Allahu akbar! God is the greatest! With these words, sung in a sarcastic tone to make his point, Kabyle singer Lounès Matoub showed his rejection of Islam as a colonial religion imposed by Arabs in North Africa, a religion to which the vast majority of the indigenous Amazigh population now adheres. He continued to sing in the same sarcastic vein: Arabic is the word of God. It is the language of knowledge, in no way comparable to others. For it, you can throw yourself into the abyss…Muhammed will help you!
There can be no question that Matoub was a particularly belligerent folk singer whose explicit rejection of religion led – in part – to his death. Fifteen years ago, on June 25th 1998, Lounès Matoub was assassinated while driving near his hometown in Kabylia. He died in a spray of bullets, some of which severely injured Matoub’s wife and two sisters-in-law.
The Kabylie region is an Amazigh stronghold in Algeria, where Lounès Matoub grew up in the midst of the Algerian war for independence. This formal ‘independence’ from France was followed by the quickly and brutally repressed Amazigh uprising led by the militant Hocine Aït Ahmed against the Arab nationalist government of Ahmed Ben Bella.
Amid this intense and violent background, Lounès grew up with a reputation as a rebel, an association he would keep for the rest of his life. One of the earliest signs of this rebellion was his rejection of the Arabic language after Algerian ‘independence’ brought Arabization programs to schools, replacing French teachers with Middle Eastern Arabic-speaking teachers. Matoub said, regarding these Arabization policies, that “it was then that Algeria’s descent into hell began.”
Matoub’s radicalization should come as no surprise: in his autobiography, titled Rebelle, he wrote, “[after Aït Ahmed’s uprising] I can say that my awakening in regard to identity grew. The Kabyles were considered non-existent, and the injustice of that rejection caused me indignation.” Matoub’s indignation was made evident through his lyrics, which expressed his alienation and pain at becoming like a ‘foreigner’ in his own North African homeland for refusing to speak Arabic, instead choosing to sing in his mother tongue, Tamazight, saying “I shouted out my anger in my songs. Music is my anger.” Matoub’s anger resonated with the Kabyle and wider Amazigh community, and his music became instantly popular. In his short musical career of just 20 years, Matoub produced over 30 albums.
Much of Matoub’s anger was pointed at the religious extremism that often dominated the Algerian political sphere, particularly with the rise of Islamist militant groups such as the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria (GIA) and Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). Matoub saw Islam as inextricably linked with an oppressive Arab nationalism that considered Tamazight inferior to Arabic (the supposed ‘language of God’). He went so far as to mock the way that practicing Muslims pray:
Bend and strike your forehead against the ground
No one comes to disturb your prostration,
Just listen to your true sheikh:
Allahu akbar! Allah!
Matoub’s voice and tone while singing show the near-foolhardy defiance with which he approached life. In another song, he parodies the Algerian national anthem, singing in Tamazight in a direct affront to the State that upholds Arabic as the sole official language (though Tamazight is now listed in a secondary position as a ‘national’ language). In one song, La Soeur Musulmane (Muslim Sister), Matoub sings “We are harassed, torn; misfortune has befallen our shoulders. Waiting in vain is the help of God.” There is an implicit call in these words for Imazighen to stop waiting for divine intervention – which will never come – and to instead take action themselves against their oppressors. In another song, Tabratt I Lehkwam (Letter to the Governors) he accuses Arab nationalist leaders:
They dyed the face of Algeria with Islam and Arabic
Along with deceit and lies
With our roots and wisdom, we’ll cleanse and free Algeria
From your deceit and lies
A parody of the Algerian national anthem, with lyrics in Tamazight and French.
Lounès Matoub was a militant atheist and did not consider his rejection of religion a conflict with his Amazigh identity – far from it. Matoub’s secularism was part and parcel of his fervor and pride for his Kabyle heritage. In this way, Lounès Matoub represents an indigenous North African tradition of godlessness, in which rejecting colonialism means rejecting an oppressive and foreign god as well. Any spirituality in his life and work is centered not on a divine being, but is instead focused on his native land Kabylia and his mother tongue Tamazight. Matoub’s reverence for his language appears deeply spiritual, and it is represented as the “soul” of the Amazigh people:
…each time that I speak in my language, it is like an act of resistance. We exist, thanks to our language. This language, transmitted through my mother, is my soul. Thanks to her, I have made myself, I have dreamed listening to songs and stories.
In refusing to speak in Arabic and instead imbuing Tamazight with spiritual significance, Matoub restores to his mother tongue the sacredness that centuries of Arab domination sought to deny it. Through these words, Matoub becomes a decolonial African heretic.
I interviewed the Kabyle musician and long-time friend of Lounès Matoub, Moh Alileche, who first met Matoub in 1978 on a ship from Algeria to France. Alileche describes Lounès at the time as determined to become a world-class singer, even a superstar. “He was not afraid – at that time we were under the dictatorship of [Houari] Boumedienne and people were afraid to speak Kabyle in Algiers – but Lounès Matoub refused to be afraid.” Alileche says that Matoub didn’t hate or oppose religion, he simply did not believe in it and was instead interested in promoting his own culture. Moh himself holds similar political and religious views to Lounès, and even dedicated his first albumTragedy/Tawaghit to the memory of his fellow singer and activist.
North Africa is frequently labelled a conservative Islamic region, but it does have a rich history of secularism, and even atheism. There were, unfortunately, consequences for an outspoken atheist and Amazigh militant: Matoub was attacked several times between 1984 and1998. During a protest in 1988, a police officer shot five rounds into Matoub’s body and he was initially thought to be dead. After months recovering in Algeria and Paris, Matoub returned to his music and activism, but in 1994 he was kidnapped and held captive for two weeks by the Armed Islamic Group (GIA). Told that he was the “enemy of God”, Matoub stayed alive only by pretending to revert to Islam, giving up his Amazigh political work, and beginning to pray ‘faithfully.’ It was not until 1998 that Lounès’ enemies succeeded in killing him, although doubts still remain as to whether the GIA and/or the Algerian government were responsible for his death.
Lounès Matoub remains a prominent figure in Amazigh activism, and his strong position on secularism is respected even by religious Imazighen who would surely disagree with Matoub’s politics regarding Islam. This reflects the common secular culture among Imazighen, in which freedom of religion and religious pluralism are highly valued, despite living and participating in religious societies. In my experience, politically-oriented Imazighen are often strongly secular, and will support critical and sceptical initiatives towards religion. Among these Imazighen, many, including Moh Alileche, describe secularism as a traditional value within their Amazigh communities. Alileche said “Every person should have respect for anyone else regardless of their religion – it always used to be that way in Algeria and Kabylia; every person was free in their religion.”Decsribing the way that Kabyle communities remember Matoub and also regard his secularist stance as a positive attribute, he said “They loved him when he was alive, and now [after his death] they love him even more.”
Lounès drew inspiration from the figures of his past: Kahina, Massinissa, and Jugurtha, all Amazigh fighters who defended North Africa and have become legendary heroes. As a self-described ‘free thinker’ for opposing Arab-Islamic domination, Matoub held to a more radical conception of decolonisation than most were willing to accept, one that included the rejection of a foreign religion. He contributed to a history, however repressed, of African atheism and free thought, and was inspired by his own traditions and cultural orientation rather than Western thought. Matoub’s defiance of colonial religion for its destruction of traditional cultures reclaims atheism as an indigenous African value: for Africa, decolonisation might be heresy.
Article originally published by This is Africa.