The Kurds and The Amazigh: Two Peo­ple, One Com­mon Strug­gle

The Kurdish Globe - - NEWS - Tas­beeh Her­wees

In 2011, in the East­ern city of Beng­hazi, whispers of dis­sent gave way to ri­otous rev­o­lu­tion; Libyans took to the streets in un­prece­dented num­bers, chant­ing anti-regime slo­gans, car­ry­ing signs and wav­ing flags sig­nal­ing their de­fi­ance. Two flags that were hereto­fore un­seen in the streets of Gaddafi’s Libya came to dom­i­nate the crowds of pro­test­ers. One was Libya’s na­tional sym­bol of re­bel­lion, a red, black and green striped flag with a white cres­cent moon at its center, last seen be­fore Gaddafi’s 1969 coup.

The sec­ond flag was less rec­og­niz­able. It de­picted a red sym­bol re­sem­bling a stick fig­ure man, set against a stripped tri­color back­ground: light blue, lime green and yel­low. This flag is the in­ter­na­tional em­blem of the Amazigh peo­ple and for the first time in over 40 years, Amazigh Libyans were proudly wav­ing it above their heads with­out fear of per­se­cu­tion.

The Amazigh, of­ten re­ferred to as Ber­bers, are an eth­nic group in­dige­nous to North Africa pre­dat­ing the ar­rival of Arabs in North Africa. They once con­sti­tuted a ma­jor­ity in the re­gion, but over the years, as Arab con­querors over­took the land, the Amazigh not only dwin­dled in num­bers but also un­der­went an “Ara­biza­tion” of their iden­tity. Some of this oc­curred nat­u­rally, as more Arab-speak­ers set­tled in Libya, but of­ten times it was a forced “con­ver­sion” – as it was un­der the Gaddafi regime.

With the pub­li­ca­tion of his Green Book in 1973, Libya’s new rev­o­lu­tion­ary leader set about an ac­tive era­sure of Amazigh cul­tural, so­cial and eth­nic iden­tity. He be­gan by ban­ning any books that ac­knowl­edged ex­is­tence of the Amazigh. He out­lawed prac­tice of Tamzight, the Amazigh lan­guage, dis­miss­ing it as a “di­alect” of Ara­bic. He pro­hib­ited use of Amazigh names. Amazighi cel­e­bra­tions and cul­tural tra­di­tions were for­bid­den. Gaddafi prop­a­gated a Libya that was wholly and purely Arab, and ac­cused the Amazigh peo­ple of be­ing colo­nial projects in­tended to di­vide Libyans.

“You can call your­selves what­ever you want in­side your homes – Ber­bers, Chil­dren of Satan, what­ever – but you are only Libyans when you leave your homes,” Gaddafi was quoted as say­ing in a U.S. Em­bassy cable to Amazigh lead­ers.

Gaddafi’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary com­mit­tees tar­geted Amazigh com­mu­ni­ties for raids, ar­rests and ha­rass­ment. They attacked the homes of known Amazigh ac­tivists and artists. Leaked U.S. diplo­matic ca­bles re­veal the de­tails of the bru­tal as­sault on an Amazigh town in 2009.

Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Com­mit­tee and al-Ghad mem­bers threw stones at and beat [Yifren] res­i­dents who gath­ered to protest the at­tacks. A num­ber of busi­nesses and other res­i­dences were dam­aged, in­clud­ing sev­eral that were burned. Po­lice threat­ened to im­prison any­one who at­tempted to in­ter­fere with the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Com­mit­tee and al-Ghad mem­bers. Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Com­mit­tee and al-Ghad mem­bers chanted anti-Ber­ber slo­gans (“death to the Ber­ber dogs”) through­out the in­ci­dent.

It was no sur­prise then that, when the call for in­sur­rec­tion came, the Amazigh towns were among the first to rise against the regime and join the bat­tle for free- dom. Amazigh fight­ers were cru­cial to the vic­tory of the op­po­si­tion, main­tain­ing anti-Gaddafi strongholds in the Na­fusa Moun­tains and fa­cil­i­tat­ing sup­ply routes in the re­gion.

In many ways, the Amazigh strug­gle par­al­lels the nar­ra­tive of Kurds in Syria, Iraq, Tur­key in Iran. Kurds re­sid­ing be­tween the bor­ders of those coun­tries are sys­tem­at­i­cally per­se­cuted in the same man­ner as their Amazigh coun­ter­parts in Libya, Al­ge­ria, Morocco and Tu­nisia. Kur­dish op­pres­sion is of­ten state-sanc­tioned — erased from the his­tory books, pro­hib­ited from speak­ing in their mother tongue, de­nied — in some places — to call them­selves by their Kur­dish names, and lim­ited from par­tic­i­pat­ing in the po­lit­i­cal process. To­day, Kurds across the re­gion fear un­pro­voked at­tacks and un­jus­ti­fied ar­rests. Their marginal­iza­tion from po­lit­i­cal, eco­nomic, and so­cial spheres are symp­to­matic of in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized racism.

It’s sig­nif­i­cant, how­ever, that the first signs of re­sis­tance to op­pres­sive regimes comes from groups like th­ese: not the ma­jor­ity but the an­guished mi­nor­ity. Like the Kurds, the Amazigh had been bat­tling the Gaddafi ad­min­is­tra­tion for recog­ni­tion of their iden­tity and cul­ture for decades be­fore the rev­o­lu­tion. And when the rev­o­lu­tion fi­nally came, they were the first will­ing to risk their lives for bet­ter op­por­tu­ni­ties — not just for them­selves, but for the coun­try as a whole. Simi- larly, the fu­ture will look back on this time in Kur­dish his­tory more fa­vor­ably and ad­mirably than the present; it will re­mem­ber Kur­dish strug­gles as the first man­i­fes­ta­tions of rev­o­lu­tion and change.

It’s of­ten said that civ­i­liza­tion’s moral char­ac­ter is best mea­sured by how it treats its weak­est mem­bers. But this pas­sive state­ment dis­misses the agency of its sub­ject. A far more ac­cu­rate con­tention would hold that civ­i­liza­tion’s ca­pac­ity for pro­found so­ci­etal change is best gauged by the strength of its weak­est mem­bers. By that mea­sure, civ­i­liza­tion will soon find it­self grate­ful for the Kur­dish — and Amazigh — mem­bers it dis­re­gards now.

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