Arab vs. Amazigh

The Debate of Two Identities


The debate about North Africans and their identity has been around for centuries. Whether it’s North Africans themselves arguing with each other,  other Africans undermining North Africans’ Africanness, Middle Easterners putting an Arab stamp on us, or the rest of the world deciding who we are for us. Whether it is a result of the similarity shared in religion or form of the same language, people think the Middle East and North Africa are the same. But that is a very false statement as they could not be more different. I want to stress that it is important for people who are not of North African origin educate themselves about the variety of people in North Africa and to try to understand the difference between Arab and Amazigh. To understand this debate, you must first what each word means.


Arab – a person from a known tribe that originated in the Arabian peninsula

Amazigh – “free man”; people who originate in North Africa


Understanding the Origin of Arabs


The Arabian Peninsula is located is the south western most region of Asia. It sits in between the continents of Asia and Africa. The Arabian Peninsula consists of the countries currently known as Yemen, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The southwest most region of the Arabian Peninsula has played an important role because the earliest civilizations were formed there. Being so close to multiple continents and bodies of water allows for a healthy international relationship.


What we know as “Arab” today has changed drastically. According to Dr. Peter Webb, an Arabist who studies the culture and history of the Muslim world he says, “It is commonly maintained that in the 7th century AD the fortunes of the ‘Arabs’ were radically transformed when they embraced a new faith (Islam), and embarked on a lightning-fast burst of conquest by which they settled across the Middle East and laid the groundwork for today’s Arab World.” Although this might seem like a basic statement with some facts, it is actually a very substantial quote. This is because the term “Arab” has changed in its use since Arabization of the Middle East and North Africa and now is thrown around very loosely. Technically only the countries in the Arabian Peninsula are home to ethnic Arabs. The rest of the “Arab” world was Arabized to the point of altering people’s perception and identity of the term.


Islam in Connection


In addition to Arabization altering people’s views, one big connection that the countries of North Africa and the Middle East have is Islam. Islam is a religion that believes in one God and lives by the teachings and habits of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). It is the fastest growing religion with over 1.6 billion Muslims today. Often what people think is that all Muslims are Arabs and all Arabs are Muslims, thus using the words interchangeably. This is problematic as that “fact” could not be further from the truth. According to the Pew Research Center, more than 60% of Muslims are located in Asia. Yet to this day people still believe in Arabs as dominating the Muslim population.




Arabic Language and Religion


The Proto-Semitic language is known as the language originating in the Arabian Peninsula. Akkadians, Arabs, Assyrians, and Hebrews are known to have spoken this language. Because of this, most Middle Eastern languages have origins in the Arabian Peninsula. That is why many countries in the Middle East today have a connection through language. Although there are variations in each country, for the most part it isn’t impossible to have an idea of what someone is saying although they are from a different country. In regards to religion, Islam is the religion that is practiced throughout this region. This is especially prominent in Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Because of the importance of Mecca and Medinah in Islam (important cities to the pilgrimage known as Hajj), these countries are even more connected.


The Crisis of Name Amongst the Amazigh


Amazigh history focuses on a different region: Northern Africa, specifically west of Egypt. The Amazigh people are known to the rest of the world as “Berber,” however that was the term created by Greeks that was derived from the word “barbaric.” Therefore it is a derogatory term. The best word to use is Amazigh, even if it is a struggle to pronounce the word because it shows the effort being put towards identifying the group correctly. It is an important way to show your respect by asking North Africans what term they are comfortable with. Some North Africans identify as “Berber” with no negative connotation of the word; others solely prefer the use of the non-English word “Amazigh.”


Key Differences Between the Groups


Before we go further with more detail, it is important to keep in mind these facts of the two groups.

Amazighs are the indigenous people of North Africa while Arabs are native to the Arabian Peninsula.

The Amazigh language is a part of the Afro-Asiatic linguistic family; Arabic originates in Proto-Semitic.

The biggest group of Amazighs is in the western most part of North Africa in the country called Morocco while the Middle East is the hub of a variety of Arabs.

Amazighs look European with characteristics like blonde and red hair as well as blue and green eyes; on the other hand, Arabs have darker features with black hair, brown or black eyes, and brown skin.

Amazighs are known to be invaded by many groups of people like Europeans and Arabs.


The Fight for the Amazigh Identity


Although it might come as a shock to hear that the North African Muslim countries Morocco and Algeria are not Arab nations at all, but Amazigh nations, it is important to remember the history of the Arabian Peninsula above and how Amazigh history differs. Politically the Arab minority has dominated these countries for centuries, and has attempted to eradicate the Amazigh language. Amina Zioual, President of The Voice of the Amazigh Woman, when interviewed by The NY Times writer Emma-Kate Symons, said “But then they are further marginalized because they cannot communicate in their language with government agencies, hospitals and the justice system where Arabic is almost compulsory.” She said this because most Amazigh women cannot speak, read, or write in French or Arabic which is how the governments of North Africa communicate. And with the power that the government has, the Amazigh identity is further eradicated. (For more information reference one of my previous posts)


This is a prominent issue when looking at the political figures of the region; if you look at the current leaderships in Morocco and Algeria, they have tried to establish an Arab identity for their countries.


The Awakening


In recent years the North African countries, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya have experienced an awakening of Amazigh consciousness. Amazigh protests have had little success, but they have at least led to the introduction of formal teaching of Amazigh in some Moroccan and Algerian schools and universities. The strong desire to establish a national Amazigh identity is growing. Over the last decade, the citizens of this region have made efforts in trying to recognize the language in academia. Now “Berber” and Arabic are the official languages of Morocco and Algeria when it once was only Arabic.


The Kabyle Struggle


One very important fight against the eradication of the Amazigh identity is the Kabyle struggle in Algeria. The Kabylie region in Algeria contains the largest population of Amazighs in all of Algeria. The Kabyle struggle began as a way for the indigenous people to fight to keep their identity. This Amazigh tribe has been around in North Africa for thousands of years and every group that came into Algeria to colonize it struggled greatly against the tribe indigenous to the mountains. The Kabyle were impossible to eradicate as they fought tirelessly against assimilation against the Arabs.


Amazigh flag


In addition, later when the French colonized Algeria in 1830, the Kabyles were the hardest to get through. Even though the Kabyles fought hard, the French managed to commit disgusting massacres by setting fire to the caves they were hiding in killing 1,300 people. The Kabyles fought against the French for as long as they occupied Algeria until finally in 1962 they left, and Algerians all over were celebrating. However, what the Kabyles thought was a celebration for their independence, quickly turned upside down when, according to Al Jazeera, the first president of Algeria shouted, “We are Arabs!” when he was freed from French imprisonment. This was the start of another Kabyle struggle when the government did not allow the language to be taught in schools.


Arabization Amongst the Indigenous Identity


According to Muftah, an organization created to inform the west about MENA issues, Amazighs represent as many as 80% of the population in Morocco and Algeria, as well as a small minority in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. When Arabs came to North Africa in the eighth century, the region was completely Arabized. Arabization is the conquest of a non-Arab land by Arabs that eventually leads to the adopting of the Arabic language, culture, and even the identity. Because of this, the colloquial language spoken in Morocco and Algeria has a majority of Arabic words. And one of the official languages of these countries is Arabic. Because of Arabization it is highly likely that the numbers of Amazighs in North Africa is higher than documented. Many Moroccans and Algerians identify as Arab because of the Arabic language, but that is not enough to claim the Arab identity.


Shared Religion


The majority of Amazighs and Arabs are Muslims. Amazigh Muslims practice Islam with a bit of their traditional practices. They are mostly Sunni. Meanwhile, Arabs can be Sunni or Shia depending on the area they live in.


Today’s Youth and the Struggle for an Identity


In a previous post of mine I interviewed a Moroccan and an Algerian and asked them about how they felt about the identity crisis in North Africa and where they feel like they fit. The Moroccan didn’t hesitate to say she does not associate herself with Arabs at all while the Algerian was very lax on her stance. A lot of North Africans, especially those that live in North Africa, tend to see no issue with calling themselves Arab, even if their lineage dates back in North Africa long before Arabs came. This is a result of the Arabic language as well as modern day colonialism.


Modern Day Imperialism


In 1830 Algeria became a French colony after the Ottomans took their turn. For 132 years the French marked their territory in Algeria and tried to erase any indigenous history. Algeria suffered greatly in the hands of France as they initiated a genocide. And for eight years before Algeria’s independence, a war broke out between the French and Algerians in an effort to gain our independence. And on July 5th, 1962 we did just that. However, more than a century of colonialism was influential. The language changed a lot as Algerians speak a great deal of French in the dialect of Arabic.


The French colonialism is relevant in the struggle of identity for Algerians because if you ask any Algerian, it will leave a sour taste in their mouth when the French are brought up. Because of this modern day colonialism, people want nothing to do with it as it reminds them of the bloody war. So people are quick to say they aren’t French, they’re Arab. However, that logic doesn’t make sense because Arabs came into North Africa and did the same thing. They too tried to eliminate the indigenous peoples and cultures. So for those that recognize the bloody battle between France and Algeria enough to not call us French, why would you call us Arab when it parallels French colonialism?


Educating Yourself and the World


Some might read this argument and see the extensive summary and facts about the history of North Africa and Arabs and wonder where the argument or the call to action is. To that I say this, education and awareness is the greatest call to action for such a dense issue. Doing something as simple as asking a North African if they identify as Berber or not will make all the difference. We as North Africans have spent centuries tirelessly fighting for an identity. So the best way to act, is to learn.



image credit (Amazigh flag)



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