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  • Emancipation within Empire:An Algerian Alternative during the Era of Decolonization
  • Saliha Belmessous (bio)

A generation of scholarship has shifted the focus of historians from the nation-state to empire as the 'political reality' that shaped the lives of most peoples over the last two millennia.1 Despite broad consensus upon the salience of empire, disagreement remains as to when the nation-state became the dominant way that societies organized themselves politically. Some historians point to the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia as a watershed, others to the American Declaration of Independence (1776); some to the 'Wilsonian moment' following the First World War or to decolonization in the wake of the Second World War. Others point out that empire remained important throughout much of the twentieth century, and many agree upon its renewed centrality in the twenty-first century.2 This article examines the attachment of Muslim Algerians to the French imperial state at the height of the decolonization movement in the twentieth century and during Algeria's own war of independence between 1954 and 1962. I will show that subject peoples continued, even during imperial decline, to look to empires, rather than nation-states, to address their grievances and even to pursue their emancipation. This article seeks therefore to extend the argument put forward by scholars such as Frederick Cooper and Gary Wilder that the rise of the nation-state on the ruins of empire was not inevitable and that other political forms, such as federalism, were regarded as viable alternatives – an argument that some historians have challenged, stressing the elusiveness of federalism and the grip of nationalism on the minds of colonial subjects.3

To appreciate the prominence of empire, we need to understand why it continued, even during the decolonization era, to appeal to sections of subject peoples. Empire, firstly, was the form of rule familiar to most peoples around the world, Algerians not least. Algeria had been successively under Phoenician, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, and then (from 1830) French rule, whereas the nation-state was an experiment regarded by some with suspicion, particularly given the diversity of cultures – including Berber, Arab, Jewish, European – coexisting in Algeria.4 Even nationalist leaders argued over what constituted an Algerian nation.5 It was not evident to most people, with the possible exception of separatist fighters, that a [End Page 153] nation-state would eventually emerge. Empire was familiar and more or less accommodating of difference while it was feared that a nation-state, and nationalism in particular, could divide people rather than unite them. A reformed French empire, many argued, might offer the opportunities for emancipation that they sought.

Other factors too could of course shed light on the attachment of colonized peoples to empire. Historians have emphasized materialist motives for the participation of colonized peoples in the management of European empires and their loyalty to these polities. For some categories of colonial subjects (often dominant socio-economic groups shaped by colonial ideology), empire provided opportunities and advantages, including economic gains and the possibility of a higher social status that they identified and sought to benefit from.6 Recent scholarship has also emphasized the prevalence of Cold War politics in the expression of political loyalties during the decolonization era and argued that loyalism 'was not an ideology, but a predicament', made in difficult circumstances to accomplish specific political aims.7 In this essay I move beyond the materialist approach and consider the ideas that inspired the claims expressed by Muslim Algerians that they could achieve their emancipation, and that of their people, within a reimagined French empire.8 Though I do not dismiss the possibility of structural pressure in their opposition to separatism, I also seek to take seriously the contentions of Muslim Algerian loyalists, as they perceived themselves. They were driven by ideas such as colonial modernity, progress, equality, honour and loyalty. They made choices that were formed by their ideals but which, in a context where others changed sides under similar pressures, proved disastrous for their material circumstances.

This article focuses on six women and men who, during Algeria's war of independence, rejected the nation-state as their political horizon and pursued various projects intended to reconcile their...