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Kabylia

By:
Julia Clancy-Smith
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Kabylia

The word “Kabyle” comes from the Arabic qabila (tribe) and refers to the inhabitants of a rugged mountainous area located to the east of Algiers, adjacent to the Mediterranean littoral. Endowed with meager resources, it is one of North Africa's most densely populated regions with 70 to more than 250 inhabitants per square kilometer. Its traditional economy depended upon arboriculture, supplemented by grain production, subsistence cultivation, and small-scale livestock breeding; vast forests of oak and cork provided additional income. These resources would hardly have sufficed had not the Kabyles historically migrated as laborers to Algeria's cities and, from World War I on, to France.

A unique geographic and ecological zone, the Kabylia has long constituted a cultural unit apart from Algeria's Arabized regions. Here ancient Berber (Amazigh) culture, with its own language (Tamazight), customary laws, social organization, and traditions, has been preserved. While the Kabyles are all Sunnī Muslims, only recently has Arabic penetrated their mountain strongholds; Berber languages are still spoken in some places. Under the Ottoman Turks (c.1525–1830), the Kabyles maintained their own political, religious, and administrative institutions. The village constituted a sort of municipal republic under a quasidemocratic council of notables (the jamʿa). Intrepid warriors and fiercely independent, the Kabyles were among the last conquered by France in bitter campaigns waged between 1847 and 1857. During Amīr ʿAbd al-Qādir'sjihād against the French army (1832–1847), he appointed a caliph to the Kabyles who characteristically refused to recognize the appointee, since he was an outsider. Under the leadership of a marabout, Si al-Haddad, the Kabyles participated in the great Muqrānī insurrection of 1871, the last rebellion of this scale until the twentieth-century national liberation movement.

Several sociopolitical developments placed the Kabyles in the vanguard of the national liberation struggle. In a deliberate policy of divide and rule, colonial authorities promoted the Kabyle myth which held that the Berbers were less fervently attached to Islam than the Arabs. From the 1870s, Catholic missionary activity focused on the region by building schools and clinics in an attempt at conversion to Christianity. At the same time, the population increased precipitously, provoking Kabyle male labor emigration to French industrial cities. In Paris the Kabyles played a predominant role in the Étoile Nord-Africaine (North African Star), a leftist worker nationalist party established in 1926 under Messali Hadj (Messali al-Ḥajj). After the brutal suppression of the 1945 Sétif nationalist uprising, a small group of largely Kabyle activists under Belkasem Krim took to the maquis to oppose colonial rule. When the nationalist insurrection erupted on November 1, 1954, this group formed the nucleus for the FLN (National Liberation Front). After independence in 1962, however, the ruling FLN party launched a program of forced Arabization; this has been resisted ever since by the Kabyles and has fostered a vibrant Kabyle Cultural Movement. In their fierce opposition to loss of language, culture, and identity, the Kabyles, who represent over one-fifth of the total population, bring to mind other minority groups, such as the Kurds in Turkey.

Resistance grew throughout the 1980s with student strikes and demonstrations at the university in Tizi Ouzou, Kabylia's provincial capital, and culminated in the “Berber Spring” of 1980. The movement's symbol became the Kabyle poet, singer, and activist, Lounès Matoub (1956–1998), who was assassinated by Islamic militants when he returned from exile in France to perform. The Kabyle question became more complicated with the rise of Islamic militant groups, especially after FLN repression of the more moderate Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), headed by Madanī and Bel Ḥajj in the early 1990s, which brought the extremist Armed Islamic Group (GIA) to the political foreground. The Kabyles have little tolerance or sympathy for the Islamists. Berber political parties advocate minority rights, a more or less secular state, pluralistic society, and above all, recognition of their language, which finally came in a 2002 constitutional amendment recognizing Berber as a national language. While the Kabyles boycotted national elections in 2002, they participated in the September 2005 referendum on national reconciliation. However, this fragile truce is currently undermined by the presence of a new extremist Islamic group, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, which has launched attacks in the eastern Kabylia, drawing the hated army back into the region. While government officials claim that the “Time of Terror” is over, events on the ground today suggest otherwise.

See also ALGERIA; ISLAMIC SALVATION FRONT; MESSALI AL-ḤAJJ; and MINORITIES.

Bibliography

  • Amrouche, Fadhma A. M.My Life Story: The Autobiography of a Berber Woman. Translated by Dorothy S. Blair. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1989. This is the earliest memoir written by a Kabyle woman and provides an important insider's view of social and political life in the Kabylia during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
  • Brett, Michael, and Elizabeth Fentress. The Berbers. Oxford, U.K.Blackwell, 1996. This is the most comprehensive work on the Berbers of northern Africa and covers the periods from Antiquity until the Berber cultural movements of the 1990s.
  • Clancy-Smith, Julia. Rebel and Saint: Muslim Notables, Populist Protest, Colonial Encounters—Algeria and Tunisia, 1800–1904. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. This study investigates Berber resistance in eastern Algeria to the brutal intrusions of the French colonial army and state in the nineteenth century as well as the role in that resistance of various Muslim Brotherhoods or Su-fī orders established in the Sahara and the Constantine.
  • Laoust-Chantréaux, Germaine. Kabylie côté femmes: La vie féminine à Aït Hichem. Notes d ’ethnographie (The Kabylia through the Eyes of Women: Women's Lives among the Aït Hichem. Ethnographical Notes). Présentation par Camille Lacoste-Dujardin. Aix-en-Provence: Édisud, 1990. This is one of the earliest ethnographic studies of women's lives carried out by a French female anthropologist in the interwar period among the Kabyles.
  • Lorcin, Patricia M. E.Imperial Identities: Stereotyping, Prejudice, and Race in Colonial Algeria. London: I. B. Tauris, 1995. This study investigates how ethnic categories and cultural distinctions, such as the image of the “good Kabyle,” were created and manipulated by the French colonial regime in Algeria to divide and rule in a concerted attempt to render Islam politically impotent.
  • McDougall, James. History and the Culture of Nationalism in Algeria. Cambridge, U.K. and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. This work charts how Algerian nationalists reinvented Algeria's history and the role that nationalist historians assigned to the Berbers in reclaiming and re-imaging that past.
  • Ruedy, John D.Modern Algeria: the Origins and Development of a Nation. 2d ed.Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005. This is the leading English-language history of Algeria from the sixteenth century until recent decades, although it also provides important background information on earlier periods.
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