Despite what Muammar Gaddafi would have you believe, Libya is not a homogenous nation but rather boasts a multicultural heritage evidenced by its rich historical sites and artifacts. The Amazigh, often referred to as Berbers, are an integral part of this legacy, although, during Gaddafi’s rule, they have endured relentless state-sanctioned ethnic cleansing. The plight of the Amazigh under Gaddafi’s regime is but one example of the oppression used by the state against the Libyan people to silence any and all opposition to his continued rule.
The Amazigh are the native inhabitants of North Africa, having settled Libya long before the arrival of Arab populations in 642 AD. Ethnically distinct from the Arabs and speaking the ancient language of Tmazight, Amazigh leaders played an important part in Libyan history, and were integral to the independence movement against Italy during the early part of the 20th century.
There are no official numbers defining the percentage of Amazigh within the Libyan population, as Gaddafi has refused to treat the Amazigh population as a separate and distinct ethnic group for purposes of national statistics. Nonetheless, experts estimate that nearly 10% of the population is of Amazigh origin, including the Tuaregs living in southern Libya, residents of the western cities of Ghdammes and Ghat, and those living in the western highlands of Jabel Nafousa and the coastal town of Zuara.
Treatment of the Amazigh under Colonel Gaddafi’s Rule
Much like other political and religious groups in Libya, the Amazigh have endured repressive treatment under the Gaddafi regime. In his quest to rid Libya of a collective identity that could threaten continued rule, Gaddafi has attempted to erase Berber identity from Libyan history, by denying their very existence, eliminating their cultural and historical resources, and physically targeting and imprisoning Amazigh-rights proponents.
According to Gaddafi, the Berbers are of Arab origin and Arabic is the only language spoken in Libya, with the Tmazight language described as “merely a dialect”. Gaddafi also has prohibited the registration of non-Arab names, which included Amazigh names. Amongst one of his most blatantly fictitious claims, Qaddafi has argued that the Amazigh are a product of colonialism, created by the West to divide Libyans. His claims, while deliberately misrepresenting reality, are par for the course for the most notorious of the Arab leaders, who has made a habit of blaming the West for anything perceived as a threat to his control.
In 1973, Gaddafi declared a “Cultural Revolution” in which any publications deemed contrary to the principles espoused in his Green Book, including books mentioning the Amazigh, were destroyed. By ridding the nation of these books and replacing them with his own narrative, Gaddafi sought finally to erase Berber heritage from Libya’s part, present, and future. Under the guise of the Cultural Revolution, Libya’s first Amazigh association was disbanded and its members arrested for the creation of what was perceived as a political party. Since then, Gaddafi has continued to prohibit Amazigh cultural activities and associations in Libya.
In a 2008 cable released by Wikileaks, the US Embassy in Tripoli detailed an incident where the Libyan government strictly forbade embassy personnel from visiting the town of Zuara to discuss Libya’s Amazigh heritage with various officials and representatives of the community. The Gaddafi regime went so far as to threaten the safety of embassy personnel if they continued with the trip, claiming that it could put a strain on U.S.-Libya relations. The cable also noted that according to a contact from Jadu, a town in Jabel Nafusa, Gaddafi warned Amazigh leaders to “call yourselves whatever you want inside your homes – Berbers, children of Satan, whatever – but you are only Libyans when you leave your homes”.
Gaddafi’s regime has also conducted a relentless campaign, which continued up until the beginning of the current uprising, to eliminate Amazigh activists. On December 16, 2010, two brothers, Mazigh and Madghis Bouzakhar, were arrested and allegedly tortured for their involvement in activities promoting Amazigh culture. At about the same time, two Moroccan researchers disappeared after entering Libya to study Amazigh culture.
As with most dictators, Gaddafi fears diversity. For him, a departure from his picture of a homogenous Libya constitutes a threat to his regime. Any group, whether ethnic, political, or religious, that allows Libyan citizens to identify with each other in a manner that is not sanctioned by the regime is crushed immediately. This practice has been captured by a mantra often chanted by his supporters, “God, Muammar, and Libya only”.
Amazigh Hopes for the Libyan Revolution
In Libya, groups opposing Gaddafi have always included prominent and outspoken figures of Amazigh origin– for example, several Amazigh-Libyans participated in the daring but unsuccessful attack on Bab Al-Azizyah, Gaddafi’s headquarters, in 1984. It came as no surprise, then, that when the current Libyan uprising began on February 15th, Amazigh towns in the western region of Libya were quick to join the movement against the Gaddafi regime. Nalut, a strategic Amazigh border town, was one of the first places in western Libya to join the revolution and to be liberated by the opposition forces. Despite Gaddafi’s attempts to create tensions between Arab and Amazigh Libyans, including unfortunate instances of reverse discrimination documented in prominent Amazigh areas, these towns were quick to declare allegiance to the Libyan Interim Transitional National Council. which was established to usher Libya into a new era of government. The Council is composed of 31 members representing various regions in Libya, including members from Nalut.
The Amazigh people are united with their Libyan brethren in their quest for freedom and dignity. In the shade of a successful revolution, they finally have the opportunity to reconnect with their identity and language, without fear of repression.
* Ishra Solieman is a Libyan-American and a recent graduate of the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law. She currently resides in Peoria, Arizona.