Stories from two different ethnic minorities in the Arab Muslim world – the Kurds and the Algerian Amazigh (historically known as the Berbers) – provide insight into faith and social identity.
I spoke with a young Amazigh woman about how her people perceive Arabs, and she told me that the Amazigh perceive Arabs as colonizers.
The Amazigh are the original ethnic people of the land and have their own culture, language and even calendars. (She informed me that we are actually in year 2965.)
The Arabs pushed into Algeria through Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, gradually forcing Islam and Arabization upon the people.
The Amazigh, then ruled by Queen Kahina, initially accepted Islam and the Arabs.
However, according to their traditions, Queen Kahina told her two sons not to enter into the Islamic religion, and so the local Arab Emir or governor, ordered her killed.
Today, the Amazigh live under Arab rule in Algeria. They are not considered equal to their Arab neighbors in the eyes of the government.
A movement started in the 1980s to reclaim the Amazigh identity, headed by the famous Algerian Amazigh writer Mouloud Mammeri, who taught and wrote books in the Amazigh language despite government pressure.
Christianity took hold and began to spread again in Algeria, as large movements of “revert” Amazigh moved to reclaim their own identities.
As my friend told me, “Amazigh means ‘free man’ in our language. We want to preserve our language. We want to reclaim our identity; we are not part of this Arabization. We are reclaiming our identities from these conquerors.”
The Kurds likewise are experiencing a new period of ethnic nationalism and greater freedom to pursue an alternate course to religious and cultural values, which they feel were once forced upon them.
The world’s largest group of stateless people is spread out around the Levant and Central Asia, particularly in Iraq, Turkey and Syria – experiencing different levels of oppression and integration.
Gassed by the thousands in Iraq, forcibly resettled and assimilated in Turkey, and abandoned by their government in Syria, the Kurds have taken advantage of the dissolving states around them to pursue greater independence and have been building stronger ethno-nationalistic ties.
Along with these new opportunities for ethno-nationalism has come the startling spread of the gospel, particularly among Syrian Kurds.
When I asked a young man of Syrian Kurd ethnicity here in Lebanon the same question I asked my Amazigh friend, he replied, “Kurds feel that Arabs forced Islam on them. That’s their major issue. They feel that they’ve lost their identity because of the Arabs. Of course, by Arabs they also mean Islam.”
He continued, “Some of them actually use ‘Arab’ as a curse word. I think it’s a matter of identity; they don’t want to identify themselves with Arabs. I’ve been feeling like their openness to the gospel is a way to get rid of the Islamic identity.
“A Kurdish friend of mine explained that when he meets with his people, he opens the Bible and shows them the passages that refer to the Kurds. He tells them, ‘You have an identity in the Bible, do you have one in the Quran?'”
Identity is still an underexplored area. Not only is identity clearly playing a role in how people interact with, adopt and even reject religion, the question of identity remains in contention even after a person moves from one religion to another.
For those of non-Christian backgrounds living in the Middle East and North Africa, how they develop new identities after rejecting or lifting their previous identity – or even if this is possible or necessary – is an emerging field that deserves greater study.
I conclude, therefore, with the words of Institute of Middle East Studies director Martin Accad, from a personal conversation.
“It strikes me that some traditional approaches to evangelism are doing the same as Arab Islam did. Muslims are often pulled out of context, so that they lose (yet again) their identity and culture. They are stripped of their core identity as culture and traditions are confused for religion. A new culture is imposed along with the new religion of Christianity that is proposed to them. It is hard to miss that this approach will prevent the gospel from taking root effectively,” Accad said.
“Ultimately, this has important implications for discipleship: as Amazigh, Kurds and others embrace Christ’s life and teaching, the top priority of those journeying with them should be to help these women and men sort through their identity issues and learn to love and embrace who they are, as they reinterpret it in the light of the crucified and resurrected Christ.”
Rose Khouri has been working at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in the development and partner relations office since 2014. Lebanese-American, she grew up in California until moving to Lebanon to complete her master’s degree in Middle Eastern studies with a focus on anthropology and religious studies. A version of this article first appeared on the IMES blog and is used with permission.
Editor’s note: This is the second part of a two-part series. Part one is available here. IMES will explore such issues of identity during the Middle East Consultation 2015 – Discipleship Today: Identity and Belonging in the Middle East and North Africa, to be held from June 15-19.