The history of nonviolent civil resistance in the Algerian struggle for independence remains harshly under celebrated. In Arab and Western scholarship alike, the focus remains on the violent rebellion spearheaded by the Algerian Front for National Liberation (FLN). Algerians themselves celebrate their courageous guerilla warfare daily through monuments, statues, and slogans dedicated to honoring the “Country of a Million Martyrs” (Rahal 108). While this violent resistance clearly undergirds contemporary political and cultural sentiments in Algeria, it did not lay the foundations of Algerian nationalism; early nonviolent civil resistance nurtured a strong sense of “Algerianness” amongst the population. Before, during, and beyond the FLN’s violent insurrections, native Algerians organized mass emigrations, spiritual practices, boycotts, and independent institutions to culturally enliven the colonized population (Chabot and Vinthagen 523). Their nonviolent initiatives visibly defied the “Franco-Algerian” paradigm, reconstituting and reifying indigenous values and identities through persistent resistance.
Drawing on seminal theoretical texts, this paper analyzes the understated cultural role of nonviolent civil resistance in the Algerian liberation struggle. Plentiful cases exhibit this relationship between nonviolent praxis and the cultural preservation of occupied peoples, but for illustration’s sake, this paper will highlight the Algerian case.
The Roots of Cultural Preservation in Algerian Resistance: Elite Defections and The Paradox of Repression
The Algerian citizenry embraced nonviolent civil resistance against the French occupation as early as the 1830s, far before violent rebellion engulfed the nation. Algerian farm workers intentionally spoiled their products and refused to work on French-annexed plots. Their early acts of product destruction exemplify nonviolent intervention, intended to “disrupt attempts at continued subjugation,” while their labor boycotts represent noncooperation, harnessed to “disrupt the status quo” (Shock 16). The army met their efforts with “overt violence” (Smithey and Kurtz 3), routinely beating protestors with clubs, raiding Algerian villages, and forcing their men to engage in newly arduous labor (Palaj 42). In response to this visible repression, many Algerian elites affiliated with the French government joined their proletarian counterparts in organizing noncooperation through a mass exodus (Palaj 59). Smithey and Kurtz suggest that these defections could be expected, given that overt repression is “most likely to cause moral outrage within the broader population, and, therefore, more likely to precipitate backfire” (3). The paradox of repression, through which “the repression applied by the state rebounds and undercuts the state’s power” (Schock 42), thus unfolded. These government-allied Algerian elites, who might otherwise be considered active opponents of decolonization on the “spectrum of allies” (Chenoweth 108), used their financial and social capital to secure migratory permissions for persecuted workers and withdrew their support for the government. Social scientists cite elite defections as critical to a movement’s momentum, as they detract from the reigning authority’s ostensible legitimacy (Chenoweth 107) and offer an opportunity to “overcome… [socio economic] divisions, in opposition to a common opponent” (Smithey 34). Together, the paradox of repression and elite defections also reflect Frances Fox Piven’s “disruptive power” (Piven 20) as insurgents deteriorated the cooperation between the French authority, the Algerian elite, and farm laborers.
These defectors formed the civil resistance organization, “Hijra,” whose symbolic name refers to the Prophet Muhammad’s migration from Mecca to Medina to escape persecution (Rahal 111). As many Algerian elites also held past religious prominence, Hijra’s collective action framing proved essential. The group attracted large swaths of Algerians by posturing the organization as fulfilling Islamic prophecy. Kurt Schock might refer to this as “frame amplification,” through which “beliefs that inhere in the oppressed populations are activated that heretofore have not inspired collective political action” (Shock 28). With their Islamic orientation, the organization arranged transportation for Algerians across socio-economic classes to settle in Muslim countries, creating resistant cultural assemblages abroad rife with iterations of the contemporary Algerian flag (Rahal 112).
Mass exodus gained a potent political meaning and embarrassed the authorities, given elite participation and the visibility of these actions—with Algerians departing from large cities or regions. The French government quickly recognized these waves of emigration as threatening colonial power, institutionalizing regular surveys to analyze migration flows and closing consulates that provided migratory permissions (Maïche 45). Hijra remained flexible through “tactical innovation” (Shock 52), as elites facilitated larger volumes of illegal migrations across the Moroccan and Tunisian borders, thus underscoring the French authority’s instability (Maïche 46). The movement’s creativity and tactical innovation displayed their strength and viability, encouraging greater participation amongst hopeful Algerians. This dynamic once again reflects “backfire,” as “increased mobilization [is] a direct indicator that repression has backfired” (Chenoweth 2018, 35). The departure of entire tribes, families, and villages challenged French social order, hindered the labor force, and amplified Algerian culture. This early nonviolent resistance nourished a productive Algerian culture abroad, with those inhabiting new enclaves sending funds to Algerians unable to flee.
Noncooperation and Parallel Institutions
Inspired by Hijra’s momentous migration initiatives and defecting elite, those in Algeria embraced the spirit of domestic noncooperation. As the French government began to build “Franco-Algerian” housing complexes—both as a method to colonize the Algerian mind and discourage migration through subsidized housing—Algerian nationals simply refused to leave their village homes (Rahal 112). This refusal once again challenged the French rule’s stability while highlighting the distinct characteristics of Algerian homemaking, complete with hammams and harems. Noncooperation did not stop at housing projects; Algerians boycotted French medical services and refused Western education by homeschooling their children.
These boycotts eventually attracted the elite, who exalted the slogan “Refus Scolaire” to communicate their dissatisfaction with French higher education (Rahal 114). As Kurt Schock states, “methods of noncooperation undermine the state’s power, resources, and legitimacy” (Schock 16). Thus, by embracing boycotts, the Algerians deprived the French of their cultural, political, and economic wealth; they could no longer rely on Algerian schoolchildren convinced they were French, their consolidation of Western resemblant space faltered, and their control of Algerian bodies—both elite and laboring—deteriorated. The French strategy of indoctrination, while meant to create a newfound Europeanness, ultimately encouraged greater Algerian unity, representing another form of backfire (Smithey and Kurtz 5).
Lee Smithey and Lester Kurtz might describe this dynamic as “enhanced backfire,” through which insurgents frame repression in direct contrast with their own culture and values (Smithey and Kurtz 313). While French housing projects, educational institutions, and medicine enshrined coercive structural violence, Algerian boycotts exemplified voluntary, nonviolent, and unifying community-building. For example, Algerians intentionally built their housing complexes without gates, while French enclaves controlled Algerian movement through closed, barbed-wire walls. Eventually, elite defectors also created parallel educational and medical institutions (Maïche 285). These institutions fulfilled the Algerians’ yearning to formally learn their history and practice more traditional forms of medicine, which “met community needs that the existing system did not” (Chenoweth 47). Through these parallel institutions, Algerians could “subvert an oppressive system and support communities affected by it” (Chenoweth 50) and “build the type of society within the institutions that they wanted to create in their world at large” (Chenoweth 52). Algeria, therefore, began to appear more “Algerian.” Inspired by their “deep emotional connections” to their culture (Smithey and Kurtz 117), increasing volumes of native people began to refuse, resist, and endure French repression (Rahal 118).
Additional manifestations of noncooperation flourished under prominent Sufi Brotherhoods, likewise composed of Algerians across economic classes. They resisted through a culture of nationalism, a diversity of tactics, and their nonviolent religious philosophy. With the belief that weak spirituality enabled foreign conquest, the Sufi Brotherhood emphasized the slogan, “Islam is my religion, Algeria my Fatherland, and Arabic my language,” calling for comprehensive rejection of the French colonial paradigm (Clancy-Smith 6-7). Their messaging represents a powerful form of symbolic mobilization, through which the Brotherhood “critiqued the dominant belief system [Western thought] that legitimizes the status quo and provided a belief system [Islamic Nationalism] that legitimated noninstitutional political action” (Schock 27).
The Brotherhoods built spaces of educational and religious Islam inherently opposed to French secularism, including special Muslim burial grounds protected by nonviolent resistors. Instances of violent grave-robbing by French authorities contrasted with the nonviolence of protestors, who allowed the rubble of uprooted graves to fall upon them (Clancy-Smith 214-216). Their actions “boldly dramatized the dissonance between authorities’ repression and the nonviolence of disciplined activists” (Smithey and Kurtz 313); the visibility of these actions beside publicly frequented spaces elicited mass participation, the “single most important influence on a civil resistance campaign’s success” (Chenoweth 83). Large groups of new constituents published articles that contributed to Algerian nationalist history, held massive rallies with speakers rejecting French rule, and opened independent schools (Rahal 117). The independent schools also acted as parallel institutions (Chenoweth 50) that taught Arabo-Muslim history and values. These nonviolent actions—in the forms of protest and persuasion and creative nonviolent intervention—were considered necessary for shaping nationalist discourse in the citizenry by enhancing their education and connection to Algerian culture (Rahal 117).
Eventually met with intense censorship and surveillance, members of the Sufi Brotherhood grew disaffected and began violent revolts against the French gendarmes. The nonviolent Brotherhood leadership quickly responded, creating a “container” (Haga 342) for aspiring military rebels to safely release their anger alongside their comrades (Clancy-Smith 253). The Sufi Brotherhoods likewise pursued “methods of dispersion” to circumvent repression and limit concentrated violent insurgency (Schock 51), organizing campaigns during which activists painted “Algeria Libré” across city walls, clandestinely distributed nationalist leaflets, and orchestrated flash rallies at public squares before the police could intervene (Rahal 118). The lack of a single target and the continuous flow of these actions sufficiently undermined the state’s rule. Kurt Schock would suggest that these activists made the challenge “too widespread to be controlled by state repression” (Schock 53). It is likewise important to note that while the Sufi Brotherhoods prioritized the Arabic language, they dispersed their slogans in French to maintain their challenge’s legibility to authorities (Rahal 120).
Throughout these healing and diversifying processes, the organization’s leader gained the opportunity to form an agreement with French authorities; he maintained his constituency’s nonviolence in exchange for religious autonomy (Clancy-Smith 229). This government concession might represent a form of “nonviolent coercion,” through which “change is achieved against the government’s will as a result of the challengers’ successful undermining of the government’s power, legitimacy, and ability to control the situation” (Schock 42). Thus, nonviolent action spurred viable cultural resistance, through which Algerians could attend religious schools, embrace Algerian-Muslim nationalism, and fundamentally redefine their nation’s meaning.
Withdrawal and Healing
While organizing fervent nonviolent resistance in public space, Algerians built intimate resistance in their familial homes and private spiritual domains, especially when faced with the FLN’s growing violence and the French authority’s subsequent repression. Seemingly non-political practices underwent politicizing transformations as Algerians pursued resistance through the “internal Hijra”—a form of noncooperation that encouraged an “emotional and psychological withdrawal to the inner domain” (Rahal 113). Homes became intimate spheres of cultural refuge, perseverance, and practice. Sufi and Suni leaders clandestinely traversed households in indigenous villages, guiding meditations, prayers, and reflections on Algerian identity (Entels 15). Religious leaders notably discouraged Algerians from hating the French, focusing on how their religious ideologies enshrine universal love (Entels 17). This practice of cleansing “internal violence” maintained the movement’s nonviolent health and nurtured beloved community (Haga 255-256). Affirming the universal humanity that grows through beloved community, many French officers respected Algerians’ religious autonomy and refused to interrupt religious practices (Entels 18).
As religio-cultural refuges grew, women became their central agents. Erica Chenoweth might suggest that the involvement of women proved essential to nonviolent resistance, as they offered opportunities for tactical innovation and conveyed the struggle’s universality (2021 96-97). Women’s clothing particularly became symbols of cultural resistance to European domination (Fanon 35). As the French attempted to “unveil the Algerian woman,” showing her embrace of “progressive, Western values,” a massive increase in veiling onset and the entire body constituted a site for resisting foreign disruption (Fanon 45). The transformation of veiling practices in defiance of French colonial authority represents a key instance in which personal and collective identity presentations align, “such that participation in movement activities feels natural and compelling” (Smithey 33). Despite repression, participation in veiling consistently increased “in defense of shared collective identities,” a common phenomenon observed by Smithey and Kurtz (176). The Algerian woman’s costume, therefore, reflected a growing cultural nationalism. Withdrawal to the home, and cultural healing therein, revealed the absence of a colonial mechanism for thwarting intimate nonviolence, essential to Algerian perseverance (Clancy-Smith 239).
Although often ignored, nonviolent civil resistance in Algeria laid the foundations for a formidable and defiant cultural nationalism. The Algerian struggle highlights the intersections between civil resistance tactics and collective identity, as women and men, elite and laborers, the diaspora, and domestic constituents embraced their Algerianness in direct challenge of French repression. By maintaining effective collective action framing, a diversity of tactics, and nonviolent discipline, Algerian insurgents encouraged elite defections from the occupying European regime, accumulated the resources for parallel institutions, and developed widespread forms of cultural expression. Ultimately, they left the French authority with a dearth of legitimacy.
While the FLN’s fervent violence eventually subsumed the indigenous struggle, it is arguable that their political success depended on the early cultivation of nationalism through nonviolent civil resistance. Their struggle—spanning noncooperation, protest and persuasion, and creative nonviolent intervention—strengthened the Algerian socio-political and cultural fabric despite oppressive colonial policies. Future research might focus on the various other forms of powerful nonviolent resistance in early colonized Algeria, such as the formation of oppositional political parties, the motivating features of Islamic reformism, and the rise of Algerian trade unionism. Additional explorations might also explore the FLN’s early commitment to nonviolence. All these forms of nonviolent resistance nurtured and reaffirmed the culture of Algerian nationalism that thrives today.
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