North Africa: a complex cultural miscellany (Part II)

The following is the second part of Dr Kamal Salhi’s reflections on problems relating to culture in North Africa. The first part appeared on 16 May 2017 and is available under ‘Related Posts’, and can also be found via the ‘Archive’ tab. Thanks go to Dr Margaret Majumdar for her assistance.

North Africa: a complex cultural miscellany (Part II)

Culture is not constituted solely by our collective images of ourselves, but also by our collective images of others. And those inherited images may be utterly destructive. The mere fact that a habit of mind is authentic does not mean that it is helpful. Prejudices, patronizing generalizations, false assumptions, and contemptuous attitudes may be deeply rooted, venerable, and steeped in tradition. Conversely, toleration and a willingness to embrace diversity and sympathy for people unlike ourselves may be the products of very recent experience: hence the hasty description of cultures or peoples who lack any official status as ‘minority’ or ‘marginalized’ groups, even though in North Africa they actually make up a majority of the population and have deeper roots there than the ruling caste. North Africans may eventually develop a way of describing the pre-colonial cultures in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt by reference to indigenous terms. Until those terms are researched, agreed upon, and widely understood, we have to make do with European/Western concepts. Discussions about minorities do not pose problems for the hegemonic ideologies of North Africa and its various regimes as much as they do for those who are culturally, politically, and ideologically repressed by these regimes, since those in power do not even accept that there really are any minorities with issues to be addressed. The recent liberal, ‘democratic’ current in the region, with its experience of confronting ethno-historical questions, has not developed theories of minority rights, but has instead rushed to create new ministries or national institutions to safeguard human rights, deliberately mixing up these concepts to sow confusion.

This confusion is a response to international pressures and a way of controlling and manipulating local unrest more than it is a recognition or accommodation of ethnic difference and cultural blending. These supposedly democratic institutions do not pay attention to the ‘minority rights’ of national minorities – if they are to be so called – that cannot be assimilated into the larger, artificial Arab-Islamic community. In Western terms, ‘minorities’ often denotes people identified as belonging to minority nationalities or permanently settled immigrants with distinguishable, coherent traits marking them out as cultural groups. One of the major features of North Africa is its ethnic diversity – the result of its various indigenous cultures and centuries of settlement and colonization from outside. Although the French and Ottoman empires have now left the region, it still bears witness to their presence. However, any attempt to identify all the ethnic populations in the region would be controversial, since it would mean classifying them, and it is not easy to agree on a single criterion of classification. Any attempt to do this would spark a complex, sensitive debate on whether the defining criterion should be cultural, linguistic, geographical, spatial or religious, or whether a combination of these criteria should be applied. Government officials do not recognize the existence of distinct ethnic groups with practices or languages that deviate from the officially proclaimed homogeneity of Arab-Muslim culture. The minority groups in North Africa tend to be the original inhabitants of the territories occupied by the region’s states, who were socially and politically autonomous before being incorporated into these larger hegemonic units. They tend to view themselves as separate peoples. It is difficult to accept the argument that the supposedly democratic states of North Africa are ethnically and culturally neutral. On the contrary, all the region’s democracies have developed a degree of linguistic and institutional cohesion as part of their process of nation-building. In North Africa, the official discourse presents that unity as having been achieved through integration into the culture of the state: i.e. a culture only found within its territorial boundaries and centred on a shared language disseminated to all members of the nation through state policies (and institutions, such as those of the education system and the mass media) in both public and private life.

If ethnicity is considered a valid concept for the understanding of North African perceptions of culture, these socio-cultural categories are not necessarily well defined and delimited, because the real majority – the Imazighen or Berbers, for example – are still struggling to become visible while the ‘ethnic minorities’, such as the Jews, the Copts, the Christians, the Europeans, and the Turks, are other-defined more often than self-defined. The phrase ‘ethnic minorities’ has never been officially used. Rather, the term ‘ethnic group’ or ‘ethnic people’ is sometimes employed. In reality, the term ‘ethnic people’ implicitly refers to those who are not ethnic Amazigh or Arabs, although the Amazigh may sometimes be referred to as an ‘ethnic group’. As a direct consequence of these blurred categories, the identity and culture of some ‘minority’ individuals are disrupted. They fail on both counts: they do not fit in with the majority identity and culture, as they do not entirely share all the social and cultural attributes of the majority. Nor do they fit into the ethnic minority culture per se. For them, the connection between identity and culture was lost during the period of Arab nationalism and the post-Independence years when the construction of ‘new Arab men’ was supposed to remove all particularist and ‘reactionary’ identities. One impulse behind the recent cultural resurgence has come from the activist cultural movements that have pursued confrontational approaches in responding to the existing situation. Successive postcolonial governments have failed to put in place policies that have genuinely promoted self-determination. These problems have arisen with the creation of the new nation-states in post-Ottoman North Africa.

The French colonial territories that became independent were very often populated by various peoples and tribes, each with its own language and culture. The various languages spoken in these states often differed in many ways, making it difficult, if not impossible, for adequate communication to take place between different groups. During the colonial period, the dominant language for inter-group communication was the language of the colonial power. After World War Two, there was a general feeling that the North African peoples would only be successful in their struggles against French colonialism if each country could be united into a single social, cultural and, especially, political force; hence the commitments made by political leaders to the establishment of a single, united state, a single nation, and a single language, all in the name of independence. It may seem strange that the Algerians and the Moroccans, for example, nations with populations of millions of Imazighen, gave up their own languages in favour of Arabic, which was in reality foreign to them.

As I have noted elsewhere,[1] the term ‘minority’ denotes the smaller in number of two aggregates that together constitute a whole. However, this statistical definition of a minority neither reveals anything about the social status of a minority group in relation to the majority group in a given society, nor reflects the minority group’s attitude towards the majority group and vice versa. It refers only to two aggregates, thus neglecting situations in which there may be more than two constituents that together form a composite whole, as is often the case in North Africa. Should all North Africa’s countries, then, be characterized as being made up of linguistic minorities? Such a definition of ‘minority’ may even include dominant elites that, despite being tiny in number, happen to exercise power and control resources that are not available to the subordinate, but majority, group in the population. Only a small percentage of the total population of North Africa can claim standard Arabic as their first language, yet it is the tiny elite groups that promote this language who are the most privileged and powerful sections of these societies.

Another perspective through which the semantics of the concept of the ‘linguistic minority’ has been circumscribed introduces the notion of ‘language power’ based on a wider range of usage in a certain domain, a greater degree of control over the speakers of another language, and higher status and prestige in the eyes of the general populace. Language power brings out the dichotomy of the dominant versus the dominated. In fact, it is common to speak euphemistically of dominated groups as ‘minorities’, and, it is possible to speak of languages as ‘minority languages’ even though, in some cases, their speakers actually represent a majority in a given population.

Such definitions may obliterate the distinction between the general mass and ethnic or linguistic minorities. For example, the Amazigh communities are not, in any real sense, minority groups, and it is important to distinguish the issues faced by these groups from those of the separatist movements active within some ethnic minorities. While the Berber cultural movement, for example, is led by a group that is numerically in a majority in resisting the domination of an elitist numerical minority, the resurgence of ethnic movements all over North Africa is largely due to the struggles of minority groups for linguistic or ethnic survival in the face of repressive dominant majority groups. Within the developing nations, we find at least two distinct types of minority groups: those that are gradually losing their cultural and ethnic distinctiveness and consequently find themselves in the process of changing ethnic identification; and those that have become militant after reaching a state of crisis in their struggles for survival. In this particular instance, ethnicity is a category denoting a particular way of organizing groups by reference to attributive identity-markers. The way in which the term is often used in public and academic debate seems to insinuate that characterizing such phenomena with this category is a major step towards understanding them.

This reasoning is highly problematical, in that academic discourse materializes and legitimizes identity-constructions by promoting cultural traits as essential to given social groups, whereas in reality they are in flux. Differences, both between and within groups, change significantly over time. As a consequence, ethnicity becomes the fundamental reference point in analysing politics and patterns of conflict in a linguistically, culturally, religiously, and artistically diverse region like North Africa. This is exactly the perspective within which identities acquire the character of a historically given foundation on the basis of which collective interests are formulated and political forces mobilized. Contrary to the existing scholarship which relies on the postcolonial critical apparatus as a given theory resulting from French colonialism, the palimpsestic formation of new experiences since the 1990s compels us to look at new parameters of the French legacy in the context of globalisation, and demonstrate how North Africa can be an example representing the region as a performative site where contemporary, cultural and political cataclysm can be best observed and understood.

[1] Cf. Kamal Salhi, “The Colonial Legacy of French and Subsequent Postcolonial Policy”, European Journal of Language Policy 5.2 (2013): 187-224.

North Africa: a complex cultural miscellany (Part I). By Kamal Salhi.

In the first of two instalments, Dr Kamal Salhi, from the University of Leeds and editor of the International Journal of Francophone Studies, reflects on problems relating to culture in North Africa. Part II to follow next Friday.

North Africa: a complex cultural miscellany (Part I)

 Since the 1990s, marking Algeria’s violent struggle to establish a liberal democracy, North Africa has been torn between the forces of anarchy in the shape of decentralized violence, and the forces of tyranny in the shape of orchestrated centralized repression. The continued surge of political Islam posed a threat to a number of the states in the region, as in Morocco, Mauritania and Mali, while others were subdued as in the case of Tunisia’s repressive policies under Ben Ali’s Regime. What has happened across the region is that cultural diversity and the valuing of this diversity, has become the unintentional by-product of the collapse of the grand vision of the homogeneous ‘nation-region’.

The problem of belonging, of collective identity, emerges as the central challenge for modern North African society at the start of the twenty-first century. This is an upshot of colonization, coupled with the global conditions that have underpinned the rise of communitarianism and other attempts to find moral foundations for modern societies. All the parties involved in the recent social, cultural, and political developments in Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Libya, and Egypt have embarked on a search for bonds capable of holding their modern societies together beyond the constrictions of corrupt authoritarianism. In public and academic debate, it has become widely accepted that their social institutions cannot survive when they are viewed in terms of rationality and functional efficiency. Of all the concepts that have captured and stimulated new notions of the politically permissible, the umbrella concept of ‘multiculturalism’ occupies pride of place. It is the latest modish notion to capture the imagination of political and cultural theorists, sociologists, and anthropologists. The loosening of the authority of established institutions is reflected in various problems that have intensified the search for bonds. In the reality of the globalized world, liberal Europe (the former colonial powers) and the West (the neocolonial powers) seem to be losing the capacity to provide developing postcolonial societies with commonly accepted rules and institutions legitimized by a binding base of shared values.

Admittedly, the mass-protests are a surge against globalized disempowerment that might put an end to ‘postcolonialism’. From the 1990s the region has produced a culture driven by defiance, and the events are a rebellion against hegemony and domestic tyranny. New realities of North Africa are most powerfully encoded in culture. Current critical predicaments are situations where aspects of a culture can be used to legitimize violence in its direct or structural form. How do critics and theorists seek to explain these sorts of ethnic and cultural processes? Most research into ethnicity and culture seeks to explain the emergence and mobilization of ethnic identities by reference to shifts in macro-structures or historical conditions. This field of research has focused on determining which factors can be held responsible for shaping the opportunity structure for identity entrepreneurs, ranging from nationalist and regionalist actors to ethnic ‘minority’ movements. Let us situate these approaches to see how situations conducive to conflict are structured, in terms of the opportunities for, and constraints on, the adoption of certain codes and related forms of collective action.

The term ‘culture’ can be used in various ways, covering a range of descriptive definitions, such as those devised in the nineteenth century by such scholars as the German Gustav Klemm and the Briton Edward Bennett Tylor, as well as more modern interpretative conceptions such as that of Clifford Geertz, in which the emphasis is on meaning as distinct from description. Tylor defined ‘culture’ as a complex whole that includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.[1] Although Tylor’s conclusions were published in the nineteenth century, his concept still retains currency for the ‘descriptive’, as opposed to the ‘interpretative’, understanding of culture and has been described by John Thompson as a “classic definition.”[2] A more recent, but still similar, conception of culture advanced by Marvin Harris defines it as the total socially acquired life-way or life-style of a group of people, consisting of the patterned, repetitive ways of thinking, feeling, and acting that are characteristic of the members of a particular society or segment of a society.[3] Accounts of culture usually belong to one of three broad categories. The first consists of those relating to the mind, such as religion and education, which come under the general headings of knowledge, belief, and morals in Tylor’s definition, or thinking in Harris’s definition. The second category is formed by several areas of artistic life, such as literature, the performing arts, which belong generally to the sphere of art in Tylor’s definition, or thinking or feeling in Harris’s definition. The third category is to be found in the relationships that bring together or separate human beings, which belong to the realms of custom, law, morals, and other habits in Tylor’s concept and of feeling and acting in Harris’s definition.

However, in the context of North Africa, a region dominated by Arab-Muslim hegemony, none of those options allows for the representation of cultures as entities or groups of people in their own right. Furthermore, the increasing urbanization in the region heightens all the complexities of the ethno-social and ethno-cultural trends there. The growth of towns and cities, for example, can be associated in social and theoretical analyses with the processes involved in asserting symbolic boundaries and forming a collective identity. If we seek to explain processes of ethnic identity construction, mobilization, and conflict in North Africa by identifying various structural features, we may end up claiming that these factors cause collective ethnic action. This would inevitably lead to oversimplification; especially as militant ethnic discourses in North Africa often correlate the presence or absence of such macro-structural variables as language, religion, gender, and socio-economic inequality with the presence or absence of ethnic conflict or mobilization.

One reason why ethnicity on its own may not be a suitable analytical concept is that definitions of the term will often be rejected on political grounds, as has been manifestly demonstrated by the successive pro-Arab hegemonic elites in the region. Gaining an ethnic tag can often generate rewards in terms of claims to group rights and self-determination, and the proposition of a definition of ethnicity that excludes competing claimants of rights to self-determination is certain to elicit criticism from those excluded. The concept of ethnicity, particularly when it implies recognition of minority structures, can therefore find no definition free of its own political consequences, and in practice ethnicity is increasingly distorted to further these political outcomes. This is why ethnicity is likely to be a contested concept in the context of postcolonial North Africa – practically in the resolution of conflicts and theoretically when attempts are made to understand the region’s cultural mosaic – and why research in Europe and the West has turned to ‘minority cultures’ to replace this contested concept with analytical approaches.

[1] Edward B. Tylor, Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Language, Art, and Custom (London: John Murray, 1871), vol. 1.

[2] John B. Thompson, Ideology and Modern Culture: Critical Social Theory in the Era of Mass Communication (Cambridge: Polity, 1990): 128.

[3] Marvin Harris, Culture, People, Nature: An Introduction to General Anthropology (New York: Harper & Row, 2nd ed. 1975).