BY NINA LARBI ’22
The North African identity is complex and often goes unrecognized. Those who identify as North African are consistently labeled as Middle Eastern, Muslim or simply as ambiguously brown. We are grouped together with the Middle East most frequently, aggregated under the acronym MENA (Middle East and North Africa). Whatever the label is, it is hardly ever “African.” Today, “African” has become synonymous with “black.” This is not to dismiss anyone else’s pride or identity, but we as North Africans are Africans, too. Despite racial and cultural differences, North Af- rica should be considered part of Africa rather than an extension of the Middle East. The mindset that the Maghreb — the Northern region of Africa, including Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Tunisia and Mauritania — functions as part of the Middle East damages North African identity and degrades ethnic pride in the region.
The core argument claiming that North Africans should be considered Middle Eastern is that both pop- ulations are Arab and are primarily Muslim. In reality, North Africa’s ethnic makeup is highly diverse. Because of the Vandal (a Germanic group) and Arab conquests in the area hundreds of years ago, along with the slave trade between Northern and Sub-Saharan Africa, North Africans tend to vary greatly in ethnic identity. Most North Africans are not fully genetically Arab despite some similarities in appearance. Regarding Islam, though the majority of North Africans are Muslim, the religion is practiced throughout the continent. Islam is especially prevalent in countries like Tanzania, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, Ethiopia and Eritrea — all Sub-Saharan countries. Therefore, the fact that many North Africans are Muslim should not de ne North Africa as an extension of the Middle East.
I understand that those who are of Sub-Saharan African origin may not have a positive view of North Africans because of historic racism towards the black community on the part of Maghrebis. Many of my own family members have exhibited harmful preju- dice against black individuals. But I do not believe that alienation from the rest of Africa will alleviate this problem — instead, it only contributes to conflict within the region.
North Africans seem to be chasing the shadow of the Middle East. Those who are part of native ethnic groups, like the Amazigh — also known as the Berbers — have started to call themselves Muslim rather than identifying with their Amazigh identity, trying to erase their true ethnicities to avoid persecution, ac- cording to the New York Times.
Since countries in the Maghreb gained indepen- dence from colonial powers like France in the second half of the 20th century, many theocratic autocracies and attempts at democracy have taken over. French colonialism has been swapped out for dictatorships and Muslim theocracy. Islam is not new to North Af- rica, but with these postcolonial oppressive regimes has come the crackdown on and suppression of ethnic groups.
In Algeria, the country’s political and military leaders have historically repressed Berber culture, as it poses a threat to the Algerianized elite. Many Ber- bers want independence, which would threaten the current leadership and power balance. The Amazigh have not been silent. In 1980, the government canceled the conference that Kabyle intellectual Mouloud Mammeri was to hold at the University of Tizi-Ouzou. Kabyles are part of the Amazigh, so many believe this was an attempt of the government to suppress them. Kabyles protested, forming the Berber Spring movement. In 2001, after Kabyle high school student Massinissa Guermah was arrested and shot by the gendarmes for no clear reason, with the government claiming that the gun accidentally went off, Kabyles protested en masse. These protesters have been met with violent government resistance, including death, torture and arrest. Aligning with the Middle East is a tactic the leadership of Maghrebi countries use to erase and suppress ethnic identities, making it even more important to include North Africa as part of the African narrative.
Incorporating North Africa as part of Africa is key in fixing the Maghrebi identity crisis. We have crucial connections with the rest of the continent, linked by trade and the common experience of colonization. Furthermore, grouping North Africa with the Middle East is harmful to Maghrebi identity because it encourages the erosion of ethnic identity and Arabization.