The Berber People
Was it by contempt (Barbarian?) or by ignorance that this ethnic and cultural group received the name Berber? They call themselves Imazighen which means free men...yes, free men who saw waves of invaders pass through but who now demand the right to be themselves.
The Berbers were in fact the indigenous inhabitants of North Africa (tamazgha). Their presence in this region goes back many millennia. Historically the Amazigh language was spoken from the Siwa Oasis in Egypt to the Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean including everywhere in between: Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania.
Berber culture remained resilient in the face of Phoenicians settlement in 1200 B.C. and subsequent invaders: Romans, Vandals, Byzantines and Arabs. Images of the female warrior Kahnia capture the Berber spirit of independence and resistance despite her eventual defeat in 698 B.C.
The Ottoman Turks were succeeded by the French who took control of certain parts of Berber territory beginning in 1830.
Since the independence of the North African countries approximately 50 years ago the various regimes in place have practically forbidden the propagation of Amazigh culture or language. Any effort to encourage or restore Berber culture is suspect and therefore squelched.
Morocco has the largest population of Berbers in all of North Africa; upwards of 20 million. Moroccans are still today largely a Berber people fewer Arabs settled in this region. Even if they speak Arabic many are still Berbers. The Berber languages in Morocco include Chleuh or tachelhit, Riffi, Soussi and Tamazight.
In Algeria there are 4 Berber communities speaking Chaoui, Chenoui, Kabyle, and Mozabite. Kabyles make up the most numerically significant Berber group in Algeria. It's worth noting that the author Mouloud Mammeri was prohibited from teaching the Berber language at the University of Algiers at the same time that universities in other nations of the world (France, USA, Denmark) were offering degrees in Berber languages.
In Libya, where they speak Neffussit, the support for the Amazigh culture is considered by the regime of Colonel Qadafi as an attack on Arab nationalism.
In Tunisia, where Djerbit is spoken, this Berber culture has been completely erased from the history books in the face of a radical policy against 'Berberness'.
Mention must also be made of the Tuaregs, the 'forgotten of the desert', dispersed across several countries: Libya, Algeria, Niger, Morocco, Mali and Burkina Faso. They call themselves 'free men' but are known by the outside world as 'The Blue Men' in reference to their traditional clothing. They speak Tamajaq.
With a surface area of 163,610 km2 Tunisia is the smallest country in North Africa, a "buffer state" between Algeria and Libya, bordered by the Mediterranean Sea to the north. Nearly 40% of Tunisia's territory is covered by the Sahara Desert.
The vast majority of the 10.1 million Tunisians live in urban areas. The rural population is concentrated in the prosperous and fertile agricultural regions in the northeast and in the Sahel. As for the Berbers, they live in a few isolated communities established in the south of the country.
Tunis, the capital, from which the country derives its name, is also the primary city with a population of 730,000 or 2 million counting the metropolitan area which then accounts for one-fifth of the countries total population.
The official language is Arabic. Linguistically Tunisia is the most homogenous of the countries in North Africa. French is taught as a secondary language in schools and is widely used in commerce and administration. Islam is the state religion with 99% of the population being Sunni.
Early in its history Tunisia was a Phoenician colony. In the 5th Century B.C., Carthage controlled the commerce of the central Mediterranean. Tunisia was first part of the Roman Empire, then the Byzantine Empire after having been invaded by the Vandals in 439 B.C. The Arabs, propagators of Islam, had progressed to North Africa by the middle of the 7th Century. Founded in 670, the city of Kairouan became an important military base protecting the invading troops. This city also had important religious influence as a center of Muslim culture. Islam therefore rapidly infiltrated the Berber tribes. In 698 the Arabs seized Carthage and established the city of Tunis.
In the 15th Century Tunisia which was known during this era as Ifriqiya or Asia Minor, made up a province of the Arab and Muslim Empires. Between 1148 and 1160 the Normans placed Tunis under their control. After a short Moroccan domination, Ifriqiya became once again a part of the empires directed by Bagdad and Cairo. The provincial governments meanwhile were conducted locally by Berber tribes. At the beginning of the 16th Century Spain and the Ottoman Turks disputed over control of Tunisia. The Ottomans ended Spanish domination in 1574 and Tunisia became a Berber state. Following a brief occupation of the Tunisian territory the Otttomans finally recognized de facto Tunisian independence. It then became a monarchy governed officers of the Ottoman occupation force. After the occupation of Algeria by France, Tunisia was controlled simultaneously by France, Great Britain and Italy.
In 1883 Tunisia became a French protectorate. Although the monarchy was maintained the government was also under French control. French and Italian colonization went into effect on a grand scale and the most fertile lands were nationalized and awarded to Europeans. The first grass roots militant efforts for independence began in 1920. In 1934 the Neo-Dustour or New Constitution Party, led by the lawyer Habib Bourguiba, revived the Tunisian Nationalist Movement.
In 1950 France undertook political reforms destined to permit Tunisia to enjoy an internal autonomy and to work in cooperation with France. On March 20, 1956, Tunisia succeeded in obtaining independence and Bourguiba became Prime Minister and later President after the abolition of the monarchy by the National Assembly July 25, 1957. On November 7, 1987 General Zine el-Abdine ben Ali dismissed President Bourguiba for his inability to govern and thus succeeded him as president.
In 1989, he was elected president of the Republic, reelected in 1994, 1999, 2004 (following a constitutional amendment) and in 2009, although in 2009 he didn't attain his usual level of 90% of votes. President Ben Ali maintains a tight grip on the presidency and continues to respond to mounting Islamicism with implacable pressure. He is maintaining relations with the West while thwarting the pressure of Islamists and at the same time emphasizing the Arab and Islamic character of Tunisia.
In 1989 he was elected president, reelected in 1994, 1999, 2004 (following a constitutional amendment) and 2009 where he did not reach the usual majority of 90% of voters.
In early 2011, the "Jasmine" revolution forced Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee from his country to Saudi Arabia (January 14). That a head of state was thus obliged to relinquish power and flee the country is a first in the history of Arab countries.
The Tunisian revolution began December 17 2010 with the suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi in Sidi Bouzid, a town of 40,000 in the center of the country. This street vendor killed himself to protest against unemployment and police brutality. His death was the spark that triggered dozens of protests around the country which were repressed by the police with unusual violence. Abandoned by an autocratic and corrupt régime, the population has done its utmost to force the departure of the dictator and his family which had gradually succeeded in controlling the economy of the country. In total, according to the UN Committee on Human Rights the troubles caused 219 deaths and 510 injuries.
The acting president, Fouad Mebazaa, announced "a complete break with the past" and his desire to meet "all the legitimate aspirations of the revolution, freedom and dignity." But the transition has not been easy. Prime Minister Ghannouchi, already forced to form a new government from which have been excluded key representatives of the old regime, was forced to resign on February 28, after further street protests that produced three victims. The protesters said that he was too close to Ben Ali. His successor, aged 84, Beji Caid Essebsi, already served the state at the time of the father of its independence, Habib Bourguiba. He has formed a government of technocrats bringing together a core of recognized expertise. At the same time, the Court of First Instance in Tunis announced the dissolution of the RCD (Constitutional Democratic Rally), party of ousted President Ben Ali founded in 1988 and considered by many as a symbol of repression.
The first six months of transition have remained tense, interspersed with incidents. Elections for a Constituent Assembly, originally scheduled July 24, are finally set for Sunday, October 23 for logistical reasons.
For his part, former President Ben Ali has been charged with 93 criminel charges including some civil justice (illegal possession of foreign currency, weapons and drugs) and other military justice (and intentional homicide cases torture).
The Christian Community
Various reports would lead one to believe that there are 2,000 practicing Protestants in Tunisia but local Christian leaders put the number closer to 600. The government officially recognizes all Christian and Jewish organizations established before the country's independence in 1956. However, it does not authorize the planting of churches by other groups outside of this recognition. Despite the fact that the government allows churches to operate openly only the Catholic Church is recognized as a legal religious institution next to Islam.
While no law exists preventing the change of religion, there exists a powerful social pressure against a Muslim's conversion to another religion. Muslims who convert face social ostracism as well as bureaucratic harassment or threats from the authorities.
The government does not allow the creation of political parties based on religion and prohibits the proselytism of Muslims. Those found guilty of this risk expulsion or denial of the renewal of their residency. Generally speaking the government does not grant permission to publish or distribute Christian materials in Arabic.
In January 2011, the Christian Association Open Doors, which specializes in defending the oppressed Church and Christians in the world, published its traditional index of persecution. There has been a deterioration in the situation of believers in Tunisia which is ranked 37th in the list of 50 countries where faith in Christ costs the most, the country previously held the 43rd spot.
The "Jasmine" revolution that ousted President Ben Ali has brought a new breath of freedom throughout the country in early 2011. Tunisian Christians hope to benefit from its results.
The name of this country, given by the French, references the name of a province of the Roman Empire. Officially christened The Islamic Republic of Mauritania, it covers over 1 million km2 of land in North West Africa. Bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the west, Mauritania shares borders with the Western Sahara, Algeria, Mali and Senegal. Located in the Sahara Desert, Mauritania is more than half desert with a hot and dry climate but with significant variations in temperature. Annual rainfall is generally less than 4 inches. The Senegal Valley is the only region where annual rainfall reaches almost 26 inches thus making it an important region for agriculture.
Nouakchott, the capital, has a population of 720,000 inhabitants. It is by far the largest city ahead of Nouadhibou which barely counts 100,000 people. The total population of the country is 3.1 million and is nearly entirely Muslim with Islam being the official religion of Mauritania. The Moors of Arab and Berber origin, represent 4/5 of the population. They are semi-nomadic and live in camps. Arabs and Africans make up 2 of the other largest groups. These are generally sedentary farmers including the Toucouleur, Soninke, Fulani and Wolof peoples.
Arab and Muslim culture have profoundly influenced Mauritanian art well-known for its intricate and detailed jewelry and silver handicrafts. Arabic is the official language.
Populated by a largely black agrarian people, the region was invaded beginning in the 4th Century by nomadic Berbers well-skilled in camel riding. The region was incorporated into the Almoravide Empire which reached from Senegal to Spain and was Islamized from the 11th to the 12th Centuries. Arabs did not penetrate the country until after 1400. In the 15th Century contact with Europe began as traders of salt and gum were seeking slaves. After 1858 Mauritania was progressively occupied by the French moving north from Senegal. Despite a persistent resistance Mauritania eventually became a colony of French West Africa in 1920 although total submission was not achieved until 1934. In 1958 Mauritania declared itself as an Islamic Republic and acquired independence in 1960 under the presidency of Moktar Ould Daddah.
In November 1975, Mauritania, fearing that Morocco would attempt to expand its borders, agreed to divide and annex Western Sahara with its powerful neighbor (Madrid Accord). However, the Saharawi people formed the group The Polisario and began guerilla warfare against the two countries. In July 1978, Moktar Ould Daddah was ousted from power by the Military Committee for National Recovery. Immediately The Polisario announced a cease fire. In August 1979 (The Alger Accord with The Polisario) Mauritania exited the war. In January 1980, Colonel Khouna Ould Haidalla took power as president of the Military Committee for National Salvation. In July he abolished slavery which at that time involved around 150,000 people and in December called for a civil government which was repeatedly challenged by a series of failed coups d'état. In February 1984 Mauritania recognized The Arab Democratic Saharawi Republic but then Colonel Ould Haidalla was dismissed by his party and replaced by Colonel Maawiyah Sid Ahmed Ould Taya.
The army pursued the arabization of the country by eliminating Black Africans from positions of power in the army and the administration. The massacre of Moors in Senegal in the spring of 1989 (a reaction to the shooting of two Senegalese by Moorish border guards) provoked violent reprisals against Black Africans in Mauritania including a large number of expulsions. Meanwhile in 1991, a new constitution was adopted by referendum authorizing a multi-party system and guaranteeing freedom of press. In January 1992 the first multi-party elections since independence were held despite being tainted by claims of fraud by the opposition that boycotted the elections. As a result, the legislative elections in March confirmed Colonel Ould Taya as president.
Reelected in 1997 despite strong objections regarding the state of freedoms in the country, he was forced from power August 3, 2005 by the army. The Military Council for Justice and Democracy officially took power to "put a definitive end to the oppressive activities of the defunct authority and to put in place real democratic institutions". The head of state as a result of the military take over, Ely Ould Mohamed Vall, respected his promises and did not stand for presidential elections in March 2007. The new president of Mauritania, Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, took oath on April 19, 2007. He was the first democratically elected president without the presence of large scale fraud since Mauritania's independence. However in August 2008 there was a coup and the general Ould Abdelaziz proclaimed himself head of State. Less than one year later, July 18 2009, he was elected President with 52.58% of the vote. General Abdelaziz presents himself as a sort of "father of the people".
To protest against the regime and the political situation in his country, a wealthy businessman of 43 years attempted to set himself on fire January 17 2011 in front of the Senate near the presidency of the country. He imitated the gesture of the young Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi, who just a month earlier, had committed suicide in this way, thus launching the "Revolution of Jasmine" which was to oust President Ben Ali.
This event caused a wave of popular protests, unprecedented in the history of the country since independence. These events affect the entire country and all sectors of its society; social conflict sometimes lasts a long time, showing the determination of the protesters, but without becoming a unified political and social movement. Although not normally exceeding 1,000 people, the protests increased in March: every Tuesday and Friday, resulting also in strikes. The government responded to the challenge with the promise of 22.6 million euros to bring down the price of basic commodities by 30%.
Challenges of a political nature were made only by a movement of young people gathered in a ''February 25 movement,'' created on the Internet.
Police repression and arrests have caused unease among politicians who have denounced the authoritarian reaction of the president. June 23, the criminalization of press offenses is removed.
The Christian Community
Islam is the state religion and it is strictly forbidden to leave Islam. Article 306 of the 1984 Penal Code established that a convert from Islam who does not return to Islam within 3 days of having been identified as an apostate will be condemned to death and his property will be confiscated by the State Treasury.
According to the International Report on Religious Freedom, no non Muslim group has ever been recognized in this country including the Catholic Church that functions openly there.
Despite the religious monopoly of Islam, the Gospel is advancing in miraculous ways such as an imam who presented the Jesus film in his mosque. Many Mauritanians are experiencing dreams and visions. There are about 200 Christians in the country that are spread out among about a dozen different groups.
In the spring of 2009, Christopher Logust, an American Christian, was arrested then beaten in headquarters of the technology and language group that he was directing in the capitol, Nouakchott. The Maghreb Al-Qaeda branch claimed responsibility in a communiqué which accused the victim of performing "proselytization activities".
In January 2011, Mauritania was seen as the worst country in North Africa in the persecution index published by the Christian Association ''Open Doors'', which specializes in defending the oppressed Church and Christians in the world. It occupied the 13th place out of the 50 countries noted for their religious intolerance. Open Doors highlighted that the influence of al-Qaeda terrorists there has increased.
Morocco, officially called the Kingdom of Morocco, occupies an area of 446,550km2 with 1,835 km f coastline along the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. The Strait of Gibraltar separates Morocco from Spain and it is bordered by Algeria on the east and the Western Sahara on the south, a territory whose possession continues to be disputed.
The majority of Morocco's 34 million inhabitants live in the cities and villages in the Atlas Mountains and the Saharan land. One half of the labor force is employed in the agricultural sector. Annual population growth is 3.3%.
While Arabic is the official language, one third of the population speaks one of several Berber dialects. French is often taught as a second language and is used frequently in commerce and administration.
After Morocco gained independence in 1956, Rabat became its capital city now with a population of 1.73 million. However Casablanca remains the principal economic center with a population of 3.2 million. Fes, the third largest city, also numbers more than 1 million inhabitants followed by Marrakesh, a premier touristic destination, Agadir and Tanger.
The Berbers represent the longest standing inhabitants of Morocco having never formed any formal state or union but maintaining an organization of independent tribes. However, very early in history various peoples settled in this region due to its commercially strategic location offering access to the interior of Africa. This wave of settlers began with the Phoenicians (who during this same era furnished King Solomon with materials for the Temple of Jerusalem) and then the Carthaginians and finally the Romans from the 1st to the 5th centuries. It was in this context that Christianity spread to Morocco in a somewhat superficial manner having its only real impact among the larger cities. In the 5th Century, following the fall of the Roman Empire, the Byzantines took the place of the Romans in Morocco.
At the end of the 7th Century AD Arab soldiers and propagators of Islam invaded the region of Morocco and thereby converted the Berbers and established a base for their conquest of Spain to make headway into Europe. Morocco at this time was not yet a state but was rather just a part of the vast Muslim Empire that was controlled from Middle East, first from Damascus and later from Bagdad. Power in this region passed through several sovereign dynasties of Muslim Berbers (most notably the Almoravides, the Almohades and the Merinides) but not one of them was successful at unifying the country politically. This period of history corresponded however with the height of this extremely sophisticated civilization to which the gems of Fes and Marrakech still today testify.
In the 16th Century the Morocco we know today was born out of the succession of power of two Arab dynasties: the Saadites and above all the Alawites from 1650 to present. This last dynasty succeeded at establishing a Moroccan State by imposing its power on the various regions and controlling the borders. In addition to being direct descendants of the Prophet Mohamed, successive Alawite kings bore the prestigious title 'commander of the believers' thus reinforcing their authority.
However this first period of Moroccan nationalism was interrupted by the colonial expansion of European countries at the end of the 19th Century. In 1912 Morocco was divided between Spain and France with France gaining the larger share where it exercised its influence over its 'protectorate'. For 45 years (1912 to 1956) Morocco experienced an unprecedented rate of development while suffering under political, racial and cultural domination as well as intense economic exploitation.
In 1956, Morocco obtained independence with relatively little cost, under the leadership of King Mohamed V, father of modern day Morocco, who was quickly succeeded by his son Hassan II (1961-1999). Hassan II, with a firm authoritative hand, formed the Morocco we know today: a constitutional monarchy that grants wide spread power to the king. At his death in 1999, his son Mohamed VI came to power. At the start of the 21st Century, the new king is tackling many political issues including human rights and democracy after denouncing the authoritarian methods used under the reign of his father.
Internationally the situation of Western Sahara remains problematic. This former Spanish colony located south of Morocco was annexed under the order of Hassan II in 1975. However the international community does not recognize Morocco's sovereignty over this territory. The situation is further complicated by the fact that the liberation army of Western Sahara (The Polisario) is financed by Algeria thus creating tensions between the two countries.
In a speech given 30 July 2009 on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of his accession to the throne, Mohamed VI committed himself to continue his policy of reforms while also outlining what had been achieved in the last ten years. No spectacular announcements, but a call to redouble efforts in carrying on to completion projects already underway, notably in education and social development. The king also emphasised that ''good public management'' is indispensable to ''the consolidation of an economic climate favourable to investment and development.''
The regime seems undermined by its desire to preserve a precarious religous balance. Having launched a campaign against Shiite Muslim missionaries (the country is 99% Sunni), from 2009 the authorities also engaged in a ruthless policy of repression against Christians (see below) which greatly tarnished the image of tolerance of the kingdom.
Inspired by revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, thousands of demonstrators marched February 20 2011 in different cities to demand a thorough reform of the Moroccan political system. They seek a parliamentary system in which the king would be king, but without holding the executive power, a sort of constitutional monarchy like in Spain or the UK. Ten days before another protest, King Mohammed VI announced (March 10) a process of constitutional reform. He spoke again of this in a speech to the nation on June 17. July 1 Moroccans voted in a referendum on constitutional reform, it was approved by 98% of voters.
The powers of the prime minister and parliament are to be strengthened, but without the political and religious supremacy of the sovereign being called into question.
Freedom of belief, however, finds no place in this new constitution: it sticks to the concept of "free exercise of a religion" already existing, Islam remains the state religion. For his part, Mohammed VI retains his authority in religious matters as a "descendant of the Prophet" and "Commander of the Faithful", including the power to issue fatwas.
The Christian Community
According to estimates by the Interior Minister, 800 Moroccans have converted to Christianity.
There are frequent crack downs on proselytism conducted by non Muslims. Article 220 of the Moroccan Penal Code permits criminal action to be taken against anyone who is found responsible of upsetting the faith of a Muslim or converting him or her. Anyone found guilty of this is subject to a variable fine and up to 3 years in prison. Christian Missionaries must work discretely. On November 28, 2006 an expatriate Christian was fined 500 dirhams ($50) and given a 6 month jail sentence for trying to convert a Muslim to the Christian faith. The prison sentence was suspended and the person in question left the country of his own volition.
Citizens who convert often risk social ostracism and a small number of these believers have been subject to short periods of interrogation or detention by the authorities. They can be accused of treason or of illegal relations with foreign missions. At times the believers are even refused their passports. In general the government confiscates Bibles in Arabic and refuses to grant licenses for their importation or sale; and this without any law officially prohibiting the Bible etc.
In March 2009, five Christians were expelled from Morocco. The minister of internal affairs cited ''proselytism'' as the reason. This unusual police intervention, in the middle of a private meeting (authorised by the Constitution on Morocco), was the starting point of a religious repression against the Christians which intensified between December 2009 and mid-2010. It has attracted international criticism. During the first six months of 2010 more than 130 foreign Christians were expelled including several French and Swiss families. This persecution also touched some mixed couples (where one partner is Moroccan), one Spanish, one from Lebanon and one from Switzerland. The non-Moroccan partner was expelled overnight despite their family situation.
These expulsions of foreigners are based on non-proven accusations of ''proselytism''. The Moroccan Constitution guaranties freedom of belief, but any attempt to convert a Moroccan to another religion is a crime (punishable under article 220 of criminal law).
The crackdown also affects Moroccan believers themselves, victims of harassment by the police (arrests, interrogation etc). It is no wonder that Morocco has slipped in the persecution index published in January 2011 by the Christian Association ''Open Doors'', which specializes in defending the Church and Christians oppressed in the world: the Kingdom rose from 37th to 31st place. "Open Doors" stresses that the previously relatively tolerant government has expelled 150 expatriate Christians "for allegedly proselytizing, while at the same time Muslim leaders made inflammatory statements against the local Christians, proclaiming that Christians are committing 'moral rape' and 'religious terrorism.'"