The Berber people are indigenous, ethnic group, speaking the Berber language, a branch of the Afro-Asiatic language. The Berbers are estimated between 14 to 25 millions. They inhabit many countries stretching all the way from the Canary Island to Egypt and from the Mediterranean coast to the Niger River. Berbers are predominantly Sunni Muslims, majority following the Maliki "madhhab". Sufism is common in the western areas, but less in the east. Before their conversion to Islam, the majority of Berbers were Jews or Christians.
Generally speaking, some genetic evidence indicates that most northwest African Arabs are from Berber origin. Berbers live in Morocco comprise an estimate of 35%- 80% of the population, while in Algeria, Libya and Tunisia, Berbers are about 15%-33% of the population. Berber groups such as the Kabyles of northern Algeria, are approximately 4 million and who have kept their original language and culture. Another group is Chleuh of south Morocco, with a population of 8 million. Other groups include Tuareg of the Sahara, the Riffian of north Morocco, and the Chaouia of Algeria. There are also about 3 million Berber immigrants in Europe. Some inhabitants of the Canary Islands are also considered Berber.
The Berber community has lived in North Africa since ancient time. Several ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman records mention them. Berber groups are mentioned by the ancient Egyptians during the Pre-dynastic Period and during the New Kingdom. Some Egyptologists think that the Egyptians were ruled by Berbers, who founded the 22nd Dynasty. Over time, North Africa was hit by several invaders, such as: Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Ottomans, and the French. Most of them have influenced the Berber community.
Berbers and Islam
Between 642 and 669, the Arabs sent their first military expeditions into the Maghrib, which resulted in the spread of Islam. The Umayyads dynasty recognized the strategic importance of controlling the Mediterranean. By 711, the Umayyad forces had invaded all of North Africa.
In 711 Tariq ibn Ziyad, the Berber governor of Tangier, Morocco crossed into Spain. Later Islamic Spain or Al Andalus, was under the leadership of the caliph of Damascus. Nevertheless, the largest group of Moors in Spain were mainly North African Berbers.
After gaining their independence in the 20th century, the countries of North Africa established Arabic as their official language, replacing French. As a result, most Berbers had to study and know Arabic, with no opportunity to use their own language at schools.
North African states identified themselves as Arab nations, ignoring the existence and the culture of the Berbers. Political tensions have arisen between Berber groups and governments in North Africa during the past few decades, over linguistic and cultural issues. For example, giving children Berber names was prohibited in Morocco.
In response to the demands of the Berbers, Morocco and Algeria modified their policies. Algeria defined itself in the constitution as an Arab, Berber, Muslim nation. Currently, in Algeria, Berber is a national language and is taught as a non-compulsory language in the Berber speaking areas. In Morocco, Berber is now taught as a compulsory language regardless the ethnicity.