the Arab-Muslim East, in line with longstanding Muslim narratives.18

Over time, a current that emphasized Kabyle specificity within the Algerian nationalist movement emerged. One manifestation of this came in 1948–1949 (the “Berberist crisis”), during which time young communist-leaning secular Kabyle intellectuals and activists drawn from secondary schools and universities challenged the dominant formula of Arab-Muslim Algeria being propagated by the nationalists. Algerian identity, they declared, was intimately linked with the population’s employment of Berber dialects and Algerian colloquial Arabic, as opposed to the Modern Standard Arabic being developed in Egypt and the Fertile Crescent, with which most Algerians were not familiar.

The response was fierce. Algerian ùlama were mobilized to condemn “Berberism” as a “reactionary doctrine of imperialism” designed to divide the Algerian people. Kabyles would not be real Algerians, it was said, so long as they continued to speak the “jargon” that “burns our ears.”19

Kabyles played an essential role in the struggle for independence, at both the elite and mass levels. From 1947 onward, a small group of Kabyles under the leadership of Belkacem Krim clandestinely organized anti-French activities. Hocine Ait Ahmed joined them in 1949. They became the core group of the 1954 revolt, whose first shots were fired on November 1st. Thanks to the insistence of Krim, Kabylie was defined one of the six autonomous zones of battle. By late 1956, Kabylians held commanding positions or were disproportionately represented in nearly every political and military grouping involved in the struggle against French rule, both in Algeria and in France. However, as part of the nationalists’ bitter internal power struggle in 1956–1957, Kabyles were accused of “wanting to take over the revolution.” Debates over the unification of the army found Krim demanding equal representation between Berberophones and Arabophones. He eventually lost out, as did the officers in Kabylie who had followed him, thanks primarily to the shift in power to the “external” leadership following the harsh defeat suffered by the “internal” forces in the Battle of Algiers in 1956–1957. The Kabyles thus lost much of their preeminence in the movement’s leadership. In Roberts’s view, the defeat of the “internal” leadership greatly damaged the process of Kabyle political integration into the Algerian Muslim nation.20


As in Algeria, Moroccan Berbers both exhibited strong resistance to French conquest and accommodated themselves at times to French colonial power, and eventually participated actively in the nationalist struggle for independence; and as in Algeria, France sought to play the “Berber card” against the “Arabs” to strengthen its rule. At the same time, the Moroccan experience differed in significant ways, historically, demographically, and socially. Divided into three main groups—Ishelheyn in the High Atlas, Souss Valley and the southeast, Imazighen in the Middle Atlas, and Rifiians in the north—they still constituted a decisive majority of all Moroccan Muslims, on the eve of the French takeover.

Marshal Hubert Lyautey was the author of France’s strategy of conquest and control of Morocco in the first decades of the 20th century. Lyautey was determined to not to repeat France’s crushing of native Algerian institutions, advocating policies that respected Morocco’s indigenous traditions and social structures, albeit in ways that ensured the extension of French rule and were commensurate with French interests.

Hence, a special variant of French paternalism was developed regarding Morocco’s Berbers. The “Kabyle myth” was adapted to fit Moroccan circumstances, resulting in a rigid and oversimplistic distinction between blad al-makhzen (the areas ruled by the sultan) and blad as-siba’, the “lands of dissidence” allegedly beyond the sultan’s authority.21 The Berberité (the siba’) of so much of the Moroccan countryside inexorably led the French authorities to reify the makzhen-siba’/Arab–Berber dichotomy, and incorporate it into diverse policies for different regions.

Although France’s Moroccan protectorate, established in 1912, covered the whole of Moroccan territory, Spain was allocated control over its traditional sphere of interest in the northern Rif region of the country, as well as over remote enclaves in the far south. Spanish forces were met by a major rebellion during the first half of the 1920s, led by the Rifian Berber Muhammad bin Abdelkrim al-Khattabi, of the Ait Waghrayar tribe. His “Rifian Republic” temporarily united the Berber tribes of the region and inflicted the most catastrophic defeat on any colonial army in the 20th century (Battle of Annoual, summer of 1921). French intervention was required to ultimately defeat and abolish it, assisted by the passivity of the Moroccan Arab urban class, which viewed Abdelkrim suspiciously.22

Abdelkrim’s actions, according to Pessah Shinar, were “the first manifestation of modern militant Arabo-Berber nationalism and Islamic modernism in a purely Berber environment.”23 Was he in fact a Moroccan nationalist? Did he see himself as an alternative to the sultan? And what is his legacy? All of these questions remain relevant, and not just for the historian: in recent years, Abdelkrim has become an iconic figure in the Amazigh movement, as it strives to fashion a collective narrative in opposition to the official one.24

On May 16, 1930, just as France was completing its conquest of the remaining Berber regions, it pushed the “Berber button” in a way that could not be ignored by Moroccan Muslims. The so-called Berber dahir (an administrative edict, signed by the sultan) formalized the judicial status of Berber councils in tribal areas, and thus removed the tribal regions from sharià jurisdiction. Doing so sparked the beginning of organized opposition among the urban educated classes, giving birth to the Moroccan nationalist movement. Mosques served as the focal point to protest against the dahir, which was widely depicted as the first step toward the conversion of the Berbers to Christianity. For months, the traditional latifa prayer of supplication in times of distress was heard in Moroccan mosques, as the pious beseeched Allah “not to be separated from our brothers, the Berbers.” 25

As for the Berbers themselves, although some tribes did opt out in favor of sharià, for the most part, their voices were not heard during the entire controversy. As in Algeria, the Berber was used by Moroccan nationalists as the “national signifier,” while also being implicitly stigmatized by the association with France.26

French policies regarding the Berbers of the Middle and High Atlas regions differed sharply. In the Middle Atlas, a school for the children of local notables, the Collège d’Azrou, was opened in order to train junior bureaucrats serving the colonial order. Over time, its graduates would constitute a new Francophone rural Berber elite, develop a Moroccan nationalist sensibility (to France’s chagrin), and eventually be integrated into various segments of the postcolonial national structure. Moreover, a portion of this elite would eventually go on to play the Hrochian role of fashioning a modern Berber ethno-linguistic identity in response to the twin processes of urbanization and state centralization.27

Farther south, in the High Atlas Mountains, valleys, and southeast oases, France pursued a very different Berber policy, aligning with Si Thami el Glaoui. Glaoui and his brother Madani were the most powerful of the “grand caids” who had emerged in the 19th century to rule their domains with an iron hand and accumulate great wealth, owing to their dominance of key mountain passes, and thus the caravan trade. Thami el Glaoui was given free rein to maintain feudal-style rule, as France sought to keep the Berber areas from the influence of the nationalists.

Formally, Glaoui maintained his allegiance to the sultan. However, this changed in the early 1950s, as the Moroccan nationalist movement, led by the Istiqlal party, gathered steam. Working in tandem with the French, Glaoui helped to depose the sultan and replace him by an elderly obscure member of the ruling Alaoui family. The move backfired, as the exiled sultan, Mohamed V, quickly became a symbol for Moroccans to rally around. Anti-French agitation and violence spread from the urban areas to the countryside, under the banner of the Army of Liberation. Overwhelmingly Berber in composition, and commanded by both Berbers and Arabs, its operations would be decisive in the closing stage of Morocco’s struggle for independence. Theirs was an affective, implicit nationalism, lacking both the ideological constructs of the salafi-inspired national movement of the urban centers, and a specific Berberist agenda. Rather, their agenda was simple: ridding the country of foreign rule, and restoring the sultan, the clearest symbol of collective identity among Morocco’s populace, to the throne.28

Mohamed V returned from a fifteen-month exile on November 16, 1955. Glaoui, now ill with cancer, could only prostrate himself before Mohamed in a gesture of obeisance and reconciliation. Upon his death, on January 31, 1956 (just one month before Morocco officially became independent), Glaoui’s palace in Marrakesh was sacked, his economic empire destroyed, and his kasbah in Telouet abandoned.

Independence—Stage One

From the outset, the newly independent states of Morocco and Algeria were intimate rivals, offering competing geopolitical, ideological, and sociocultural visions and orientations. Regarding their Berber populations, however, the ruling elites of both countries shared the same basic goal: to channel their Berber populations toward a homogeneous national identity, based on a combination of Arab, Islamic, and national-territorial elements, with Berber culture to be relegated to folklore status and effectively marketed to foreign tourists through horsemanship exhibitions (fantasia), music, and traditional crafts. At the same time, the relationship between the new Algerian state and significant portions of its Berber community would be far more adversarial and overtly politicized than in Morocco

In both countries, state-building and national-integration processes in the decades after independence led to a decline in the percentage of Berber speakers. However, a new assertiveness among Berbers gradually emerged as well. Militant Berberism would first manifest itself in Algeria 1980: an outburst of particularist Kabyle ethnic identity known as the “Berber Spring.” The rise of a Berberist current and the state’s heavy-handed response was watched closely next door by both the Moroccan authorities and Moroccan Berberist elements.


The victory over France by the Front de Liberation National (FLN) conferred its leaders with unchallengeable legitimacy. However, translating that into successful state building was no small task. The regime’s guiding ideological formula was Arab-Islamic socialism, as it sought to build a uniform national identity by establishing the hegemony of the Arabic language and a revolutionary, anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist single-party regime aligned with so-called progressive forces in the Arab world. Algeria developed “a kind of bicephalous economy based on two different standards, and resulted in incalculable social, cultural, and ideological contradictions.”29 Poorer Algerians of rural origin made up a high percentage of a post-independence generation educated exclusively in Arabic, whose opportunity for economic advancement was limited.

The state’s efforts to centralize its authority and promote national integration also had the contrary effect among a portion of Kabylie’s cultural producers and transmitters and a considerable number of Kabyle youth. A more modern, collective Kabyle-Amazigh consciousness was being fashioned, involving what Anthony Smith calls the processes of historical re-appropriation and vernacularization of political and cultural symbolism.30 Especially important in this regard was the “New Kabyle Song” phenomenon, which emerged in the 1970s: “the music itself and the circuits through which it moved” (radio stations in both Algeria and France, cassette tape recorders, the budding world music scene)“helped to produce Berber heritage as an object of desire.”31 Concurrently, Kabyle intellectuals in France played a crucial role in articulating the features of a modern Kabyle identity.32

The Berber Spring

Le Printemps Berbère (“the Berber Spring”; “Tafsut Imazighen”), in March–April 1980, was a lengthy protest against cultural repression. The authorities’ last minute banning of a scheduled March 10, 1980, university lecture on the role of poetry in traditional Kabyle society by Kabyle luminary Mouloud Mammeri provided the spark. University students went on strike, as did those in secondary schools and businesses in the Kabylie region. A police crackdown on April 20 ended the strike. But the Berber Spring events quickly became a seminal reference point, a “memory site” (lieu de mémoire),33 for Berber culturalists everywhere. More generally, according to Benjamin Stora, the “Berber spring” produced, “for the first time since independence and from within Algeria, a public counter-discourse of real import, in a country operating on the principle of unanimism.”34

In October 1988, at least 500 persons were killed, mostly in Algiers, by the security forces responding to large-scale violent protests. The events rocked the state, inaugurated a far-reaching albeit brief democratic opening, and resulted in the sudden emergence of a powerful Islamist movement. Concurrently, Kabyle political activism was now legalized and channeled through two parties: Front des Forces Socialistes (FFS) of former FLN leader Hocine Ait Ahmed, which promoted a more national agenda; and the smaller, more militantly Berberist and explicitly secular Rassemblement pour la Culture et la Démocratie (RCD). Moreover, hundreds of cultural associations were established in Kabylie, and smaller numbers in other Berberophone regions as well: the Aures, Mzab, Jebel Chenoua, among the Touareg in Ahaggar-Ajjer, and among Berber communities in Algeria’s major cities. At the same time, it should be emphasized that their demands were not separatist, or even for autonomy, but for genuine recognition and integration into a reformed Algerian polity.


France’s forty-four year protectorate regime had laid down many of the institutional foundations for the newly independent Moroccan kingdom. However, the task of successful state building and nation building had only just begun.

A number of episodes of dissidence in Berber regions marked the first years after independence. The most serious, an attempt to regain tribal autonomy in the Rif, December 1958–January 1959, was brutally crushed by the Moroccan Army, commanded by then–crown prince Moulay Hasan. Throughout Hasan’s long reign as king (1961–1999), he avoided visiting the region, which remained one of the country’s poorest and most problematic areas.

Ironically, the troubles in the Rif helped spark a process by which the earlier partnership between the palace and the nationalist parties against the French began to dissolve. The monarchy was now fashioned into the country’s central ruling institution. Over time, Hasan II progressively emasculated all opposition through an adept mix of carrots and sticks, and the tireless promulgation of religious and national symbols around the royal personage.35

Hasan’s approach to Berber–state relations was more subtle than the one adopted by Algeria’s ruling FLN. In theory, at least, the Berbers could be included within a national identity centered around the monarch’s status as the amir al-mu’minin (“commander of the faithful”), a position of both religious and temporal significance. Forging an alliance with rural Berber notables, many organized under the banner of the Mouvement Populaire party, and his marrying two Berber women from a powerful Middle Atlas tribe reinforced this message of inclusion.36

At the same time, Morocco’s urban elites and the monarchy all emphasized the primacy of the Arabic language and the need to anchor the state in both Islamic and Arab nationalist values. School textbooks emphasized that Moroccan history began with the arrival of Islam, whose message the enlightened Arab Muslims brought to their primitive Berber cousins. While disagreeing on much else, the more conservative Arab-Islamic Istiqlal party and the majority of the left-wing secular UNFP party were of similar mind regarding the need to submerge the Berbers into a larger Arabized milieu.

King Hasan barely survived attempted military coups, in 1971 and 1972. Most of those implicated were Berber officers, foremost among them General Mohamed Oufkir; Oufkir and many of his associates had advanced through the ranks of the French Army during the colonial period and then formed the backbone of the Moroccan armed forces during the fifteen years of independence. Their motivations were not explicitly “Berber” in nature, but it is generally agreed that there was a “Berber coloring” to the coup attempts, owing to their common backgrounds, links, and concerns. Many among Morocco’s Arabophone elites viewed the coups as a Berber challenge to their privileged position in society, and Berbers were heavily stigmatized as a result.37

First Stirrings of Modern Berberism

Responding to the Berbers’ political, ideological, and socioeconomic marginalization, some Berber students, teachers, and university staff, now living in Rabat, initiated a Berber identity-building project. The first cultural association was founded in 1967, and others would follow. Over the next decade, Berber secular intellectuals disillusioned with leftist pan-Arab politics would join. As in Algeria, music became a preferred idiom for Berber identity expression. Here and there, Berber politicians and intellectuals raised the issue of promoting “popular culture.” However, the authorities eventually cracked down, banning the publication of journals and, most importantly, imprisoning in 1982 Ali Sidqi Azaykou, an Amazigh poet and educator, for his unvarnished criticism of Morocco’s systematic marginalization and neglect of its Berber communities.

Stage Two: The Emergence of the Amazigh Movement

The 1990s witnessed a sharp increase in Berberist assertiveness in both Algeria and Morocco, against the background of Algeria’s violent implosion and Morocco’s controlled political and civic opening. This trend continued throughout the first decade of the new millennium.


The violent confrontation between Algeria’s military regime and armed Islamist factions during the 1990s greatly impacted Kabyles and the Berber issue as a whole. Kabyle Berber artists were physically attacked during the years of civil war by the Islamists, not as Berbers as such, but as symbols of a decadent, evil culture that they sought to eradicate. At the same time, relations with the state authorities remained charged. An extended school strike between September 1994 and March 1995 demanded, inter alia, the recognition of Tamazight as an official language. Concurrently, the FFS joined with other opposition groups in a political initiative to end the violence and restore democratic rule, which would include recognition of the Amazigh element of Algerian culture. In late April 1995, the Algerian authorities, seeking support against the Islamist insurgency, provided such an acknowledgment for the first time, establishing a Haut Commissariat a L’Amazighité (HCA) attached to the president’s office that would be “charged with the rehabilitation of Tamazight [culture] . . . one of the foundations of the national identity.”38 A similar formulation was added to the Algerian constitution in 1996, and the teaching of Tamazight was introduced into a number of schools.

However, Kabyle militancy and alienation remained unpacified. New Arabization laws rankled; the murder of the Kabyle singer and iconic militant Matoub Lounes on June 25, 1998, generated outrage. His funeral procession turned into an anti-government demonstration of 100,000 persons that erupted into weeks-long outbursts of protest and violence against the pouvoir, who were deemed complicit in the murder.

In spring 2001, the death of an eighteen-year-old youth in police custody set off Le Printemps Noir (“Black Spring”; Tafsut Taberkant). Rioters attacked symbols of state authority such as town halls, tax-collection offices, state company buildings, and offices of the ruling political parties. More than 120 persons were killed by the security forces.

Almost spontaneously, local bodies organized under the banner of the Mouvement Citoyen Des Aârchs (“Citizens Movement of the Tribes”), which combined a modernist, national democratic agenda with a specific Kabyle orientation, as set forth in the El-Kseur (Leqsar) platform. Initially, their mobilization capacities were extremely impressive; over the next six years, Kabylie would be in a state of quasi-civic revolt, manifested by repeated strikes and boycotts of parliamentary and municipal elections. Moreover, “autonomy,” not just cultural but also political, a notion dreaded by the postcolonial state authorities in Morocco and Algeria, began appearing in Kabyle public discourse,

The authorities, for their part, employed a variety of tactics to damp down Kabyle militancy, on both the discursive and policy levels. Keen to prevent the country’s Arabic-speaking majority from supporting the El-Kseur platform’s broader political and socioeconomic agendas, it focused exclusively on the demands related to Berber culture and identity. Tamazight was given constitutional recognition as a “national” language in April 2002, and Amazighité as a fundamental component of Algerian identity. It was a symbolic concession that did not, however, translate into a significant upgrading of Tamazight’s status, let alone its equalization. The authorities also sought to maintain the preeminence of Arabic by standardizing the writing of Tamazight in Arabic script. Doing so would reverse a half century of diffusion of Tamazight in a Latin script, angering Berberists to no end. Politically, the regime gradually succeeded in coopting and manipulating various Kabyle factions. By 2007, the extra-parliamentary “citizens movement” had run out of steam, as the movement failed to institutionalize and centralize itself behind a recognized leadership and coherent program.


The last decade of King Hasan’s rule (d. 1999) was marked by policies of incremental liberalization. His approach was reflected in the Berber-state nexus. The rise of militant Islamism and concurrently the increasing politicization of the Kabyle Berber community served as warning signs for the Moroccan regime. Kabyle militancy also inspired Moroccan Berberists toward greater self-assertion.

The “Agadir Charter for Linguistic and Cultural Rights” was issued by six Berber culture associations in 1991. The charter laid out the Moroccan Amazigh movement’s worldview: Morocco’s cultural identity was a plural one, whose oldest and most deep-rooted component was the Amazigh language, literature, and the arts. However, Amazigh culture had been systematically marginalized in all spheres of Moroccan life. Politically, the Moroccan political elites, including the “Salafi current,” preferred to build a centralized national state based on an “exclusive ideology and linguistic and cultural uniformity,” which rejected the country’s Amazigh dimension. The charter also laid out a series of actions that would bring the Amazigh language and culture into the center of Moroccan society, in the context of building a democratic culture.39

In the summer of 1994, following the arrest and highly publicized trial of Berber activists, King Hasan altered the official Moroccan discourse regarding Amazigh identity. Wrapping the entire issue in the bonds of Moroccan patriotism, Hasan recognized the Berber communities’ resistance to European colonialism and raised the possibility of teaching Morocco’s “dialects” (lahjat) in the school system, at least in the primary grades, alongside Arabic. “We have to hold to the language of the Qur’an,” Hasan stated, “but not at the expense of our authenticity and dialects.”40 Hasan’s gesture was primarily tactical, one designed to contain and manage the societal divisions on the issue. Nonetheless, in doing so, he provided crucial legitimacy and encouragement for the Berber culture movement.

Mohamed VI’s Morocco and the Amazigh Movement

While not formally challenging the legacy of his father, Mohamed VI quickly sought to put his own stamp on Moroccan affairs as a kinder, gentler monarch attuned to the needs of his people, fashioning a new image as “king of the people” and “king of the poor.”

Mohamed’s initial gesture toward his Berber subjects came just three months after his coronation, when he made a high-profile motorcade journey through the long-neglected and historically alienated Rif region and adjacent eastern province. The visit was especially charged, as Riffians still remembered that his father had led a ruthless crackdown against Riffian rebels in 1958–1959. In addition to promising social and economic development and the alleviation of poverty, Mohamed also explicitly promoted Berber–Arab reconciliation in a highly symbolic fashion, meeting with the son of Rifian icon Abdelkrim al-Khattabi, who had established a “Republic of the Rif” during his five-year war against Spanish and French colonial powers between 1921 and 1926.

Berber activism and the predilections of the palace were concretized by an alliance between the new king and his former tutor and Amazigh luminary Mohamed Chafik. The process was marked by three seminal developments: (1) the issuing on March 1, 2000, of the “Berber Manifesto”; (2) the King’s issuing, on October 17, 2001, of a royal dahir establishing the Institut Royal de la Culture Amazighe (IRCAM), to be headed by Chafik; and (3) the inauguration in 2003 of Tamazight language classes in Moroccan primary schools.

The manifesto was composed mainly by Chafik and signed by more than two hundred prominent intellectuals, artists, and industrialists. Like the Agadir Charter, the manifesto is a core text for the modern Amazigh identity project, laying out a coherent historical narrative that stands in sharp contrast to the official Moroccan one and a clear and specific program of remediation.41

On July 30, 2001, King Mohamed officially spread his royal patronage over the Moroccan Amazigh community, announcing his intent to establish the IRCAM, which would be charged with protecting, researching, promoting, and disseminating the various manifestations of Amazigh culture. In issuing the October 17 Dahir, the king donned traditional Berber headgear for the ceremony, held on the Middle Atlas Ajdir plateau, overlooking Khenifra, the site of a historic meeting between his grandfather, Sultan Mohamed V, and heads of Berber tribes in 1956, and an area from which his mother originated.

On one level, the mutual embrace of the palace and the Amazigh movement could be seen as the renewal of the historic post-independence alliance between the palace and Berber rural notables in order to ensure continuity and stability in the Moroccan body politic. It also served as yet another example of the monarchy’s classic tactic of coopting and taming potential opposition forces. But the king’s recognition of the Amazigh as a collective entity central to Moroccan history and culture also marked a historic departure from past patterns.

Over the course of the ensuing decade, Amazigh activism began spreading beyond the confines of intellectual seminars and publications, particularly among the younger generation of the southeast and Souss regions, core areas of the Moroccan Berber world. Still, state authorities often placed obstacles in their way, including preventing parents from conferring Amazigh names on their newborn children.

Stage Three: The Arab Spring Upheavals and the Berbers

Although the Berber issue was not the primary driver of the 2011 protests and uprisings in North Africa, it was very much present. Important symbolic achievements were registered; translating them into concrete gains remains a formidable task. And although no Maghrib state threatens to fracture along a Berber–Arab fissure, ethnic differences and particularities have become more salient within an increasingly contested political space.


Young Amazigh activists were very much part of the heterogeneous protest movement that took to the streets in Morocco in the early months of 2011, joining in the calls for reform and democracy and an end to corruption, while also raising the banner of Amazigh identity.42 King Mohamed VI deftly defused the protests by initiating a much ballyhooed constitutional reform process, which included explicit recognition of Tamazight as an official state language alongside of Arabic, and that the Amazigh people and culture constituted an integral component of Moroccan identity. It was a historic breakthrough by any measure. On the other hand, the language equalizing the status of Tamazight and Arabic was watered down in the final text, and the constitutionally required adoption of an “organic law” to concretize Tamazight’s new status had still not been finalized five years later. In addition, the teaching of Tamazight in the educational system, which was hastily and haphazardly initiated in 2003, continued to be fraught with difficulties.

Berber–state relations in the Rif region continued to be charged. In March 2011, five protestors in al-Hoceima died in a fire, which many believe to have been perpetrated by the police. Violent confrontations in early 2012 highlighted anew the region’s traditional sense of alienation from the makhzen. And in late October 2016, a fishmonger in al-Hoceima was crushed to death by a garbage truck, apparently on the order of police at the scene, while he was trying to retrieve his confiscated merchandise. The horrific event sparked the largest series of mass protests in Morocco since the 2011 demonstration. Calls for “justice for the shahid” (“martyr”) were coupled with broader condemnations of hogra, the systematic contempt that the authorities displayed toward ordinary people. As in the 2011 and 2012 protests, Amazigh and Riffian flags were prominently displayed.

Overall, Amazigh identity in Morocco has been legitimized to an unprecedented degree. Cultural expressions through music, poetry, and dance are flourishing, aided by social media, Youtube, and other forms of mass communication that have contributed to the deepening of Berber collective imagining across the globe.43 At the same time, the state is interested in preventing the Berber question from becoming a political one; the Islamist current, which includes the country’s leading political party and prime minister, is hostile to the Berber issue; and social and economic deprivation among Berbers in the country’s peripheral regions remains large scale.


No overarching social or political protest movement emerged in Algeria that seriously threatened the status quo. Nonetheless, the Kabyle issue was never far from the minds of the authorities. In 2016, they suddenly decided to follow the Moroccan example and accord Tamazight the status of an official language. Tactical considerations were paramount, and the authorities were even less committed than their counterparts in Morocco to giving real meaning to the text. One indication was that the new constitution also confirms the supremacy of Arabic, stating, “Arabic is the national and official language . . . [and] remains the official language of the State.”44

Like the previous upgrade in 2002, this one was done for the same reason: to try and take the wind out of the sails of continued Kabyle militancy and alienation. Overt political terminology such as “autonomy,” “self-determination,” and even “independence” was increasingly being employed by what up until recently had been mainly a linguistic-cultural movement. One noteworthy indication of this was the Manifeste Kabylie, a lengthy document drawn up at the end of 2014 and signed by scores of Kabyle intellectuals, and which calls for the reformation of the Algerian state into a consociational democracy, one in which the Kabylie region would have a defined and territorially demarcated status, like Quebec and Catalonia, and share power with other communities in a democratic Algeria.45

Ethnic tensions have also arisen in recent years on the Algerian periphery. In the Mzab region, 600 km south of Algiers, centering on the town of Ghardaia, Ibadi Muslim Berbers have had to confront challenges by neighboring Arab tribes, who are being settled there by the authorities. Although there are certainly local factors that have contributed to the periodic violent clashes, they clearly possess an ethnic dimension as well, and solidarity with jailed Mzabi leaders has been expressed across the Amazigh universe, including by Kabyle parliamentarians in Algiers.


During Muàmmar Qaddafi’s four decades of dictatorial rule, Libya was a hostile environment for its mostly Ibadi Berber population, which numbers approximately 500,000 and traditionally dwells in the Jabal Nafusa highlands of Tripolitania or in desert localities such as the Cyrenaican town of Awjila.

The 2011 uprising and ultimate overthrow of Qaddafi was the beginning of a new era for Libyan Amazigh. Many of its young men participated in the struggle, and as Qaddafi’s authority vanished, the Berber language was quickly brought into schools and local media. Throughout the turmoil of post-Qaddafi Libya, Amazigh activists have demanded that their linguistic and cultural rights be recognized in a new constitution that was being tortuously drafted. A law passed in June 2013 recognized the existence of the Amazigh (as well as the Tebu and Tuareg) as minority groups and recognized their languages, enabling the creation of media outlets in minority languages and the teaching of minority languages in schools. Also the most recent draft of the constitution acknowledges the Amazigh component of Libyan identity and commits the state to protecting and developing the usage of Amazigh language and culture.46

Nonetheless, a report by the International Commission of Jurists concluded that given the history of state-sanctioned discrimination against minorities in Libya, they would need much stronger protection than the language being proffered in the draft constitution.47


Over the centuries, Tunisia was almost entirely Arabized: Berbers now constitute only 1–2 percent of the population, and were concentrated in a few peripheral southern villages and on the island of Djerba. But with the overthrow of the Ben Ali regime in January 2011, Amazigh culture associations sprung up, and the issue became part of the larger debate regarding the contours of Tunisia’s national identity.

The Tuareg and Mali

The traditionally nomadic Tuareg constitute a distinct group within the Berber universe, residing primarily in the Sahara-Sahel regions of Mali and Niger, along with much smaller numbers in Algeria’s far south and a sprinkling in other adjoining countries. Their preservation of the ancient Tifinagh script and alleged pure Berberness, as well as their decades-long struggles with the regimes in Niger and Mali, gave them special status within the Amazigh movement.

The breakdown of the Malian state in 2011, due in no small part to fallout from the collapse of Qaddafi’s rule in Libya and resulting exodus from there of Tuareg mercenaries, led to the proclamation of Azawad, an independent Tuareg-dominated republic in northern Mali.48 This was quickly superseded by a radical Islamist takeover of the region and then French military intervention seeking to drive out the Islamists and restore the authority of the central government. The situation remains fragile: the Malian authorities and the Azawad leadership agreed in 2015 on the establishment of autonomous rule for the region within the Malian state, but implementation is far from guaranteed. Mali’s future will depend, at least in part, on whether Tuareg grievances can be successfully addressed.

Discussion of the Literature

Berbers have occupied a paradoxical place in Western scholarship. On the one hand, they have provided a rich field for inquiry by leading social scientists: luminaries such as Pierre Bourdieu, Ernest Gellner, and Clifford Geertz, following in the footsteps of the great medieval historian Ibn Khaldun, drew on their research of specific Berber communities to formulate broad intellectual constructs.49 On the other hand, the dialectics of colonialism and nationalism, followed by a generation of postcolonial state-building and nation-building efforts, led scholars to downplay Berber specificity, at least in the context of nation-building projects. Nearly four decades have passed since the publication of Gellner and Micaud’s enormously rich and still indispensable volume on Berbers and their place in modern North Africa.50 While acknowledging the importance of the Berber dimension of North African history, society, and modern politics, the volume was underpinned by a belief that Berbers as a collective would not pose a serious challenge to the existing order, and might well be eventually subsumed within the prevailing national-Islamic states. Much has happened since to call this belief into question, accompanied by the emergence of renewed interest in Berber studies. Michael Brett and Elizabeth Fentress, the former a historian of medieval Islam, the latter an archaeologist of Rome and North Africa, coauthored a synthetic treatment of Berber history, society, and culture from its origins in the mists of time, through its first contacts with invading civilizations and up through the Islamic and colonial periods, to a concluding nod to contemporary, post-independence developments. The book constitutes the essential starting point for anyone interested in the Berbers.51 Bruce Maddy-Weitzman’s subsequent book on the modern Berber identity movement, against the background of state weakness, constitutes an essential continuation of Brett and Fentress’s study, with a dual focus: on the Amazigh communities themselves, and on their interactions with state authorities and other social forces.52 Two important edited volumes in English have also been produced in the last decades that focus on the nexus between ethnicity, culture, politics, and history: by Nabil Boudraa and Joseph Kraus,53 and by Katherine E. Hoffman and Susan Gilson Miller. Both volumes bring together some of the very best of the new generation of scholars working on Berber issues from a variety of perspectives: history, anthropology, political science, education, literary studies, and art history.54 David Montgomery Hart’s numerous detailed studies of Moroccan Berber tribes are of enormous value.55 One should also mention important French-language studies.56 In addition, a number of outstanding monographs focusing on particular issues in the Berber universe have been produced, many of them by a new generation of cultural anthropologists, e.g., Jane Goodman’s study of modern Berber cultural and commemorative praxes;57 Paul Silverstein’s analysis of diaspora-homeland dynamics in the case of France and Algeria,58 and Katherine Hoffman’s nuanced treatment of the language practices of Berber women in rural Morocco.59 Hugh Roberts’ tour de force on the history of pre-colonial Kabylie challenges long-accepted notions of the underpinnings of Kabyle culture and society.60 James McDougall has pointedly highlighted the place of the Berbers as “national signifier” in the Algerian nationalist movement, particularly among the reformist ùlama.61 Lawrence Rosen’s most recent book is a layered and nuanced portrait of Moroccan society and culture in the throes of change but still deeply grounded in its particular, Islamic-centered universe.62 Maya Shatzmiller has provided a new look at one of the great medieval Berber Islamic empires.63 Salem Chaker’s writings64 and guiding hand in the ongoing production of the Encyclopédie Bèrbere have made a major contribution to our knowledge of the Berber world, past and present. And among Amazigh activists in Morocco, there has been considerable interest in researching the counter-Islamic Barghwata kingdom that ruled portions of the country for three hundred years, beginning in the 9th century, which they deem to have been the quintessential assertion of Berber identity against the challenge posed by Islamic rule.65

Taken together, the wealth of new scholarship, as well as the passage of time and broader changes in academic thinking, has long since put paid to earlier emphasis on overarching meta-historical themes in North African history and such problematic notions as “national character.” These concepts had been embraced by French colonial historians and administrators, underpinned by an obvious political agenda of justifying French rule, to explain why the Maghrib region had not developed a strong and unified political center over the many centuries of Islamic rule. Their answer focused on what they believed were the Berbers’ innate rebellious and anarchical tendencies that repeatedly threatened settled society, tendencies that also were believed to give the Berbers their inner essence in the face of more powerful conquering civilizations.66 Amazigh activists and North African nationalist historians seeking to “decolonize” history, for example, Abdallah Laroui, energetically rejected this view, pointing to the Berber Hellenistic kingdoms as proof that Berbers had agency in ancient history and were capable of large-scale organization and development.67 Laroui also accounted for the decline of social, political, and cultural life under larger frameworks in North Africa during the late Roman/Byzatine era as stemming not from a Berber “essence” but from “a dialectic response.”68 Patricia Lorcin’s subsequent study of the “Kabyle myth” highlighted the use of pseudo-scientific scholarship in the service of the French colonial project.69

Additional Issues

Regarding the nature and origins and Tamazight, in all of its varieties, most, but not all, scholars accept that there exists some sort of relationship between ancient Libyan and modern Tamazight.70 Conversely, the widely accepted notion that ancient Egyptian was not related to or influenced by the Amazigh language has been challenged by Helen Hagen.71

Berber contributions to social, political, and cultural developments in al-Andalus are the subject of considerable dispute. The dominant narrative is that the first waves of invading Muslim Berbers shed the components of their original identity fairly rapidly and assimilated into the larger sociocultural entity that emerged, which was fully formed by the 11th century.72 However, elements of Berber identity (e.g., language, tribal affiliation) among the original waves of invaders may have persisted much longer than previously thought, at least among the lower strata of society.73 In any case, newer Berbers imported by various rulers did not assimilate into society, and ultimately contributed to its destabilization. Some Arab sources characterize the fracturing of the Cordoba Caliphate in 1031 as due to what is known in Arab sources as al-fitna al-barbariyya (“the Berber insurrection”), a negative view that probably drew on older, enduring themes.

Primary Sources

The main sources for contemporary Amazigh affairs are the innumerable websites and social-media platforms established by Amazigh activists. Prominent ones include the official site of the Congrès Mondial Amazigh,, Tawiza, Amazigh World, Tamurt Imazighen, and the Amazigh Cultural Association in America.

Michael Peyron’s website is also a very useful source for Berber culture materials, particularly oral history and poetry.

The trilingual monthly Le Monde Amazigh, published in Rabat, is an excellent source for both lengthy essays on topical and historical issues, and news and information.

During the 1990s, the monthly Izuran-Racines, published in Tizi-Ouzou, the capital of the Kabylie region in Algeria, was also an excellent source of material.

The Royal Institute for Moroccan Amazigh Culture has produced extensive material since being established in 2001 on linguistic, cultural, and historic issues.

Periodic reports by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination(CERD) evaluate governments’ compliance with human-rights standards and responses to earlier CERD reports as they refer to the status of Berber communities in North African states.

The annual US State Department Human Rights Reports cover North African countries and include brief references to their Berber populations.

French colonial archives are located in two places: 1. The National Overseas Archives (Archives nationales d'outre-mer or ANOM), originally the Centre for Overseas Archives (Centre des archives d’outre-mer), in Aix-en-Provence; and 2. Centre des Archives Diplomatiques-Nantes.

An additional and valuable source of material on Moroccan Berbers is the Archives of Arsène Roux, located at Institut d’études et de recherches sur le monde arabe et musulman (IREMAM), Aix-en-Provence. The Moroccan National Archives and National Library are located in Rabat.

Encyclopédie Bèrbere, multiple volumes.

International Crisis Group, “Algeria: Unrest and Impasse in Kabylia,” Middle East/North Africa Report 15 (June 10, 2003).

“L’Etat marocain et la question amazighe, Rapport alternatif de Tamazgha au Comité des droits économiques, sociaux et culturels, Nations Unies, Conseil Économique e Social, 36eme session du Comité des droits économiques sociaux et culturels, Genève, 1er au 19 mai 2006,”,

“Le royame du Maroc et les droits des Amazighs. Rapport alternatif de l’AMA aux Nations Unies, au Conseil Economique et Social, à propos du Pacte International relatif aux Droits Economiques, Sociaux et Culturels”:”

Imazighen en Libye: rapport de Tamazgha au CERD”.

Plate-forme: Option Amazighe”.

“Le Manifeste Berbere The Berber Manifesto”.

Further Reading

Becker, Cynthia. Amazigh Arts in Morocco: Women Shaping Berber Identity. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006.Find this resource:

Boudraa, Nabil, and Joseph Krause, eds. North African Mosaic: A Cultural Reappraisal of Ethnic and Religious Minorities. Newcastle, U.K.: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007.Find this resource:

Brett, Michael, and Elizabeth Fentress. The Berbers. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.Find this resource:

Chaker, Salem. Berbères Aujourd’hui. 2d ed. Paris: L’Harmattan, 1998.Find this resource:

Claudot-Hawad, Hélène, ed. berbères ou arab? Le tango des specialists. Aix-en-Provence: Non Lieu/IREMAMM, 2006.Find this resource:

Crawford, David. Moroccan Households in the World Economy: Labor and Inequality in a Berber Village. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Ennaji, Moha, ed. “Berber Sociolinguistics. ”International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 123 (1997).Find this resource:

Galley, Micheline, ed., in collaboration with David R. Marshall. Proceedings of the First Congress on Mediterranean Studies of Arabo-Berber Influence. Algiers: Société Nationale D’Édition et De Diffusion, 1973.Find this resource:

Gellner, Ernest, and Charles Micaud, eds. Arabs and Berbers: From Tribe to Nation in North Africa. London: Duckworth, 1973.Find this resource:

Goodman, Jane. Berber Culture on the World Stage. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Grandguillaume, Gilbert. Arabisation et politique linguistique au Maghreb. Paris: Maisonneuuve, 1983.Find this resource:

Hannoum, Abdelmajid. Post-colonial Memories: The Legend of the Kahina, a North African Heroine. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2001.Find this resource:

Hart, David M. Tribe and Society in Rural Morocco. Portland, OR: Frank Cass, 2000.Find this resource:

Hoffman, Katherine E. We Share Walls: Language, Land, and Gender in Berber Morocco. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008.Find this resource:

Hoffman, Katherine E., and Susan Gilson Miller, eds. Berbers and Others: Shifting Parameters of Ethnicity in the Contemporary Maghrib. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Ilahiane, Hsain. Historical Dictionary of the Berbers (Imazighen). Oxford: Scarecrow Press, 2006.Find this resource:

Lorcin, Patricia. Imperial Identities: Stereotyping, Prejudice and Race in Colonial Algeria. London: I.B. Tauris, 1999.Find this resource:

Maddy-Weitzman, Bruce. The Berber Identity Movement and the Challenge to North African States. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011.Find this resource:

McDougall, James. History and the Culture of Nationalism in Algeria. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2006.Find this resource:

Pennell, C. R. A Country with a Government and a Flag: The Rif War in Morocco, 1921–1926. Wisbech, U.K.: Menas Press, 1986.Find this resource:

Rachik, Hassan, ed., Usages de l’identité Amazighe au Maroc. Casablanca: Imprimerie Najah el Jadida, 2006.Find this resource:

Roberts, Hugh, Berber Government: The Kabyle Polity in Pre-colonial Algeria. London: I.B.Tauris, 2014.Find this resource:

Shatzmiller, Maya. The Berbers and the Islamic State, The Marinid Experience in Pre-protectorate Morocco. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener, 2000.Find this resource:

Silverstein, Paul A. Algeria in France: Transpolitics, Race and Nation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004.Find this resource:


(1.) David M. Hart, “Scratch a Moroccan, Find a Berber,” The Journal of North African Studies 4.2 (1999): 26.

(2.) L. Carl Brown, “Maghrib Historiography: The Unit of Analysis Problem,” in The Maghrib in Question, eds. Michel Le Gall and Kenneth Perkins (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997), 9.

(3.) Michael Brett and Elizabeth Fentress, The Berbers (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), 10–24.

(4.) Abdallah Laroui, The History of the Maghrib, An Interpretive Essay (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977), 64.

(5.) Abdelmajid Hannoum, Post-colonial Memories: The Legend of the Kahina, a North African Heroine (Heinemann: Portsmouth, NH, 2001).

(6.) Michael Brett, “The Islamisation of Egypt and North Africa” (Jerusalem: The Nehemia Levtzion Center for Islamic Studies, 2006), 22.

(7.) Allen James Fromherz, The Almohads: The Rise of an Islamic Empire (London: I.B. Tauris 2010).

(8.) Ira M. Lapidus, A History of Islamic Societies (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 375.

(9.) Maya Shatzmiller, The Berbers and the Islamic State, The Marinid Experience in Pre-protectorate Morocco (Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener, 2000), xiii–xvi.

(10.) Shatzmiller, The Berbers and the Islamic State, xiv, 17–27, 31–39.

(11.) Brett and Fentress, The Berbers, 134.

(12.) Mohamed El-Mansour, “Moroccan Islam Observed,” The Maghreb Review 29.1–4 (2004): 214.

(13.) Mohamed Chafik, A Brief Survey of Thirty-Three Centuries of Amazigh History, ed. Jilali Saib (Rabat: Institut Royal de la Culture Amazighe, 2005), 70–74; and Mohamed Chtatou, “Saints and Spirits and their Significance in Moroccan Cultural Beliefs and Practices: An Analysis of Westermarck’s Work,” Morocco 1 (1996): 62–84.

(14.) Richard B. Parker, Uncle Sam in Barbary (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2004), xiv, n.1.

(15.) Hugh Roberts, Berber Government: The Kabyle Polity in Pre-colonial Algeria (London: I.B. Tauris, 2014).

(16.) Patricia M. E. Lorcin, Imperial Identities: Stereotyping, Prejudice and Race in Colonial Algeria (London: I.B. Tauris, 1999), 146–195; and Paul. A. Silverstein, “The Kabyle Myth: Colonization and the Production of Ethnicity,” in From the Margins: Historical Anthropologies and its Future, ed. Brian Keith Axel (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002), 122–135.

(17) Mohammed Harbi, “Nationalism algérien et identité berbère,” Peuples Mediterraneens Mediterranean Peoples 11 (1980): 31.

(18.) James McDougall, “Myth and Counter-Myth: ‘The Berber’ as National Signifier in Algerian Historiographies,” Radical History Review 86 (2003): 66–88; and Hannoum, 112–116.

(19.) Mohand Tilmatine: “Religion and Morals of Imazighen According to Arab Writers of the Medieval Times,” Amazigh Voice 9.2–3 (2000): 14–15.

(20.) Hugh Roberts, “The Unforeseen Development of the Kabyle Question in Contemporary Algeria,” Government and Opposition 173 (1982): 334; and Mohammed Harbi, “Nationalism algérien et identité berbère”, Peuples Mediterraneens Mediterranean Peoples, No. 11 April-June 1980 34–35.

(21.) Edmund Burke III, “The Image of the Moroccan State in French Ethnological Literature: A New look at the Origin of Lyautey’s Berber Policy,” in Arabs and Berbers, From Tribe to Nation, eds. Ernest Gellner and Charles Micaud (London: Duckworth, 1973), 175–199.

(22.) Daniel Woolman, Rebels in the Rif (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1968); and C. R. Pennell, A Country with a Government and a Flag: The Rif War in Morocco, 1921–1926 (Wisbech, U.K.: Menas Press, 1986).

(23.) Pessah Shinar, “Abd al-Qadir and Àbd al-Krim, Religious Influences on their Thought and Action,” in Modern Islam in the Maghrib, ed. Pessah Shinar (Jerusalem: Max Schloessinger Memorial Foundation, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2004), vi, 162.

(24.) Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, “Abdelkrim: Whose Hero Is He? The Politics of Contested Memory in Today's Morocco,” Brown Journal of World Affairs 18.2 (2012): 141–149.

(25.) Kenneth Brown, “The Impact of the Dahir Berbère in Salé,” in Arabs and Berbers, From Tribe to Nation, 201–215.

(26.) McDougall, “Myth and Counter-Myth.”

(27.) Mohamed Benhlal, Le collège d’Azrou: Une élite berbère civile et militaire au maroc (1927–1959) (Paris: Éditions Karthala, 2005), 277–279, 317; and Mroslav Hroch, “Social and Territorial Characteristics in the Composition of the Leading Groups of National Movements,” Social Preconditions of National Revival in Europe: A Comparative Analysis of the Social Composition of Patriotic Groups among the Smaller European Nations, ed. Mroslav Hroch (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), ch. 6, 257–275.

(28.) Louis-Jean Duclos, “The Berbers and the Rise of Moroccan Nationalism,” in Gellner and Micaud, eds. 217–229.

(29.) Hafid Gafaïti, “The Monotheism of the Other: Language and De/Construction of National Identity in Postcolonial Algeria,” in Algeria in Others’ Languages, ed. Emmanuelle Berger (London: Cornell University Press, 2002), 31–32. In making this point, the author cites Michael Willis, The Islamist Challenge in Algeria: A Political History (New York: New York University Press, 1999), 51–52.

(30.) Anthony D. Smith, Nations and Nationalism in a Global Era (Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 1995).

(31.) Jane Goodman, Berber Culture on the World Stage (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005), passim, and especially 49–68.

(32.) Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, The Berber Identity Movement and the Challenge to North African States (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011), 72–76; and Paul A. Silverstein, Algeria in France: Transpolitics, Race and Nation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004).

(33.) Pierre Nora, Realms of Memory, 3 vols. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996, 1997, 1998).

(34.) Benjamin Stora, Algeria 1830–2000, A Short History (Cornell University Press: London, 2001), 182.

(35.) Mohamed Daadaoui, Moroccan Monarchy and the Islamist Challenge (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011); and John Waterbury, Commander of the Faithful (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1970).

(36.) Remy Leveau, Le Fellah Marocain, Defenseur Du Trone (Paris: Presses De La Fondation Nationale Des Sciences Politiques, 1985).

(37.) Frank H. Braun, “Morocco: Anatomy of a Palace Revolution that Failed,” IJMES 9 (1978): 63–72; and John Waterbury, “The Coup Manqué,” and A. Coram, “The Berbers and the Coup,” in The Berbers, eds. Gellner and Micaud, 397–423, 425–430.

(38.) “Amazighité—Communique De La Presidence,” issued by the Embassy of Algeria, Washington, DC, April 23, 1995; for an analysis, see Annuaire de l’Afrique du Nord 34 (1995): 583–590.

(39.) Maddy-Weitzman, The Berber Identity Movement, 118–119.

(40.) The full Arabic-language text of the speech is contained in al-Àlam, August 22, 1994. A partial version in English can be found in Moroccan RTM TV, August 20—BBC Monitoring, Summary of World Broadcasts, part 4, The Middle East, August 23, 1994: 19–20.

(41.) Google’s cache of, snapshot of the page as it appeared on January 3, 2017.

(42.) Sylvia I. Bergh and Daniele Rossi-Doria, “Plus ça Change? Observing the Dynamics of Morocco's ‘Arab Spring’ in the High Atlas,” Mediterranean Politics 20.2 (2015): 198–216; Ángela Suárez Collado, “The Amazigh Movement in Morocco: New Generations, New References of Mobilization and New Forms of Opposition,” Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication 6 (2013): 55–74; and Thierry Desrues, “Mobilizations in a Hybrid Regime: The 20th February Movement and the Moroccan Regime,” Current Sociology 61.4 (2013): 409–423.

(43.) Cleo Jay, “Playing the ‘Berber’: The Performance of Amazigh Identities in Contemporary Morocco,” The Journal of North African Studies 21.1 (2016): 68–80.

(44.) Constitution de la Republique Algerienne Democratique et Populaire, art. 3

(48.) Yehudit Ronen, “Libya, the Tuareg and Mali on the Eve of the ‘Arab Spring’ and in Its Aftermath: An Anatomy of Changed Relations,” The Journal of North African Studies 18.4 (2013): 544–559.

(49.) Pierre Bourdieu, Algeria 1960: The Disenchantment of the World: The Sense of Honour: The Kabyle House or the World Reversed: Essays (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1979); Ernest Gellner, Saints of the Atlas (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1969); and Clifford Geertz, Hildred Geertz, and Lawrence Rosen, Meaning and Order in Moroccan Society: Three Essays in Cultural Analysis (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1979).

(50.) Ernest Gellner and Charles Micaud, eds. Arabs and Berbers: From Tribe to Nation in North Africa, London: Duckworth, 1973.

(51.) Michael Brett and Elizabeth Fentress, The Berbers (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996).

(52.) Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, The Berber Identity Movement and the Challenge to North African States (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011).

(53.) Nabil Boudraa and Joseph Krause, eds., North African Mosaic: A Cultural Reappraisal of Ethnic and Religious Minorities (Newcastle, U.K.: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007).

(54.) Katherine E. Hoffman and Susan Gilson Miller, eds., Berbers and Others: Shifting Parameters of Ethnicity in the Contemporary Maghrib (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010).

(55.) E.g., David M. Hart, Tribe and Society in Rural Morocco (Portland, OR: Frank Cass, 2000).

(56.) E.g., Hassan, Rachik, ed., Usages de l’identité Amazighe au Maroc (Casablanca: Imprimerie Najah el Jadida, 2006); Hélène Claudot-Hawad, ed., berbères ou arab? Le tango des specialists (Aix-en-Provence: Non Lieu/IREMAMM, 2006); and Stephanie Poussel, Les Identités amazighes au Maroc (Casablanca: Editions la croisee des Chemins, 2011).

(57.) Jane Goodman, Berber Culture on the World Stage (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005).

(58.) Paul A. Silverstein, Algeria in France: Transpolitics, Race and Nation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004).

(59.) Katherine E. Hoffman, We Share Walls: Language, Land, and Gender in Berber Morocco (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008).

(60.) Hugh Roberts, Berber Government: The Kabyle Polity in Pre-colonial Algeria (London: I.B. Tauris; 2014).

(61.) James McDougall, “Myth and Counter-Myth: ‘The Berber’ as National Signifier in Algerian Historiographies,” Radical History Review 86 (2003): 66–88.

(62.) Lawrence Rosen, Two Arabs, a Berber and a Jew: Entangled Lives in Morocco (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

(63.) Maya Shatzmiller, The Berbers and the Islamic State, The Marinid Experience in Pre-protectorate Morocco (Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener, 2000).

(64.) E.g., Salem Chaker, Berbères Aujourd’hui, 2d ed. (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1998).

(65.) Michael Peyron, “Barghawat et résistance,” in Le Resistance Marocaine a Travers L’Historie ou le Maroc des Resistances, vol. 2, ed. Mohammed Hammam et Abdellah Salih (Rabat: Rayume Du Maroc, Institut Royal de la Culture Amazighe, 2005), 165–181; Al-Barghwatiyyun fil-Maghrib (Casablanca: Matbà al-Najah al-Jadida, 1999); and Mohammed Chafik, A Brief Survey of Thirty-Three Centuries of Amazigh History, ed. Jilali Saib (Rabat: Institut Royal de la Culture Amazighe, 2005), 43, 75.

(66.) Robert Montagne, The Berbers: Their Social and Political Organization, trans. David Seddon (London: Frank Cass, 1973); and Charles-André Julien, History of North Africa (New York: Praeger, 1970; trans. of 2d ed. of Historie d’l’Afrique du Nord, 1952).

(67.) Abdallah Laroui, The History of the Maghrib, An Interpretive Essay (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977).

(68.) Abdallah Laroui, The History of the Maghrib, An Interpretive Essay, 58–66. The very notion of urban decline has also not gone unchallenged. See Maya Shatzmiller, The Berbers and the Islamic State, xv.

(69.) Patricia Lorcin, Imperial Identities: Stereotyping, Prejudice and Race in Colonial Algeria (London: I.B. Tauris, 1999).

(70.) E.g., Brett and Fentress, The Berbers; Susan Raven, Rome in Africa, 3d ed. (London: Routledge, 1993), 15. S. Chaker and G. Camps, “Agellid,” Encyclopédie Berbère, vol. 2 (Aix-en-Provence: Édisud, 1985): 248–249. Cf. David Cherry Frontier and Society in Roman North Africa (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), 10.n.29; Fergus Millar, “Local Cultures in the Roman Empire: Libyan, Punic and Latin in Roman Africa,” The Journal of Roman Studies 58.1–2 (1968): 126–134.

(71.) Helen Hagen, The Shining Ones (Philadelphia, PA: Xlibris Corporation, 2000).

(72.) Neville Barbour, ”The Berbers in al-Andalus,” Procedings of the First Congress on Mediterranean Studies of Arabo-Berber Influence, ed. Micheline Galley (Algiers: Société Nationale D’Édition et De Diffusion, 1973), 171–172; Helena De Felipe, “From the Maghreb to Al-Andalus: Berbers in a Medieval Islamic Society,” in North African Mosaic, eds. Boudraa and Krause, 158; David Wasserstein, “The Language Situation in al-Andalus,” in The Formation of Al-Andalus, part 2, eds. Maribel Fierro and Julio Samsó (Aldershot: Ashgate, Varorium, 1998), 12–13; Wasserstein, The Rise and Fall of the Party Kings, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985), 163–167; and Peter C. Scales, The Fall of the Caliphate of Cordoba (Leiden, The Netherlands:: E.J. Brill, 1994), 143.

(73.) Pierre Guichard, Structure Sociales “orientales” et “occidentales” dans l’Espagne musulmane (Paris: Mouton & Co., 1977), cited by Scales, The Fall of the Caliphate of Cordoba 152–157; Otto Zwartjes, Geert Jan van Gelder, and Ed de Moor, eds., Poetry, Politics and Polemics: Cultural Transfer between the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1996), 7; and Thomas F. Glick, From Muslim Fortress to Christian Castle: Social and Cultural Change in Medieval Spain (New York: Manchester University Press, 1995), 29–37, 180–182.