Apostles of Modernity: Saint-Simonians and the Civilizing Mission in Algeria

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Between 1830 and 1870, French army officers serving in the colonial Offices of Arab Affairs profoundly altered the course of political decision-making in Algeria. Guided by the modernizing ideologies of the Saint-Simonian school in their development and implementation of colonial policy, the officers articulated a new doctrine and framework for governing the Muslim and European populations of Algeria. Apostles of Modernity shows the evolution of this civilizing mission in Algeria, and illustrates how these 40 years were decisive in shaping the principal ideological tenets in French colonization of the region.

This book offers a rethinking of 19th-century French colonial history. It reveals not only what the rise of Europe implied for the cultural identities of non-elite Middle Easterners and North Africans, but also what dynamics were involved in the imposition or local adoptions of European cultural norms and how the colonial encounter impacted the cultural identities of the colonizers themselves.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Abi-Mershed takes a body of archival sources that are discordant and often contradictory and provides a clear and concise overview of key parts of colonial policy and ideology, one that preserves the atmosphere of contingency and struggle that characterized this and so much other colonial planning."—Benjamin C. Brower, Arab Studies Journal

"This work is a first-rate social history of the French colonial project in Algeria and the role of education in that project. . . Overall this is a well-researched, well-documented and critical social history. . . [it] will surely be a valued addition to the student of education history, colonial history and subaltern history of North Africa. An additional merit of the book is how it delves into issues of race, culture and citizenship in ways that continue to have resonance today."—Linda Herrera, International Review of Education

"This is a detailed scholarly account of the early decades of French colonisation of Algeria, from 1830 to 1871, firmly grounded in the colonial archives of Aix-en-Provence . . . This volume develops the research, particularly of Turin (1971) of the ultimately ailed attempts of some of the Arab Bureaux officers to defend Arab education and culture."—Pamela Pilbeam, French History

"Historical thinking on French Algeria has long been distracted by a theoretical debate over Metropole policies toward the native populations and their place in the colonial order, a debate framed by two binary approaches to ruling subject peoples—assimilation or association. This provocative study breaks out of a long intellectual impasse by re-examining a critical nineteenth-century institution, the Bureaux Arabes, that mediated between Paris and Algiers and diverse Algerian communities on the ground."—Julia Clancy-Smith, University of Arizona

"This important and timely book constitutes a major rethinking of nineteenth-century Algerian history, and also has important arguments to make about nineteenth century France, comparative colonial history in general, and the politics of colonial education in particular. Combining a detailed institutional and political history with an intellectual and cultural history informed by critical-theoretical perspectives, Abi-Mershed provides a systematic, critical analysis of French colonial thought and practice in the crucial period from 1830 to 1870." —James McDougall, Oxford University

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780804769099
  • Publisher: Stanford University Press
  • Publication date: 6/7/2010
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 344
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Osama Abi-Mershed is Assistant Professor of History at Georgetown University. He is the editor of Trajectories of Education in the Arab World: Legacies and Challenges (2009).

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Read an Excerpt

Apostles of Modernity

Saint-Simonians and the Civilizing Mission in Algeria
By Osama W. Abi-Mershed


Copyright © 2010 Osama W. Abi-Mershed
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-6909-9

Chapter One

Never the Twain Shall Meet?

In large measure the history of French colonial theory, particularly in the nineteenth century, might be written as a history of the doctrine of assimilation. Because the concept of assimilation appeared attractive to the French, it found expression as a governing principle, if not a practice, during most periods of French colonial history. -Raymond Betts, Assimilation and Association in French Colonial Theory No nation, therefore, no religion should be so arrogant as to pose itself as the model and archetype for progress; no person can say: My political law, my social organization, my mores, represent for humanity the final expression of progress; all who do not follow my example and walk with me are doomed to error, to barbarism, to immobility. -Georges Voisin (pseudonym of Ismal Urbain), L'Algirie pour les Algiriens

* * *

This is the account of a departure in France's political decision making in Algeria and, more notably, in the ideological justifications for its colonial rule. The decisive turn occurred in the late 1840s and was driven by the administrative ascendance of a group of colonial officers serving in military intelligence units known as the Bureaux of Arab Affairs (Bureaux arabes). During the 1830s and 1840s, these specialized officers would parlay their technical expertise and their competence to speak to security concerns into political clout and steadily position themselves as the government's ultimate arbiters on native matters. By 1848, they were largely in charge of the Ministry of War's Arab Directorates in Algiers and Paris, and, by 1861, they were literally dictating the course of policy on Algeria. In the interceding years, they managed to redefine France's local priorities and interests, articulate a new doctrine and framework for its colonial administration, and overturn the executive procedures for the political and cultural assimilation of Algeria. Their alternative program for "controlled association" with Algeria's Muslims culminated in 1863 with Emperor Napoleon's personal endorsement of a semiautonomous Arab protectorate in the colony's interior. This book traces the political evolution of the military proponents of colonial association in Algeria between 1830 and 1870 and describes the historical circumstances under which they came to appropriate France's civilizing mission in North Africa.

The purpose of my study of the Arab Bureaux is to show that the general theory of colonial assimilation fails to fit the facts of policy making in Algeria, especially during the formative decades of French rule. Political and cultural assimilation, I will argue, was not the undisputed doctrinal lodestar for colonial policies and seldom did it unify the French administration with a bedrock of operative principles before 1870. Instead, for much of the period under review, the nascent colony was governed in fits of political uncertainty or procedural incoherence and with policies of trial and error. Ideological differences and organizational disputes hindered the development of tenable guidelines for the colonial state, and the very need to manage sociocultural conditions in the colony inhibited the local reproduction of metropolitan practices and relations. The "attractive" appeal of colonial assimilation remained, therefore, a function of narrow political interests, and from the first days of the imperial conquest, the doctrine's unrealistic conjectures were compellingly contested by local and metropolitan actors, none more so than the army officers serving on the front lines of France's campaign to "pacify" Algeria's indigenous populations.

On one level, the military's recurrent trespasses upon public policy making after 1830 were strategic reflexes, triggered by the combined brunt of anticolonial unrest and inopportune metropolitan directives. For the inveterate commanders of the Army of Africa-les Africains as they came to be known-there was supreme logic and justification in stripping inexperienced Parisian ministers of the treacherous administration of Algeria's Muslims. Yet, aside from their strict concerns with the security of the French enclaves, there was also a doctrinal and philosophical backbone to the generals' grab for political power in Algiers. Many looked upon the new conquests as the chance to restore the army to its former imperial and moral standing. Specifically, the looming expedition to North Africa reverberated with echoes from the Napoleonic mission to Egypt in 1798. Algiers evoked memories of Alexandria or Cairo, and of a young general exhorting his soldiers to realize the nation's manifest destiny on the field of battle. Likewise, in 1830, the commanders of the Army of Africa hoped to replicate the military and scientific feats of their Napoleonic forebears and to galvanize their troops with summons to return civilization and enlightenment to the darkened recesses of Africa.

The iconic stature of Napoleon Bonaparte certainly cast a long shadow over the strategic and ideological calculations behind the invasion of the Ottoman Regency of Algiers. The officers, artillerymen, and engineers in the mustering expeditionary corps had been molded in the elite academies and state-funded lyceums opened in the 1790s by then-consul Bonaparte. His overhaul of military and educational establishments had empowered France's renewed quest for empire at the turn of the century, and it was under his generalship that the universal ideals of 1789 were mobilized beyond the borders of the nation. Napoleon's early victories were cardinal in wedding the rhetoric of civilizational progress to imperial expansion and in vindicating the young republic's claims to a uniquely superior cultural pedigree. French arms became virtuous, if not messianic, in their commitment to forge a higher political and moral order for humanity. The first territorial acquisitions of the Revolution were thus integrated as "sister republics," and their societies improved in the likeness of France. To an incisive observer such as Georg Hegel, the French general on horseback evoked the incarnation of the "world-historical soul," trampling purposefully upon the antiquated polities of Europe in order to elevate them to their next epochal stage.

Hegel's memorable characterization of Napoleon as "Spirit of the Age" is especially resonant in the field of Middle Eastern studies, where it remains academic convention to equate his landing at Alexandria in 1798 with the Muslim world's dramatic initiation to the era of modernity and nationalism. In the annals of Napoleonic glory, the conquest of Egypt is depicted as an unprecedented military-scientific venture, singular in its conflation of imperial and cultural ambitions. Henry Laurens, in fact, credits Napoleon with having coined the notion of mission civilisatrice in his proclamations to the Army of the Orient while en route to Egypt. The general's subsequent triumph over the "tyranny of the Mamluks" endorsed the use of physical force to disseminate the achievements of 1789 to Oriental societies and thus launch the latter's political and cultural revival. The 167 scholars, scientists, engineers, and artists attached to the expeditionary corps embodied the synthesis of humanism and militarism in France's mission to civilize. "For our men in Egypt, everyone who was not a soldier was a savant," commented the artist and archaeologist Vivant Denon on his learned peers' prominent profile within the invading force. Their pioneering ethnographic and historical surveys buttressed imperial domination with scientific certainty. The intelligence and expertise they gathered were instrumental in institutionalizing the academic disciplines of Egyptology and Orientalism and would serve thereafter as points of reference for conceptualizing and interacting with the Muslim world. Indeed, for Edmund Burke III, the "French tradition of the empirical study of Muslim societies" was born between the military expeditions to Cairo and Algiers, as its central paradigms were "laid down in the volumes of the Description de l'Igypte, and the work of the first generation of Frenchmen in Algeria." "Our sword-bearing scholars" (nos savants porte-glaives), Paul Azan would later designate this "first generation" of colonial administrators-the subjects of this book-in recognition of their Napoleonic antecedents.

As significant as its value to French disciplines of learning, however, was the impact of the Egyptian expedition on the nation's imperial discourses and practices. Egypt, in this regard, provided an early showcase for the contextual limitations to the politics of colonial assimilation and the universality of France's mandate to regenerate the non-European world. In Cairo, Napoleon reverted to policies from the bygone era of the ancien rigime and bowed to the very institutions against which the citizens of France had risen in 1789. He perpetuated local exceptionalism, tolerated slavery, and confirmed the "feudal" privileges of lords and clerics. The indispensability of French rule to the improvement of the Oriental "other" generated imperial laws to formalize racial difference and entrench the cultural distinctiveness of the French nationality. The cultural "alienness" of the Muslims became the indispensable exception that validated France's perfected civilization. In 1799, Napoleon would break definitively with the republican Declaration of Rights and repeal the political integration of the possessions of outre-mer. His encounter with the Muslim heartland, it seems, had tested the utility of the politics of identity and difference to national and imperial ambitions.


To order is always to become the master of others by impeding them. -Denis Diderot, Œuvres complhtes In Egypt, I found myself free from the wearisome impediments of civilization. I dreamed all sorts of things and saw how to realize all that I dreamed. I created a religion; I saw myself on the way to Asia, mounted on an elephant, with a turban on my head and in my hand, a new Alcoran [Quran] which I should compose at my pleasure. -Napoleon Bonaparte to Madame Rimusat

Before 1798, Revolutionary France's practical experiences with nondomestic processes of acculturation were restricted, by and large, to its recent territorial acquisitions in Italy, Switzerland, and the Rhineland. Until then, as Michael Broers confirms, the relatively untested modernizing project "brooked no compromise with any ancien rigime it inherited." The rational initiatives of the "universal nation" were less concerned with accurate readings of local or regional possibilities than with the legitimate discharge of its humanitarian responsibilities and the effacement of local anachronistic particularities. Accordingly, the political, economic, judicial, and educational functions of the sister republics were integrated into the French bureaucracy. Feudal privileges were abolished, religious institutions and orders were restricted, and the properties of the local nobility and clergy were confiscated. Any official indulgence toward local custom and any adjustment in French standards or practices were categorically ruled out. "Of 'adaptive changes' among the French," Broers concludes, "there were none. The very notion of 'borrowing' from Italian culture was unthinkable.... Expressed in terms of realpolitik, 'horse-trading' was anathema to the Napoleonic regime."

The Egyptian expedition of 1798 was motivated by the same strategic and moral obligations that had sanctioned the "necessary emancipation" of Upper Italy in 1796. "Behave to [the Mohammedans] as you have behaved ... to the Italians," General Bonaparte counseled his troops as they approached the coastline of Alexandria. But the occupation of the Nile delta and valley did not result in the straightforward application of French administrative norms, as in the case of Italy. More specifically, Napoleon did not follow through with the policies of assimilation he had deemed critical to the enlightenment of the Italians, and he made uncharacteristic public concessions to the very social actors and religious sentiments he was openly combating or debasing in Europe. In addition to his usual warnings to exercise caution and forbearance when dealing with foreign populations, he felt it necessary to advise his staff and soldiers to yield to local conditions: "You will find here customs different from those of Europe; you must accommodate yourselves to them." Unapologetically abhorrent of the traditional and populist festivals associated with the Catholic Church, the general was now seen participating personally in the Muslim celebrations of Bayram and was heard cajoling the religious notability of Cairo with sympathetic professions of faith: "I more than the Mamluks, serve God-may He be praised and exalted-and revere His prophet Muhammad and the glorious Quran." He later confided to Madame Rimusat that he found in the Orient the opportunity to be rid of the cumbersome restraints of advanced civilization and to decree laws as he pleased. He envisioned himself an "original prophet," come to deliver onto the Muslims sacred scriptures written by his hand.

Political calculations or expedience may account partly for Napoleon's willingness to pervert his republican, secular, and anticlerical credentials in the Land of the Pharaohs. To be sure, Napoleon's emphasis on the cultural and religious alienness of Egypt legitimated its military occupation and rendered his regime of power more intelligible to his soldiers and supporters. By the same token, however, his quick rejection of the possibility of assimilating the Egyptians and his essentialized and Eurocentric pronouncements on Orientals and Muslims also insinuate that Napoleon was ideologically predisposed to break with the Italian precedent. At minimum, the stark discontinuities between the Italian and Egyptian trienni should prompt us to examine the intrinsic codification of racial and cultural differences within the discourse of the Enlightenment and to question, from the political perspective, Broers's contention that it was "unthinkable for the French to do anything but impose their administrative system ... on their non-French possessions."


Excerpted from Apostles of Modernity by Osama W. Abi-Mershed Copyright © 2010 by Osama W. Abi-Mershed. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations....................ix
Introduction: Republicanism Deferred....................1
1. Never the Twain Shall Meet?....................17
2. The Moral Conquest....................34
3. Impermanent Monstrosities....................71
4. Lights Out....................96
5. Raised in Our Care....................123
6. Napoleon, Emperor of the Arabs....................159
Conclusion: Another Napoleon, Another Waterloo....................201
1. Chronology, 1830-1870....................213
2. Ministers and Administrators, 1830-1871....................219
3. Directorate of Arab Affairs....................227
4. Biographical Index....................232
5. Project for the Organization of Muslim Public Instruction, June 5, 1849....................238
6. Presidential Decree of July 14, 1850....................244
7. Presidential Decree of September 30, 1850....................250
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