I was in Carthage recently. Well, you really can’t be in Carthage anymore. That’s like saying you checked out a book from the Library of Alexandria. On the coast of Tunisia, the ancient city of Carthage is now just a few chipped pillars. There’s nothing left but the vanishing memory of majestic Carthage, like some distant echo of an ancient Alexandrian librarian hushing children to be quiet. But one people do remain from ancient times, a people President Obama’s State Department needs to cozy up to: the Berbers. By aligning the U.S. with the Berbers, NATO might yet be able to stitch up North Africa before fascists roll over pro-democracy forces.
The Berber people, 30 to 40 million, are spread across North Africa and represent a lonely, fearful yet brave voice against fundamentalist Arab rule. If a Caliphate is marching on Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, the Berber people hear the footsteps first and know they will be crushed in the parade of radicalism. Fundamentalist Wahhabi Arabs condemn the Berbers for “satanic” practices, that is, blending tribal traditions with Sunni Muslim rituals. Among their allegedly satanic traditions is a belief in free speech and pluralism. In Morocco and Algeria, Berber parties have been protesting to legitimize minority languages, rather than watch the Koran used to steamroll into submission every peasant, professor and camel across the Sahara.
In Algeria, from time to time fundamentalist militants have picked off Berber leaders with sniper fire and lobbed bombs into Berber casbahs. Whenever North African governments need a scapegoat, the “Berber dogs” and “treasonous Berber traitors” fit the bill. In some ways, Berbers, a non-Arab people, resemble the plight of Jews in this part of the world. In Tripoli, Muammar Qadhafi takes out a Sharpie pen to anti-Zionist screeds, crosses out the word “Jew” and substitutes the word “Berber.” He claims that Berbers have no history in North Africa; that their presence is a myth and that even their language is a vile potion: “If your mother transmits you this language, she nourishes you with the milk of the colonialist, she feeds you their poison,” Qadhafi claimed.
Ancient linkages between Berbers and Jews could temper the venomous anti-Zionism that prevails in the region. Paul Silverstein of Reed College reports that in southeastern Morocco, Berber tribes celebrate an annual Islamic holiday with a masquerade. They don masks, wear Jewish stars, pretend to be Moses and make pilgrimages to the ancient Jewish quarter. The Jews left town long ago, but these Berbers seem to miss them.
Now, I don’t want to portray the Berbers as a clan of perfect Jeffersonian democrats, who can’t wait for the Federalist Papers to be translated into their native language, tamazight. No doubt, segments of the Berbers can be riled up to toss Molotov cocktails and, if you invited their tribal chiefs to dinner, one of them might stab you in the neck with the salad fork. One of the famous Berbers of our day, Zinedine Zidane famously flattened an Italian soccer player with a headbutt in the 2006 World Cup. But let’s face it, in world politics there are no perfect people nor perfect choices. St. Augustine (part Berber himself) taught that God only had one perfect son. The rest of us are so-so at best.
The Berbers, often mischaracterized as simple Nomads, seem to thrive on farming and on trade. The casbah is their trading post. They create networks across North Africa and Arabia, akin to the “bamboo networks” that have created prosperity for Chinese people. President Obama, who had no trouble bowing to Saudi King Abdullah, should toast the Berbers and their culture. In the perfect storm that is the Middle East today, Obama should declare the Berbers a test-case for Arabian democracy. He should demand that their voices be heard in any new electoral process.
Popular revolutions don’t always lead to popular democracy. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela turned out to be a democratic prince. In neighboring Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe turned out to be a megalomaniacal thug. Mugabe’s predecessor, Ian Smith warned that the people of Rhodesia would get “one man, one vote, once.” He was right. President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton should speak loudly and proudly for “one man, one vote, forever.” We should be quick to condemn sham democracy and Potemkin pluralism. The Berbers present a chance for the U.S. government to build closer relations with an indigenous people who are not trying to repeal our civilization and drive the world back to the sixth century by plunder and suicide bombing.
Granted, most Americans know the word “Berber” only from the twisted loops of yarn in a rug. If you search “Berber” in the New York Times, you’ll mostly come up with splashy full-page advertisements from ABC Carpet in Manhattan. And yet the Berbers could be the thread that hold together American policy in the Middle East. They have no borders; they have much to lose. And so do we.