Published first in http://bokamosoafrica.org/2012/08/the-language-of-north-africa.html
Kenyan scholar Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o has written extensively about the ‘language question’ in African literature, most prominently in his book Decolonizing the Mind where he famously rejected English as a medium for his writing. In fact, there has been a great deal of scholarship regarding the use of indigenous vs. foreign languages in Africa. However, it has almost exclusively focused on European colonial languages, either ignoring Arabic as a colonial language or even considering it ‘indigenous’, as in the case of Ngũgĩ! Ngũgĩ goes as far as to say that “Arabic is now an African language unless we want to write off all the indigenous populations of North Africa, Egypt, Sudan as not being Africans.” (Decolonizing the Mind, 30). This statement is particularly strange as it belies a complete ignorance of North Africa, where the indigenous people, Imazighen, are not Arab and do speak an African language, Tamazight, rather than Arabic. The Arabic language did not arrive in North Africa until the Arab invasions of the 7th century C.E., when violent conquest brought Islam and Arabic.
Ali Mazrui also lauds the “linguistic nationalism” of “Arabic-speaking Africa,” washing over the violence with which Arab nationalism is imposed on indigenous North Africans. Mazrui goes on to say that it is inappropriate to refer to ‘Francophone Africa’ or ‘Lusophone Africa,’ yet he inappropriately labels North Africa (Tamazgha) as “Arabic-speaking,” ascribing the colonial language as the – presumably ‘indigenous’ – language of the people.
Why limit our rejection of colonial languages, if we are to do so, to only European languages? Arabic has been used in at least as destructive and anti-African a manner as French, English, or any other European language in Africa. Just as Ngũgĩ describes the schism created by language policies in a colonial school, an Amazigh writer does the same:
You are not even able to speak Arabic, he told us… ‘You are savages. How will I ever manage to civilize you when I have to start from scratch?’…I was already considering how I was going to tell my parents who were unable to understand the teacher’s language. Should my parents see me suddenly deny the patrimony of my ancestors and my mother tongue? It would be far better to disappear along with that language. (Almasude, originally Oussaid 1989).
These discriminatory policies and practices continue today, at the expense of an indigenous African language. Despite this, Arabic is granted the status of “African” even while it acts as a colonial language, imposed by those who identify as “Arabs,” and as foreigners. Within scholarship about African languages, as well as African Studies in general, people seem to have forgotten that European colonialism is not the only form of colonialism to affect the continent.
When North African countries gained “independence” from European control, Arabization policies were implemented to create a false unity of the supposed “Arab” people of North Africa. These policies continue today, with the most recent example being the ban on Tamazight in the Moroccan Parliament after Fatima Tabaamrant, an Amazigh MP, asked a question in her native language. Amazigh parents who want to register their children with indigenous names are frequently rejected, a policy which has been criticized by human rights organizations. Children are often still physically beaten for speaking their mother tongue in school, as is the case in many African countries where only colonial languages may be spoken in school. Once again it does not make sense to reject European colonial languages but not a non-European colonial language which is equally destructive.
Given the colonial nature of Arabic in North Africa, and its forceful imposition on the indigenous people, there are significant reasons that Africans ought to reject the use of Arabic in favor of the indigenous language of North Africa: Tamazight. When we do this, we support the survival of African languages in opposition to the policies of former or current colonial powers.