While the role minorities could play in stabilizing post-Arab Spring North Africa is acknowledged, cultural and linguistic developments that could strengthen them are generally ignored. In this context, the revival of non-Arabic languages, a number of which have survived into modern times among the ethnic minorities of Islamic North Africa, deserves closer scrutiny. The Berber communities spread across North Africa are among the largest of these minorities. Despite centuries of persecution, they managed to protect their language and culture largely because of their geographic isolation and significant population in parts of North Africa.
Their long struggle seems to be bearing fruit at last. Almost a decade ago, when the war on terror was building up, Morocco became the first country to extend national language status to Tamazight, a Berber language. Not long after, Tamazight was recognized as one of the national languages of neighbouring Algeria. The growing importance of Berber languages in North Africa is also attested to by the fact that in 2009 Algeria and Saudi Arabia partnered to publish the first Tamazight Quran. More recently, in 2011 when the Arab Spring was shaking regimes across the Arab world, Tamazight was recognized as an official language in Morocco. The improvements in Tamazight's status in Algeria and Morocco, countries home to some of the largest Berber communities, are closely related and have regional political significance. For instance, Libya could recognize a Berber language to consolidate the new regime's support base and to avoid pushing its Berbers toward Algeria or Morocco.
While one could argue that symbolic recognition and introduction as the medium of instruction in poorly staffed and under-equipped schools do not mean much, this ignores the significance of ending the public ban on Berber languages in Maghreb. In the Internet age, the lifting of sanctions could unleash a popular movement to revitalize these languages.
The revival of Berber languages is not inevitable, though. There are considerable variations among spoken Berber languages. They lack a standardized writing system. Countries with large Berber populations would like to guide the choice of writing system in their favour. At a minimum, these countries want to divide the Berbers along national lines by standardizing local Berber languages and imposing different scripts. Morocco has already unilaterally introduced Tifinagh, while neighbouring Algeria prefers Arabic. If the Berbers want to maintain the momentum of their linguistic revival, then they have to quickly choose a script and a standard dialect for writing. Since language standardization is a long process, the focus should be on standardizing the script. For this, there are three candidates: Arabic, Latin, and Tifinagh.
The choice of script should satisfy the following five criteria:
- minimize the linguistic load of school curriculum;
- facilitate communication with the maximum number of people within and, preferably, outside North Africa;
- minimize the cost of revival;
- maintain continuity with existing writing practices across Berber communities;
- and minimize confrontation with neighbouring communities.
Massive investment would be required to rejuvenate Tifinagh, which is related to the original script of Berber languages but has fallen into disuse. Also, those who learn Tifinagh and/or Latin have to learn Arabic anyway to communicate with the state and Arab majorities. This will translate into a heavy burden on school children. While the choice of Latin will lead to cultural confrontation with the majority Arabic speakers, Tifinagh is equidistant from both Arabic and Latin. But most of the Berbers are already familiar with Arabic. Particularly, Muslim Berbers may favour the Arabic script. But the choice of Arabic will exclude non-Muslim Berbers and sub-Saharan Berbers.
In short, despite its immense symbolic value as the ancient Berber script, Tifinagh partly satisfies only one of the criteria, namely, the conflict criterion. While Latin partly satisfies the curriculum, communication, continuity, and cost criteria, it fails to satisfy the conflict criterion. Arabic satisfies four criteria but only partly satisfies the continuity criterion because Latin has been widely used to write Berber languages. While adopting the Arabic script seems to be the path of least resistance and steady revival of Berber languages, it also raises the spectre of renewed domination.
Given the complexities involved in the choice of an appropriate script for Berber languages, both the final outcome as well as the process of choice will greatly influence the orientation of the Berber communities. Speedy resolution through deliberations involving Berbers from different countries will pave the way for Berber unity and steady revival of their languages. The choice of Latin will steer them towards the Sub-Sahara (and the West), whereas Arabic will deepen their ties with the Middle East. But irrespective of the specific outcome, linguistic revival will strengthen the minorities who, being big beneficiaries of political reforms, are more likely than not to support the nascent democracies in the region.
Vikas Kumar is Assistant Professor of Economics at Azim Premji University, Bangalore.