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Gaddafi's Linguistic Genocide in Libya

by Brooklyn Quallen, Genocide Watch

There are about 7,000 languages in use around the world. By 2100, around 3,000 of them could go extinct. The deaths of these languages will impact more than communication; mother tongues are foundational to the identity of thousands of linguistic minorities. Languages manifest a group’s history and traditions. When they disappear, they take with them the heritage and culture of the group. Safeguarding them is a vital part of protecting and promoting cultural diversity.

Linguistic genocide against Indigenous minorities has a long and wide-reaching history. Under the rule of Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan state perpetrated a linguistic genocide against the indigenous Amazigh minority. This article examines Gaddafi’s ethnophobic policies with specific regard to linguistic genocide against the Amazigh minority and the lasting effects of those policies. The article also examines what can be done to promote meaningful change to preserve linguistic diversity in Libya.

From 1912 to 1947, Libya was an Italian colony. Arabs and Amazigh alike formed a strong resistance movement to colonial domination, especially during the Second Italo-Senussi War that solidified Italy's hold over Libya. During that period, Italian troops “pacified” Libya through genocidal warfare, massacring both Arab and Amazigh Libyans. By 1934, indigenous resistance to Italian colonization had been crushed, and Italy continued to repress and attempt to destroy Libyan culture. After Italy’s defeat in World War II, Libya was administered by the Allies until 1951. In 1951, Libya declared independence and decolonization efforts began.     

     The United Kingdom of Libya, a constitutional monarchy, was the first government of post-colonial Libya. It lasted only 18 years before Muammar Gaddafi’s 1969 coup. Gaddafi established the Libyan Arab Republic, a new Arab nation. As with many post-colonial states, the creation of a unified national identity was a top priority for Libyan leadership. Nation-building projects often rely on  fostering nationalism   by homogenizing the population; the Libyan Arab Republic was no exception. Gaddafi’s   Cultural Revolution  , which began in 1973, constructed “Libyan” to mean “Arabic,” despite the presence of ethnolinguistic minorities, including the Amazigh. Those minorities were suppressed, often violently, as perceived threats to national unity. The Amazigh were forced to abandon certain cultural practices, especially in public, so as to better assimilate with the newly-Arabized Libyan identity and avoid further persecution. 

     For the Amazigh, Gaddafi’s Arabization policies were genocidal. Part of his strategy was the othering of the Amazigh and their culture. Where he acknowledged their existence, he framed them as an existential threat, dangerous to good, Arab families and the state itself. However, Gaddafi mainly pushed the narrative that the Amazigh were “  a product of colonialism  ” created by the West to divide Libya. They were not a group distinct from Libyan Arabs; even if they wanted to think of themselves as such, they were not allowed to make such a distinction in public. In 2008, Gaddafi told Amazigh leaders and activists, "  You can call yourselves whatever you want inside your homes – Berbers, Children of Satan, whatever – but you are only Libyans when you leave your homes.  "    

     Gaddafi targeted Amazigh linguistic culture, too. He used genocidal rhetoric to eradicate the Amazigh identity by claiming that Tamazight was “  a mere dialect  ” of Arabic, rather than a separate language belonging to a separate group. He also declared that those learning Tamazight were drinking “  poisoned milk from their mother’s breast  .” Part of his Arabization campaign aimed to supplant minority languages such as Tamazight with Arabic.    

     In Libya, the challenge presented by multilingualism has been central to nation-building efforts that have existed since independence. Multilingualism is intertwined with complex discussions of nationalism, indigeneity, and the legacies of colonialism. Under Gaddafi, nearly all Libyans, regardless of ethnicity, were fluent in Arabic, and had been for centuries. The ubiquity of Arabic in Libyan daily life already meant that children could often recite Qu’ranic verses before they could ask for water in their mother tongue. Arabic was the sole and uncontested official language of Libya. Still, Gaddafi saw minority languages as threats to the linguistic supremacy of Arabic.   

     As a result, Tamazight was suppressed in the early years of Gaddafi’s regime; in 1984, legislation was introduced that de facto banned the language in its promotion of Arabic.  Law No. (12) on prohibiting the use of foreign languages and numerals in all transactions  mandated the use of only Arabic in the public sphere. All official documents, signs, advertisements, and publications had to be in Arabic. Any foreign institution operating in Libya had to provide Arabic translations for their materials. The punishment for the use of non-Arabic language was up to a month of jail time or heavy fines.    

     Law No. (12) effectively relegated Tamazight to unofficial settings. While medical and scientific reports were exceptions to the law, such reports were rarely, if ever, published in Tamazight. By making Arabic the sole language of economics, Amazigh parents were disincentivized from teaching their children anything but colloquial Tamazight. Since all media had to be in Arabic, Amazigh children also lost the ability to practice their language skills outside of their homes. The law accomplished its goal: it repressed the growth of language-based Amazigh culture with the intent of forcing the Amazigh to assimilate.    

     Eighteen years later, Gaddafi’s government passed an even more restrictive language law:  Law No. (24) of 2002 on the prohibition of unauthorized use of languages other than Arabic in all transactions . Law No. (24) reaffirmed the terms of the bans on languages other than Arabic set forth in Law No. (12), but expanded the scope to mandate the use of Arabic for street names; any writing on vehicles, buildings, and roads; posters; medical prescriptions; and the names of institutions. Punishments for infractions included fines and commercial license cancellations for a full year. The key difference between the two laws was Article 3 of Law No. (24): a ban on non-Arabic, non-Islamic names. Article 3 of Law No. (24) of 2002 states that:   

“The use of non-Arabic, non-Islamic names is forbidden, along with Arabic names not sanctioned by Islam and names that have a particular significance that is not in accord with the spirit of Islam and the identity of the Libyan people. It is forbidden to record such names in records and documents of any type.”   

Appropriate names were determined by the General People’s Committee, the executive branch in Gaddafi’s government. Those who attempted to use traditional Tamazight names were punished with hefty fines and the denial of personal documents, such as passports. Children with Tamazight legal names were barred from enrolling in schools. The grace given to those who already had Tamazight names was minimal; they were granted a year to obtain a legal name change.     

     Law No. (24) not only reinforced the existing prohibition on Tamazight in public, but extended the law to regulate its use in private, too. While Tamazight had been repressed for decades under Gaddafi, this law represented a new phase of Gaddafi’s attempt to eradicate it and Amazigh identity as a whole. By banning Tamazight names, a fundamental part of any culture, the law took aim at intergenerational transmission. One of the most important indicators of language vitality is intergenerational transmission – whether or not a language is taught to children by their parents. Law No. (24) did not ban Tamazight outright, because it did not have to; its provisions disincentivized the teaching of Tamazight to Amazigh children with Arabic names who could not legally use it anywhere but behind closed doors. As a result, Tamazight began to weaken, showing the early stages of language death. 

Read the full article here.


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