Toward a Pluralistic Middle East?

By Aryeh Tepper
Thursday, March 17, 2011

As the Middle East lurches through the present confusion of civil war, revolution, and mass protest, decent people everywhere wonder about the chances of a more pluralistic and democratic order emerging. One way of measuring progress in that direction will be to track the treatment of minorities like the Berbers and the Jews. 

Berbers and Jews? What could they possibly have in common? Berbers, the indigenous people of North Africa, live mainly in Morocco and Algeria and speak Tamazight, French, and Arabic; Jews reside mainly in Israel and North America and speak Hebrew and English. Besides, the approximately 20 million Berbers are by and large Muslims, and even though the present-day Berber version of the faith is relatively mild, their forebears in the medieval period championed an aggressive and puritanical Islam that barely tolerated and often persecuted the Jews in its midst.

But look a bit closer and certain parallels emerge. Both Jews and Berbers have lived in the Middle East for around 3,000 years, and both today suffer from Arab-Islamist attempts to suppress their ancient identities. One Libyan Berber scholar has summed up his people's situation in terms that many Israeli Jews can easily understand: "We've been here for thousands of years. . . . Life in Libya did not start only with the arrival of the Arabs."

Ever since the Turkish empire and the European powers left the Middle East, starting early in the 20th century, three different attempts have been made to force an identity of one kind or another on the various lands from Morocco to Iraq. Pan-Arabists stressed a single underlying denominator for the entire region; nationalists, even as they paid lip service to pan-Arabism, strove to aggrandize their own country's power and homogenize its populace; Islamists have rejected both the pan-Arabist and nationalist projects as fraudulent, favoring instead their own brand of single-denominator identity.  

Common to all three efforts, however, has been the suppression and persecution of those whose loyalties have fallen outside the imposed boundaries. This is the context in which to understand the widespread denial of Berbers' cultural and linguistic rights. In Qaddafi's Libya, for example, where ten percent of the population is Berber, it is against the law to give children non-Arab or non-Islamic names. The same is true in Morocco, where 40 percent of the population is Berber and Berbers are native to the land.  In Algeria, with its Berber population at 25 percent, the Berber language still hasn't received official recognition.

If the Arab-Islamic world has such a difficult time making room for the Berber minority in its midst, Israel constitutes a far more acute version of the same challenge. Within that world, both Jews and Berbers are minorities, but at least the Berbers belong to the "house of Islam,'' and their maximum demand till now has been for some form of political autonomy in the Kabylie province of Algeria. The Jews of Israel, by contrast, are members of an "inferior" religion who have had the audacity to claim part of "Arab-Islamic" territory as their own and to demand and exercise their right to political sovereignty. Meanwhile, most of the ancient Jewish communities in Arab and Muslim lands have been expelled, decimated, or extinguished.

In a striking departure from regional norms, Berbers have openly expressed sympathy for the Jewish people and admiration for Israel. Consider the case of the Algerian-born Matoub Lounes (1956-1998), a popular Berber poet and musician who courageously advocated the related causes of secularism, democracy, and Berber rights.  Shot five times in 1988, taken hostage by Islamists during the Algerian civil war in the early 1990s, Lounes nevertheless continued to voice his opinions until he was finally murdered in 1998. The Berbers, Lounes declared, "are brothers to all oppressed peoples, and in particular to the Jewish people."

Today, another popular bard and prominent Berber leader has been similarly targeted by both Islamists and the Algerian government. This is Ferhat Mehenni, the exiled president of the movement for Kabylie autonomy who stands foursquare against Islamist totalitarianism, calls for a federal democracy in Algeria along American lines, and has advocated normal relations with the state of Israel. 

In 2008, a Berber-Jewish friendship association was established, and the association's head openly defended its program in a televised debate with an Algerian Arab nationalist:

"Arab identity" is something particular to Arabs, and does not concern the Amazigh [Berbers] or North Africans of other identities. . . . For the Jews too, Arab identity is of no concern. . . . If only the Arabs had believed in friendship with the Jews all these years, we would not be seeing rivers of blood flowing among the Arabs themselves or between the Arabs and the Jews. . . . I find it objectionable that anyone . . . could have an aversion to the word "friendship."

Relations between Jews and Berbers received an additional boost in November 2009 when a delegation from Morocco participated in a weeklong seminar at Jerusalem's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.

What next? According to a Tel Aviv University expert, "The growing visibility of the [Berber] movement has added a new dimension" to the picture of the Middle East and of Israel's place within it. Of course, on the diplomatic level, and insofar as possible, Israel has striven till now to engage with the region's established regimes, which have steadfastly refused to recognize Berber rights. But as established regimes crumble or fall under siege, this situation could conceivably change. In any case, Jewish organizations abroad are under none of the constraints that necessarily concern Israeli diplomats. Raising the visibility of the Berber issue might well be a way of strengthening the forces for democracy in the Arab and Muslim Middle East. 

For if a truly democratic and pluralistic Middle East is to emerge, it will have to be a place in which Berbers, Copts, Kurds, Baha'i, and many others—including Jews—can at last feel at home. For this to happen, a prime requirement for the Arabs and Muslims of the region is to emancipate themselves from the seductive but destructive dream of an "Arab-Islamic" Middle East.

The Berber-Jewish Friendship Association is debated on Al-Alam TV, Iran:


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