ALGERIA History and the Culture of Nationalism in Algeria, by James McDougall. Cambridge, UK and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. xiv + 238 pages. Bibl. to p. 260. Index to p. 266. $85.
Reviewed by Clement M. Henry
James McDougall has accomplished a remarkable deconstruction of the Islamic Reformist narrative of Algerian nationhood. His central figure, Tawfiq al-Madani (18991983), born in Tunis of an Algerian exile family and expelled to Algeria in 1925, was hardly the greatest luminary of the Association des 'ulama musulmans algériens (AUMA), but he helped 'Abd al Hamid Ben Badis found it in 1931 and lived on to serve as independent Algeria's first Minister of Habous (land property legislation) and Islamic Affairs and a guiding hand for the ruling party's cultural apparatchiks. He claimed, responding in 1936 to Ferhat Abbas' "La France c'est moi," to have drafted the well known passage in the saga of Algerian nationalism: "For our part, we have consulted the pages of history, and we have consulted present circumstances, and we have found the Algerian Muslim nation" (pp. 85, 228). McDougall dissects this vision, framed in, by, and against the colonial situation, of a supposedly "natural" and "authentic" national history.
He understands the culture of nationalism as a new form of domination effacing multiple memories and possible futures. Fortunately, the story is never complete, and McDougall's book comes at an opportune moment, as Algerians continue to grapple with conflicting understandings of their identity. Every school child learned the words of the jacket cover of Tawfiq Madani's Kitab al-jaza'ir [Book of Algiers] (1932): "Islam is our religion, Algeria is our homeland, Arabic is our language," especially after ambitious programs of Arabization tried to make it so in a cultural revolution, launched in 1972 and relaunched after 1976. McDougall also examines some of the other paths that nationalists might have taken. Ironically, for instance, one of Algeria's principal religious conservative clerics, Egyptian religious reformer Shaykh SaUh Sherif, exiled in Tunis, attacked Mohammed Abduh in 1903 for his "Wahhabi" excesses, but Abduh's school would, of course, inspire AUMA.
More directly responsible for the new hegemonic discourse, however, were the French historians of French Algeria. The Algerian reformists fabricated their myths in response to those of a French Algeria, inherited from Rome as celebrated in the centennial of the French conquest in 1930. …