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All is Forgotten: The (Muslim Algerian) History of the Laïc French Republic

0 Comments 🕔10.Aug 2015

This article is part of our feature Je Suis Musulman: European Muslims after Charlie Hebdo.

Muslim in Montmartre, Paris. Photo credit: Francisco Osorio


by Todd Shepard

In November 1959, French Senator Abdallan Tebib opened a parliamentary debate in Paris on how to increase the number of “Algerian Muslims” serving in the French armed forces by narrating a history of their contribution to the defense of France. The Algerian war or revolution had begun five years before, on November 1, 1954, ending with Algerian independence on July 5, 1962. His speech concluded with a reminder to his listeners that both this history and the measures under consideration proved to the world that France was “one of the great Muslim nations.” Tebib’s argument, however, reminds us that modern republican France has a long and intense history with Muslims and Islam. It is a history in which claims alternate between a contradictory and complementary relationship for the terms France, the republic, Muslims, and Islam. At different moments and in different contexts, one set of claims would come to seem self-evident, even as the other remained unthinkable, and vice-versa. The same is true today. Current arguments about laïcité, the French form of secularism, tend to erase this history, despite the fact (also usually dismissed or forgotten) that the laïc French republic was profoundly shaped by its colonial rule over Algeria and republican claims that its (mainly Muslim) inhabitants were wholly French.[i]

In the decades following the 1830 French invasion of Algiers, which saw the violent conquest and pacification of most of what we now know as Algeria, the French government organized several legal systems to govern the people who came under their control: their own, often called “common law,” as well as two others—one based in Koranic Law and another based in Mosaic Law. In the years that followed, French authorities worked actively to reduce the purview of the latter while, in parallel, they affirmed that Algeria was an integral part of French national territory. By the 1850s, the Koranic and Mosaic legal systems only had authority over so-called civil status law—marriage, paternity (filiation), divorce, inheritance—for those legally defined, respectively, as “Muslims” and “Jews.”[ii]

In 1870, the Crémieux decree forced all Algerians with Mosaic civil status (“Jews”) to abandon it; they became French of “common law civil status.” Already, an 1865 law had affirmed that all the people of Algeria were French nationals. This law had also offered a pathway for (adult male) French nationals with Koranic or Mosaic Civil Status to be “naturalized,” to abandon the civil status to which they were born and, by entering into “common law” civil status, become a citizen as well as a national. Publicists presented the Crémieux decree as another sign that “the Republic” and its universal values had been reborn out of the ashes of the Second Empire (1852-1870). Yet it resulted directly from the frustration of deeply republican politicians (most, like Adolphe Crémieux, were also active in Jewish organizations in France) that almost no Algerians with Mosaic Civil Status had chosen to be naturalized. It removed the possibility of individual choice as it eliminated Mosaic Civil Law within the territory that, in 1848, had become the three French Algerian departments. After 1870, most Algerian-born Jews were citizens, as were settlers of European origin born to French parents or, after the 1889 French nationality law, born on French territory, which included Algeria.[iii]

In colonial rule of Algeria, as this brief summary suggests, the law had a privileged place in what were still ongoing French efforts to transform the people of Algeria. Again and again, French officials in Algeria affirmed that regular contact with French law and jurists would inevitably lead local people to recognize the superiority of a system that, they had no doubt, was fairer, more rational—in short, superior in all ways. They would abandon their identity as part of “backwards” or “feudal” groups, defined by origin or religion, and seek to become French “individuals.”

In parallel, the slow consolidation of the Third Republic—which emerged during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), took hold in the late 1870s, and then lasted until the German conquest of France in 1940—saw repeated affirmations that the French Republic had to reject laws and rules that defined French people on the basis of origins or religion. Such standards gave anchor to larger republican arguments that the institutions they sought to build were inspired by universal principles. This, republican writers noted, was in sharp distinction to anti-republican French reactionaries as well as rival foreign states, notably the UK and Germany. These rival powers explicitly relied on religion, race, and origins in their laws and in the propaganda that celebrated their “nations” and forms of government. This contest with other European nationalisms has been central to most accounts of how French “republican” and “secular” (or, more accurately, “laïc”) nationalism developed, notably those offered by Hannah Arendt. Yet, although ignored by Arendt and most subsequent scholars, some of the clearest institutional evidence for republican pretensions involved Algeria: both the Crémieux decree and the 1889 Law on Nationality actively embraced people who, in Algeria, lived on French soil and were raised in contact with French institutions as French citizens, despite their religious attachments, in the first instance, or foreign origins, in the latter.[iv]

Neither law, of course, made the vast majority of Algerians—those called “Arabs, “Berbers,” “Muslims,” or “indigènes”—into citizens, despite the fact that they had French nationality and lived on the territory of the French Republic. Indeed, the paucity of rules and institutional reforms to this end gives a measure of how little belief in and/or desire for such an outcome existed among men of influence. Much historical work carefully and pointedly demonstrates how racism, ethnocentrism, orientalism, and fear of Islam—along with greed and the power of monied interests—constantly reaffirmed this exclusion and its devastating effects on the lives, health, livelihood, educational possibilities, and hopes of most Algerians. Yet, over the course of the Third Republic, French officials and politicians explained that this unequal status, too, was consonant with republican principles.[v]


“Paris Exposition: Algerian Pavilion, Paris, France, 1900.” Photo credit: The Brooklyn Museum


To be a citizen was to stand in the same relationship to the law as all other citizens. These French nationals, however, had “Koranic civil law status,” and this difference in legal status—in their relationship with French law—became the most widely used public explanation for why this group of adult males could not exercise citizenship. Since they did not stand as private individuals before the republic’s Law in “civil law” matters, they could not participate in its elaboration. It was not because they were Arabs or Berbers, and it was not because their religion was Islam: it was supposedly because of their legal status, which happened to be anchored in religious texts and teachings. To further demonstrate that the system was consonant with republicanism, officials noted that it was individual descent, rather than religion, race, or group membership, which explained why these male French nationals were not citizens. The most famous example of how this worked was a 1930s French court rejection of a suit by Berbers, who had converted to Catholicism and sought entry into “common law status”: it was the legal status of their parents that defined their civil law status (“Muslim”), the ruling announced, not their religion.[vi]

One constant in these claims was the argument that French “respect” for the choice of “indigènes” to remain under the empire of “local law status” explained why “Koranic civil law status” still existed. “Qualified” Algerians could leave this status and, thus, enter citizenship. This announced attachment to individual desires, of course, had been ignored repeatedly in Algeria—most dramatically, at the level of legal status, in the Crémieux Decree, not to mention during the violent conquest of Algeria—and for that matter, in all of the extensive legal assimilation practices republicans pursued in the metropole. Yet republican leaders and French officials paid little attention to the incoherence or lack of consistency in their own claims. They preferred to focus their critique on the “feudal” and “backwards” traditions and beliefs of Algeria’s Muslims, forms of group-think and pressure which they described as the primary impediments to individuals making the choice to abandon “Koranic civil law status.” Proposals to bring more Algerian men into the ranks of full citizens by allowing them to hold onto “at least aspects of Koranic civil status,” were met with intense opposition. Any such liberalization, insisted “European” voices from Algeria, “would fossilize Algerians in their Muslim law, their communitarian institutions, their ‘querelles de minarets.’” These critiques, as French historian Gilbert Meynier describes, “were expressed in terms of a commitment to ‘assimilation’ and in defense of ‘laïcité’.”[vii]

As soon as it began to emerge in the early twentieth century, Algerian nationalism directly targeted these confused French claims that “Muslim” was only a legal status and that this explained why French nationality did not coincide with the exercise of citizenship for most Algerians. Critics rejected official efforts both to distance Algerians from their religion and to subsume the practice of Islam to state control.[viii] For France did not apply the famous 1905 Law separating the French state and religious practice in Algeria, especially in dealings with Muslims. Raberh Achi notes that one of the most important nationalist movements, LAssociation des oulémas musulmans algériens [The Association of Muslim Religious Teachers] repeatedly called on the French government to enact the separation of Muslim religious organizations from state control (i.e, laïcité). As he recounts, the Association “highlighted the contradiction between this Republic so quick to affirm laïcité as its dogma in the metropole [continental France] yet ready to render it meaningless in Algeria whenever control of the indigenous population was at stake.” Concerns about the place of Islam motivated many Arabs and Berbers to challenge French rule, while growing numbers invoked the Algerian nation to explain their goals.[ix]

After 1954, however, when confronted with the nationalist Algerian revolution, French officials embraced key reforms that concerned Islam. Beyond the immediate pressures to crush the nationalists, there were larger contexts at play. In 1950s France, religion increasingly appeared to be domesticated, developments that were of a piece with a wider decline in “Western” anxieties around religious identities in the years following World War II. With an approach similar to contemporary scholars who elaborated what recent critics term the “secularization thesis,” many laïc commentators presumed that the modern French nation had found ways to master religious irrationality, to render it private, and so unthreatening.[x]

At this moment, French officials proved surprisingly open to reforming government policy, in the metropole and Algeria, to make it more amenable to Islam. In early 1955, for example, the Mendès-France government proposed to establish an Institut d’Études Franco-Islamiques in Paris. In bureaucratic discussions of the still-born project all expressed certainty that there was a form of Islam—i.e., “modernist”—that would find a home in the French Republic and, as it did so, would restore Islam to a truer path, making it a modern religion.[xi] This Orientalist certainty—that there was a “true” Islam which could best be interpreted by French or Western-trained theologians and guided by metropolitan governments—had a long history.[xii] Yet during the Algerian war, it shaped government policies in surprising ways. The most notable was a series of French reforms of “Koranic Civil Law,” which aimed to make Algerian Islam a “modern” and “French” religion. These reforms preceded from the reaffirmation that “Koranic Civil Law” was a French and republican legal system.[xiii] The laws and rules that were adopted all were—publicly, but also juridically—framed as consonant with Islam, with a modern Islam, accurately understood, and against local traditions that, because of their “fossilization,” had become non-Islamic. Authorities rejected efforts by certain bureaucrats and politicians to present them, instead, as part of a campaign against religious irrationality.[xiv]

In their efforts to assess current debates about the public visibility of Islam in light of the French past, scholars have privileged either a domestic history of struggle over the place of religion in public life or an imperial history of Orientalism and racism. Both approaches rely on overarching narratives that crystallized in the 19th century. To emphasize continuities, they depend on teleologies, which begin either with the declaration of the first French Republic in 1792 and then the re-emergence of republican rule in France after 1870, or the renewed French pursuit of overseas empire, which began (under royal control) with the 1830 invasion of Algeria and mushroomed under republican leadership at the century’s end. Yet the histories of France, of Muslims and France, of French laïcité, and of French laïcité and Islam are far more complicated and intersecting than such clear affirmations allow. These complications are wholly absent from recent reactions to the murderous attacks against Charlie-Hebdo and the Hyper-Cacher [Kosher] Supermarket. Rather, different constituencies and distinct viewpoints have latched onto to simpler and reassuring certainties. This forgetting, of course, facilitates neither forgiveness nor understanding, much less the grounds for effective responses.


Todd Shepard is Associate Professor of History and co-Director of the Program for the Study of Women, Gender, and Society at the Johns Hopkins University.  For 2015-16, he is a fellow at the Insitut méditerranéen de recherches avancées in Marseilles, France. His books include The Invention of Decolonization: The Algerian War and the Remaking of France (2006) and Voices of Decolonization: A Short History with Documents (2014). His France, Sex, and “Arab Men,” 1962-1979 is forthcoming and will be jointly published by éditions Payot and the University of Chicago Press.

This article is part of our feature Je Suis Musulman: European Muslims after Charlie Hebdo.

[i] Presentation and debate in Senate concerning ‘Loi n. 59-1480 du 28 décembre 1959 … assurant, par des mesures exceptionnelles, la promotion des Français musulmans, Journal Officiel du Sénat (November 26, 1959 session), 1205-20. On these aspects of the Algerian war in France, see Todd Shepard, The Invention of Decolonization: The Algerian War and the Remaking of France, 2nd rev. ed. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008).

[ii] Allan Christelow, Muslim Law Courts and the French Colonial State in Algeria (Princeton, 1985).

[iii] Patrick Weil, Qu’est-ce qu’un français? Histoire de la nationalité française depuis la Révolution (Paris: Grasset, 2002).

[iv] See the accounts of French nationalism in Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism and Herrick Chapman and Laura Frader, “Introduction, in ibid., eds., Race in France: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Politics of Difference (New York: Berghahn Books, 2004).

[v] See esp. Christelow (1985); Charles-Robert Ageron, Les Algériens musulmans et la France (1871-1919), 2 vol. (Paris, PUF, 1968)

[vi] See Isabelle Merle, “Les ambiguités du statut colonial en droit colonial. Respect des coutumes indigènes ou construction d’une exclusion républicaine,” in N. Gagné, T. Martin, M. Salaün, Autochtonies. Vues de France et du Québec (Laval: Presses Universitaires de Laval), 143-150; Laure Blévis, “La citoyennété française au miroir de la colonisation: Étude des demandes de naturalization des ‘sujets français’ en Algérie coloniale.” Genèses 53 (Dec. 2003), pp. 25-47; Shepard (2008).

[vii] Gilbert Meynier, Algérie révélée. La guerre de 1914-1918 et le premier quart du XXe siècle (Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1981), 559; the reference is to “querelles de clocher”/“bell-tower disputes,” which disdainfully evokes Catholic “theological” debates over topics such as how many angels could fit on the head of a pin.

[viii] See James McDougall, History and the Culture of Nationalism in Algeria (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 89; Gilbert Meynier, “L’Algérie, La nation et l’islam: le FLN, 1954-1962,” in Dominique Borne, Benoît Falaize, eds., Religions et colonisation: Afrique-Asie-Océanie-Amériques XVIe-XXe siècle (Paris: Editions de l’Atelier, 2009), 241-255; 243.

[ix] Raberh Achi, “L’islam authentique appartient à Dieu, ‘l’islam algérien’ à César. La mobilisation de l’association des oulémas d’Algérie pour la séparation du culte musulman et de l’État (1931-1956),” Genèses 69 (Dec. 2007), 49-69; 52-54.

[x] The most well known sign was the emergence of the secularization thesis that, under the guise of “modernization,” what had been a source of conflict was made, instead, a certainty: religion did not need to be fought, as it would wither away. That story, of course, has been discredited by much scholarship as well as recent developments. On the “secularization” thesis and the subsequent critique, see esp. Dominique Schnapper,“Le sens de l’ethnico-religieux,” Archives des sciences sociales des religions 81 (1993): 149–63 (1993).

[xi] Ministère de l’Intérieur, “Projet d’organisation d’un Institut d’Etudes Franco-Islamiques à Paris,” 1-3, in Centre des archives contemporaines, Fontainebleau, France » 19950395/74 ; see also Archives de l’Institut Pierre Mendès France, Fonds PMF, II / 3 / A.

[xii] For an overview of this “Islamophile” form of Orientalist essentializing, see Dietrich Jung, Orientalists, Islamists and the Global Public Sphere A Genealogy of the Modern Essentialist Image of Islam (Sheffield, UK: Equinox Publishing, 2011).

[xiii] See esp. Ryme Seferdjeli, “French ‘reforms’ and Muslim women’s emancipation during the Algerian war,” The Journal of North African Studies 9: 4 (Winter 2004), 19-61.

[xiv] For details, see Todd Shepard, “Algerian Nationalism, Zionism, and French Laïcité: A History of Ethno-Religious Nationalisms and Decolonization,” International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 45 (August 2013), 445-467.




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