Language Lends Hand To Religion In Tearing Algeria Apart.

By Our Man in Tizi Ouzou

Civil wars are usually soul-searching times were sections of the nation search for identities. For Algerians, language is inextricably bound up with the conflicting visions of their country's identity. Half the population are Berber who despise Arabic, while half the Arabs prefer French to Arabic for daily communication. So is Algeria Arab or Berber? Is it Islamic, as the armed Muslims would have it? Or is it Mediterranean, as most intellectuals prefer? Algeria may be all of the above, but 36 years after the departure of French colonisers who left a well founded legacy of dominant French language and culture, the country is still struggling to reconcile the various aspects of its personality.

For an onlooker, the conflict seems simple to describe: Islamic militants using extreme violence to overthrow a secular authoritarian regime and establish an Iranian style Islamic republic - although nasty and brutal conflict even by the standard of African civil wars.

In a both ill timed and ill advised move the military backed government of President Liamine Zeroual made language - an important national identity tool- another cause of conflict in the already religious-war torn nation. On July 5th, a law came into force making Arabic the only language allowed in public life, fury exploded in the Berber-speaking mountain region of Kabylia.

The law bans any official use of French and the Berber language, Tamazight, which means ``the language of free men''.

As the law came to force Kabylia was already on fire following the killing of an immensely popular Berber singer, Lounes Matoub, on 25th June. His wife and two sisters-in-law were wounded in the attack. Although most Algerians, Berbers and Arabs alike, believe that the singer, an outspoken secularist, was killed by GIS militants, Berber anger swiftly turned against the state and its Arabisation policy. Protesters sacked government-owned shops and tore down Arabic signs. As tens of thousands of Kabyles poured into a mountain village for his burial, the divisions in Algerian society were never more obvious. Mourners shouted ``Pouvoir (the generic name given to the military-political power) - assassins!'' They threw stones at a security forces helicopter flying overhead. The accusation seemed to be that the authorities had failed to protect the singer from his Islamist enemies. The crowds, carrying banners declared, `We are not Arabs,' chanted anti-government slogans in Berber and French.

The Berber, for their own interest, were on the government side in the conflict against Islamists. They always opposed the programme of the FIS - the Islamic Salvation Front. FIS was cheated from a possible victory in a French style second round of General elections in 1992 by a military coup- which was demanded by trade unionists, women groups and secular movement fearing an Islamic takeover. The coup was tacitly supported by the French. The Islamists started a wave of terror that turned into a civil war.

The Islamists, known as GIS - the armed Islamic group as the FIS leaders like leaders of Muslim Brothers and other Islamic parties in the region who take political asylum in the West- try to distant themselves from the violence. The leaders argue that their `armed comrades' - or terrorists in the book of official media- do not represent the true face of Islam which is all about tolerance, compassion and mercy. However, Berber, like Copts in Egypt and other minorities as well as women Journalists and artists in the region know better: FIS, like Muslim Brothers never unequivocally condemned violence by Islamic extremists. So why should they trust FIS?

Berber speakers, and many secular Algerians, regard the Arabisation law as a heavy-handed attempt to appease the government's Islamist opponents FIS. Berber, is an oral language still in the process of being codified. A succession of authoritarian central governments, uneasy with pluralism and eager to shore up their nationalist credentials, discouraged its use outside the private domain.

With independence in 1962, the FLN - National Liberation Front - one party dictatorship that ruled Algeria since thought the adoption of Arabic as the national language was a natural choice to mark the break with France and forge an identity suited to the country's new status as a third-world leader. But the choice was by no means practical then or now. Many Algerians, including many in top positions, had been educated in French and could not master Arabic.

Arabisation move had to take a back seat as the civil war engulfed Algeria claiming over 75,000 lives in the past five years.

In 1995, President Zeroual, wanting to woo the Kabyle political parties and enlist their support against Islamists, set up a body attached to the presidency that had the task of introducing Berber teaching in schools. Proclaiming a secular Mediterranean identity, Berber activists resent the emphasis on Algeria's Arab-Islamic aspects. They want their own language to have official status. Only then, they argue, will it be protected from measures such as the new law, which makes it an offence for a political party to address a rally in Kabylia in Berber.

The Berbers believed the Islamists' doctrine to be alien to Algeria in general. Many of terror ringleaders are ex-Mujahedine fighters who were armed and financed by the CIA to fight the soviet backed government in Afghanistan in the 1980's.

Ex-Mujahedine unwanted by their countries of origin and had no other skill but fighting a war that broke all known international war conventions were dispersed in the Middle East dealing in drugs or becoming hire guns. They went from Sudan or Lebanon to Bosnia or sneaked to Egypt to launch a campaign of terror. Those who went to Algeria to decided to use the 1992 upheaval to take over the country. Their first base was known as the ` Afghan mosque'; their first Amir (leader) to be killed by the security forces was Abu El-Tayyeb Al-Afghani who commanded ex-Mujahedine fighters heavily dependent on drugs. Unlike elsewhere in the region, the GIS fight was brutal, nasty and barbaric. Bombs frequently going-off daily in crowded markets and outside newspapers' buildings - Algerian journalists seem to be number one target of the Islamists' wrath. Then came the brutalities that became the hallmark of GIS: slitting of throats from ear to ear, disembowelling pregnant women, decapitating young children, throwing babies -headfirst- against the walls and kidnapping teenage girls to be sex-slaves in the mountains.

In its bare-knuckle fight against GIS, the government in turn violated every known human-rights rule in the book - according to Amnesty International and the United States' State Department reports- .

The Berbers, who were never too fond of the current military backed government, or its predecessors, carried greater disliking to the Islamists and their brutalities. They were active in confronting the GIS on all civil, and some times armed fronts.

The Berbers, who gave their name to Barbary, inhabited North Africa since 5th century BC. The Berbers strongly resisted the Arab invaders of the seventh century. Although there was some Arabisation of several cities and most of the coastal area but most of Algeria's countryside remained Berber- speaking well into the twelfth century.

Arabisation of the countryside accelerated during the invasion of Arab nomads from Egyptian desert in the late eleventh century and by the late eighteenth century Berber speakers were limited to the least accessible parts of the country--high mountains, distant oases and desert plateau, and mountain areas where the vast majority of Berbers continue to live today. These areas include: Kabylia (Djurdia Mountains) Southeast of Algiers, the Auras Mountains Southeast of Constantine and Ouarseni Massive, Southwest of Algiers.

Later they played a significant role in the Muslim conquest and rule of Spain after conversion to Islam in the 8th century. Berbers have a long history of resisting Arab rule. They were periodically able to maintain independent kingdoms and empires from shortly after the time of the Arab invasion until the sixteenth century. They resisted the rule of the Ottoman Turks and also opposed French colonial rule despite a policy of preferential treatment by the French. They had a yearlong rebellion in 1871 and a strong participation in the Algerian war of independence.

Having been barred from top official posts in the FLN - the national Liberation Front that ruled Algeria from 1962, the Berber members split and formed the Socialist Forces Front (FFS) in 1963 and called for a pluralist culture. Thus they see this law - although was passed by a rubber stamp parliament in 1996- as a betrayal of the joint struggle against French colonial rule.

Their assassinated singer Lounes Matoub was a symbol of resistance to attacks on Berber culture - whether from the murderous Muslim zealots or government bureaucrats. GIS who kidnapped and then released him three years ago said they killed him because he was an enemy of Islam. Matoub music and poetry symbolised the struggle to get Berber recognised as an official language on a par with Arabic. His songs, glorifying Kabyle village life, mocked both the military-backed government and its Islamist opponents. Not only was he scathing about Arabisation, which he held responsible for the rise of Islamic militancy, but he was contemptuous of Arabic language itself, describing it as `uninteresting', and `unsuitable for knowledge and science'.

Secular Berbers point at the example of Egypt when its late authoritarian leader Colonel Gamal Abdel-Nasser's forced Arabisation on Egyptian culture. They see that as the root of the current Islamic terror campaign which destroyed Egypt's tourist industry and claimed hundreds of lives. `` When colonel Nasser Changed the flag, the National anthem and even the name of the country in his false Arabisation,'' said Algerian Berber journalist Liabdallah BelQassim referring to Nasser's 1958 forced unity with Syria, when he replaced the 5000 years old name Egypt with United Arab Republic, `` The Egyptians lost their ancient identity, and after years of humiliation, the Islamists presented them with a false sense of identity, but also violence came with it.''

To accelerate Arabisation in 1970's many Arabic teachers were imported from Egypt and Syria. They carried with them Colonel Nasser's vague romantic pan- Arab nationalism ideology, which only added confusion to the blurred mosaic of Algeria.

For the Kabyles, who are heavily represented in French speaking sectors of culture and economy, French is even more important as so many of them work or have worked in France. In Kabylia, Arabic is often the third language.

For their part, supporters of Arabisation are deeply suspicious of Berber activism, charging that behind the protests lurks an unpatriotic desire to perpetuate French dominance. They regard figures such as the assassinated singer as representing an extreme, even racist, anti-Arab streak that has to be fought. The two political parties with Kabyle constituencies have already said that they will defy the Arabisation law. ``The government is condemning to perilous disorder a society which is already fragmented and ill-educated, and whose administration is undermined by corruption and incompetence,'' said Hocine Ait Ahmed, leader of the FFS.

' A lesser worry, expressed by many, is how the law can be enforced, given the large number of people who cannot master Arabic. Some fear that the enforcement will be selective, turning the law into a political weapon applied selectively.

In the face of fierce resistance, western condemnation, and more important, fear that the arms given to Berber by the authorities to fight the GIS terror groups, might be turned against the government (a previously unheard-of organisation calling itself the Armed Berber Movement threatened to avenge Matoub's death and kill anyone who tries to implement the Arabisation law), President Zerual who has long resisted any outside probe into the civil war, has agreed on July 9th to let a UN team investigate the killings. The government has ensured the group of international diplomats. Prepared to leave for visit Algeria on July 22, ``free and complete access to all sources of information,'' UN spokesman Juan Carlos Brandt said. Demands for such an international inquiry, from a number of nations, including the US, and international human rights groups, were spurred by suggestions that the army or government-armed self-defence forces might have had at least a passive role in some massacres. Mr Brandt credited the mounting international pressure and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan with bringing about a change of heart in the Algerian leadership. ``I think Algeria has recognised the need to work with and assist the international community on this,'' he said. The team is headed by former Portuguese President Mario Soares. Other team members include: former Indian Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral, former Jordanian Minister Abdel Karim Kabariti, the attorney-general of Kenya, Amos Wako, ex-American UN Ambassador Donald McHenry, and Simone Veil, France's former secretary of state. The group is seeking ``a clear vision and a precise perception'' of the situation and will report back to Annan, Brandt said.

Last month western diplomats gave a cautious welcome to the involvement of the United Nations.

There has not been any serious western attempts either to force the Algerian government into finding a compromised peaceful solution with the Islamists, or given a total help to overcome the terror campaign.

The French government has been divided in its Algerian policy, with the foreign ministry urging a negotiated settlement and the defence ministry supporting the Algerian military. NATO's northern European members have evinced little inclination to fashion approaches to deal with Algeria's political turbulence. As a prudent measure, France, Italy and Spain have developed plans for emergency evacuation of their nationals including Algerians with dual citizen-ship in the case of France which would number tens of thousands. Reportedly, military preparations for evacuation are well advanced. At present, the U.S. military is not directly involved in the plans, but has been kept apprised._