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Algeria: Frantz Fanon unveiled

Tuesday 11 October 2022, by siawi3





Frantz Fanon unveiled

By Mahdi Blaine

Although he was a spokesperson for the Algerian National Liberation Front, Frantz Fanon’s ideas often came at odds with that movement’s political demands.

Image via Dubdem on Flickr CC BY 2.0.

As a child in the 1960s, my mother would routinely pass a secondary school on her way home in downtown Algiers named Lycée Frantz Fanon. To her, the name was quite peculiar, since all the other schools had newly Arabic names, alluding to different figures within the independence movement and Algerian history more broadly. She was perplexed as to why this school kept this seemingly white French name, only to learn much later in life—from her son, a particularly angsty postcolonial teen—that it was named for a black man from the Caribbean and that he had made contributions to Algeria’s independence movement.

This story differs quite radically from today’s nostalgic renderings of Algerian independence from budding, self-proclaimed revolutionaries—both in the academy and activist circles in the West—that place Fanon and his works at the center of the struggle. The two have become so inseparable that I feel the need to contextualize Fanon’s work as well as his role as a political operative within the Front de Libération Nationale, Algeria’s nationalist liberation front and subsequent ruling political party.

Arriving in Blida in 1953, Fanon worked in the psychiatric ward of a small hospital. He was initially contacted by the FLN a few months after their November 1954 declaration of war against the French state. Fanon’s works were relatively unknown in Algeria at the time, so the FLN was solely after his psychiatric talents as a means to tend to their fighters. As Fanon became more entrenched with the FLN, though, he began to take the role of ideologue and ambassador—becoming an editor and routine contributor to El Moudjahid, the FLN’s newspaper, as well as publishing his own works, most famously The Wretched of the Earth and A Dying Colonialism.

Fanon’s role as a spokesman for the FLN put him in quite a unique position, not seen in most anti-colonial movements. He was not an Algerian national, but that did not stop him from inhabiting a rather liminal space in the movement and Algeria as a whole. While he was known as Frantz Fanon on the world stage, to his FLN comrades his name was Ibrahim. In fact, he went as far as exclusively identifying as Algerian, with several accounts noting his frustration when questioned about the validity of this newfound identity.

In many regards, Fanon was quite romantic about Algeria, writing, “The Algerian Nation is longer in a future heaven. It is no longer the product of hazy and fantasy-ridden imaginations. It is at the very center of the new Algerian man.” In Algeria, he did not find an emerging nation on its way to decolonization, but rather a society he saw as more interested in the seizure of liberty. To Fanon, violent armed struggle almost engendered a kind of metaphysical transformation onto the Algerian (man). He was deeply fascinated by the prospect of true postcolonial subjects, unmoored by traumas of the past. In a certain sense, this was the very “out” he sought after in his musings on Négritude that we find in Black Skin, White Masks. However, the tabula rasa put forth to readers of Wretched is indicative of the strange balance Fanon maintains between his intimate experience of the Algerian decolonial moment, as well as his ignorance towards Algerian society and, namely, Islam.

Throughout his time in Algeria, Fanon would remain quite ambivalent in his view of Islam and the cultural specificities of Algerian society. This is not to say he had no understanding of Algerian norms and customs. Instead, despite him being very literally in the trenches with Algerians, his exteriority to them remains evident. He neither spoke Arabic (he did try to learn), nor was he Muslim. He relied on interpreters for a vast amount of his psychiatric work, and most of his engagement with Algerian society was through his contacts in the intelligentsia and his ethnographic works. Even his sole public engagement with Islam was an ethnographic endeavor. However, Fanon’s position proved to be rather advantageous to the FLN. His outsider status gave him access to unique avenues to advocate for the Algerian cause, whether it was to fellow African nations or to intellectuals among the European left and elite. He was quite literally one of the FLN’s chief propagandists, with an analytic and ethnographic style that endowed a veneer of authority over his commentary on the cause. An effective propaganda apparatus was critical to the struggle, as the cause was mired with French narratives of the movement that described it as made up of fanatics committed to Islamic fundamentalism. As one El Moudjahid article even put it, “Ours is an organized revolution—it is not an anarchic revolt. Ours is a national struggle to destroy an anarchic colonial regime—it is NOT a religious war. It represents a march forward in the historical path of human progress.”

While the French developed a robust propaganda machine in an attempt to control the narrative of the war, the FLN’s efforts were just as sophisticated. Even though the French banned and seized the majority of leftist and foreign publications, Algerians managed to stay in tune with the revolution by way of radio. Fanon stressed the importance of radio and mass violence to the success of anti-colonial struggle, arguing that they allowed the colonial subject to overcome a state of internalized subservience. Voice of the Arabs, an Egyptian transnational radio station, routinely broadcast assurances of Arab solidarity—with some of their Algerian audience even speaking of a 70,000-man Egyptian army descending on Algeria. In response, FLN leaders tried to discourage fighters from placing their hopes in international intervention. This interplay showcases how Algerian Muslims were not mere receptors of the propaganda but rather active participants in a process that reimagined Algeria and its people as a concern of the wider world. In this way, radio and hearsay together formed a network that connected colonized peoples and encouraged a radical consciousness of their common condition.

However, this process oscillated in its utility to the aims of the FLN’s international delegation. Even if the FLN’s official international platform was that of a moderate, secular nationalism, that did not always translate to the motivations of Algerians fighting on the ground. Whether it was a more politically minded defense of Islam, or a generalized theory of armed struggle, these positions were not useful and quite possibly harmful to the FLN’s efforts on the international stage. In their eyes, Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth described decolonization as a winner-takes-all race war. The FLN was already contending with factions that saw the struggle as a defense of Arab and Islamic civilization, and Fanon’s description of the Algerian question seemed to be in direct contrast with the goals of an organization that went so far to carefully express that settlers did not constitute a uniformly racist bloc and guaranteed that Algerian citizenship would be open to all. Indeed, while Fanon’s vision would go on to capture the imagination of some European intellectuals and subsequent post-colonial theory, his FLN colleagues considered it a losing strategy in a world still dominated by white powers. While the European left and Pied-Noir working class drew most of Fanon’s ire, he seldom went as far as to specifically call out individuals. As an FLN spokesman, he represented the movement, and like any national liberation movement, the FLN was invested in building and maintaining support from political spheres that could possibly have an impact on French policy. The idea of propagating a race war was an even more dreadful prospect for a party already combating French narratives of Islamic fundamentalism.

It is in Wretched that we find Fanon describing a “Manichaean” world in which the colonizer and the colonized inhabit separate modes of being, which can only be dismantled through national armed struggle. Decolonization is thus the making of “new men,” or the process of simultaneously killing both the colonizer and the figure of the colonized. Despite sounding rather romantic about the political project Fanon found himself a part of, it is crucial to ground this work in its social context as well vis-à-vis the purported goals of the FLN. In their 1954, November 1 declaration, the FLN called for an “internationalization” of the “Algerian question.” The FLN understood a military victory was all but impossible, so they focused their efforts on a “the total weakening of the French army to make victory by arms impossible.” As the FLN had no recognized claims to territory in Algeria, their actions had to 1) establish the FLN as Algeria’s legitimate government, and 2) adhere to the laws and norms of the international system.

In this light, Wretched reads more like a sobering set of considerations and cautionary reminders for fellow revolutionaries in this colonial moment. It addressed the myriad problems and questions that all national liberation movements at the time had to face. What was the relationship between armed struggle and political reform? Do the rural masses have a strategic role to play in the struggle? And of course, the various questions addressing integration into an international system that predicated this colonial violence. The FLN were quite clear, like many independence movements across the global south, that their main goal was to be integrated into the world system. As evident from Wretched, Fanon was extremely cautious of nationalist-bourgeois organizations like the FLN, despite them being his principal anchor in Algeria. Of the several factions within the FLN, Fanon was closest with that of Abane Ramdane, who’s segment rejected any form of negotiation until independence was seized. He also supported future president Boumediene’s network of border armies, even helping negotiate an opening of Algeria’s southern border with Mali for the transport of arms and men. It was these contingents that would eventually seize power in the newly independent Algeria, and ultimately define the course it took. Thus, in Fanon’s thought, a rather conservative movement found itself a mouthpiece that helped brand it as progressive on the global stage. Moreover, it is this rendering of Algerian liberation that has somehow outlived the revolution and inhabited popular memory.

We see this dynamic no clearer than in Fanon’s controversial chapter “Algeria Unveiled”, in A Dying Colonialism. Much like in Black Skin White Masks, Fanon is fixated with the look imposed on the Algerian woman by the French colonial officer. As he describes, by donning the haik to fulfill different FLN operations, Algerian women relied on the French’s assumptions and reading of the veiled woman as someone dependent, oppressed, and unable to muster the force to commit such acts of insurrection—thus turning the veil against its constructed meaning. In participating within the revolutionary project, Algerian women affirm their position within the national consciousness.

He places women and their role in society as central to the French colonial project, describing myriad attempts and campaigns by the French to de-veil Algerian women. Through grand spectacles of public de-veiling, they sought “to make [the women] a possible object of possession.” In Fanon’s narrative, men were subsequently made to feel guilty of this backwards practice, thus allowing the colonizers to deconstruct a fundamental element of Algerian society and rebuild society in their image. Before the 1950s the Algerian men were forced to defend a “formerly inert” aspect of their society. Men who had never thought critically about the veil were compelled to defend it as a form of resistance against the French. To Fanon, the revolution then forced Algerian women’s attitudes surrounding the veil to undergo “important modifications.” The sheer scale of colonial violence compelled Algerians to break traditional taboos in pursuit of victory. Thus, women would become an essential part of the military force and traditional gender divisions were abandoned to win the war.

While a rather clean and easily digestible narrative, it is false and devoid of any historical context. The inter-war period in Algeria saw a robust debate surrounding not only customs regarding the veil, but also surrounding men’s attire. As part of a broader wave of Islamic revisionism, several jurists in Algerian urban centers concluded that the haik or hijab customary of Algerian women’s attire was rather strict, and not mandated by shari’a. Algerian women even entered these debates, with writers like Djamila Debèche going towards the Qur’an and sunnah to argue that hijab was not Islamically mandated and entirely unnecessary. This is to say that there was a robust Algerian discourse surrounding issues of aesthetics and modernity that predated the war for independence. Questions surrounding the wearing of the tarbouch, imama (turban), and western style hat were pivotal to a generation of Algerian men who were increasingly educated in French institutions and working within the colonial administration. Thus, Algeria was an anomaly as the inter-war period saw men become the bearers of custom and culture while women experienced a flexibility that was not seen in many other colonial contexts at the time. Despite this, Fanon ends up flattening this history, implying that debates of aesthetics and modernity vis-à-vis nation building solely surround the hijab and women’s bodies. Rather, it is important to highlight the ways in which men also created new forms of customs and practices to both forge a national consciousness and a coherent past.

Although the chapter has had its fair share of criticism over the years, the Algerian response is often overlooked. FLN members like Mohammed Harbi recounted their disapproval of the chapter as it was essentially a defensive rationalization of Algerian conservatism. How could Fanon make this triumphant claim of female agency in the revolution when women involved with the FLN were routinely discriminated against? In fact, it was eventually decided to evacuate several women affiliated with the FLN to Tunisia, not because they were in any sort of more particular danger than the men, but because they were seen as too much of a hindrance for the Algerian forces. What is often lost in the glory of the revolution was that the FLN and Algerian society at large were and continue to be extremely patriarchal. While Fanon is clear in describing the agency these women had, stressing the adoption of the veil as not an acceptance of Algerian patriarchal oppression, he frames it as the sole means for women to express their commitment to the revolution. In this schema, the revolution is a masculine space that women can enter insofar that they contribute to the building of a national consciousness. However, later political work and activism, enacted by women after independence, fell on deaf ears. The men applauded the valiant acts of women following orders during the Independence War, rather than the women “making too much noise” in the present.

This rendering of revolutionary participation had serious material ramifications in post-independence Algeria. Known as the land of a million martyrs, the newly independent nation would become haven for revolutionaries both domestic and from abroad. For many Algerian men, that meant getting support from, or even living off government subsidies due to their status as mujahideen. In the years following independence though, imposters would join the ranks of people applying for these subsidies. These faux moudjahids or fake revolutionaries were and continue to be infamous figures within Algerian society. Their role in the independence war was dubious at best, but as men they could weave alibis to convey their devotion to the Algerian nation. However, Algerian women were not afforded this same benefit of the doubt. For every Djamila Bouhired, there are countless Algerian women whose work and dedication to the cause will never be recognized; deeds ranging from housing fighters, cooking for them, selling their jewelry and personal belongings, to even doing the daily rituals men left behind in light of the fighting. Women who applied for these same government subsidies rarely got approved and were left to make do with the little they had. Despite nearly every Algerian having a stake in the independence struggle, participation in the revolution to both Fanon and the independent Algerian government can only be rendered in one way.

While we can find much value in Fanon’s work, we also must not let it act as the supposed blueprint and driving force behind Algerian independence. The origins of a theory doesn’t necessarily define its trajectory, but I find it important to be aware of the socio-political context these works were conceived in. Moreover, one must consider how politics at the time was shaped or not shaped by these ideas. In regards to the Wretched and El Moudjahid, Fanon’s ideas often came at odds with the clear political goals and maneuvering of the FLN. Conversely though, Fanon’s lack of interest in Islam and Algerian social dynamics made him an ideal spokesperson for the FLN, giving much needed legitimacy to the movement internationally.

My point is not to suggest that Fanon was not politically serious. Rather these examples highlight how Algerians at the time engaged with his work and ideas. As a movement, the FLN had a clear set of demands that necessitated a solid strategy in order to achieve its goals. Thus, the disconnects between Fanon and the FLN were not the result of an abstract rhetorical war of ideas, but instead reflective of the nuanced decision-making process politically serious organizations must go through in order to realize their vision. What gave Algerians their independence was not the radical ideas and violent uprisings canonized by today’s activists as the foundation for a so-called meaningful political agenda. Rather, it was the comparatively mundane diplomacy, coalition-building, and heavily curated propaganda, and messaging, in tandem with coordinated armed struggle that ultimately ended in France’s defeat.

Mahdi Blaine is a master’s degree candidate in the Hagop Kevorkian Center of Near Eastern Studies at New York University.