At the 39th Middle East Studies Association of North America conference in Washington DC, the Amazigh question was tackled by Oxford University’s Michael J. Willis in his presentation “A Berber Spring in Morocco?: Political Dimensions of Berber (Amazigh) Identity in Morocco and Algeria”. He is author of “Islamist Challenge in Algeria” and is currently working on a book called “Comparative Politics in the Maghreb”.
While the recent push among the Amazigh for identity and recognition is often painted as the culmination of a long struggle, Willis feels the phenomena has more recent roots.
He specifically points to the 1980 “Kabylia Spring” in Algeria, when Amazigh protests led to the cancellation of an election.
The main impetus to the demonstrations was an Algerian effort to make Arabic the sole language for education. A reason for the Amazigh starting to support their identity has roots in France’s “Berber Myth”. The French felt that Amazigh may be more “European” than other North Africans and the population was given more access to French education, with the learning informing them of their own identity.
The natural outgrowth of Amazigh identity moved it to Morocco. The movement likely moved to Morocco later because the Amazigh population tends to be more geographically spread out than in Algeria. Another factor is that the Amazigh had long before infiltrated the military and royalist parties. The Amazigh movement in Morocco seems to be more the concern of educated urbanites and expatriates than the actual population. The people themselves tend to want to see the nation made more democratic as a whole, without any special emphasis paid to them. Factors that could lead to Moroccan Amazigh asserting themselves more are if they start to see themselves as a poor segment of society and if more radical ideas are spread via the Internet.
While Jonathan Wyrtzen of Georgetown University notes the slow destruction of indigenous Maghreb culture to an Arab one over the past 1,000 years, he sees the roots of Amazigh identity in the period 1930 to 1939.
A noted French historian saw Morocco as a place populated by urban Arabs and rural Amazigh. The conclusion led to France issuing the “Berber Decrees”.
The heart of the decrees was a quasi-partition of Morocco into Amazigh and Arabic spheres. The French spread the idea that Amazigh may be subversive, while many Morccans actually saw them as heroes of earlier struggles.
Nationalist Moroccans were disheartened by the splitting of the country, especially by the idea that the Aamzigh may not answer to the sultan. A special Latif prayer was said in mosques throughout the country asking for unity.
While the outbreak of the Second World War ended the momentum of the nationalist movements, the French-manufactured identity split may have set the stage for the Amazigh identity emergence of today.