Photo: Unknown photographer | License: Public Domain

France and morality

France: Reflections on the colonial war and a potential collective guilt of the French.

ISLAMIC TIMES – Every year thousands of tourists visit the town of Amboise on the Loire and its 15th/16th century castle. Many guests wonder about the Muslim graves in the park. They often don’t know that in the 19th century the French state used the building as a prison for the Algerian resistance fighter Abd el-Kader.

France or the Amir in the Palace

The Emir led the fight against the colonialists at the head of rebellious tribes in 1832-1847 and was the leading figure of the resistance until his arrest. He stayed in the castle with his entourage from 8 November 1848 to 17 October 1852.

During the years of imprisonment, the call to prayer rang out from the makeshift mosque set up in the Minimes Tower. During his stay, it is said, Abdel el-Kader puzzled over why a country with so much water and green landscapes conquered a desert of all places.

Photo: the author

The character of the educated Emir impresses both friend and foe to this day. In accordance with Islamic law, attacks against the civilian population, the use of modern war techniques, terror or suicide attacks were alien to him. He would have had little use for the concept of nationalism in his time. Moreover, he not only mastered the craft of war.

After learning the Qur’an by heart with his teachers, he studied the basics of Malikite law, occupied himself with literature, mathematics, astronomy, and the healing arts. After his release by Napoleon III, he lived in Damascus and in 1860 prevented a massacre of Christians with his fighters. In Amboise, a monument has commemorated the symbol of Algerian resistance for several years.

Debate about colonial history

The struggle of philosophers and writers for the right to interpret colonial history began as early as the 19th century. The statements of the great Victor Hugo already conceal the moral claims and contradictions that still shape the debate on the conflict today.

On the one hand, he published a benevolent poem dedicated to Abdel el-Kader: “He, the wild man of the desert, he, the Sultan born under the palms, the companion of the red lions, the wild Hadji with calm eyes, the thoughtful, wild and gentle Emir.” On the other hand, Hugo, in 1841, to be read in his diary Ocean, professed the spiritual legitimacy bases of the land grab:

“Civilisation passes over barbarism. An enlightened people will meet a people living in darkness. We are the Greeks of the world; it is our task to enlighten the world!” Algeria was declared an integral part of the motherland in 1848.

Photo: public domain

A few years later, after Victor Hugo had mutated into a convinced republican, he expressed his indignation at the reprisals against the “natives.” He writes: “Barbarism reigns in Africa, I know it.” He denounces the abuses of the French army in Fragments d’histoire: “During storms, during raids, it was not uncommon for soldiers to throw children out of windows (…).”

Unfortunately, Hugo did not write any of his great works about the fate of the people and the brutal “social surgery” (Bourdieu) carried out, the dissolution of traditional Algerian society in the settlement colony.

Algeria or the Horror in Memory

If one talks about Algeria today, it is first and foremost the terrible events of the 20th century that have burned themselves deeply into the collective memory. Of all things, a massacre took place in Sétif, Algeria, on 8 May 1945, the year France was liberated from German occupation.

Tens of thousands of Algerians demanding the end of colonial rule fell victim to the French military. In today’s historiography, the attacks are seen as the starting point for the Algerian war that began in 1954.

The Marxist-nationalist FLN opted for the tactic of terrorism. The colonial power managed to maintain the upper hand militarily. At home, the nation argued about war losses, torture, and human rights violations. The war had long since arrived in France.

Photo: TOUTON spahi, via Wikimedia Commons | Lizenz: CC BY-SA 4.0

The “Paris Massacre,” a mass murder in the capital on 17 October 1961, went down in history. On the orders of the administration, the police reacted brutally against an unauthorised but peaceful demonstration of tens of thousands of Algerians called for by the FLN independence movement. At least 200 people were killed.

Charles de Gaulle negotiated with the Algerian leaders, which led to the liberation of the country. The war ended in March 1962 with the Évian Accords and a negotiated settlement that resulted in Algerian independence under the leadership of the FLN. A second decree was also passed, which also exempted from punishment all war crimes committed by the colonial power, including torture, rape and acts of collective retribution.

Photo: Aussie Oc, via Wikimedia Commons | Lizenz: CC BY-SA 4.0

Conflict of cultures of remembrance

After the treaties were signed, hundreds of thousands of French people left Algeria. The patriots, as they saw themselves, found no political home in the established parties, since de Gaulle, whom they despised, was at the head of the leading formation of moderate conservatives.

Against this backdrop, they became an important, even decisive resource for the nationalism of the extreme right that emerged around Jean-Marie le Pen from the 1970s onwards.

The dark chapters of history also include the fate of the Algerians who collaborated with the colonial masters. At the end of the war in 1962, there were around 45,000 Harkis (collaborators), 60,000 conscripts and 20,000 professional soldiers from Algeria in the French army, as well as 60,000 members of local militias.

In addition to the military apparatus, there were around 50,000 state employees. After independence, there were numerous violent attacks by the FLN and by sympathisers of the independence movement.

To this day, the representatives of the different cultures of remembrance argue about the ethical evaluation of the events. Historians formulated the problem: a consensus of shared memories was not possible because the experiences of those involved were extremely different. On the moral level, a bitter dispute ignited – especially in the intellectual scene of Paris – about the necessity and assessment of the use of violence.

Camus vs. Sartre

The arguments between the philosophers Camus and Sartre about the interpretation of colonialism became famous. In 1961, Sartre wrote his controversial preface to Frantz Fanon’s book The Damned of the Earth. For the Algerian psychologist, being a moralist meant opposing the colonised with something tangible, silencing the coloniser’s conceit, breaking his open violence and “driving him roundly from the scene.”

Sartre agreed and wrote some of his most controversial sentences: “To begin any revolt, one must kill: to kill a European is to kill two birds with one stone, to destroy in the same breath an oppressor and an oppressed. A dead man and a free man remain, the survivor feels for the first time a national ground under his feet.”

Sartre was right in another announcement: “The unification of the Algerian people produces the division of the French people.”

Photo: James Joel, via flickr | Licence: CC BY-ND 2.0

The thesis of the division of the French was evident in the conflict with Albert Camus over violence and terror. Sartre attacked his opponent, now deceased, with sarcasm in 1961: “The non-violent have a good laugh: neither victim nor executioner. What’s the point?” Ever since Albert Camus published The Misery in Kabylia in 1939, he has been accused of not clearly naming the guilty and of being a “well-meaning colonialist.”

In his biography of Camus In the Name of Freedom, Michel Onfray questions the unambiguity of moral culpability in line with the writer’s theses: was an Algerian white man in the 1950s equivalent to a soldier invaded in 1830? Were Europeans born in Algeria guilty qua birth?

“Eighty percent of the French in Algeria are not colonialists, but clerks or merchants,” Camus wrote against the assertion of collective guilt. He believed that the struggle for independence was less about improving the living conditions of the impoverished population.

Rather, he saw it as an outgrowth of pan-Arabism, an ideological project that enjoyed Moscow’s support. His commitment was to peaceful coexistence between Europeans and Algerians, which is why he was treated like a traitor by many Algerian French.

The supporters of the independence movement, in turn, never forgave him for once saying about the bombings in Algiers that his mother could be affected by them, and that he preferred his mother to justice, if justice looked like that. “In a world accustomed to large ideological machineries and their monstrous doctrinal dispositifs, Camus pleaded for a political micrology,” Onfray summarises the philosopher’s non-violent utopia.

Developing alternatives to violence

In contrast to Sartre, his opponent saw no need to kill the colonists. All that was needed, he argued, was to stop submitting to colonialism and develop a peaceful, libertarian alternative together. Camus relied on free self-governing communes, cooperatives, and co-operatives instead of nationalism.

The fact is: Algeria did not come to rest in the decades after independence. In his Algerian Sketches Pierre Bourdieu states: “Undoubtedly the most dangerous illusion would be one that could be called the myth of the revolutionary revolution, namely that the war had, as if by magic, changed Algerian society from the bottom up; and, moreover, had solved all the problems, including those created by it.”

Criticism of France never died down, despite all attempts at rapprochement and reconciliation. Regarding Francophone Africa, the networks dominated by Paris in the former colonies have been criticised since decolonisation in the 1960s under the heading Franceafrique.

Photo: 35e RAP – officiel , via Wikimedia Commons | Licence: CC BY-SA 4.0

Sahel states recall the past

Current events in the Sahel are reminiscent of the old accusations of French geopolitics guided by economic interests. The youth in the region in particular no longer want to know anything about France. Whether rapprochement with capitalist countries like China or Russia, which act without respect for rule-of-law standards, will bring the former colonies closer to the longed-for freedom remains an open question.

In Europe, it will be important how the Muslims of Germany and France react to these debates and what lessons they learn from history. Franco-German friendship is a significant symbol of overcoming nationalism for all citizens, with or without an immigrant background.

The argument about the role of the colonial powers and the resistance against them ultimately revolves, from a Muslim perspective, around the distinction between revolutionary ideologies and classical doctrine.

Bourdieu already recalled the change of essence that a complete politicisation of faith can bring: “Islam has gradually changed its meaning and function because it has been isolated from practices and magical-mythical beliefs that had rooted it in the native soil, and because it has been used for a moment, more or less consciously, as a revolutionary ideology capable of mobilising the masses and moving them to struggle.”

After the renewed riots in the banlieues, slogans were heard again from the different camps, reminiscent of the ideological rifts from colonial times: “France and the French, or, Islam and the Muslims are to blame for everything!”

In Germany’s taz, Mohamed Amjahid rightly lamented police violence and institutional racism in the midst of Europe. More problematic is the familiar moral question about the legitimacy of violence that the commentary raises:

“In other countries, too, police stations have had to go up in flames in recent years to give the most vulnerable a chance to survive. Only very few people understand this connection between mobilisation and self-protection. (…) From a purely analytical point of view and from the perspective of the demonstrators: Paris has to burn so that at least in the short term something could be done about police violence in the country.”

Reconciliation in French society and foreign policy has a long way to go. The sensible person realises that every act of violence will exacerbate the conflicts and strengthen the extremists. Perhaps Camus is right, who in his time sought innovative approaches beyond ideologies: “We must find new formulas and methods in North Africa and in France if we want the future to still make sense for us.”

Orphans of Uganda
Donate without Middlemen

100% of your donation reaches directly to the children in need!