Africa Today 49.2 (2002) 163-165
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Benjamin Stora has based his lean-bodied analysis of Algerian history—from the French conquest to the present—on a lifetime of engaged scholarship. Influenced, but not compromised, by his birth in the eastern Algerian city of Constantine and the deep attachment he still feels toward a country he was forced to leave at the age of twelve, Stora has written an unusually compelling book. An excess of details never intrudes to swamp the pressingly important themes related to the overarching question: why has Algeria been torn apart by war twice in the twentieth century? Stora's answers rest heavily on his belief that an uncompromising and secretive political culture grew up in Algeria in the twentieth century and that the historian's obligation is to lift the veil by explaining what went wrong.
The Algerian war (1954-1962), Stora argues, led to the assumption of power by an authoritarian regime that defined its constituency in exclusive terms: Muslim and Arab, rather than also Christian, Jewish, Berber, and European. Elevating economic over political development, the regime used the colonial past as a foil to block all criticism as illegitimate. It thus set in motion among Algerians a psychological need to return to religious roots and to glorify regional identity. From this need, the civil war of the 1990s sprang.
Some readers will quarrel with this answer. Materialists will probably find that Stora pays too much attention to the power of the idea of nation and not enough, though he does acknowledge it, to the Algerian economy's long-term dependence on France. Religious readers may mind that he treats religion—Catholicism, as well as Islam—instrumentally, as a means of maintaining group unity, rather than as a faith. Supporters of the Front for Islamic Salvation (FIS) will object to his depiction of that movement as xenophobic, one that simplifies politics and demonizes Algerian intellectuals as "collaborators" with the West and its values. FIS sympathizers may also accuse Stora of downplaying the Algerian army's role in creating the current crisis by annulling the 1992 elections, but Stora is no supporter of the ruling party and its military core. He doesn't bother to conceal his distaste for the authoritarian rule of Houari Boumedienne (1965-1978), in particular, or the FLN (Front for National Liberation), in [End Page 163] general. Neither will the French be comforted. He blames France and other wealthy nations of the North for failing to acknowledge the popular Algerian desire for greater domestic justice. And he attacks the French for racism against Arabs and Islam. Given the presence of one million Algerians in France and the terms of trade between the two countries, French isolationism, he says, is economically short-sighted and socially blind. Finally, pan-Arabists may be put off by Stora's sympathy for the Berber Cultural Movement, and by the far greater attention he pays to Algeria's relations with France than with the Arab world.
Stora's demonstrated awareness of the complexity of Algerian dilemmas makes many of these partisan objections seem simplistic. Rather than decrying all violence, Stora says the Algerian war of independence "unjammed the status quo through force of arms" (p. 113). He doesn't privilege political above economic solutions: historians like Charles-Robert Ageron have found the seeds of disaster in 1936, when the French government allowed settlers to veto discussion of a bill that would have allowed some Muslims to vote for deputies in the French parliament; Stora, in contrast, targets the French failure to commit resources to Muslim development in the interwar years as a far more consequential flaw. He seeks out voices of dissent within the nationalist movement, ones that have been silenced by nationalist historiography: he laments, for example, that the FLN sidelined the political expertise gained by migrants in France, and he repeats politician Ben Khedda's prescient warnings in 1962 against military dictatorship. While acknowledging, in a chapter devoted to the impact...