Signs in Arabic, Tamazight and French outside of Tizi Ouzou, Algeria
This post originally appeared at The Majlis Blog and The Washington Note.
A recent Fox News blog post advertising the possibility of a "new ally in the war against al-Qaeda" stopped me dead in my tracks. The article suggests that the U.S. government ally with Kabyles in Algeria (a Berber people with their own language and culture) in order to fight off al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
In particular, the author cites terrorism analyst Walid Phares' view on why the Kabyles would be good allies in the fight against al-Qaeda. Phares makes a few rather egregious claims to support this idea, noting that Kabyles, "are mostly secular and believe in democracy, and could become an efficient ally against the Jihadists." He also calls the Kabyles, "Indians of North Africa" and said that in order to fight al Qaeda and maintain our commitment to "democratic values and fundamental rights," we must support Kabyle desires for autonomy.
There are more problems with this post than I can deal with at the moment, but several jump out at me.
For one thing, Phares' statements on the Kabyles are disturbingly neo-colonial. The assertion that Kabyles are inherently "secular" or "pro-democracy" are buzzwords employed by certain Kabyle leaders playing to a western audience, that also smack of the historical "Kabyle myth." This term denotes the view held by many colonial-era French leaders and officers that Kabyles were more secular and open to republican values than Algerian Arabs, and thus would prove more accepting of French "civilization." Of course, Kabyles living in France were some of the first to agitate for independence or autonomy for Algeria during the 1920's and 30's, and Kabyles played key leadership roles during the Algerian War of Independence.
Kabyles make up a sizable portion of the Algerian population, not only in the mountainous region to the east of Algiers, but also in the capital itself. While they have had serious problems with Algeria's central government since independence and have also faced brutal oppression, the movements preaching Kabyle autonomy are not broad-based and hardly represent a Kabyle majority view. The Berber language Tamazight is an official Algerian language, and Kabyles are a part of Algeria's social and cultural fabric, rather than isolated "Indians" living in mountain strongholds.
The next question is whether or not an autonomous and supported (I assume this means "armed") Kabylia would be an ally against al-Qaeda. AQIM in the north (separate from the Sahel AQIM wing) has for the last two years operated almost entirely in Kabylia, sometimes in the country but sometimes in populated cities like Tizi Ouzou. I have seen no indication that Kabyles are particularly fond of AQIM, but it is doubtful whether the group would be able to operate there at all without at least passive acceptance from locals. And as the anonymous Algerian blogger The Moor Next Door noted in 2008, some Kabyles accept AQIM because of their dislike for the central government that AQIM is ostensibly fighting.
And while there are signs that Kabyles have grown weary of al-Qaeda's presence in Kabylia, interfering in Algerian affairs would make dislodging AQIM more, not less, difficult. In the original article, former Ambassador to Algeria Ronald Neumann points out that the Algerians would regard any attempt to grant Kabyle autonomy as a fundamental threat to the government, one that would endanger our relationship with Algeria. Moreover, increased Kabyle autonomy could remove many of the very security forces confronting AQIM in Kabyilia, leaving the region more open to terrorism on the basis of flimsy and ill-informed ethnocentric arguments.
To be clear, this post is not meant to pass judgment on Kabyle autonomy, or whitewash the terrible post-independence history of interaction between Kabyles and the central government. But if we are going to seriously discuss security issues in other countries, it must be done with care towards the nuances of a country's internal political and ethnic dimensions, and not based on reductionist ethnographic theories.