The Horror of Algiers

In 1830, 600 French ships arrived in Algiers. The arrival marks the first step of a violent strategy to stabilize French domination. Henceforth, Algerians’ crops were burned by the French soldiers, women were raped, men captured and killed. The region’s earth was ‘scorched’ to pre-empt any potential backlash. And to de Tocqueville, the French liberal philosopher, these were “unfortunate necessities that any people wishing to make war on the Arabs must accept.” Defending colonization, he believed that the “law of wars entitles us [French] to ravage the country.” Following an eighteen-year long battle, Algiers was colonized. Fast forward 124 years of over-exploitation, a full-force armed movement for the independence of Algeria, Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), was born. In the course of an eight-year long battle between FLN and France, more than 140,000 Algerians were killed by the French army, another 12,000 were subject to internal purges. 50,000 civilians were abducted by FLN and presumed dead. All the while, 18,000 French soldiers and 3,000 Settlers did not leave Algeria alive. Finally, in June 1962 the French rule in Algeria came to an end after 132 exhausting years. Algiers was decolonized. Some time parallel to the finale of the battle, Frantz Fanon was drafting the first chapter of The Wretched of the Earth: on violence. 

In his book, Fanon advocates the use of violence in decolonization. He brings to light that how the accepted codes of morality could live with the horror of colonization, but they same codes cannot digest the terror of decolonization, that is when the victim is an European. Jean-Paul Sartre, in the preface to the book, brings to our attention the contradiction of the European humanism that ‘lays claim to but denies human conditions’ from the natives. In Sartre’s view, Fanon deciphers the contradiction. 

But more important than the justification of violence in the process of decolonization, something else is happening in Fanon’s text beyond and above the lines, and Sartre quickly mentions it in the preface; regardless of what he argues, Fanon has looked away from Europe as the listener and is talking to his native brothers. There is a dialogue, too significant to dismiss, about Europe without Europe being part of the dialogue. At once, the unspoken assumption that the European knows and the native becomes known, the European thinks and the native is thought about, becomes irrelevant. Europe has become, all of a sudden, the object of a study, and the native the subject. 

This is essential to the legitimization of violence. Fanon notes that the violence of colonization is legitimized through dehumanization and de-Subjectification of the native. The moment that Algerians are constituted as humans again, colonization becomes a horrific exploitation of the subject of human, and the violence for liberation is rationalized as an act of self-defence toward liberation. Fanon, in showing all the complexities of the native, constructs Algerians as human again. ‘The wretched’ indeed can think, feel the pain, and pick up a gun. The wretched can even instrumentalize non-native philosophy – in the case of Ramdane Abane masterfully combining Lenin and Muhammad – to defeat the colonizer. The wretched is the doomed human, but still a human. By humanizing Algerians, the framing of the battle as the modern versus the savage – the only justification of French for colonizing Algeria – falls apart. 

The framing also falls apart by the grave violence of French army against the resistance movement, the so-called counterterrorism. By beheading the dissidents and torturing suspects, French officers proves absurd “savagery” as the defining term for natives behaviors. In their naked brutality, the colonizer and the colonized become similar, conducting the very same action. The assigned categories, names and compartments that the settler has created to differentiate himself from the colonized lose meaning in the face of a shared violence. Are the colonizer and the colonized both human? Are they both savage? Or aren’t we all both, at the same time

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