Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)

Theorizing the histories of colonialism and nationalism in the Arab Maghrib

Theorizing the histories of colonialism and nationalism in the Arab Maghrib – Beyond Colonialism and Nationalism in North Africa

Edmund Burke, III


The field of maghrib studies has always been marginal to the U.S. academy – not quite African, not quite Arab, not quite European, the Maghrib inhabits a space between the essentialisms evoked by each. For Africans (and Africanists), North Africans were slavers and proto-imperialists, whose historical experiences diverged from those of sub-Saharan Africa. As constituted in the U.S., African studies has tended to see its terrain as Africa south of the Sahara, “black Africa” as opposed to “white Africa” (thereby mindlessly replicating colonial racisms). While Africa specialists are fully aware of the historical links between the two, such as the trans-Saharan gold trade, Islam and Arabic culture, the field often proceeds as if the North were another world.

Although two-thirds of all Arabs live in northern Africa (Egypt and the Arab Maghrib are each one third), Maghribis have long been regarded by U.S. Arabists as “not quite real Arabs,” spoiled by colonization and the mission civilisatrice. Mashriqi Arabs, confident of their historic primacy and cultural superiority, regard Maghribi Arabic as incomprehensible, Maghribi intellectuals par trop francise, and Maghribi history as inalterably other (forgetting a common Ottoman and Islamic past). Those who study the Mashriq in the U.S. have tended to absorb these prejudices, often without thinking. As a result, “the Arab World” studied in the U.S. remains a field seriously out of kilter, shorn of one third of its inhabitants, an essentialized rump of a much larger and more diverse reality. As a result a comparative historical approach to the Arab World has been slow to emerge.(1)

Finally, despite one hundred and thirty-two years of French colonization (or indeed because of it) French historians see Algeria’s history as occurring off-stage, rather than as an inalterable part of the history of France. Added to this is the way in which the way the histories of imperial role have tended to map on to the division of labor of colonial scholarship in Middle East studies. Eastern Arabs (some of them, anyway) had Britain as their colonial tutor, and thus their colonial records are readily accessible to Anglophone scholars. Western Arabs, on the other hand, were ruled by France (as well as Spain and Italy), thereby interposing a further screen over their colonial pasts for the linguistically challenged. British colonialism is a big subject in the U.S. (itself a former British colonial possession), while French colonialism is not. As a result serious historians of colonialism in the Maghrib have worked mostly in the shadows, and histories of the colonial Middle East take the British experience as normative, while largely ignoring French, Spanish and Italian colonialism.

As a result of its multiple marginality, the Maghrib has been something of an intellectual cul de sac in the U.S. Middle East field: professional journals and academic conferences largely ignore it, while books on North Africa go mostly unreviewed.(2) As the history of colonialism and nationalism recedes into the past, however, the marginality of the Maghrib seems increasingly less at issue. For the first time it is possible to imagine North Africa not in terms of what it is not (African, Arab, French), but rather as a site from which to interrogate the dichotomous forms of identity and historical understanding which derive from the history of modernity.

Today, in a different historical moment, that of the “posts” (colonial, modern, Cold War, Gulf War, structuralist) these “lacks” appear in a different guise: as marks of hybridity, alterity and liminality, sites of resistance and contestation. The colonial past of Arab North Africa appears as increasingly fresh and relevant to increasing numbers of scholars from outside of the traditional field of North African studies, a key terrain in which colonial culture can be apprehended.(3) Feminist theory, cultural studies, minority studies, postcolonial studies, the influence of the subaltern studies group of Indian historians, new ways of conceptualizing Europe as a dynamic multi-cultural arena (rather than a series of hermetically sealed essentialisms) have combined to bring histories of colonialism back onto the academic agenda.

The essay which follows takes the form of a series of reflections on the changing meanings connected to writing colonial and nationalist histories of Arab North Africa, then and now, and why rethinking colonial histories now may be an urgent task. What did it mean to write colonial history in the time of colonialism? What does it mean now? What did it mean to write nationalist histories in the period of the independence movements? What does it mean now? The arrow of time arcs in the sky, always receding to an ever-distant point of origin, while we in the eternal present continually recalibrate its course as our angle of vision changes.


What did colonial histories of the Maghrib mean in their own time? Emanations of a particular moment of time and a particular perspective (European confidence in its own material power and moral superiority, as well as its racial arrogance and blindnesses), colonial histories inscribed the European colonial project: how Europe brought progress to North African societies, rescuing them from the dark night of superstition and ignorance. On this, both Marx and Tocqueville were agreed: the French role in Algeria was to bring civilization and progress. From this angle, Algerian resistance could be painted as futile and indeed anti-progressive, and atrocities (like the massacre of 5001000 at Oulad Riah in 1845) as deplorable but necessary mistakes. Tocqueville cuts through the moralism: “Once we have committed that great violence of conquest, I believe we must not shrink from the smaller violences that are absolutely necessary to consolidate it.”(4) Inspired by the industrial and democratic revolutions (in unequal proportions, it is true), France saw itself as situated on the crest of the breaking wave of the future, endowed with the capacity to remake nature and reshape societies at will. Through the application of new social and political prophylactics (education, medicine, secular belief in progress), the colonial state would educate and remold local societies in the path of progress (and away from superstition and backwardness). At the same time, guided and encouraged by the colonial state, the opening of the local economy to the market would unleash resources previously frozen by the dead hand of custom, as they had done in Europe itself.

What kind of colonial history of North Africa did this yield, in practice? Primarily it led to histories that celebrated the French military conquest and the bringing of French civilization to Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. In the major volumes of the Exploration scientifique de l’Algerie, Algeria was depicted as culturally retarded, politically corrupt, and economically backward.(5) Above all, its central flaw was seen to be the way in which Islam weighed down upon the society like a leaden mantle, stifling initiative and blocking change. For the most part, the pieties of the Colonial Vulgate (the composite set of racist stereotypes about colonial North Africa) rather than a more culturally attuned historical judgement tended to dominate French historical writings. According to the terms of the Colonial Vulgate, Maghribi society was irremediably backward, its political leaders were despots, and the ulama were a superstitious bunch of fanatics. (Tocqueville on Islam: “I must say that I emerged convinced that there are in the entire world few religions with such morbid consequences as that of Mohammed. To me it is the primary cause of the now visible decadence of the Islamic world).(6) The Vulgate came to its fullest development in Morocco, where it divided the Moroccan population into two groups: Arabs and Berbers, nomads and sedentaries, those who accepted the authority of the government (known in Morocco as makhzan tribes) and those who opposed it (known as siba tribes).(7) Spanish and Italian colonial history was governed by a similar set of stereotypes. In part, colonial history was a product of its sources (which privileged European over Arabic sources), but even more it was the manifestation of a particular time, and a particular view of the world. Most French wrote the history of North Africa from a basically liberal and metropolitan-based perspective. (A French Algerian historiography based upon the perspective of the settlers never seems to have developed, unlike Ireland, South Africa and Israel, other settler colonies where it did).(8) While there were French historians critical of aspects of the colonial project in North Africa, their voices were muted. In retrospect it is striking how historians of the colonial Maghrib as different as Julien, Ageron, Berque, and Montagne all accepted the basic legitimacy of the colonial system, even though they might have opposed certain of its features.

Thus far, we are on the familiar terrain of Edward Said’s Orientalism.(9) The resulting intellectual division of labor laid out a historiographical landscape marked by a series of binary categories (themselves derivative of the orientalist gaze): colonizer/colonized, European/non-European, male/female, colonialist/nationalist and collaborator/resister. More recently, theorists of postcoloniality like Nicholas Dirks and Gyan Prakash have taught us to see colonial histories as important not for their truth value, but for the insight they afford us into the culture of colonialism.(10) A species of discourse whose premises we cannot share, and whose thought-worlds are no longer fully accessible to us, “the colonial” appears to us (with the advantage of hindsight) as a space saturated with hegemony, Europe’s other. As a consequence, these theorists argue, we tend to see colonial histories as taking place in a space that is separate from that in which European history occurs. Accordingly, colonial histories appear as derivative histories, rather than shaped by the same world historical processes as modern Europe. In this “sleeping beauty” theory of modern history, agency resides alone with Europe, while the non-West is seen as without history, fatally blocked from change because of its alleged cultural defects (eg., Islamic obscurantism, oriental despotism, the Asian mode of production) until awakened from its millennial slumber by the kiss of the West. According to European colonial narratives, it is the dynamism of Europe that alone can bring life to the non-West.

It is here that we touch the heart of colonial history: its sense of itself as invested with a vital progressive mission, and of its adversaries as misguided or perverse. That is to say, colonial historians saw colonialism as a progressive force, and therefore endowed with legitimacy. This is abundantly clear in reading Tocqueville and Marx on Algeria. To raise the question of the legitimacy of colonialism is to invoke the gulf that separates our age from the age of empire. What did it mean to write colonial history under colonialism? The answer is clear (even if we regard it as perverse from our contemporary vantage point). Just as colonialism “exported the dialectic” to non-Western societies, bringing progress everywhere, so too colonial historians saw themselves as participating in a great progressive enterprise, namely, the introduction of the world’s peoples into history, (or, more forthrightly, their annexation to the progressive history of an expanding Europe). It is precisely the progressive character of colonialism that is/was contested by nationalist histories – the straggle between them was first and foremost a discursive one. Eventually, these manichaean colonial histories were canceled by their opposite – nationalist histories, which revalorized as strength what the colonial histories had perceived as lack. Differing on everything else, colonial and nationalist histories resembled each other nonetheless in that they were in effect their own justifications – just-so stories designed to point a moral.

Writing colonial history has been a politically and intellectually problematic exercise since the emergence of nationalism after World War I. It has been especially so for North Africa, whose colonial legacy is etched in fire and blood in the collective memories of its inhabitants. Perhaps as many as three million Algerians and one million Libyans (and lesser but still horrifying numbers of Tunisians and Moroccans) perished as a result of the colonial conquest. The violence and cultural hubris of European colonialism called forth its violent negation in the national liberation movements of the 1950s in which many more were killed. Following Algerian independence in 1962, one million Europeans departed. Not surprisingly, soon thereafter colonial history also went into abeyance. It had no further reason for being.

Before proceeding on to the next section it may be appropriate at this point to attempt a preliminary verdict. The colonial history of the Maghrib, because it reflected the values, culture and mentality of European colonial society, provides but a partial introduction to the colonial experience of North Africans. Often willfully ignorant of the realities they comment upon, colonial histories are expressions of the society that created them. It would be pointless to expect them to be anything else. Their principle function was to provide legitimacy for the French colonial venture, by inscribing it as invested with a world historic progressive mission. This ideological mission however came into crisis following World War I, when with the emergence of nationalism the evident human costs for North Africans began to call into question the colonial venture. Nationalist historiography, to which we turn next, constituted in many ways the antidote to colonial histories. Following a discussion of nationalist historiography, I will return to the question of whether it is possible to write colonial histories today, and if so, what its importance might be.


After World War I, it became increasingly difficult for France to sustain its hegemony over North Africa. The evident contradictions of the colonial system, in which rights and privileges enjoyed by Europeans were systematically withheld from the subject populations gradually undermined it. By the 1930s and 1940s a distinctive nationalist historiography had begun to take shape which challenged the assertions of the Colonial Vulgate. For their part, European colonial historians viewed the nationalist “writing back” as at best ungrateful, if not traitorous. In the history wars which followed, the stakes (political and intellectual) were high. With the passage of time we can now see that it was the legitimacy of the colonial system that was being challenged. In an attempt to frame the accomplishments, as well as the limits of nationalist history, I ask: What kind of history did nationalists write, and how did it differ from colonial versions of that history?

With the emergence of powerful nationalist movements in the Maghrib in the 1950s and 1960s and the approach of colonial endgame, the history wars intensified. The struggle over the colonial past of North Africa reached a bitter and acrimonious conclusion in the Algerian revolution. Works like Alal alFasi’s Independence Movements of Arab North Africa, Mohamed Lacharef’s Algerie: nation et histoire, and Habib Bourguiba’s La Tunisie et la France rejected, point-by-point, the assertions of the colonial historians, and presented colonialism as seen from the native’s point of view.(11) If, for the French colonial writers, France was the bearer of progress, and resisters were coded as obscurantist reactionaries, nationalists told the opposite story, in which the French appeared as oppressors and Algerians as noble defenders of their way of life and cultural patrimony. Alal al-Fasi’s classic Moroccan nationalist history, is another instance.(12) In it we encounter a Morocco cruelly overwhelmed by a dynamic imperialist West – until the advent of the Istiqlal Party. In al-Fasi’s story the rural populations and subaltern classes had only cameo roles, while imperialism was defined primarily in political rather than economic terms. Similarly, Mostafa Lacheraf’s colonial Algeria is the reversed image of the Algeria of the French colonial historians, with negatives revalorized as positive.(13) Libyan history works much the same way: compare Enrico de Leone’s La Colonizzatione del Africa del Nord, with its image of a benevolent Italian colonialism whose mission was to bring progress to a benighted Libya, and Ruth First’s nationalist version, which serves as an appropriate antidote.(14)

The Algerian war for independence is one of the places in the Third World where these nationalist histories cohered for a time into a self-conscious project: the decolonization of history.(15) This self-consciously nationalist project sought to devise a basis for factoring the colonial presence out of the Algerian past. Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth underscores the revolutionary vision implicit in much nationalist writing of the period.(16) Elsewhere in the Maghrib, the early independence period saw the development of national historical schools that emphasized the continuities between pre- and post-colonial histories, the better to underscore the extent to which colonialism constituted a disruption. They emphasized the violence of the colonial conquest, the illegitimate appropriation of resources by Europeans, and the impact of the colonial system upon the standard of living of the indigenous population. Despite its considerable achievements in redressing the distorted portrait of Maghribi society, much of this nationalist history was as devoid of complexity as the colonial histories it replaced. Indeed, one could assert, its chief function was to inculcate in the (presumably citizen-) reader a sense of veneration for the common past of the people and its struggles: history as civics lesson.

Like the colonial histories they replaced, nationalist histories were progressive narratives; their existence presupposes the sequence: pre-colonial, colonial, post-colonial (and thus of the in-built obsolescence of the colonialist narrative). While they claimed to speak in the name of the people, in fact most nationalist histories of the period privileged urban elite perspectives, and left the rural populations, women and ethnic minorities in the shadows. By definition they had no room for the history of European settler populations. Whereas European colonial historians viewed the pre-colonial past as a time of barbary (in the primary as well as the secondary senses), for nationalists, it was an unspoiled Eden to which they longed to return. (Had the imperialists not intervened, some went on to say, they too would have modernized and developed). Both colonial and nationalist histories present a homogenized and essentialized vision of both Self and Other: “Europe” or “the settler” vs. “Islam” or “the native.”

In order to historicize the transition from colonialism to nationalism more fully, however, we need to situate it against the background of the discursive transformation brought about by the European enlightenment, which undermined the belief that the ancien regime order of things was sustained and justified by religion. This “disenchantment of the world” (as Weber called it) removed the blinders from men’s eyes, permitting them to see for the first time that human beings make their own history according to processes which can be known. Europeans presented themselves to colonial peoples (as they did to their fellow citizens) as the bearers of science, rationality and progress, and the enemies of religion, superstition and backwardness. The image of colonialism as a progressive project was widely persuasive in its time, not only to the great majority of Europeans, but also to many colonial subjects. We can take the metaphor of disenchantment further, however. To believe that Europe was the source of all agency, can be seen as itself a form of enchantment, a mystification. What nationalism offered was thus a second “disenchantment,” which revealed colonialism for the racist swindle it had always (in part) been.

At this point it is clear that colonial and nationalist histories are deeply imbricated in one another. It remains to be seen how much. In fact both derive from post-Enlightenment thought in which they appear as the successive stages of a world historical narrative – the march of freedom from the French Revolution to the present. Already present from the outset, these stages describe the way in which Europeans naturalized the colonial situation. By dividing the world into Europe and the rest, this narrative provided an explanation and justification for non-European “backwardness.” History originates in the West, and then is brought to the non-West in the form of colonialism. (Even Marx saw the historic role of Britain in India as progressive – the export of the dialectic to India, and thus the introduction of change to a hitherto static society).(17) The 1970s dependency narratives of Samir Amin and Andre Gunder Frank, while they moved the terrain from politics to the economy, were based upon the same underlying logic, according to which the non-West existed in a separate and parallel historical space until it was brutally integrated into world history by European imperialism, in a subordinate position in the new global division of labor. Dependency theorists, however, wrote from a different historical moment, the 1970s, and sought to explain how and why the fruits of independence failed to appear once colonialism ended.

In the rest of this essay, I will consider some of the difficulties of the nationalist vulgate, which we will see is no more satisfactory than the colonial one. One place to begin to explore the inadequacies of nationalist history is in its discussion of pre-colonial resistance, since what we think of nationalism is shaped in part by our sense of the politics of pre-colonial society (and it in turn is shaped by how we understand pre-colonial resistance) Was it for example devoid of political meaning, an expression of some traditional cultural essence? Or was it fully political in its own right? Most nationalist histories retrospectively subsume the dissonant voices of pre-colonial protest into the elite nationalist master narrative, and have a hard time admitting that groups other than elites could be actors. For most nationalist historians, internal social straggles (as opposed to anti-colonial resistance or intra-elite strife) are a scandal.

I first became aware of the ways in which the nationalist narrative shaped an understanding of the pre-colonial past when I reflected upon a problematic feature in my Ph.D. dissertation. In it, I had referred to pre-colonial Moroccan protest movements as “proto-nationalist.” In so doing, I realized later on, I had unwittingly incorporated them into the Moroccan nationalist narrative, which allowed for no voices other than urban elites. Since many of the protest and resistance movements I had examined were directed against these elites as well as against the French, my embrace of the nationalist narrative unwittingly reinforced the existing French colonial stereotypes, about supposed Moroccan “anarchy and xenophobia.” For example, Alal al-Fasi found movements like those of Abu Himara, the Hafiziya, the mutiny of makhzan troops at Fez in 1912, and the millenarian movement of El Hiba to be brave but lacking in all political significance, while Abdullah Laroui’s Origines culturelles et politiques du nationalisme marocain renders a similar verdict.(18) In my book I recast the story, portraying these movements as politically complex, with social agendas which pitted different groups against others or against the state.(19) They were thus expressions of local social and political conditions as well as or in addition to being the result of elite political manipulations. Other studies of rural jihads and millenarian protest, like those of Ross E. Dunn, Julia Clancy-Smith, Ali Abdullatif Ahmida and Hachemi Karaoui have come to similar conclusions: These supposedly pre-political movements were in fact eminently political.

What is the relevance of this finding to the way we think about colonialism and nationalism? I think it is considerable. For one thing, it assumes that everyone has politics (rather than it being the possession of one actor alone: the French, or the nationalists). To say that pre-colonial society had politics means that it was complex and dynamic, not static, or frozen in millennial patterns of behavior. It also implies that the colonial conquest was a political process with a specific history and not a manichaean contest between the forces of light and darkness. Groups jockeyed for position vis-a-vis one another, as well as responding to the threat of European hegemony. In particular the study of pre-colonial resistance is an important antidote to the belief that rural society was lacking in agency, or totally dominated by its tribal leaders. In this new understanding, the resilience and political skills of leaders like the Algerian resistance hero Abd al-Qadir become at least as important as his military prowess, or his religious zeal for the jihad.(20)

Of course colonial society also had politics: inter-tribal and intergroup politics, internal class politics, gender politics, the micro-politics of ordinary life. Nationalist histories have however rarely acknowledged that they intervened on behalf of some interests and against others, that is, that they themselves had politics. During the period of the independence struggle it was easy to accept this justification at face value, along with the idea that the nationalists were selfless servants of the people. Since independence, however, this no longer seems a self-evident proposition. Once in power, nationalist elites turned out to be no less corrupt and brutal than the colonial officials they replaced. Accounts of colonialism in nationalist histories seldom take colonialism seriously. Instead they focused chiefly on the oppressiveness of colonial rule, which indeed provides the principal source of legitimacy for resistance. Perhaps in memory of colonial divide-and-rule tactics, nationalist histories especially have had a hard time accepting the legitimacy of differing interests and internal conflict within the body politic, and have been quick to brand political and ethnic dissidents as enemies.(21)

Today, our view is shaped by an awareness of multiple agencies and divergent power relations – not just colonial, but also of indigenous elites and subaltern groups, men and women, urban and rural, and inter-ethnic (religious and linguistic) domination and subordination. It is tempting to say that postcolonial histories differ from nationalist and colonial ones in that the latter are homogenous and teleological, whereas ours are aware of multiple causalities and multiple agencies. We are too aware that resisters and nationalists also had political agendas, rivals they sought to deny resources, scores to settle. In this sense neither colonialists nor nationalists could live up to their progressive narratives, both were deeply compromised by their own interests. Think of how Abd al-Qadir pursued his rivalry with the Tijaniya, or how the Hafiziya struggle at Fez in 1907-1908 pitted the lower orders of Fasi society against the ayan in a contest in which the former’s social radicalism warred with the latter’s class based pragmatism. Or finally, think of the politics behind the FLN’s role in the liquidation of the “red maquis” in the Soummam Valley in 1956, in which the FLN betrayed a Communist anti-colonial guerrilla unit to the French army.(22) Each of these examples illustrates the problematic character of most nationalist accounts of colonial North African history. The independence straggle increasingly seems to be inadequately described as a history of resisters and collaborators, and the colonial situation as a more one of hybridities and marginalities. I will pursue this line of thought in the final section of this essay.


The foregoing reflections on the relationship between colonial and nationalist histories describe a time in which each was connected to powerful political and discursive forces which when viewed by their supporters rendered them self-evidently “natural.” The dichotomous formulations of colonial and nationalist histories have cast a large shadow over the ways in which postcolonial history has been written. As a result we have tended to view independent North Africa through the lens of the colonial freedom struggle, as consisting of parallel histories (colonial and nationalist) equally marked by homogenization and essentialization. On the one hand, colonial historians tended to see the colonial conquest as jump-starting the incorporation of the Maghrib into modern history. Nationalists on the other hand, while they viewed the success of the anti-colonial struggle as restoring the wholeness of the national past, also imagined the future of the independent states as linked to the progress- oriented narratives of modernity. What, we may ask, are the implications of these considerations for writing the post-colonial histories of the Maghrib?

To clarify what is at stake, we can look at some recent discussions of the political culture of Morocco, which have emphasized the home-grown Moroccanness of Moroccan political culture, and the uniqueness of the gradual accumulation of layers of political legitimation drawing upon sharifism, jihad, and different sufi ideas of charismatic authority. This culturalist understanding has emphasized the continuities of modern Moroccan history with its past, and not its discontinuities.(23) Here is a place where Moroccan self-understandings coincide with Western perspectives grounded in modernization theory. For both, the motors of history are internal and cultural. The reasons however are different: Moroccan culturalists stress the specifically Moroccan roots of modern political culture as a way of marking off their history from everyone else’s.(24) On the other hand, Western scholars, drawing upon the tradition/modernity dichotomy of modernization theory, see Moroccan politics as rooted in its internal cultural history, the better to position Morocco as a successful case of modernization. While both acknowledge the fact of change (embodied in the sequence: precolonial, colonial, postcolonial), what they choose to highlight is cultural continuity: the persistence of segmentation, symbolic systems of legitimation and/or domination.(25) But the contemporary Moroccan state is not the old makhzan writ large. Whereas the latter was puny, the modern Moroccan state can deploy its power throughout the national territory, disciplining and orienting opinion, intervening in depth in the society where it chooses. Seen from this angle, the history of contemporary Morocco is characterized by a radical discontinuity with its precolonial past, and its culture is “modern,” and not “traditional.” Modern, in the sense that it is the result of a complex layering of heterogeneous cultural practices, strongly influenced by the European Enlightenment, but shaped also by participation in a global world economy and international system. The selective amnesia of scholars about the colonial auspices under which the Moroccan state made its transition to modernity is especially striking.(26)

The colonial histories of Algeria and Tunisia written in French have also been viewed primarily through the lens of a retrospective nationalism. Thus we have Ageron’s liberal indigenophile reconstruction of colonial Algeria, which remains in many ways the high-water mark of this type of historiography, and the half dozen or so French dissertations on the colonial period that were completed in the decade or so after independence.(27) While Algerians are taken seriously as subjects of inquiry, the real subject is liberal hand-wringing about what went wrong with the dream of bi-racial harmony in Algeria. In the history of the Tunisian protectorate, with the exception of a notable article by Charles-Andre Julien which re-examines the politics of the early twentieth century in a remarkably bi-focal fashion, there have been few studies of colonial history that rise to the level of the Algerian literature.(28) Libyan colonial history is even more impoverished.(29) In none of these cases is there an attempt to problematize the history of the colonial period, or to reimagine the relationship of the colonial past to what preceded and followed it. Simply to reverse the pluses and minuses of the old colonial historiography leaves us stuck in the same old progressive narratives, with no way of rethinking the colonial experience in its complexities and contradictions, apart from its place in the story of modernity. There is so far no work on North African history with the theoretically grounded sweep of Timothy Mitchell’s Colonizing Egypt or the Indian Subaltern Studies group.(30)

Whose history is colonial history? Is it a shared history? Or is it two tunnel-vision histories that go past each other and never meet? The question goes to the heart of a central weakness of the postcolonial theory literature. If the colonial can only be apprehended as culture, and that culture is only the culture of racism, this seems an enormous impoverishment. Consider, for example the small miracle of Joelle Bahloul’s recent archeological remembering of a Muslim-Jewish household in Setif, Algeria. The Jewish families had long since departed for France; the Muslim families who inhabited the multi-family dwelling continued to reside there. Bahloul’s arrival to conduct an oral history let loose a flood of memories, and re-connected the families. It also (at least for me) opens an enormous parenthesis in the history of Muslim/Jewish relations, previously thought to be readily understood. The article in this issue by Driss Maghraoui on the Moroccan Goums is another place we can apprehend the shared history of colonialism. Through their oral memories, Maghraoui is able to explore a difficult chapter in Moroccan history. Morocco was after all “pacified” by Moroccan colonial troops, not French ones. The majority of “free French” troops to liberate Marseilles in 1944 were Moroccan goumiers, as were most of the “French” troops who surrendered to the Viet Minh at Dienbienphu in 1954 (including Mohamed Oufqir). How do we understand these men and their history? Are they collaborators? But then what do we do with the fact that many of them were compelled to enlist after having been militarily defeated by the French? Or the fact that they also provided the nucleus of the “Liberation Army” which emerged in 1955? Accorded only grudging recognition by France and Morocco, the Goumiers are a reminder that there is something about colonialism that eludes the dichotomous formulations of colonizer/colonized. The more we look, the stranger the culture of colonialism looks, and the less like the tunnel-vision histories we have come to accept.

The intellectual and political stakes for such an undertaking are enormous. Unless we re-imagine colonial history as existing in its own right, apart from the progress-oriented narratives that have operated until now, we will be unable to gain much intellectual understanding of post-colonial histories. If the colonial past is erased from historical memory (as it is in most histories) except as a period of repression and resistance, we are ill-placed to understand the institutions of the modern states of the region, or the complex political compromises and bargains with which modernity has been organized and sustained. Most notably this affects the ways in which we understand Islamism and the cultural terrain in which it flourishes. To rehistoricize the colonial period is to face the multi-rootedness of modernity, including Islamism as a manifestation of it. (From this viewpoint, contemporary Algerian “eradicators” seem the direct descendents of General Bugeaud, their militant secularism a deeply ironic replay of the fiercely secularist nineteenth century French antiIslamic kulturkampf). It may not be easy to conceive of the task of the historian in this way, but I think it is essential to do so. As a consequence of the postmodern situation, we find ourselves at present confronted with a third disenchantment of the world: after the collapse of religion and the self-evident explanatory power of progress-oriented colonialist narratives, we find ourselves confronting the waning power of nationalist narratives as well.


1. Such a comparative history would begin by distinguishing the four Arab worlds: Jazirat al-Maghrib, Jazirat al-Arab, Egypt, and the Mashriq (Bilad al-Sham and Iraq).

2. Intriguingly, despite the relative prominence of Morocco in British and American anthropology since the 1970s, this seems to have had little effect upon the history of the Maghrib.

3. See especially David Prochaska, “History as Literature, Literature as History: Cayagous of Algeria,” American Historical Review (Dec. 1996). Also Herbert Lebovics, True France: the Wars Over Cultural Identity, 19001945 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992); Kristin Ross, Fast Cars, Clean Bodies: Decolonization and the Reordering of French Culture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995).

4. Alexis de Tocqueville, Oeuvres completes, V, 2:217.

5. Exploration scientifique de l’Algerie pendant les annees 1840, 1841, 1842, publies par l’ordre du gouvernement, 39 vols. (Paris: Imprimerie nationale, 1844-1867). On it see my Orientalism Observed: France and the Sociology of Islam (Princeton: Princeton University Press, in preparation).

6. Tocqueville to Gobineau, 22 Oct. 1843, in Alexis de Tocqueville, “The European Revolution” and Correspondance with Gobineau, ed. and trans. John Lukacs (Westport CT: Greenwood Press, 1974). 123.

7. On the Colonial Vulgate, see my “The Image of the Moroccan State in French Ethnological Literature: New Light on the Origins of Lyautey’s Berber Policy,” in Ernest Gellner and Charles Micaud (eds.) Arabs and Berbers: From Tribe to Nation in North Africa (London: Duckworth, 1973), 175-199.

8. The chief exception known to me is Joseph Robin, L’insurrection de la Grande Kabylie en 1871 (Lavauzelle, 1901).

9. Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon, 1978). It is interesting to note that in this book Said makes no reference to Algerian decolonization, arguably the most bitterly contested and radical anticolonial struggle in the Middle Eastern region as a whole in the 1950s and 1960s, (or indeed to Frantz Fanon and Jean-Paul Sartre, two of its leading opponents).

10. Nicholas Dirks (ed.) Colonialism and Culture (Ann Arbor: Michigan, 1994) and Gyan Prakash (ed.) After Colonialism: Imperial Histories and Postcolonial Displacements (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).

11. Alal al-Fasi, Harakat al-Istiqlaliyah fi al-maghrib al-‘Arabi. English trans. H.Z. Nuseibeh, Independence Movements in Arab North Africa (Washington, D.C.: American Council for Learned Societies, 1954), Mohamed Lacharef, Algerie: nation et histoire (Paris: Maspero, 1965) and Habib Bourguiba, La Tunisie et la France (Paris, Julliard, 1954).Yves Lacoste, Andre Noushi and Jean Prenant’s L ‘Algerie Passe et Present (Paris: Editions sociales, 1960), Mohamed C. Sahli’s Decoloniser l’histoire: introduction a l’histoire du maghreb (Paris: Maspero, 1965).

12. Al-Fasi, op. cit.

13. See his Algerie: nation et societe (Paris: Maspero, 1968).

14. Enrico de Leone’s La Colonizzatione del Africa del Nord (Padua: Cedam, 1960). Ruth First’s Libya (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973) is an early nationalist history in English. See also Umar Ali ibn Ismail, Inhiyar Hukim alUsra al-qaramanliyya fi libia, 1790-1835 (Tripoli: Maktabat al-Firjani, 1966) and the critique of All Abullatif Ahmida, The Making of Modern Libya: State Formation, Colonization and Resistance, 1830-1932 (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994).

15. On this, see Sahli’s Decoloniser l’histoire. Also Yves Lacoste, Andre Nouschi and Andre Prenant, Passe et Present de l’Algerie, and Lacharef.

16. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Evergreen Books, 1968). The chapter on “The Pitfalls of National Consciousness” stands as a sharp critique of nationalism.

17. See Shlomo Avineri, Marx on Colonialism and Imperialism

18. Abdullah Laroui, Les origines sociales et culturelles du nationalisme Marocain (Paris: Maspero, 1977). (Compare, for example, his account of the Hafiziya movement (1907-1908) with the present author’s Prelude to Protectorate in Morocco: Precolonial Protest and Resistance, 1860-1912 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976).

19. For more on pre-colonial resistance, see Ahmida and Burke, both op. cit. Also Ross E. Duun, Resistance in the Desert: Moroccan Responses to French Imperialism, 1881-1912 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978), Julia Clancy-Smith, Rebel and Saint: Muslim Notables, Populist Protest, Colonial Encounters (Algeria and Tunisia, 1800-1904) (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996) and Hachemi Karoui and Ali Mahjoubi, Quand Le vent s’est levE a l’ouest: Tunisie 1881 – Imperialisme et Resistance (Tunis: CERES, 1983).

20. See the recent critical discussion by John King, “Abd al-Qadir: Nationalist or Theocrat?” The Journal of Algerian Studies 2 (1977), 62-80.

21. See my “Orientalism and World History: Representing Middle Eastern Nationalism and Islamism in the Twentieth Century,” Theory and Society, forthcoming 1998.

22. On these three examples see Raphael Danziger, Abd al-Qadir and the Algerians (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1977) (Chap. 7); my Prelude to Protectorate in Morocco (Chap. 6), and Emmanuel Sivan, Communisme et nationalisme en algerie 1920-1962 (Paris: Fondation Nationale de Sciences Politiques, 1976), 236-237.

23. See among other works John Waterbury, Commander of the Faithful (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1970); Ernest Gellner, Saints of the Atlas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969); Elaine Combs-Schilling, Sacred Performances: Islam, Sexuality, and Sacrifice (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989) and John P. Entelis, Culture and Counterculture in Moroccan Politics (Boulder: Westview Press, 1989).

24. For some representative examples, see Abdallah Laroui, Les origines culturelles du nationalisme marocain and Abdallah Hammoudi, Master and Disciple: the Cultural Foundations of Moroccan Authoritarianism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).

25. It is of course also the case that since independence, Morocco has been largely spared the prolonged wars, revolutions, and political turmoil that have disrupted other Middle Eastern societies. In this way, at least, Morocco is to a degree unique, at least in the Arab Islamic cultural area.

26. The chief exception is Daniel Rivet’s monumental three volume doctoral thesis, Lyautey et l’Institution du Protectorat francais au Maroc, 19121925 (Paris: Harmattan, 1988), although even here Rivet makes little effort to explore the impact of the colonial legacy upon the contemporary Moroccan state.

27. Charles Robert Ageton, Les algeriens musulmans et la France, 1871-1919 (Paris: Presses Universitaire de France, 1968). See also among others Andre Nouschi, Naissance du nationalisme algerien (Pairs: Editions Minuit, 1971) and Annie-Rey Goldzeiguer, Le royaume arabe (Algiers: SNED, 1977). An important exception is Jean-Claude Vatin’s L’Algerie: histoire et politique, which while still under the influence of the nationalist moment, makes a brave attempt to critique (and to a degree rethink) the colonial historical literature.

28. Compare Charles-Andre Julien, “Colons francais et jeunes tunisiens,” Cahiers de Tunisie (1971), and Bechir Tlili, Les rapports culturels et ideologiques entre l’Orient et l’Occident, en Tunisie au XIXeme siecle, (18301880) (Tunis: Universite de Tunis, 1974).

29. In addition to Ahmida and First, cited above, see Lisa Anderson, The State and Social Transformation in Tunisia and Libya, 1830-1980 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986).

30. Timothy Mitchell, Colonizing Egypt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988). See the recent forum on “Subaltern Studies As Postcolonial Criticism” in the American Historical Review (December 1994).

Edmund Burke, III is Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Cruz. The author and editor of numerous books and articles on Middle Eastern and world history, he is currently completing France and the Sociology of Islam for Princeton University Press.

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