Skip to content

“You Have to Choose”: Islam, Secularism, and Amazigh Identity

June 28, 2013

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.


Nuunja Kahina is an Amazigh writer and activist living in the United States.  She also writes at This Is Africa and Intercontinental Cry.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. July 2, 2013 10:40 am

    Atheism as the truly spiritual option. Remarkable!

    Did Donatism ever have an impact on Amazigh identity?

  2. August 11, 2014 2:18 pm

    Reblogged this on Míle Gaiscíoch and commented:
    So much of this is true for the Irish experience, with a remarkably similar timeline (we got the Christianists and they got the Islamists), apart from our success in resisting non-holy Roman colonization initially. For the Irish, our language is our soul, and is connected to our land (Tír gan teanga, Tír gan anam!) And then the colonizers religion invades our very identity, leaving us with some “neo-pagan” Druid silliness to “return” to. But is spirituality a lived experience in relationship to land, life, and death? Or it is just preforming empty ceremonies, going through the motions? I think the former is true, and I love this part here, “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.”

  3. Nassim Zouioueche permalink
    June 18, 2015 3:12 am

    Hey sister!!!! Thank you so much. You spoke words for me that I resonate with so much. I am full blooded algerian from the south, born and raised in new York city. I never felt connected to Islam or the Arab culutre, my whole I have always gravitated towards the natural way. I know my great grandmothers on both sides of my parents were great medinice women and healers. I want to go Algeria and learn tamazight. Spiritually I have always been in-between the worlds. I have natural gifts, nature communicates with me and leads me towards which herbs to forge and which ones not too. I learned about my family’s history after and it wasn’t until I was told this information from my spiritual mentor who I call my spirit mother(she is a real person). Please I have been trying to trace exactly what Berber tribe I might be in, although my clan name is known in Algeria. Ouled Saoula is where they come from but biskra is where they settled I think after 1800. I do not believe in Islam or any of the Judaic religions, and I have every suspicion that it is not divine. What prophet of God, allows slavery? And marrying of a 9 year old girl? I feel it was made up to just use as a reason to conquer other people, there is nothing good that came from Islam or Christianity. They are behind the slaughtering of all indigenous people worldwide. Please contact me back, I want to know so much more about our people, I feel so connected with the spirits of my ancestors.

  4. Amaghnes permalink
    September 19, 2016 2:41 pm

    Azul outchma,

    Your story describes the daily struggle of many of today’s Imazighen that belong to the 2nd and 3rd generation of the Amazigh diaspora that left Tamazgha/North-Africa decades ago for a better life in Europe. I am a Riffian, born and raised in the Netherlands. I still visit the Rif Mountains regularly, a region that fills me with energy and pride because of its roughness and ever-present desire to survive of the people that live there with the odds of nature against them.

    I will not debate one’s choice to belief in whatever he or she may find to bring relief. I do think that the freedom to belief should always end where it starts to harm people with other religions or principles. Unfortunately, the Arabo-Islamic invasion of Tamazgha and overarching theocracy that came along keep suffocating Imazighen and the Amazigh culture, we are close from choking.

    I feel very proud that I speak Tamazight fluently and I will do my utmost to pass on Tamazight to my children, so that they will never get lured into the hands of people that want to fill their hearts with hate because something is missing in their struggle to be somebody that matters. My mother,Yema in Tamazight, is a devote muslim. However, all the good things she taught me do not come from a book with rules.Yema grew up high up in the Rif Mountains where food and clean water where not a given. Yema taught me that good things come from the nature and persons around us and that we should be thankfull for that. I am always impressed when I see how easy Yema deals with animals, she has this hypnotizing effect on them, as if animals feel that they are in good hands with her. Being illiterate, Yema did not extract her knowledge from books but from life itself. My concept of belief? Let’s just say that I believe more in my mother’s simple rules of life than in certain Arabs that received divine revelations out of the blue every time they had a boner or wanted to have sex with somebody else’s wife.

    There is an irony in the fact that the illiteracy of Imazighen caused that Tamazight survived despite never ending pan-Arab/islamist attempts to cleanse Tamazgha of everything that remembers us of our Amazigh culture and language. Luckily, millions of Imazighen never learned Arabic and and had no interest to do so. Daily life in Tamazgha offered other, more important challenges than learning Arabic. On the other side, lack of education also prevented and to a certain extent still prevents that Imazighen are ready to stand up jointly against Arabo-Islamic suppression. If you ask Imazighen from the Rif Mountains, who are predominantly devote muslims, whether they actually read the Quran or Hadith (Hadith; explanatory comments on islamic rules and muslim tradtion – being in fact Arab bedouin pagan tradition -) 9 out 10 persons will answer, “no I have not”. I visit a mosque once in a while but had to visit them very often during my childhood. I disliked everything in the mosque as a child. The imams (imam; teaches islam lessons) would beat the Amazigh children because we did not understand a word of Arabic and therefore did not perform as well as the Arab children. Imams are always old, grumpy and agressive men with ungroomed, dirty beards. I never saw imams in other disguises. Most Imazighen cannot understand let alone read Arabic, when they pray the murmur some words between standing, bowing and kneeling that have to be said outloud and act as if they are praying with different surats (Surah, plural surats; a chapter in the Qoran). Very often, Imazighen will in fact only know Surah al Fatiha (Surah al Fatiha; opening chapter of the Quran) by heart because these are the first Arabic words that get beaten into your mind as a muslim child and they will stay there rest of your life. Surah al Fatiha constists of 7 short sentences, we used to write them down phonetically in Dutch on the palm of our hands to avoid whiplashes of the imam during recitation practice – this was in the early 90’s in The Netherlands-.

    We should not forget the large contribution of Western imperialist powers that prevented geografical and politcal sovereignity of Imazighen in Tamazgha. European colonization left the political power in North-Africa in the hands of sex obsessed Arabs that run countries like maffia clans, over-exploiting its natural resources and people until this very day. Spain and France ended the Rif Republic (1921-1927) with joint forces and chemical weapons, supporting a fool of an Arab sultan who was left behind as a marionette in what is called Morocco nowadays. Western imperealist are just as guilty of the suppression and diminishing of the Amazigh culture and language as Arab nationalists and islamists, by which they opened the door for islamic extremism in the Maghreb and amongst the children of the Amazigh diaspora in Europe.

    A word of support for my fellow Imazighen:

    Imazighen mani ma djam, sqadgh’ouwm srram inou! watitouth izouran nwoum, sewr Tamazight bach ighs n yemathner adh yeqim dhi our negh i rrebda!

    Imazighen wherevever you are, I wish you all the best! Don’t forget your roots, speak Tamazight so that our mother language will stay in our hearts forever.

    Srram khouwm mara,



  1. Iness Mêzel – Ekker | mostly music
  2. Fourth World Eye Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: