Since the line between national history and national myth is so fine, it is not surprising that traumatic or unpleasant national events tend to find themselves downplayed and hidden from general view. Nonetheless, it is somewhat astounding just how completely absent from the discussion of Algerians, and more broadly Maghrebis, in France the topic of colonization is. In the two ‘affaires du foulard’ one sees this drama played in full: the parameters of the debate allow many things, but the history of colonization in North Africa is somehow deemed sufficiently irrelevant or inconvenient, that it is all but invisible.
“We have lost Algeria, but we have gained the people of Algeria,” a right-wing journalist commented in 1965.” Taken ironically, the quote makes a great deal of sense, since once France was forced out of Algeria, it proceeded to grab the most valuable resource the country then had to offer: cheap labor. If this was indeed the ‘colonization of France’, as some right-wing politicians would claim, it was a colonization made possible and encouraged by de Gaulle and his government, courtesy of a 1962 law that sought to bring in more manual laborers. The fact that France had devastated Algeria during its war of independence, in addition to destroying the native economy during the colonial period, as possible reason why the immigrants should come, was not discussed, either by the politicians, or the authors of Le Paris Arabe. For some inexplicable reason, Arabs kept coming to France, and that was all that need be said.
For many who arrived, as one sees in Mehdi Charef’s Tea in The Harem, going back became largely a non-starter. Consider the protagonist, Majid, who was born in Algeria, but came to France around the age of 6 with his parents. When his mother, Malika, gets angry at him for not doing anything productive with himself, she attempts to threaten him with loss of his Algerian citizenship (for not doing military service). “… [Y]ou’ll end up in prison. That’s where you’ll end up. No country, no roots, no nothing. You’ll be finished.” The threat has no teeth, because as it is Majid can’t go back: “… for a long time he’s been neither French nor Arab.” He speaks only French, can’t read Arabic, and for all intents and purposes already has ‘no roots.’
Unfortunately, Majid is stuck going the other way too. The result is Balou’s infamous ‘Thé au Harem d’Archi Ahmed.’ Normative French society is fundamentally different from the society of ‘Flower City’ thus something as theoretically universal as Archimede’s Theorem is for all intents and purposes meaningless. If the universal is meaningless, than French society, which only accepts those properly versed in its ways, is hardly a likely destination. As Albert Memmi’s quasi-autobiographical Alexandre Mordekhai Bennilouche finds out in Pillar of Salt, even those with a better grasp of French literature (Racine) than the French can’t necessarily get themselves accepted.
Majid’s reason for being in France is pretty straightforward too. His father worked as roofer and he’d sent for Malika and Majid at a certain point. Considering the place they moved into, “… the Nanterre bidonville… the largest and the cruelest of any in the Paris suburbs,” it wasn’t exactly an enjoyable move. Majid’s prospects aren’t exactly sunny either: “At the job centre, he was seen by an official who obviously couldn’t be bothered with him. He opened Majid’s file, and straightaway said, ‘Nothing doing for you, friend.’” He’s there, because he’s there, and so far as ending up anywhere else, there’s nowhere else for him. The same holds true for his friends, some of whom are West Indian or ‘French’.
This is a reality somewhat lost, even in sympathetic discussions of Islam in France like Gilles Kepel’s Allah in the West. Kepel is willing to rightly recognize, “… that the assertion of Islamic identity in Britain can only be understood within the context of the relationship between Islam and British rule in the Indian empire.” Yet for France, Kepel merely observes, ambiguously, that, “Islam in France in the 1990s has developed within a wider context marked particularly by events in Algeria.” The asymmetry is obvious: the British have a historical role in the final form of British Islam, but the French have no such direct connection.
Kepel fixates strongly on the FIS, implying the movement is in some fashion analogous to Islamic movements in France, although he is careful to mention the lack of a strong direct causal relationship. Still, while he is happy to record the roots of the FIS and its strongly anti-French rhetoric, he does not mention the French record in Algeria of encouraging apostasy from Islam and conversion, not to mention confiscation of waqf land. The FIS claim that France is anti-Islamic is not without some historic validity, even if it may not be their prime rationale.
Even Kepel concedes, on the topic of the Paris mosque, that, “… the Republic, as a colonizing ‘Muslim power’ had constructed the Mosque of Paris in 1926, in order to create an interlocutor between the state and the minority religion.” Would it not be more meaningful to note that the state created an ‘interlocutor’ between the colonized and the colonizer? Moreover, given that such ‘interlocutors’ were used to increase state power, is not the creation of the mosque merely a not-so-subtle colonial power play, seeking to subject both Islam and Algerians to firmer colonial control? The 1993 manifesto of the UOIF indeed mentions a struggle against the ‘colonialist unbeliever.’ Such phrases are hardly accidental.
In an article written two weeks into the first ‘affaire du foulard’, Robert Sole, editor of Le Monde, made a number of notable observations. Firstly, the people at the center of the debate are not delinquents, or those most marginal in society. Secondly, the debate does not place the traditional right against the left, or the ‘laïques’ against the devout. Thirdly, the hidjab has been partially removed throughout Egypt and its environs by the work of courageous, modern women. Finally, Islam cannot be practiced in the same ways in a ‘laïque’ society as in a Muslim country.
Sole’s article is a curious mixture of insight and blindness. On the one hand, he recognizes the debate has not polarized the society in the usual fashion. Hence it is somewhat unique. Yet why he does not explain, save that everybody is a bit divided in spite of their convictions. It’s a key question to leave unaddressed. Similarly, while recognizing that the phenomenon can’t simply be blamed on ignorance, poverty or whatnot, Sole insists that it is fundamentally retrograde. As Christian Arab, he should be reasonably knowledgeable about the state of affairs in Egypt and Syria. To explain the veil as a matter simply of fundamentalist (again without causes) or traditionalism (which in Egypt is mostly untrue) is not particularly helpful.
The fact that Sole deems it self-evident that Islam can’t be practiced the same in France as, say, in Turkey, is somewhat telling. Standard Islam is by definition assumed incompatible with current French society. Yet if this is so, why are there thousands of Muslims in France? If they cannot fit into society without changing, then either they shouldn’t have been invited in initially, or they must indeed change their ways, as Sole implies they should. But wasn’t modernizing the ‘backward’ people of the Maghrib the core of the ‘mission civilisatrice’?
In L’Express, anthropologist Emanuel Todd was a lot more blunt about matters. Asked to recommend a course of action, he recommended telling the young women who wore the veil, “Since we want you to become French like others, you should take our sons for your husbands.” The idea is problematic on two grounds. First, there is an assumption of ‘us’ and ‘you.’ Whose sons are they to marry? Is it only okay to marry the sons of French parents who can prove blood ancestry? Or those who speak French as their primary language? Or those who ‘feel French’? If being French is a matter of blood, they can never become French and if it’s a matter of culture, who’s to define what is valid French culture or not? The idea is patently ridiculous.
More importantly, Todd’s pronouncement sounds awfully similar to French policy in Algeria in its early days. The colonial authorities were more than happy to have French soldiers marry native women, in the hopes of ‘diluting’ the ‘race’ of the inhabitants, and making them more amenable to ‘civilizing.’ Moreover the juxtaposition of French men and Algerian women is quite reminiscent of the gendered discourse Malek Alloula deals with in The Colonial Harem whereby French men seek to possess Algerian women through the medium of photography. What one is to do with Muslim men in France is left unclear, and perhaps it is hoped they will simply die off as the next generation of ‘civilizable’ Franco-Maghrebis is born.
Another eminent figure, Hanifa Cherifi from the High Council on Integration, reverses the situation entirely. Her piece in Le Monde is about as alarmist as it gets. Supposedly, proselytizing by Muslims continues its ‘ravages’ in the banlieues and is gaining influence. “Islamism is a new form of colonialism,” she adds. New, and presumably worse, because it enslaves that body and spirit. Without women’s active participation, there will be no ‘decolonization’ and no “liberty in Afghanistan.” In short, ‘green fascism’ is on the march and we must all unite to fight it.
This is precisely the sort of reasoned and knowledgeable attitude one would expect from someone charged with carrying out the Council of State’s 1989 ruling. In a later Le Monde article, this ‘mediator’ goes on to observe how the number of students wearing the veil in school is dropping, and the ‘problem’ is gradually being solved. If one were to go back to the famous 1958 cavalcade that Franz Fanon mentions in “Algeria Unveiled”, one would find much the same formulation. Several hundred Algerian women are ‘liberated’ from their veils by their French ‘sisters,’ and the audience cheers and so forth.
The fact that Cherifi is unconsciously echoing the Algerian colons is quite telling. The colonialist discourse of women’s oppression and western progress is being recycled. Interestingly, the less disputable fact that many of these women’s families were heavily shaped by French colonialism goes missing. The reality, that the conditions bringing these women to France were a result of French colonialism, is not discussed. In playing on the anti-Taliban settlement, she made exactly the same mistake that many Americans made: namely forgetting that the Taliban’s success depended upon western money, and a Russian quasi-colonial attempt to protect its sphere of influence in the area. Indeed, it was the Russians whose attempt to ‘liberate’ Afghans, including at least theoretically helping out women, that western powers so vehemently opposed, along with many Afghans.
Colonial wars were often long and bloody, and the Algerian War of Independence was especially so: a bloodbath that lasted 8 years and cost over a million lives. It is increasingly clear though that the colonial struggle did not end with the signing of the Evian Accords in 1962. Colonial history, while officially over and largely out of view, is in fact very much in progress today. Juan Goytisolo’s novel does indeed put it well: “Colonized by those barbarians.” Yet who is doing the colonizing, and who counts as the barbarians is perhaps not so simple as much of French society seems convinced. Perhaps the fact that most Maghrebis in France are not practicing Muslims, do not fast for Ramadan and have no problem drinking alcohol is indicative of the true nature of the colonization. If Cheb Khaled can become wildly popular singing about “alcohol, bad luck and women,” it is hard to see what Cherifi and others are so afraid of. “Despite the sarcastic comments, there was nothing ridiculous about the debate on the veil,” claims Gilles Kepel. The spectacle of a colonial power complaining about being colonized by those it brought in and is colonizing, is, nonetheless, pretty bizarre.