M’zab Valley: Neither Sectarian nor Ethnic

M’zab Valley: Neither Sectarian nor Ethnic
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M’zab Valley: Neither Sectarian nor Ethnic

By Abdennour Toumi

Abdennour Toumi

Abdennour Toumi

Algiers, Algeria — The recurring quarrels between the Mozabite and Cha’amba communities are not necessarily limited to historic facts related to the Islamization process throughout the Maghreb. A few Arab families who migrated from el-Hijaz in the middle of the eleventh century, particularly the Beni Salam, found an already largely-Islamized Maghreb. Even the natives themselves, the Berbers, took part by embracing Islam and committed parts of the region to worship according to the Ibadhee (Ibadite) doctrine (Mathe’hib).

The Ibadite practice is not a branch of Sunnism or even Shiism, as one might hear or believe, but rather quite a different religious sectarian trend called Kharijisme.

But where does it come from? The practice originated in the Arabian Peninsula among the Kharijists or el-Khaouareej (as it sounds phonetically in Arabic) who distinguish themselves from the Sunnis. Historically the separation occurred at the time of the battle for the Fourth Calif between Ali Ibn Abee Taleb and Moua’aouya Ibn Abee Soufyan.

Initially some followers chose to follow Ali, but when he accepted a compromise with Moua’aouya, many left and formed a somewhat rebellious and disobedient movement against him known as Khaouareej.

It was the Khaouareej offshoot, and more exactly its Ibadhee component, that began to affect the Islamization of the Maghreb. The first conversions of the Berbers to Islam was begun by Ibadhee Shouyoukh, a native of Basra, Iraq, and the movement bore the significant name of “Propagators of Science.”

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Mzab Ghardaia

There were a few, barely five missionaries, among whom was represented the Persian leader Abderrahman Ibn Rostom. In the tenth century they created the Imamate of Tihert (Tiaret) to which all Berbers of the Maghreb gradually became allied, with the exception of those already subjects of Aghlabides of Tunis and Abassides of Fes.

In 933 Tunis fell into the hands of the Fatimides, and after 933 Tihert ceased to be  capital of a separate state. Most of the population was banished to Ouargla and then subsequently fled to the inhospitable M’zab valley where they remained.

The recent dispute is more about lands and strategic business domination than sectarian or ethnic concerns. The violence, which has become almost chronic between the two communities, arises from the real issue which is, who will dominate the trans-Saharan business and local economic imperatives. This is the driving factor in the dispute rather than the human rights issues and demands as reported in some Algerian militant papers and the French media. Clearly there are elements of social injustice and ethnic-related economic disadvantages. But the majority of the Arab population of the Cha’amba tribes benefit from Algiers and its local political influence in the hands of the ruling FLN party.

Nonetheless, there is no clear evidence that the regime in Algiers is explicitly micro-managing the region by demographic public policies like those applied in Iraq and Syria under Saddam and the el-Assad regimes in the Kurdish regions and provinces.

The young Berber-Ibadee militants are denouncing efforts and making statements against the Arabization/Sunnization of the M’zab valley and its neighboring regions.  Enticements toward this goal include more financial aid incentives and political power for the Cha’amba. Certainly there is encouragement to draw internal migrants from the north to come in large numbers to work in the “rapidly growing” region. 

Such favoritism is contrary to the Mozabites who continue to live and work in the mid-sized towns and larger cities across the country, notably in the Algiers region, where they maintain small family businesses yet obviously fear becoming marginalized and submerged.

According to historians, Ibadhee proselytes bear a mind-set of “peacefulness” attributable to their tribal origins in northern Arabia. They familiarized themselves with certain democratic values that bore a strong resemblance to those of the Berbers in their social practice of management known as “Djema’a.”

The management of local business in the city, based on an established “Djema’a” system, conformed so well to their tribal concept that eventually they did not hesitate to include this practice as an act of faith in their religious doctrine.

This practice is still alive today, and it is one of the main reasons why those clashes have been occurring recently. The Mozabites believe vehemently in trade, but their solid business power manifests on a trajectory that has become increasingly volatile due to the turmoil in Tunisia, Libya, Niger and Mali, a result of the new geo-political dynamic owing to the presence of AQMI and ISO throughout the Sahel.

This strong acumen in business and trade has allowed the Mozabites and the Cha’amba alike to accumulate substantial fortunes. Though the Mozabites-Ibadhees decidedly eschew displays of luxury and regard visible wealth as ostentatious in day-to-day behavior. In the city of Ghardaia, for instance, it is forbidden to build a house higher than another’s.

They believe in hoarding capital wealth with the aim to use it in a future world, persuaded that the Ibadhee will one day re-take control of the Muslim world and thus restore the Imamate which ruled the Maghreb and a large part of Sahelian Africa for nearly two centuries.

During the Algerian war for liberation against the French, Mozabites contributed massively to the war’s effort and consequences under the FLN and its military branch the ALN, mainly through financial support. For the ALN military leaders, it was unthinkable  to envisage guerrilla  warfare on the rocky plateaus around Ghardaia and other Mozabite villages, because of the holiness of the city and the wild openness of the landscape.

It is worthwhile to mention that the composer of the Algerian anthem titled “Qassaman” (The Pledge) was born in the M’zab region and is known as Moufdi Zakaria, Sheikh Zakaria ben Slimane ben Yahia.

After Algeria’s independence, the Cha’amba endorsed the FLN party in the M’zab valley, whereas the Mozabites continued their various commercial/industrial activities in the development of the region, hence the country, and continued to live out their daily lives according to their doctrinal belief.

Subsequently the multi-faceted conflicts between both communities accelerated and rose in violence by the beginning of the 80’s. Some analysts evoke the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the region at that time — however, in the early 90’s I was aware of the ex-FIS as a physical political force in Algeria, and evidently the question of ethnic and sectarian elements were raised. Then the second-in-command of the Islamist party, Ali Benhadj, went to the M’zab valley where he led a Joumoua’a prayer in the largest Ibadhee Mosque in Ghardaia.

This event was interpreted as a top-level endorsement from the Islamist party and seen as a sign of religious and national unity between Malekites and Ibadites. 

In sum, the leaders of both communities believe in the rule of law and order.  Hence these conflicts could have been managed and solutions found through implementation of a permanent process of arbitration and prevention via local counsels and the Djema’a model. Such a process would be similar to that established in Kabyles during the systemic crisis in the early 2000’s el-Ouroush (tribal and clan counsels) with Algiers.

Besides the social element of the conflict’s origin between the two communities, there is also an ethnic one, added not as an enhancement of the human and cultural richness of the region but a composite of odd elements of dislocation in the region. The Berber militants are swimming in the same pool in which their brothers swam in the Kabyle region in the 2000’s, thinking the on-going mess along the country’s southern border will destabilize Algiers and possibly lead to administrative autonomy.

On the other hand, for the regime, human rights and social justice are not conspiracy-theory paradigms, and no one has been manipulated by “foreign” hands to “Iraqize” or “Syrianize” Algeria.

While the ethnic and sectarian disputes enter into this spiraling violence between the two communities, these factors are due mainly to the political marginalization of both Mozabites and the Arabs alike. 

The real question yet to be answered is a sociological one, resting on the socio-economic demands that  these communities are making in seeking economic prosperity and solid stability in the region.

The Arab Daily News

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Abdennour Toumi
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