When France was moralizing over the Armenian genocide the Turkish Prime Minister, Erdogan accused them of hypocrisy.
France had, after all, not fully recognized its own atrocities in the Algerian war of Independence in 1968. The lofty French revolutionary principles of Equality, Liberty, and Fraternity were not extended to Algerians. In fact it was to the contrary; in 1840 French politicians declared that fertile Algerian land should be settled without concern as to whom the land belonged to.
Consequently, when World War I began most Algerians had been systematically pushed off their land. In spite of this, Algerians still fought for the French republic in the Great War. The French Republic repaid this loyalty by granting French citizenship to only 20, 000 officers in exchange for their renouncing Islam. Outraged many Algerians began to push for independence. Algerian love for liberty resulted in them being killed in battle, interned in camps, tortured and even guillotined for seven bloody years. The episode marks one of the darkest moments in France's history and quite rightly earned Algeria the epithet of being the land of a million martyrs.
However, the war of independence also caused much soul searching amongst French intelligentsia. To Albert Camus (d.1960), the philosopher and friend of Sartre, the Algerian war of independence caused much heart ache. On one hand he was of the French Left opposing capitalism, fascism, and colonialism. As an editor of Combat magazine he had personally proved his commitment against the Nazi occupation of France.
And yet when it came to Arab independence he was much more selective. His conscience could support the farcical invasion of the Suez Canal in 1956 by French, British and Israeli forces and oppose the FLN, the Algerian independence movement because of their communist tendencies. This contradiction stemmed from his colon background. He was descended from French settlers and grew up in Algiers and thus could not give up his emotional attachment to his home. In some ways, his philosophical novel, The Outsider, whilst ostensibly a rumination on existentialism, it also reveals how Arabs were viewed by some of these settlers.
The clinical way the protagonist describes the killing of a nameless, faceless Arab is not only inhuman, but echoes the attitude of members of the OAS, secret unofficial cadres consisting of colons, who committed horrendous acts of random terror on the Algerian population. As one member explained "You have to remember the mentality of the Arabs, you have to make a
performance of killing a man to impress on him its significance".
But to others Camus' response had no ethical basis, he was severely criticized for the position he took on the Algerian struggle. Franz Fanon, another friend of Sartre, veered to the opposite side and threw his lot in with the Algerians. Fanon was from the French colony of Martinique and after completing his studies, serving in the French army, moved to France to become a fully qualified psychiatrist. The racism he endured in French society, his wartime experiences and the subsequent work he did with Algerians in the mental hospitals of Algeria made him acutely aware of the psychosis of being colonized. Being physically occupied was not as bad as being mentally so. He knew that the colonized had to as Bob Marley put it, free himself from mental slavery. But how could one do so when one had lost that connection with ones past? How does one create this link which no longer exists? It was this erasing of one's past, this brain washing that created the feeling of inferiority amongst the colonized. It made them ape their masters and act like little Uncle Toms. It was these issues of identity that Fanon became very aware of and discussed in his celebrated works on psychopathology and colonization; Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth.
Fanon then had no choice, when the struggle for Algerian independence broke out he joined the Algerians. Although, always a man of non-violence, he recognized that on occasion independence had to be taken by force. If it was not, then the emancipator would always have a sense of superiority. Consider the statue of the standing white man granting the kneeling slave his freedom. How could that relationship ever be an equal one? The emancipated would always feel a psychological indebtedness and inferiority. Thus independence had to be seized in order equalize the relationship. The colonized then, may never retrieve his past or recover from his mental occupation, but at least he could heal and be respected.
The Algerian war for independence did not only leave a mark on the Algerian people but also help shape France's cultural landscape. Camus' fudged response haunted him whilst Fanon's willingness to declare himself an Algerian, even change his name to Ibrahim, earned himself a place not only in the Rues of Algiers, but in the thoughts of Malcolm X and all those who wanted to free themselves from mental slavery.
This article first appeared in Emelmagazine.