A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Backgrounder: Ibadi-Sunni Violence in Algeria

Okay, I said I won't normally post weekends, and now I've gone and done it both days. But when something catches my interest, I may decide to get my ideas down while they're fresh. While the Iraqi elections seem (on first report) to have gone off fairly well, with decent turnout, there's been an outbreak of violence in the Algerian Saharan Mzab Valley. It's a bit hard to tell from some of the reports what exactly started the trouble, but it seems to have both ethnic and sectarian content. The Mzab area includes one of Algeria's concentrations of Berbers, but the Berbers of Mzab, unlike those of the Kabyle region, are Ibadi rather than Sunni Muslims.

A few of the current reports can be found here, here, and here, to provide some links in English. The troubles have been concentrated so far in the town of Berriane, and there were similar outbreaks there last year, as noted here.

There would seem to be two aspects to the tensions: one an ethno-linguistic one, between Berbers speaking the Mzabi Berber language and Arabs speaking Arabic; and the Ibadi-Sunni religious division. (The "Malekites" referred to in some of the linked articles are followers of the Maliki madhhab or legal rite of Sunnism; Maliki Islam is the dominant form in much of North Africa west of Egypt and, at least formerly, in parts of Upper Egypt.)

The Ibadis are an interesting survival in their own right: they are the only Islamic sect left over from the Khariji (Kharijite) movement of the first century of Islam. The Kharijis broke with both the Sunni and emerging Shi'i groups, insisting that the Imam of the community could come from any background so long as he was pious. At a time when most Muslims were debating whether the Imam had to be a direct descendant of Muhammad or merely o the tribe of Quraysh, the Khariji said the Imam could be any, Muslim, "even an African slave." If that were not politically incorrect enough for the first Islamic century, there are claims that some Kharijis were (according to their enemies, who wrote most of the history) that even woman could serve as Caliph. Today they may seem modern and politically correct, but their tactics and approach to their fellow Muslims made them the radical jihadis of their day.

I must note, at this point, that the Ibadis themselves reject the name "Khariji" because they do not see themselves as outside the greater Muslim umma, and do not share with the mainstream Kharijis (all dead centuries ago) the idea that non-Kharijis are kuffar or unbelievers and must have war waged against them. "Khariji" means "those who withdraw, or go out" and does not apply to the Ibadis, who are prepared to live with non-Ibadi Muslims, whereas other Khariji sects preached jihad against both the Sunni and Shi'a. This is one of those positions that, whatever its religious base, doesn't work well in the real world: all the hard-core Khariji sects, being minorities, fought to the death and, being outnumbered vastly, are no longer out there.

Kharijism started as a sort of "third way" movement in a sense, but like absolutist minority groups anywhere, they vanished. The Ibadi variety (and again they don't call themswelves Khariji) was the only one to survive into our time.

Kharijism in its Ibadi form lasted longest on the peripheries of the Caliphate, particularly in Oman and the Maghreb. Ibadis are still found in both places: Ibadism is the majority faith among Omanis, though the expatriate population and the fact that the Sunnis are concentrated in the cities means that Sunnism is also important there today. In North Africa, Ibadism was once dominant, under the Rustamid dynasty and some earlier Khariji/Berber mountain kingdoms, and there are islands of Ibadis scattered about the Maghreb today: in the Mzab and Ouargla oases of Algeria (these troubles are in Mzab) , the island of Djerba in Tunisia, and the Jabal Nafusa in Libya. They are found virtually nowhere else besides Oman and the former Omani empire, such as Zanzibar and other Indian Ocean ports where Omanis long traded.

The Omani and North African Ibadi groups were out of touch with each other for 1000 years or so, but I understand Oman has sought to create links in the late 20th century and beyond. Today, Ibadism isn't that distinguishable, for most adherents who aren't clerics or theology professors, from Sunnism except in some obscure theological points (such as whether the Qur'an/Koran is created or existed from eternity), and thus doesn't make a lot of difference in most people's day-to-day practice of the faith. In Oman both Ibadis and Sunnis are Arabic speaking (with some asterisks about minor language groups), but in Algeria the split is along the Berber/Arabic line.

Berber-Arab troubles are hardly new in Algeria, where the government's post-independence Arabization program, aimed at eradicating the dominant cultural role of French, was seen as eroding Berber-speaking elements. Ironically, the Berbers, resisting Arabization, became the great defenders of French, and the government became insistent on the dominance of Arabic: in the past Berber radio broadcasts, publications etc. were banned or strictly regulated, though much has been liberalized in recent years under President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. (And of course most educated Algerians, Arab or Berber, are still very comfortable in French. And Arabic is essential for Berbers if they're going to be anything other than rural peasants. But there's also a revival (or first blossoming) of Berber literature, both in Algeria and in France. Trouble in the Kabyle -- or Kabylie, as the area is called in French -- area erupts from time to time, but there there is no added sectarian element, except that most of the Berber population are a bit more secular than their Arab neighbors.

If you want more background, just Google "Tamazight" and follow on from there. "Berber" being just the French variant of the Arabic form (barbar) of the Greek barbaros (non-Greek people all of whose language sounds -- to Greeks -- like bar-bar) and thus related to our "barbarian," the Imazighen peoples would rather not be called Berber, or have their Tamazight language called that, but then it's going to take a long time for the man in the street to start using "Imazighen," or the various tribal/linguistic names, or "Tamazight," even among Arab Algerians (though I think the word "Tamazight" appears in the new Constitution's discussion of national languages).

The Algerian media are not very clear on what started the latest round of troubles in Berriane ("troublemakers" have been mentioned), and there have been allusions to gang elements in both ethnic groups, but I've also seen press reports of attacks on the party headquarters of the Socialist Forces Front (FFS), which is essentially a Berber political party, so the ethnic element may be more important here than the sectarian one.

And a caveat: it's always a little unclear in these incidents whether the rivalry is purely ethnic/religious or something else, and since this seems to involve young men attacking other young men, it may be little more than plain old street gangs that happen to divide along linguistic lines. I know there were cases during the troubles in Upper Egypt in the 1990s where the fighting between the police and the Islamists happened to divide along tribal or family lines and sometimes reflected old vendettas. I don't intend to overemphasize ethnosectarian violence in the region: there is no need to throw oil on already troubled waters, or to encourage ethnic and religious rivalries. But some of these issues, especially those involving Berber-Arab issues, are little known in the West, or at least the English-speaking West. (France, with its large population of Algerian-origin residents, is more familiar with them.)

An Aside on the "Plague" Story

As an aside: there is probably no connection, but the odd story that made the rounds a week or so ago about an alleged "biological warfare" incident which supposedly killed some 40 members of Al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) due to an accident (here's one account from Stratfor here or Google will turn up many more), supposedly took place in the Tizi-Ouzo area. Though as far as I know AQIM is almost entirely an Arab organization (the Berbers tend to be more secular), Tizi-Ouzo is also the heart of the Berber Kabylie. (It's also a mountainous region and thus a good place for radical movements to hide.) I have no reason to believe there is any connection, but there are two stories out of two rather different Berber regions of Algeria in a short time.

On the plague story let me empathize, at least for now, with those who think there is something fishy about the story. Though first reported in some (non-government) Algerian papers, it was broken in the West by Britain's The Sun, usually better known for its Page Three Girls (and no, I won't link) than its intelligence connections. The Washington Times claimed to have a confirmation from the US intelligence community, but the original reportage was from unusual sources and the international health organizations have said they've had no reports of an outbreak of plague. And plague, I'm told by those who know something about biological weapons, isn't easy to weaponize. Bubonic plague needs rats or fleas to spread, and pneumonic plague usually requires close personal contact. Plague is native to Algeria though, and a localized outbreak that had nothing to do with weaponization might be more credible than the "experiment gone wrong" version that's making the rounds. But the story may prove to have more to it.


Anonymous said...

A good backgrounder, but it needs more on the recent history of the area to be really relevant. It's also important to note that the violence has been almost entirely located in Berriane and not the rest of the Mzab, especially the actual Mzab valley itself (Berriane is several kilometers north of the historical pentopolis in the valley).

Great blog, by the way.

Anonymous said...

Interesting but I must confirm it is political with obviously ethnic and cultural overtones. Bouteflika's present government is hell-bent on ensuring the strengthening of its alliance with the islamists and the rehabilitation of the ex-FIS under a new name or by incorporation into the FLN party. The M'Zab region votes for the democratic opposition parties of FFS and RCD(erroneously referred to as berber parties). Secular and liberal-democratic these two parties reject the notion of affiliation to religion. The fact that Berbers(majority Kabyle)form the backbone of these parties is no surprise. It is a reflection of Algerian social and political reality.In the early 1990's the FIS stirred up problems in the M'Zab in retaliation for its electoral defeat at the hands of Said Sadi's RCD party. The national administration is conniving with local corrupt officials and individuals to bring to heel the M'Zabi population. Pressure on its political representatives and businessmen had failed. The ethnic card is often used in algerian politics by agents and official of the State itself. Kabyles bore the brunt of it. Government officials, on record, have dabbled in it(BenBella,Boumedienne and Buteflika and some ministers too many to name). The M'Zabi are a very organised and succesful community their arabic-speaking neighbours of more recent arrival despite the favours granted to them by the State in terms of land settlement,political cooptation and favoritism within all state institutions have not succeeded in having the upper-hand on the more experienced and resourceful Ibadi community. The recent frontal criticisms of former Prime Minister BENBOUZID directed at President BUTEFLIKA and its political shortcomings and violations of the constitution have irritated to say the least the presidential circles and its cronies. BenBouzid is an Ibadi progressive politician who enjoys the support of the business and entrepreneurial classes in which the Ibadi play a central role. Needless to say, that the current administration and its politicies decreted ( parliament acts as a rubber-stamp) by Buteflika do not rally the business community. This is in brief some of the main causes having lead to these troubles.

Michael Collins Dunn said...

I'm delighted -- and a little surprised -- that what I thought was a fairly obscure background piece has already drawn a couple of really useful comments -- both of which have taught me something. I think I'm going to like blogging.

I feel like I've had a conversation that I learned from, and that is always valuable.

Anonymous said...

Interesting comment, a word of nuance on the issue of Berber versus Imazighen, etc.

I believe it rather more accurate to observe that politically active or political activists in 'Berberist' (to use that somewhat pejorative term used in Fr. in the Maghreb) dislike Berber as a term. In my experience, the 'man in the street' is fairly indifferent - Berber is fine that is (and for the non-activist, it is confusing to be called Amazight when one is "really" Chleuh, etc.

Not to imply the activists are wrong, but rather the consciousness of their usage isn't that deep or broad.