“Decolonization” has become a keyword on campuses. It refers to symbolic changes that are supposed to promote diversity and eliminate vestiges of white supremacy. Student- and scholar-activists, aided by sympathetic administrators, promote “decolonized” syllabuses that include more writers of color. Rhetorically, “decolonization” links the grievances of relatively privileged students and university employees to the national liberation struggles that swept Africa and Asia in the middle of the 20th century. The scions of our new elite imagine themselves as the wretched of the earth.
Campus “decolonization” is joined to shifts in academic research. This is particularly true of scholars of France working in the United States, who use the rhetoric of colonialism and decolonization to attack France for its alleged racism, Islamophobia, and misogyny. (In return, French government officials have lashed out against U.S. ideas of “social justice.”) Ironically, these scholars’ insistence on the present-day relevance of “decolonization” tends to conceal the most relevant continuities between the decolonization struggles of the 1950s and 60s and the conflicts sundering French society today. Behind the academy’s celebration of “decolonization” lies a bloody history and troubling future.
In its popular usage, the rhetoric of decolonization tends to give otherwise trivial acts of self-assertion an aura of political importance, turning commonplace interactions among people from different backgrounds into sites of intercommunal struggle for recognition and power. In his book Decolonizing the Republic, Felix Germain of the University of Pittsburgh uses “decolonization” as a catchall to describe nearly any exercise of agency by black people living in France. In a particularly ridiculous example, he describes how a Senegalese immigrant “decolonized social relations” and “notions of African identity” by responding with a sassy joke to a Frenchman who assumed she did not speak French.
But the work of scholars such as Germain does not merely provide ideological support for the pseudo-politicization of everyday life. It also contributes to the myth that 20th-century decolonization should serve as a political model and source of moral capital for the present — despite its often violent and intolerant consequences.
This myth rests on a whitewashed image of what historical decolonization actually entailed. For instance, Darcie Fontaine, in her book Decolonizing Christianity, described how a small number of French settlers in colonial Algeria tried “to decouple — or decolonize — Christian institutions from the … colonial state.” Some of these Christians contributed to the victory of the Algerian rebels, the National Liberation Front, in the war against France. After Algerian independence in 1962, Fontaine argued, these Christians had a unique opportunity to discover “exactly what Christianity could be without the structures of colonialism to prop it up,” as their “role in society” was “fundamentally transformed.”
Their “role in society” was, indeed, “fundamentally transformed,” but not in a way that would appeal to U.S. academics. The vast majority of Christians and Jews fled Algeria on the eve of independence under the threat of murder by the FLN. Those who remained were subjected to cultural and often physical repression. Algeria’s postcolonial government, after a brief revolutionary honeymoon during which thousands of foreign idealists came to Algeria, broke with the international Left, drove out the activists, and intensified both the Islamization and “Arabization” of Algerian culture, suppressing minority religions and languages. Then, in the 1990s, a civil war between the government and Islamic radicals put Christians in the crossfire. One of the most notorious incidents of violence came in 1996, when seven Trappist monks were kidnapped from the Atlas Abbey of Tibhirine and beheaded. It remains unclear whether the attack was carried out by the rebels or the government.
Fontaine, however, excuses violence against Algerian Christians. She argued that “Christians who remain in Algeria” acknowledge that the real threat comes from “Christians themselves,” who incite their own persecution at the hands of the Muslim majority — by, for example, publicly displaying crosses. Such gestures, Fontaine insists, “echo the troubled history of colonial Christianity.” Similar one-sided appeals to colonial history are commonplace in U.S. academia and featured notably in the professoriate’s ambivalent response to the jihadist massacre of the Charlie Hebdo staff.
The resulting framework for analyzing current events is as disturbing as it is familiar: For those categorized as “oppressors” within the hegemonic “woke” framework, any action or speech is at least implicitly violent, while real violence against them by members of “oppressed” groups — even when, as in independent Algeria, they constitute a demographic majority wielding state power — can be justified, minimized, or ignored. But this framework, which presents itself as offering “context” for the present, ignores the most uncomfortable continuities between the colonial era and our own.
In his 2005 book The French Imperial Nation-State, the historian Gary Wilder revealed that in the mid-20th century, both French colonial officials trying to preserve the empire and colonized activists trying to abolish it confronted a common problem. Both groups, on the one hand, spoke the language of universal human rights derived from the French republican tradition, arguing, respectively, that the colonial empire was granting or denying those rights. But both also argued that colonized populations had distinct cultures worthy of preservation. The officials invoked this argument to explain why the colonized could not yet be given full rights as French citizens, while the activists used it to explain why colonialism must end.
The contradictory logic of the colonial state, Wilder showed, created an equally contradictory anti-colonialism. Activists such as Frantz Fanon, one of the most visible propagandists of the FLN and an important inspiration for many campus activists today, hesitated between attacking colonialism for denying the colonized their universal human rights and for destroying the specificity of their culture. While some of the FLN’s most left-wing and cosmopolitan ideologues saw the “national liberation” struggle as part of a larger project of universal human emancipation, by the mid-1960s, these idealists had been liquidated by the leaders of independent Algeria, who, faced with the challenges of building a state, settled on the repression of minorities and dissidents as the path of least resistance. Rather than making good on the colonial state’s promises of universal human rights, decolonization in Algeria led to the creation of an authoritarian, ethno-nationalist, religiously intolerant regime.
U.S. college students and administrators celebrate the history of decolonization and draw on its legacy to promote their own agendas, while scholars argue that decolonization is the key to understanding contemporary European problems with immigration and terrorism. In a sense, this discourse of “decolonization” is trivial and self-serving, lending a grandiose weight to debates over syllabuses. The discourse rests, however, on a dangerous misrecognition of decolonization as something worthy of unequivocal celebration, offering political and moral guidance for our own society. In Algeria, at least, actually existing decolonization, driven by the insuperable contradictions of the colonial project, ended in violent authoritarianism. It is a warning, not a model.
Blake Smith is a historian of modern France and a literary translator.
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