The Racial Politics of the Amazigh Revival in North Africa and Beyond

The Racial Politics of the Amazigh Revival in North Africa and Beyond

Paul A. Silverstein, Reed College


This paper interrogates the liminal ethno-racial category of Berber/Amazigh as it develops in colonial North Africa and comes to be reinvigorated in the postcolonial Amazigh revival. With a particular focus on the southeastern oases of Morocco where I have pursued ethnographic research since the early 2000s, it sketches the colonial military, administrative, and scientific logics which divided “Berber” (or Amazigh) “autochthons” and “Haratin” (or “Iqablin”) “allochthons” along racialized lines as “white” and “Black” respectively, and the consequences of such a divide for local social relations and their transformations in the wake of Moroccan independence and the increased social mobility of Haratin/Iqablin. It particularly examines how questions of race continue to haunt contemporary activism around Amazigh culture, language, and land—where a discursive embrace of Berber Africanity remains in tension with ongoing local struggles between those of Amazigh and Haratin background over economic and political resources. These relations—differently figured in rural oases, urban North Africa, and the diaspora—are increasingly framed, particularly among the younger generation, by a global racial discourse on “whiteness” and “Blackness” that variously includes or excludes Haratin/Blacks from Amazighness and Imazighen from Blackness. At stake is how different racial projects and desires coalesce and compete across North Africa and beyond. The case presented here is intimately connected to the broader Saharan racial dynamics outlined by Stephen J. King and Wendell Marsh in their contributions to this volume, and by E. Ann McDougall in her broader work.[1]


Race and the Imperial Imagination

Much has been written on the role of racial classification in the consolidation of French rule in North Africa.[2] The literature has focused on divide-and-rule strategies built around a postulated ethno-racial and ecological divide between sedentary/rural Berbers and nomadic/urban Arabs. This heuristic dichotomy functioned relatively well in nineteenth-century Algeria, with Arabic and Berber speakers, on the aggregate, respectively occupying the urban plains and rural mountains. Racial difference thus seemingly mapped directly onto the physical landscape, with the latter naturalizing the former. Moreover, such spatial markers substantiated a temporal ideology that posited the relative autochthony of Berbers, protected in their mountain redoubts from the urbanizing and civilizing impositions of successive Phoenician, Roman, Punic, Arab, and Ottoman invaders. If French colonial officials understood their own “civilizing mission” as an historical recapitulation of the Roman imperium,[3] they nonetheless ethically legitimated the project as a means to liberate their authentically Mediterranean (if not proto-European) Berber subjects from the ravages of Arabo-Islamic despotism.

In what has become known in the scholarship as the Berber “myth” or vulgate,[4] colonial ethnologists supplemented geographic and archaeological arguments for Berber indigeneity with psychological and sociological claims of Berber compatibility with secular modernity, and thus as potential allies and eventual évolués. They reinvigorated Ibn Khaldun’s theory of tribal ‘asabiyya to emphasize a Berber mode of communal solidarity independent of palace or mosque structures. They pointed to village assemblies and customary tribunals as incipient democratic institutions.[5]

If, in the eyes of Western observers, Berbers manifested a primitive independence that bordered on violent anarchy, this made them simultaneously less susceptible to the imputed religious fanaticism and fatalism of Arabs. Early military scholars like General Daumas noted that Algerian Kabyle Berbers “have accepted the Koran but they have not embraced it,” noting their worship of saints and reliance on marabouts, as well as their inconsistencies in observing daily prayers, Ramadan fasts, and prohibitions on alcohol and pork.[6] With Islam constituting for the Kabyles but a “superficial varnish, a simple stamp… a feeble imprint,”[7] their potential transformation into laborious colonial subjects was understood to be comparatively unencumbered.  Throughout the colonial period officials attempted to reinforce the separation of Arabs and Berbers through diverging educational policies and separate administrative and legal regimes, with Berbers subject to customary tribunals rather than the shari’a courts that administered Arab civil life in urban areas.

Such a racial taxonomy required much ideological and bureaucratic labor to supersede the heterogeneous material and cultural realities that administrators actually encountered whether in urban or rural zones. Even the most isolated mountain-top village had been connected to cities and coastal ports through centuries of economic and religious exchange. Sufi brotherhoods crisscrossed North Africa with lodges and properties in both cities and marginal villages; in many cases they constituted the bases for trans-local political movements.[8] Pilgrimage not only organized annual mass departures to distant holy lands, but also knitted together the North African landscape in smaller scale ritual festivals and individual pursuits of baraka. Berbers, Arabs, Jews, Black populations, and other ethno-religious groups shared in these spiritual journeys, innovating religious and linguistic creoles in the process.

In like fashion, networks of trade stretched across the entire region. Merchant families settled across the landscape. Villagers frequently sold their labor in the cities or in neighboring regions during harvest times, and vast numbers of rural folk became permanent migrants as a result of drought or upheaval. If endogamy functioned as a normative practice to maintain group boundaries, polygamy, concubinage, and matrimonial strategies multiplied unions between lineages and even ethno-linguistic groups.

As a result of centuries of such mobility, exchange, and de facto exogamous marriage, French colonial officials did not actually encounter pristine ethno-linguistic or racial groups firmly bounded and easily identifiable by language, physiognomic traits, cultural practices, or psychological dispositions, but rather populations with complex social inter-relations living for the most part in vast multilingual contact zones or heterogeneous cities.[9]  This is not to claim that the distinction French military scholars drew between Arabs, Berbers, and others was entirely arbitrary or the pure figment of an Orientalizing gaze that imputed a Eurocentric racial taxonomy on an amorphous landscape. North African populations by no means embraced fluid or hybrid identities in a postmodern sense. Although many shared a general Islamic ideology that foregrounded a community of faith over social rank, class, ethnic background, or racialized diacritics, they nonetheless accumulated genealogical capital and fetishized origins as strategies of distinction. Through topoynms and teknonyms, groups traced their honorable ancestry (or asl) to a renowned place or famous forebear, ideally to the Prophet or to one of his companions. Through naming, conversion, and marriage practices, rural Berber-speaking families assimilated themselves into Arabness or sought to purify lineages from what they considered to be lowly categories of people as marked by religion, skin color, or profession.

In other words, the French racial ideology was itself everywhere in dialogue with indigenous modes of social classifications and worldviews that distinguished themselves through and from various societies of others. As Moroccan historian Chouki El Hamel has described in Black Morocco, the Moroccan social landscape was marked by “zones of cultural exchange, borrowing, mixing, and creolization as well as violation, violence, enslavement, and racially segregated zones” in which any “definition of race in the Moroccan context is fluid and flexible and resists facile analyses such as those by scholars and traveler observers.”[10] It is in the confrontation and collusion of these different modes of classifying that relatively mutable and internally heterogeneous ethnic and racial categories became ideologically segmented, materially instantiated, and semantically fixed.


Slavery and Oasis Social Hierarchies

One site where this dialogical dynamic of racial classification can be seen in stark relief is on the Moroccan pre-Saharan frontier. On the southeastern margins of the French Protectorate, the pre-Saharan oases were not “pacified” until the early 1930s, a good twenty years after the establishment of French rule in Morocco. Until then, they were the epitome of the historical bled es-siba, the “land of dissidence,” inconsistently subject to the administrative reaches and tax collection of the Moroccan central state (or makhzan). While successive sultanates—including the current ‘Alawi monarchy in power since the 17th century—traced their origins to the southeastern valleys, their authority over the frontier regions remained primarily limited to the mediation of local big men or the occasional military expedition.

In these regions a simple Arab-Berber dichotomy imported from Algeria proved grossly insufficient for colonial officers to account for a social complexity comprised of both Arabic and Berber-speakers, Muslims and Jews, lighter and darker-skinned peoples, nomadic and sedentary populations, and a host of other overlapping and amorphous groupings reckoned by occupation, descent, and tribal affiliation. Administrators explained this complexity as characteristic of a contact zone between more defined northern “white Africa” and southern “Black Africa,” the latter a racial-cum-spatial category borrowed from the Arabic bilad as-sudan (“land of the Blacks”)—itself borrowed from classical Greek texts.[11]

In particular, French military ethnologists and later Indigenous Affairs (AI) officers struggled over the origins and sociopolitical situation of the darker-skinned populations called “Haratin,” and more generally over the treatment of Black populations. In general, Protectorate officials justified their de facto tolerance of widespread slavery encountered in Morocco—condoned by Islamic jurists as long as those enslaved were ostensibly not Muslims—through a myth of Islamic societies as relatively color-blind. Clearly such claims to a raceless Morocco begged a number of questions, including the historical conflation of “Blacks” (sudan) with “slaves” (abid) (and ongoing conflation of them with formerly enslaved peoples) and their continued occupation of the lowest social ranks in rural communities, as Chouki El Hamel, Mohammed Ennaji, John Hunwick, E. Ann McDougall, Eve Powell Trout and others have amply demonstrated.[12]While “Haratin” in pre-Saharan oases communities were distinguished from recently enslaved Africans (Ismakhan) by appearance, occupation, and freedom of mobility, these dark-skinned agriculturalists were nonetheless for the most part reduced to servile roles as sharecroppers for the dominant pastoral Berber-speaking tribesmen (Imazighen) and Shurafa notable lineages, and the objects of local racial prejudice.[13]

Moreover, “Haratin” were generally treated as enslavable. In 1699, Mawlay Isma’il—over the objections of certain jurists who argued for their sanctity as Muslim subjects—justified the forced conscription of Black populations across Morocco into his “slave army” (jaysh al-‘abid) on the basis of the faulty claim that all were of slave origin, if not runaway slaves themselves, and thus naturally subservient.[14] While the name “Haratin,” likely derives from the Berber color-term aherdan, meaning dark or reddish, many in the oases even today understand it as Arabic for “freedom of the second order” (hurr thani). Until recently, those so called had only secondary access to land and water rights, and no political representation in local tribal assemblies or customary tribunals. Most were forced to sharecrop the fields and trees owned by pastoral tribes, working for one-fifth of the cultivated grains, dates, and olives in a relationship known as khumas. Through ritual sacrifice, these darker-skinned families further entered into formal relations of clientelism (wala’) with given “white” lineages, seeking their protection from the insecurity of war and drought. As with manumitted slaves, these patron-client relations have tended to endure even after the termination of the formal sharecropping contract, such that to this day Imazighen and Shurafa in the oases point to their Black neighbors as “our Haratin.”

Indeed, for Berber-speaking pastoralists, the capacity for armed warfare and centuries of “resistance” to Arab and French invaders constitutes the primary index of their asl, the insurance of their honor, and the condition of possibility of being noble “Imazighen”—an ethnonym embraced by recent activists and commonly translated as “free men”—in direct contrast to dependent (“Black,” settled, agrarian) populations denied the use of arms. Through their installation of formerly dissident “white” tribal leaders as local qa’id-s and shaykh-s according to a general policy of indirect rule, French AI officers further sutured the equation of martial qualities with tribal identity and the racial boundaries of Berberness. Assumptions that the lack of autochthony, autonomy, and asl of so-called “Haratin” derived from their skin color influenced the economistic interventions of French indigenous affairs officers and postcolonial urban Morocco authorities. Like Egyptian fallahin,[15] “Haratin” were treated as natural manual laborers, as potential homo economicus, but outside the sphere of politics.

Thus, in spite of their ideology of republican equality and their self-presentation as emancipators of the effective enslavement of Morocco’s Black populations, French administrators prioritized local order and did not attempt to reform oasis social hierarchies.[16] Yet, under pressure to address systematic labor shortage in colonial cities and the metropole, they turned initially to Black sharecroppers rather than to Imazighen and Shurafa disinclined to relinquish their local social status and oversight of their agricultural patrimony. The former—already alienated from both stable property ownership and their own labor power—broadly embraced the possibility of earning migrant wages,[17] and large numbers left throughout the 1940s particularly for Casablanca where they established a semi-permanent community of manual laborers.[18]

In contrast to Imazighen who later garnered permanent posts in the military or post-independence Moroccan administration, “Haratin” emigrants across generations maintained closer ties to their natal oases and were able to translate their accumulation of migrant economic capital into local social and political capital—what many have characterized as their final “emancipation.”[19] In particular, they used their remittances to purchase land from Imazighen and Shurafa. These developments, as Hsain Ilahiane has shown, have helped produce a “sense of community” and “ethnic consciousness”[20] among former sharecroppers. In much of the Drâa, Ghéris, and Ziz valleys of southeastern Morocco, these former racialized sharecroppers—locally known as and referring to themselves by a variety of names including “Iqablin” (“people of the Qibla/Southeast”), “Issuqin” (“people of the market”), and “Drâawi” (“those from the Drâa valley)—now constitute the majority of the population. Local politics has become a “Black” and “white” affair, with elections contested by candidates who are racially defined, and positions of local authority (e.g. muqaddam[neighborhood official] or amghar n wamman [irrigation superintendent]) racially bifurcated.


Nostalgia, Cultural Activism, and a New Old Racism

This racialized political transformation has provoked widespread cultural-cum-racial anxiety among “white” Berber speakers of formerly notable lineage, and to a great extent spurred the rapid growth of an Amazigh cultural movement beginning in the early 1980s. Originally organized by students in Rabat as a salvage anthropological operation to collect Berber folklore, oral poetry, music, and performance traditions in the hopes of garnering the official recognition of Amazigh culture, the movement has taken on multiple local ramifications in the southeastern oases where cultural associations have flourished. The Ghéris valley town of Goulmima has been a key site in the history of the Amazigh revival, particularly in the wake of the arrest of seven local activists in 1994 for brandishing banners written in the Berber Tifinagh alphabet demanding the teaching of Tamazight in the schools (in solidarity with the ongoing Kabyle school boycott). Their arrest produced international outcry and forced the government to relax its Arabization policies, leading to Mohammed VI’s eventual creation of the Royal Institute for Amazigh Culture (IRCAM) by royal decree in 2001. Beginning in the mid-1980s, local Ait Morrhad (Imazighen) schoolteachers have traveled to remote mountain villages to record the repertoires of octogenarian poets; others hurriedly transcribe the oral history of the older generation; and still others have fought for the preservation of traditional architectural forms and the protection of the Ait Morrhad’s remaining collective lands from eminent domain requisitions by the state or their sale to private investors.[21]

If these activists embrace the national and transnational dimensions of the Amazigh revival, many are simultaneously nostalgic for an “old order” of local pastoral honor and moral rectitude. They look on in horror as they see landless Ait Morrhad so financially destitute as to have to sharecrop themselves. Others bemoan what they see as an increasing number of thefts in the oasis attributed to Iqablin youth no longer respectful of the social control once exerted by Ait Morrhad elders. In contrast, younger Iqablin are more than happy to have escaped what they see as the petty tyranny of Ait Morrhad big men. They are suspicious of Amazigh activists whom they accuse of trafficking in Berber culture to support narrow Ait Morhad tribalism. “You can’t trust them, Paul,” one Aqabli woman explained to me. “They are foxes (uccen). They talk about culture and community, but they only care about themselves.” Other Iqalblin have become adepts of new Islamic piety movements that had spread across the oasis and appreciate the increase in local mosques as a sign of a future open, post-racial morality.

In contrast, some Ait Morrhad interlocutors deride Iqablin for betraying their cultural heritage and importing a foreign Islamist political ideology into an oasis historically characterized by ostensible heterodox traditions and incipient secularism.[22] One the one hand, local Amazigh activists avow universalist principles of equality, claim “Africanity” as an element of Amazigh and Moroccan identity, and lionize Sahelian Tuareg for having preserved their Amazigh authenticity and taken up arms in the fight for an Azawad homeland. On the other hand, they liken their Iqablin neighbors to flies (izzen) and resent them for filling the oasis with black bodies. “Paul, if you were to return to Goulmima in 100 years, you wouldn’t find a single Morrhadi. Only Iqablin. It’s in their nature.” With their means of local social mobility increasingly blocked, it is many Ait Morrhad who now feel imprisoned in a home they no longer recognize.



To a great extent, postcolonial racial dynamics in North Africa have emerged transformed from a racialized colonial encounter through which Berber-speaking tribesmen have sought to maintain their autonomy and nobility threatened by “Arabo-Islamic” urban incursions, on the one hand, and their dependence on “Black” agrarian labor, on the other. Through the Amazigh revival, they have broadly embraced their colonial representation as indigenous noble savages at the very moment that their autochthony is called into question through the progressive “emancipation” of Black “Haratin” with stronger historical claims to autochthony in a given oasis valley than the formerly pastoral Amazigh tribes whose “protection” they no longer require.

But this century-long set of racialized tensions cannot fully encompass the complexity of present racial dynamics in the region which have always been more fluid and instable than colonial or activist projections have projected. The Black and Amazigh Moroccan diasporas are now far-flung, with Italy, Sweden, Australia, Canada, Dubai, and the United States occupying newly prominent places on the Moroccan cognitive map. Satellite and Internet media connect oasis residents into networks of activism, fandom, and flirtation whose boundaries are no longer so easily definable by the contours of empire. While local matrimonial strategies and exchange relations retain a certain durability and continue to outline group boundaries, these do not constrain identification and belonging in quite the same way as thirty years prior. Rather, we have to also account for the work of larger discourses and stylistics of race and class emerging from the American “ghetto” or the French banlieue or the Brazilian favela in reformulating, reifying, and unbundling local inclusions and exclusions. Settled communities of sub-Saharan transmigrants in North African cities demand inclusion in national polities—as A. George Bajalia beautifully shows in his contribution to this volume—mooting older racializing frames without eliminating the inequalities and exclusions which continue to go with them.[23] It remains to be seen whether the Amazigh revival can transcend these global racial polarities and unambivalently embrace Black Berber-speakers as part of an inclusive political culture.




[1] See E. Ann McDougall, “Living the Legacy of Slavery: Between Discourse and Reality,” Cahiers d’Etudes Africaines 179-180 (2005): 957-86.

[2] See Edmund Burke III, The Ethnographic State: France and the Invention of Moroccan Islam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014); Jane Gross and David McMurray, “Berber Origins and the Politics of Ethnicity in Colonial North African Discourse,” POLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 16 (2) (1993): 39-58; Patricia Lorcin, Imperial Identities: Stereotyping, Prejudice and Race in Colonia Algeria (London: I.B. Tauris, 1995); Philippe Lucas and Jean-Claude Vatin, L’Algérie des anthropologues (Paris: François Maspero, 1975); Paul A. Silverstein, “The Kabyle Myth: The Production of Ethnicity in Colonial Algeria,” in From the Margins: Historical Anthropology and Its Futures, ed. Brian Keith Axel (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002), 122-55.

[3] Diana K. Davis, Resurrecting the Granary of Rome: Environmental History and French Colonial Expansion in North Africa (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2007); Paul A. Silverstein, “France’s Mare Nostrum: Colonial and Postcolonial Constructions of the French Mediterranean,” Journal of North African Studies 7 (4) (2002), 1-22.

[4] Charles-Robert Ageron, “La France a-t-elle un politique kabyle?” Revue Historique  223 (1960): 311-52.

[5] Eugène Guernier, La Berbérie, L’Islam, et la France (Paris: Editions de l’Union Française, 1950); Emile Masqueray, Formation des cités chez les populations sédentaires de l’Algérie (Paris: Ernst Leroux, 1886).

[6] Eugène Daumas and M. Fabar. La Grande Kabylie.  Etudes historiques. Vol. 1 (Paris: Hachette, 1845), 77.

[7] Anonymous, “La politique berbère du Protectorat,” Algérie française, renseignements coloniaux (July 1924), 216.

[8] Emile Dermenghem, Le Culte des saints dans l’Islam maghrébin (Paris: Gallimard, 1954); Michaux-Bellaire, Edouard, Les Confréries religieuses au Maroc (Rabat: Imprimerie Officielle, 1923).

[9] On “contact zones” as spaces of “social spaces where disparate cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in highly asymmetrical relations of domination and subordination,” see Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (London: Routledge, 1992), 4. On multilingualism and colonial ideologies of language purity in southern Morocco, see Katherine Hoffman, “Purity and Containment: Language Ideologies and French Colonial Native Policy in Morocco,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 50 (3) (2008), 724-752.

[10] Chouki El Hamel, Black Morocco: A History of Slavery, Race, and Islam (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 5, 97.

[11] John Hunwick, “The Same But Different: African Slavery in the Mediterranean Muslim World,” in The African Diaspora in the Mediterranean Lands of Islam, ed. John Hunwick and Eve Troutt Powell (Princeton: Markus Wiener, 2002) , xix; Bernard Lewis, Race and Slavery in the Middle East: An Historical Enquiry (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 54.

[12]El Hamel, op cit.; Mohammed Ennaji, Soldats, domestiques et concubines. L’esclavage au Maroc au XIXe siècle. (Casablanca: Eddif, 1994); John Hunwick and Eve Troutt Powell, The African Diaspora in the Mediterranean Lands of Islam (Princeton: Markus Wiener, 2002); McDougall, op cit.

[13] For ethnographic discussions of the Haratin and their stratified, interdependent, patron-client relations with other oasis residents, see El Hamel, op cit., 109-113; Remco Ensel, Saints and Servants in Southern Morocco (Leiden: Brill, 1999); and Hsain Ilahiane, Ethnicities, Community Making, and Agrarian Change: The Political Ecology of a Moroccan Oasis (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2004). Abdellah Hammoudi characterizes these relations as those of caste. Abdellah Hammoudi, “Segmentarité, stratification sociale, pouvoir politique et sainteté. Réflexions sur les thèses de Gellner,” Hespéris-Tamuda 15 (1974), 147-80.

[14] El Hamel, op cit., 155-84; Fatima Harrak, “Mawlay Isma’il’s Jaysh al-‘Abid: Reassessment of a Military Experience,” in Slave Elites in the Middle East and North Africa: A Comparative Study, ed. Miura Toru and John Edward Phillips (London: Kegan Paul International, 2000), 177-96; Hunwick and Powell op cit, 42-3.

[15] Aaron Jakes, Egypt’s Occupation: Colonial Economism and the Crises of Capitalism (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2020).

[16] Mohamed Salahdine, Maroc: tribus, makhzen et colons. Essai d’histoire économique et sociale (Paris: Harmattan, 1986), 225-6).

[17] Jean Bisson and Mohamed Jarir, “Ksour du Gourara et du Tafilelt. De l’ouverture de la société oasienne à la fermeture de la maison,” Annuaire de l’Afrique du Nord 25 (1986), 341; Mohamed Naciri, “Les ksouriens sur la route. Emigration et mutation spatiale de l’habitat dans l’oasis de Tinjdad,” Annuaire de l’Afrique du Nord 25 (1986), 359; Paul Pascon and Mohammed Ennaji, Les Paysans sans terre au Maroc (Casablanca: Editions Toubkal, 1986), 71.

[18] By 1950, 13% of the total number of immigrants to Casablanca were Haratin from the southeastern oasis, a figure massively out of proportion with their general representation in the Moroccan population. Rita Aouad-Badoual, “Esclavage” et situation des “noirs” au Maroc dans la première moitié du XXe siècle,” in Les Relations transsahariennes à l’époque contemporaine, ed. Laurence Marfaing and Steffen Wippel (Paris: Karthala, 2004), 352.

[19] Abdellah Herzenni, “Eléments de stratification sociale dans une oasis du Sud: Angherif, region de Tata,” in Le Maroc: espace et société, ed. Abdellatif Bencherifa and Herbert Popp (Passau: Passavia Universitätsverlag, 1990), 14.

[20] Ilahiane, op cit.

[21] Paul A. Silverstein, “The Local Dimensions of Transnational Berberism:  Racial Politics, Land Rights, and Cultural Activism in Southeastern Morocco,” in Berbers and Others: Shifting Parameters of Ethnicity in North Africa, ed. Katherine Hoffman and Susan Gilson Miller (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010).

[22] Paul A. Silverstein, “Masquerade Politics: Race, Islam, and the Scales of Amazigh Activism in Southeastern Morocco,” Nations and Nationalism17 (1) (2011), 65-84; “In the Name of Culture: Berber Activism and the Material Politics of “Popular Islam” in Southeastern Morocco,” Material Religion 8 (3) (2012), 330-53.

[23] See Hisham Aidi, “National Identity in the Afro-Arab Periphery: Ethnicity, Identity and (Anti-)Racism in Morocco,” POMEPS (2020),