Secularization in Colonial Algeria: Sacred Sites and Bodily Violence

Algiers, Algeria; March 1962 | Paul Schutzer — The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Algiers, Algeria; March 1962 | Paul Schutzer — The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images



Scholars and political commentators have traditionally conceptualized the Algerian struggle through an analysis of power relations between what Frantz Fanon referred to as two “species”: the colonizer and colonized. These approaches – while crucial for grasping the racial and psycho-social dimension of colonial history – often reduce settler colonialism to a fight for land, or conflict between two opposing racial societies with different “cultural” traditions (Césaire 1950; Fanon 1963; Memmi 1965). While these dominant readings of Fanon separate the political struggle of Algerians from their ethical lives, for the Islamic believer in colonial Algeria, French occupation was not only a political experience of domination, but also, a disruption of the fundamental practices of his Dīn. Thus, as Michel-Rolph Trouillot argues, anthropologists should "reassess the epistemological status of the native voice, to recognize its competency so as to make the native a potential – if not a full – interlocutor” in their ethnographic work.[1] Through the use of memoirs and testimonies by Algerian militants and torture survivors, this paper argues that violence by French settlers and military personnel was not only a product of racial and economic power, but also, a result of secular doctrines, which recasted everyday Islamic practices of veiling, ritual purification, and other forms of worship as sites of antagonism.

As Mayanthi Fernando demonstrates in The Republic Unsettled, following 1974, public discourse in France shifted away from the word Muslim (musulmans) towards the term Arab (Arabes), illustrating how “race and religion have always formed a nexus” in the context of the French and Algerian encounter.[2] This essay will focus on the specificity of state violence against Islamic ethical sensibilities to emphasize that colonialism does not only racialize, but also undermines the ethico-religious capacities of colonized subjects. It will identify the ways in which military and social violence against Muslim men and women created internal conflicts, discontinuities, and fragmentations in the body and self.[3]

The Repressive State Apparatus

Fanon asserts in The Wretched of the Earth that “French colonialism [had] settled itself in the very center of the Algerian individual and [had] undertaken a sustained work of cleanup, of expulsion of self, [and] of rationally perused mutilation.”[4] This disruptive process occurred through what French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser termed the repressive state apparatus (or hard power), a form of power, which latently operates by coercion through social actors such as the police, army, and correctional institutions such as the prison system.[5] This is distinct from the ideological state apparatus (or soft power), which is based on consent and operates often through bureaucratic institutions such as schools, churches, and the media, which reproduce the state.[6]

In the context of colonial Algeria, the repressive state apparatus operated through house raids and state torture. It was not only a means by which the French increased and safeguarded state and individual power, but was a structural process by which the Algerian’s body was disciplined and reconfigured under French secularism, which diminished their capacity to practice Islam in accordance with its moral laws. A widely cited example of the project to de-Islamize Algerian society is the French colonial propaganda that advocated for the removal of the veil (Figure 1.1.).[7] This image was produced some time between 1957 and 1960 and used by the French army's 5e Bureau of Psychological Action. It reads, "Aren't you pretty? Then unveil!". The 5e Bureau stated that their propaganda leaflets were “designed to stigmatize, poison, demoralize, and rally support.”[8] It is this gradual disruption and decentering of Islamic ethical sensibilities and embodiment that demonstrates how an analysis of colonial Algeria solely through the coordinates of race and class is insufficient.

             Figure 1.1. 5e Bureau of Psychological Action (1957)

             Figure 1.1. 5e Bureau of Psychological Action (1957)

The Raiding of Sacred Sites

House and communal raids played an important role in the management of Algerians’ daily actions and emotional lives. In order to evade arrest and possible imprisonment, Algerians avoided social gatherings or common places where raids were known to take place. Thus outside the invasion of individual homes, colonial forces also targeted mosques (masajid), which in a Muslim society, are congregational places of spiritual growth and communal bonding. Hamou Amirouche explains the experience of mosque (masjid) raids in colonial Algeria in Memoirs of a Mujahed:

I rarely ventured into the street, especially since I had started wearing a red fez to dispel any doubt about my ethnic identity. I loathed being stopped and forced to exhibit my identity card of “French Muslim,” and I did not want to fall afoul of one of the raids the French troops staged from time to time in the hope of capturing a wanted militant, liaison officer, or armed “terrorist” who had infiltrated the village to carry out an attack.

In the last raid I had been taken at gunpoint along with all the faithful as we came out of the mosque. We were forcibly directed to the weekly cattle market and ordered to sit on the dung-covered ground. Then began body searches and identity verification, which lasted over two hours.[9]

Aside from the use of raids to subdue Algerians from community organizing under the guise of capturing “criminals,” Amirouche’s testimony on the mosque raid highlights a broader attack on Islamic sacred sites. The mosque, a clean sanctuary of worship, stands in contrast to the dung-covered-ground to which the worshippers were taken. This state of impurity transgressed the general Islamic requirement of cleanliness insofar as in Islam, cleanliness is an act of worship itself.[10] Further, as Naveeda Khan highlights in Muslim Becoming, mosques are places where subjectivization takes place and where Muslims construct symbolic value through their adherence to different masalik (pathways) within Islam.[11] Thus, the removal of worshippers from a sacred site and the mosque becoming a common place for raids exemplifies a disruption in the creation and cultivation of Islamic identities and ethical embodiments, which are both constructed through forms of worship.

Similar to the colonial targeting of mosques, the Algerian family also represents a site of not only colonial intervention but also secular power. While Fanon explains how the Algerian family experiences an internal transformation during the era of decolonization, it is important to note that “[…] the ‘Islamic family' is not a mere cultural adaptation of the bourgeois family form within an Islamic language. There may be value and increased analytical clarity in differentiating family per se – the structural unit of a bourgeois economy globalized by capitalist history – from Islam’s discursive response to this modern category. Thus, in many ways, the Islamic 'family' is a critique of family itself – or more precisely, the modern, private family rooted in a Judeo-Christian genealogy.”[12]

Having said this, within the forcible modern division of public/private  in which ‘family’ is relegated to the private domain of the home – there is yet another destabilization of the intimate family space. Fanon illustrates this invasion of the “sacred space” of the family through the example of one of his patients, an Algerian militant who carried propaganda leaflets and political leaders in his taxi. After a French soldier raped his wife in their home, the soldier told the militant’s wife, “If you ever see that bastard your husband again, don’t forget to tell him what we did to you.” [13] In the process of taking his wife back, the Algerian militant describes, “several weeks later it dawned on me that she had been raped because they had been looking for me.”[14] Along with the unveiling of Algerian women in the public space of the colony, these examples demonstrate the totalizing characteristics of secularism, which penetrates not only ostensibly ‘public’ spaces but also the private space of the home.

Fanon’s articulation of the spatial distinction between French and Algerian quarters might be enhanced by considering how within the Algerian quarter, the colonial military personnel differentiated between sacred and profane spaces, and targeted the former.[15]

Bodily Violence and State Torture

Case studies and descriptions of torture techniques by Frantz Fanon, Henri Alleg, Allistair Horne, Simone de Beauvoir and other scholars present in Algeria during the war illustrate the mechanisms by which Muslim ethical life was violated in colonial Algeria.”[16] Fanon explains that during interrogations leading to torture, “several policemen would strike the prisoner at the same time; four policemen standing around the prisoner and hitting him backward and forward to each other, while another burns his chest with a cigarette and still another hits the soles of his feet with a stick.”[17] In his work, Algeria: France’s Undeclared War, Martin Evans illustrates a similar account:

One technique, the ‘swimming pool’, involved four soldiers in the pool with a prisoner who would be forced to drink cups of water before being put in a refrigerator at -10 C. Another, the ‘country telephone’, consisted of fixing electrodes to the captives and then winding up the dynamo until volts of electricity shot through their body. Another, still, consisted of beating the prisoner’s feet raw and then placing them in cold water.[18]

A common torture technique – the gégène – involved the use of a portable electric generator and electric clips. The electric clips were attached to different parts of the human body (most frequently the penis) to circulate electrical currents. While Robert Lacoste, a French politician in colonial Algeria, described the gégène as “nothing serious. Just connecting little electrodes,” Henri Alleg, a European Jew who was tortured for a month in the summer of 1957, provides a markedly different account in his book The Question. Alleg describes his first experience with the gégène as “a flash of lightning” exploding next to his ear. He writes, “I felt my heart racing in my breast. I struggled, screaming, and stiffened myself until the straps cut into my flesh.” Because he refused to comply, the next time French paratroopers tortured him they attached the electric clips to his penis and used a larger magneto. He recounts, “Instead of the sharp and rapid spasms that seemed to tear my body in two, it was now a greater pain that took possession of all my muscles and tightened them in longer spasms.” When the electric clips were placed in his mouth for his last subjection to the gégène, he reports, “my jaws were soldered to the electrode by the current, and it was impossible for me to unlock my teeth, no matter what effort I made. My eyes, under their spasmed lids, were crossed with images of fire, and geometric luminous patterns flashed in front of them.”[19]

Outside of the gégène and similar torture devices, rape was another means of sexual violence against Algerians  particularly women. From a 1962 article published in Le Monde newspaper by prominent French feminist Simone de Beauvoir,[20] we learn the details of Algerian prisoner Djamila Boupacha’s rape. Boupacha, a 22-year-old captive in El Bair detention center was arrested for bombing the Brasserie des Facultés, a café near the University of Algiers. After being released from El Bair, Boupacha recounted how while in prison, her torturers forced a beer bottle into her vagina and left her “passed out in a pool of her own blood.”[21]Boupacha describes herself as “ruined” by the object. In another case study focused on two Algerian men, French intellectual Pierre-Henri Simon recounts a letter written by a French soldier sometime prior to the Battle of Algiers. The letter explained the torture procedure:

The first of the tortures consisted of suspending the two men completely naked by their feet, their hands bound behind their backs, and plunging their heads for a long time into a bucket of water to make them talk. The second torture consisted of suspending them, their hands and feet tied behind their backs, this time with their head upwards. Underneath them was placed a trestle, and they were made to swing, by fist blows, in such a fashion that their sexual parts rubbed against the very sharp pointed bar of the trestle. The only comment made by the men, turning towards the soldiers present: “I am ashamed to find myself stark naked in front of you.”[22]

Although this essay has focused on two case studies that do not involve Islamic practitioners, these methods of torture were widespread in colonial Algeria. Therefore, one may assume that such torture methods targeted practicing Muslims. Arguably, the lacuna of accounts that explicate how torture specifically impacted the Islamic capacities of believers suggests the need to question the secular historiography of colonial Algeria itself. Fouzi Slisli explains that in Fanon’s description and analysis of French colonialism in Algeria, he veils the ways in which Islamic inspiration fueled the movement for national independence. Slisli writes, “There is an elephant in The Wretched of the Earth. It is Islam and its anti-colonial tradition in Algeria. Fanon continuously cites and exalts this tradition. […] But if Fanon cites this tradition everywhere, he does not reference it anywhere.”[23] While Slisli focuses on the ways in which Islamic imperatives informed and shaped decolonization, this essay turns its attention to the ways in which specific techniques of torture and repression violated the bodily honor (‘izzah) of believers in colonial Algeria.


This paper expands upon conventional analyses of violence in colonial Algeria by taking the secular as a point of departure and centering the social and ethical concerns of Islamic believers. While the analysis of this paper is limited to testimonials produced during a period of heightened secular nationalism in North Africa and the Middle East, it has sought to underscore the concerns of Islamic believers such as Amirouche, who emphasized the ethical and social differences between Algerians and the French.[24]

[1] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Global Transformations: Anthropology and the Modern World, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), pg. 136.

[2] Mayanthi Fernando, The Republic Unsettled: Muslim French and the Contradictions of Secularism, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014), pg. 18.

[3] There is a tendency to conceptualize the self and bodily capacities vaguely, which often leads to a secular analysis of sacred experiences. For the purposes of colonial Algeria, it is important to treat suffering within the specificity of Islam or at least understand the fluctuation of sacred and profane time for Algerian natives in a colonial society.

[4] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, (New York: Grove Press, 1963), pg. 65.

[5] Ian Buchanan, A Dictionary of Critical Theory, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010) from Louis Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001), pg. 137.

[6] Ibid., pg. 143.

[7] While the psychological war aspect of colonial Algeria is not my focus in this essay, this example serves as a counterargument to the focus of the Algerian war merely as a fight for land. This viewpoint, as stated in a previous footnote, excludes concerns about the capacity to worship and the hereafter (al-akhirah) and is mostly focused on the affairs of this world (al-dunya).

[8] Nacéra Aggoun, The Algerian War and the French Army, 1954-62: Experiences, Images, Testimonies, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), pg. 193.

[9] Hamou Amirouche, Memoirs of a Mujahed: Algeria’s Struggle for Freedom, 1945-1962, (San Diego: Amirouche Publishing, 2014), pg. 91.

[10] Cleanliness, which can take the form of full body washing (ghusl) or ablution (wudu), is a requirement before any act of worship (ibadah), such as praying and reading the Qur’an and is recommended before going to sleep. The importance of cleanliness comes from the ahadith narrated by Muslim ibn al-Ḥajjāj, who is also known as Imam Muslim, that the Prophet said: “Cleanliness is half of the faith.”

[11] Naveeda Khan, Muslim Becoming: Aspiration and Skepticism in Pakistan, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012).

[12] Muneeza Rizvi, “Provincializing Materialist-Feminism,” (Conference Presentation at the Sixth Annual Islamophobia Conference, Berkeley, California, April 23-25, 2015).

[13] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, (New York: Grove Press, 1963), pg. 186.

[14] Ibid., pg. 188.

[15] Using the terminology of Parvis Ghassem-Fachandi in his study of bridges in Gujarat, there was a “local bodily hexis: an internalized geographic knowledge of where it ended and where it began […] one was always either within the old city or outside of it.”

[16] Charles Hirschkind approaches this question through his concept of the “ethical sensorium,” which he defines as “the requisite sensibilities that [Muslims] see as enabling them to live as devout Muslims.” See more, Charles Hirshkind, The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), pg. 10.

[17] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, (New York: Grove Press, 1963), pg. 208.

[18] Martin Evans, Algeria: France’s Undeclared War, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), pg. 169.

[19] Henri Alleg, The Question, (Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1958).

[20] Raphaelle Branche, “Sexual Violence in the Algerian War” in Brutality and Desire: War and Sexuality in Europe's Twentieth Century, (Berlin: Springer Publishing, 2008).

[21] Simone de Beauvoir, Djamila Boupacha: The Story of the Torture of a Young Algerian Girl Which Shocked Liberal French Opinion, (New York: Macmillan Publishers, 1962), pg. 35.

[22] Alistair Horne, A Savage War of Peace, (New York: New York Review of Books, 2011), pg. 197.

[23] Fouzi Slisli, “Islam: The Elephant in Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth,Critical Middle Eastern Studies 17.1 (2008), pg. 97.

[24] Asad argues that secularism is a form of “transcendent mediation.” He writes, “The modern nation state has to make citizenship the primary principle of identity.” In other words, citizenship becomes an identity marker that “must transcend the different identities built on class, gender, and religion, replacing conflicting perspectives by unifying experience.” See more, Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, and Modernity, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003).