“You Have to Choose”: Islam, Secularism, and Amazigh Identity
by Nuunja Kahina
How do you decolonize and return to your Indigenous spirituality if you don’t know what it is? At the beginning of this year, I wrote about the language question in Tamazgha (North Africa), the land of the Imazighen, arguing that decolonization requires the rejection of Arabic as a colonial language. This, however, is just one of many steps that must be taken. Interestingly, another Amazigh responded to my last article saying that Islam must also be rejected in order to achieve liberation. I am far more hesitant addressing the issue of religion in North Africa. It is not as simple and cut-and-dry as ‘reject colonial religion, return to Indigenous spirituality.’
Islam dominated Tamazgha after the Arab invasions of the 7th century C.E., and today the Amazigh population is overwhelmingly Muslim, adhering to a colonial religion. Yet even before the Arabs, there were significant Christian and Jewish populations in North Africa and neither of these religions can be called “Indigenous” to Tamazgha (although they did not arrive through colonial imposition). What little we know about “pre-Islamic” Amazigh beliefs may well be influenced by Roman or other foreign beliefs from earlier colonizations of North Africa. We may be able to piece together fragments – names and stories of deities – from various regions of Tamazgha, though we have no certainty that ancient Amazigh populations even held similar spiritual ideas to each other. Islamization and Arabization have worked hard to eradicate the spiritual history of Tamazgha.
So if we can’t return – at least not easily – to a pre-colonial Indigenous spirituality, we also cannot continue to accept Islam unquestioningly. The idea that Arabic is the ‘language of God’ and that Arabs and Arabic-speakers are thus ‘better Muslims’ than Imazighen thoroughly pervades Muslim Arab communities, along with the idea that Tamazight is, then, a ‘pagan’ language associated with barbarism and backwardness. As in much of the colonized world, religion was and is used as a tool of Arab colonization in North Africa, allowing for the destruction of Indigenous language and culture. Islam may not cause, but certainly facilitates Arab domination, coercing Imazighen into learning Arabic to pray, to read the Qur’an, and to be ‘better Muslims.’ It is not unusual for Amazigh political activists to say that rejection of Islam is necessary to liberate our people and that Amazigh and Muslim identities are irreconcilable.
This is not a new perspective for Indigenous activists: the issue of colonial religions is common in Indigenous political work across continents. American Indian scholars, for instance, have questioned the origin and thought behind the way in which Christianity was used to promote Indigenous dispossession and cultural destruction. Vine Deloria Jr.’s book God Is Red is a prime example of an Indigenous response to issues of religious colonization. Along with many other writers, he has outlined the way that Christianity has not only historically oppressed Indigenous communities, but also how the fundamental epistemologies and value systems of Christianity are external and destructive to Indigenous ways of living.
Within our context, in which Imazighen no longer have a coherent Indigenous spirituality, I began to question: can secularism, and even atheism, be forms of decolonization? Amazigh discourse on secularism abounds in activist circles, with many self-proclaimed secularists also rejecting Islam. Is this rejection a decolonial praxis? One Amazigh activist told me that “You cannot be Amazigh and be Muslim. You have to choose.” In a later conversation, he explained that as a teenager he came to recognize a fundamental conflict between Islam and Amazighité. He chose his Amazigh identity and rejected Islam. This tension persists as an issue for other young Imazighen: how can we pray to a God who (supposedly) does not speak our language?
For Amazigh activists, their denunciation of Islam often comes directly out of this same conflict with their Indigenous identity. Lounès Matoub, a Kabyle singer, was perhaps the most well-known and outspoken Amazigh atheist, who explicitly rejected Islam as a colonial religion in North Africa (I have discussed more about Matoub’s life and thought here). He once said on a radio program, “I am not an Arab. I am not a Muslim.” in clear opposition of the imposed Arab-Islamic identity of the Algerian state. Yet, despite that Matoub was an avowed atheist, many of his comments belie a sense of spirituality. For example, he names the Indigenous Tamazight language as the “soul” of the Amazigh people:
…each time that I speak in my language, it is like an act of resistance. We exist, thanks to our language. This language, transmitted through my mother, is my soul. Thanks to her, I have made myself, I have dreamed listening to songs and stories.
I believe this sentiment is shared by many Imazighen, who also consider their language – not just their ‘first language,’ but their mother tongue – to be of highly spiritual, and even sacred, significance. The land, too, is sacred and conceptualized in the political Amazigh imagination as Tamazgha, a region transcending the borders of modern nation-states. This is a re-indigenized spirituality, not developed by ‘going back’ and looking at pre-colonial religious beliefs, but by constructing the present material world around them as sacred. After all, we can’t even consider ‘going back’ to a time before our land was colonized, more than two thousand years ago.
This land- and language-based spirituality, then, is still very much engaged with the natural world, but also re-inscribes a sacredness that was previously taken and destroyed by the influence of outside religions. Imazighen themselves are the creators of this spirituality, rather than being necessarily endowed by a divine being. For example, Matoub names his mother as the source of his language, his soul. Even for Imazighen who are atheists and/or anti-religious, many have some sense of spirituality that is rooted in their Indigenous values.
The Amazigh people have survived extended and repeated processes of colonialism and continue to live under and struggle against Arab domination in their homeland. The destruction of our culture and beliefs will never be undone, but as Amazigh resurgence movements demonstrate, we are not static or entirely dependent on the past. Imazighen are unable to worship the same gods as our ancestors, and in response we are creating our own systems of spirituality and belief that will allow us to move forward and shape our ongoing resistance to colonialism.