Perpetual War and Permanent Unrest: The Battle of Algiers After 9/11
This essay is excerpted from Sohail Daulatzai's Fifty Years of The Battle of Algiers: Past as Prologue, published by the University of Minnesota Press. A new 4K restoration of The Battle of Algiers is currently touring theaters across the United States.
Though it is both troubling and telling, the screening of the film by the Pentagon in the aftermath of 9/11 and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan is only the latest chapter in the afterlife of The Battle of Algiers. In many ways, the film is a battleground and a microcosm of the enduring struggles between the West and the Rest, whiteness and its others. But in a post- 9/11 moment, it’s hard to ignore the ways in which the centrality and omnipresence of the figure of the Muslim and the “War on Terror” have not only coded and shaped every aspect of social life but have also sought to undermine the power and politics of The Battle of Algiers.
But the screening of the film at the Pentagon and its use as a training tool in the “War on Terror” have — through appropriation and revisionism — sought to control the memory of The Battle of Algiers and have also deflected and undermined many of the urgent questions and concerns that decolonization and the Third World Project sought to address. Despite this, the Battle of Algiers in many ways resists this kind of imperial containment, and in nuanced and sophisticated ways, the film provides an opportunity to probe more deeply into the contemporary moment, as many of its central themes still resonate today.
In a moment of profound cinematic reversal, and one that had prophetic echoes across the Tricontinental and the landscape of Bandung, is the scene from The Battle of Algiers when Ben H’midi, the leader of the FLN, is captured and paraded as a spectacle in front of a preening press. Asked about his use of guerrilla war and the FLN’s targeting of civilians, Ben H’midi replied, “Isn’t it even more cowardly to attack defenseless villages with napalm bombs that kill thousands more? Obviously planes would make things easier for us. Give us your bombers and you can have our baskets.”
Ben H’midi’s and, by extension, the film’s sympathetic portrayal of guerrilla warfare targeting colonial occupying forces and settler-civilians resonated across the Third World and shook the colonial and imperial foundations of international law. From France to Israel, South Africa to Brazil, the film was banned precisely because of its ethical endorsement of guerrilla war against occupying forces and repressive, Western-backed dictatorships. In profound ways, this has arguably been the central and enduring legacy of the film, inaugurating a debate within the United Nations and among political theorists and policy makers about what constitutes “terrorism” and legitimate resistance, conventional war and asymmetric guerrilla warfare.
The Battle of Algiers gave ethical sanction to armed struggle and popular resistance to colonial occupation and imperial power. But in the current “War on Terror,” the ruling paradigm of “counter-terrorism” and the language and logic of “terror/- ism/- ist” have created a security logic that not only has served to delegitimize and criminalize armed struggle but also has had a profound chilling effect on speech, dissent, and other forms of political activity. In fact, in an era of the “post-racial,” the language of “terrorism” has been used as a language of racecraft that is a twenty-first-century way of saying “savage,” of rekindling in somewhat stark terms the colonial discourse of “civilization” and “savagery.” As dog whistle terminology for invoking race and Otherness, the logic of “terror” (like “savage” before it) determines who is human (read: White) and who is not by excluding particular ideas, bodies, regions, and collectives from the political community of rights. As subjects who exist outside the law, Muslims, then, are not only not due protection by the law; they are also subject to the full force of the “law” and all manner of “extralegal” force (torture, invasion, warfare, drones, indefinite detention, incarceration, etc.) to protect the rights of those deemed human. By ushering in a new architecture of control, the “War on Terror” has marked “terrorism” as illegitimate speech and activity, creating a legal framework for prosecuting it, policing powers to manage it, and a military response for executing it.
This framing of Muslim being, agency, and resistance outside the bounds of the human and what is deemed legitimate political activity is central to understanding the rewriting of the film and its legacy in the post-9/11 context. The embrace of the film during its release by a broad and diverse group of radicals and revolutionaries — from the IRA to the PLO, Baader-Meinhoff to the Black Panthers, Marxists to nationalists — speaks to its universal appeal. Yes, the film stood for militancy and revolutionary action writ large, one that was only nominally about Muslims per se — as Third World decolonization and international solidarity gave The Battle of Algiers a more universal appeal that was so vital at the time.
But in the post- 9/11 context, with the decimation of the Third World Project and also the viability and visibility of a coherent global Left, this kind of radical universality that was the film’s appeal has been replaced by a more troubling and particularist reading that The Battle of Algiers isn’t simply a film about Muslims resisting the occupation of their lands by the West (in this case, the French); it is a film that sympathetically portrays that resistance. But in a post- 9/11 context, armed struggle — let alone resistance of any kind — by Muslims is seen as dangerous, as worthy of death, and is targeted by the state through legal, political, and military regimes of violence.
During decolonization, the film provided a space for the ways in which the Muslims of Algeria were an entrée into a larger panorama of anticolonial resistance. But in the lingua franca of imperial culture today, the Muslim now stands in for the limits and poverty of armed struggle and radical activity writ large. This overdetermined framing lends itself to a reading of the film where not only is the past rewritten — as Algerian resistance to French colonialism is delegitimized through the contemporary “War on Terror” — but so too is the current project of empire coded as innocent, one where there is a historical continuity between the French of yesterday and the Americans of today.
According to the Directorate for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict in charge of the screening of The Battle of Algiers at the Pentagon in 2003, “showing the film offers historical insight into the conduct of French operations in Algeria, and was intended to prompt informative discussion of the challenges faced by the French.” The Pentagon’s screening signaled an attempt by the military establishment to reframe the film not as text about decolonization and anti-imperialism but instead as a manual for “how to do counterinsurgency,” not only stripping the film of its radical impulses but also erasing the violent history of colonialism as the determining force for Algerian resistance. This reversal and act of appropriation not only purified the colonial past; it was also an attempt to sanitize and strip away the current moment of U.S. empire and frame contemporary Muslim struggles in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, and elsewhere within the ruling paradigm of “terrorism” that has to be crushed. But this revisionism is only possible because the ideological space available to understand Muslim agency, Muslim subjectivity, and Muslim being has eroded and withered away in the post- 9/11 moment, so that the very thing that made the film so groundbreaking — its ability to dignify Algerian struggles and elicit sympathy from viewers for their cause — is almost unimaginable today: a move that situates French colonialism as just, and the current U.S. imperial footprint as necessary.
The opening scene of The Battle of Algiers plunges the viewer into a kind of complicity. Having just finished torturing Sedek, the French now know where the last cell, which includes the elusive Ali La Pointe — is located. As the viewer, we don’t witness the torture firsthand, but we know it happened. We are left instead with the aftermath. Much like with the torture-porn of Abu Ghraib, Bagram, Guantánamo, and other “black sites,” we are also witnesses, carrying the burden of knowing.
By opening with a scene of torture, The Battle of Algiers presents the stark violence that has been at the heart of the colonial encounter: not just the violence of the act of torture itself — the electrical shock, the fists, the waterboarding, and the death — but also the violent conditions of colonialism that made a rebellion necessary in the first place. In fact, as Fanon has argued, violence structures the colonial encounter and the relationship between the empire and its Others, and this is brilliantly mirrored in the way the film’s narrative is in fact structured by torture and colonial violence.
The film brilliantly shows Fanon’s ideas about the segregation of colonial space, between “white” Algiers and the Casbah (where the Algerians were confined). Through the film, we see the barricades and the barbed wire, the checkpoints and the surveillance cameras — a space of violence where the police and the military are the enforcers of colonial authority. There is also the prison where Ali La Pointe is radicalized into political consciousness — à la Malcolm X — his eyes peering through the prison bars as a rebel is walked to the guillotine. The blade is dropped but an awareness is raised as chants of “Long Live Algeria!” and “Allah U Akbar!” echo through the prison walls. And there is the torture, shown in almost operatic and elegiac ways that, though brutal, still didn’t reveal the extent of the French torture program, which included the rape and torture of Algerian women, sometimes in their own homes.
But in terms of what it does show, the sense of realism the film conveyed made it seem shocking and unbelievable. To the deniers of empire and apologists of colonialism, The Battle of Algiers was too real, shattering a world of white invincibility and colonial authority that Algerians and the larger Third World had so desperately sought to tear down. Maybe the film was shocking to so many because resistance to colonialism is real and because colonial authority and popular discourse around empire have sanitized and presented a Eurocentric world so bloodlessly, one where the flags of empires — British, French, Dutch, Italian, U.S. — fly so benevolently. The shock, then, shouldn’t have been directed at the means the Algerians used to usurp and throw off the shackles of white colonial power but rather at the centuries-long violence that has been used to keep Algerians, and the larger Global South, subjugated for so long.
Despite the guerrilla actions by the Algerians in the film, the overwhelming violence throughout the history of colonialism in Algeria (1830– 1962) and during the Algerian War of Independence (1954– 62) was committed by the French. To establish their presence in Algeria, the French ushered in policies where mass displacement of Algerians took place as well as dispossession of the land, including the pacification of the country that led to the violent crushing of nationalist uprisings against French rule and death by famine, war, and disease. Robert Stam cites the writer Victor Hugo, who, in his book Choses Vues, discusses a conversation he had with a French general two decades after French colonization of Algeria began. Hugo reports that at that October 16, 1852, meeting, the general told him, “It was not rare, during the French attacks, to see soldiers throwing Algerian children out of the window onto the waiting bayonets of their fellow soldiers. They would rip the earrings off the women, along with the ears, and cut off their hands and fingers to get the rings.”
During the War of Independence, the French executed more than three thousand prisoners, and during which time estimates claim that twenty thousand French soldiers and upward of 1.5 million Algerians were killed. The French used helicopters, tanks, and planes; airstrikes on civilians; and advanced rifles and grenades as well as the creation of internment camps and the destruction of thousands of villages, not to mention systematic and routinized forms of torture. But we have to understand violence in more systemic forms as well that don’t include only the bomb, the gun, or the tool of torture. Violence is also the exploitation of the country, the seizing of land and its resources, the legal and political codes that enforced the destruction of Algerian social life, and the wealth accumulation that structured the asymmetries of political, diplomatic, and military power. And then there is the epistemic violence that imposed French history and language within schools, and other institutions of the country that marginalized the varieties of Algerian social and cultural lives to be expressed and to flourish. Colonialism is indeed a violent phenomenon, and we have to be attuned to the myriad forms this violence takes and through which it is routinized and normalized within the everyday functioning of empire. If we do, then we cannot create a moral or ethical equivalence between French violence to crush the national liberation struggle and Algerian resistance to French colonialism. To do so is not just ahistorical; it’s unethical.
On the question of torture, many scholars have pointed out that for the colonial and imperial powers, torture is not an aberration but rather is central to the foundation and maintenance of modern liberal democracy. In France during the Algerian War of Independence, the specter of torture marked the French empire. Two books, Henri Alleg’s The Question (1958) and The Gangrene (1959), were banned by the French government. Alleg was a French Communist, and counter to the official French Communist Party position, which backed colonial control of Algeria, Alleg advocated through his journalism for Algerian independence. His memoir — The Question — was based on his arrest and torture by the French and became a best seller, though it was soon censored by the French government as the Algerian independence struggle intensified. Another searing indictment was the book The Gangrene, which struck a deep chord and was immediately censored, as the French government confiscated all copies by pulling them from the shelves and storming the publishing house. The book told the true story of four Algerians living in Paris who were arrested and brutally tortured by French police for their suspected ties to the Algerian independence struggle. The book revealed the widespread use of torture against Algerians taking place in France, although no French official was ever held responsible. And then, of course, there are the cases of two Algerian women, Djamila Bouhired and Djamila Boupacha. Bouhired, who was captured and tortured by the French, was depicted in The Battle of Algiers as one of the three women bombers, while also being the subject of the 1958 Youssef Chahine film Jamila, the Algerian. Boupacha’s case became a cause célèbre among the intellectual and artistic Left, as figures such as Simone de Beauvoir, Henri Alleg, and Pablo Picasso rallied to her support after her torture and rape while in prison brought attention to the widespread systematic use of sexual violence by the French.
In the film, when he is asked about torture at the press conference, Matthieu claims that “the word torture does not appear in our orders,” a claim that was eerily echoed by U.S. president George W. Bush when the Abu Ghraib tortures were revealed, saying “we do not torture” and instead preferring the Orwellian euphemism “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Like Bush, Matthieu also said that he had to “interrogate,” but he went on to say, “And that’s where we find ourselves hindered by a conspiracy of laws and regulations that continue to operate as if Algiers were a holiday resort and not a battleground. . . . Should we remain in Algeria? If you answer yes, then you must accept all the necessary consequences.”
This sentiment was echoed by a U.S. solider when the tortures at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were first revealed: “It’s a little like the French colonel in The Battle of Algiers. You’re all complaining about the tactics I’m using to win the war, but that’s what I’m doing, winning the war.” Not surprisingly, it’s no coincidence that the blueprint for U.S. counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan — the Petraeus Doctrine — is deeply influenced by and borrows heavily from the work of French military specialist David Galula, whose Counterinsurgency Warfare and Pacification in Algeria are central to U.S. policy in the “War on Terror.”
But despite its glorification in films like Zero Dark Thirty (2012), in the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture, and in the self- righteous “debate” that ensued between those who claimed that “to torture is un-American and betrays our values” and that “torture is a necessary evil to stop an imminent attack,” torture is normalized as an expedient means by which Western democracies constitute and imagine themselves. In fact, torture has been central to U.S. national security, including its use against Black prisoners domestically as a means of social control. According to historian Alfred McCoy, “at the deepest level, the abuse[s] at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and Kabul are manifestations of a long history of a distinctive U.S. covert warfare doctrine developed since World War II.” McCoy continues by claiming that the U.S. “torture paradigm can be seen in the recurrence of the same techniques used by American and allied security agencies in Vietnam during the 1960’s, Central America in the 1980’s and Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001. Across the span of three continents and four decades, there is a striking similarity in U.S. torture techniques — from the C.I.A.’s original Kubark interrogation manual, to the agency’s 1983 Honduras training book, all the way to Ricardo Sanchez’s 2003 orders for interrogation in Iraq.”
In The Battle of Algiers, Matthieu is not presented as evil. Instead, his dispassionate persona and rational, matter-of-fact style suggest that the violence from colonialism and empire is not simply the product of evil men with bad morals and intentions but the product of the workings of a system in which many are complicit. Hanna Arendt referred to this as the “banality of evil” in reference to Nazi Germany, and Matthieu’s comments at his impromptu press conference regarding the need to accept “all necessary consequences” can be seen in a similar light, as he points out the hypocrisies of even the liberal establishment, which criticized the means and methods of war. Matthieu unwittingly held up a mirror to both the Left and the Right of French society, and his comments can also be read as a cautionary tale to future empires, like the United States today, where a series of similar ethical questions might be posed: “If you and your citizens want that lifestyle of comfort, of excess and pleasure, then just know what it takes to get it, and don’t complain or rely on liberal platitudes about how ‘America has lost its way.’ That oil? Those cell phones and laptops? The clothes on your backs? Or even the land you live on? If you value this lifestyle, then don’t complain about the methods needed to maintain it.” The implications are stunning and disturbing, penetrating, and indicting.
Central to the structuring of the Muslim outside the category of the human is the role of gender. In a powerful scene, The Battle of Algiers challenges the racial and gendered logics of colonialism by subverting the “discourse of the veil.” The film’s portrayal of Zohra, Hassiba, and Djamila, three women who “looked” as though they had embraced European values of modernity — only to pass through a checkpoint without being searched and then successfully plant bombs among French settler-civilians — revealed the veil, and, more important, Western feminist values, to be overdetermined and, ultimately, a ruse.
Deeply reflective of what has been called feminist Orientalism, or imperial feminism, First Lady Laura Bush addressed the nation soon after the invasion of Afghanistan, saying, “The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.” Her comments about the connections between women’s rights and war are a contemporary expression of a centuries-long project of Western colonialism and intervention that privileges not just white feminism but also Western models of liberation. But as Leila Ahmed, Lila Abu-Lughod, and others have pointed out, contemporary debates about women’s rights, freedom, and equality can be traced back to earlier colonial and missionary ideas and rhetorics about Muslim women.
In the current post-9/11 context, the figure of the Muslim woman has been used to make claims about Islam and Muslim societies as the sole and exclusive sites of patriarchy and misogyny, as the question of women’s rights has become the legitimizing discourse for the claims that Islam and Muslim societies are fundamentally illiberal and antimodern. In fact, the figure of the Muslim woman has been central to expanding the logic of the “War on Terror” by further racializing Muslim communities and marshaling support from both feminists and conservatives, liberals and leftists, for military expansion, imperial war, and nation building. As scholar Sherene Razack has argued, the imperiled Muslim woman has become an archetype, one who must be rescued from genital mutilation, forced marriage, and the veil and saved in the West, becoming “a rationale for engaging in the surveillance and disciplining of the Muslim man and of Muslim communities.”
Echoing Fanon’s famous — and controversial — essay “Algeria Unveiled,” the film suggests that the conventional Western logic that the veil is a sign of repression and that its removal means freedom is troubled. In the film, scenes depicted Muslim women with the veil as “dangerous,” for they could hide weapons beneath their clothes. But in the scene where the women “de-veil,” the film suggests that Muslim women without the veil, looking “Western,” are potentially even more dangerous, for they passed as “civilized” and “modern,” no longer enslaved by their traditions and their men, as the colonial logic would dictate. Muslim women now had agency, could speak, and could act on their own accord. And in the turning point of the film, the Muslim woman expresses her “agency” — limited though it is — but not as the French would have liked. Instead, it is her resemblance to the French, or her “aspirations” to be “modern,” that grants her access to “choice.” And because she looks that way, still appealing to the (white) male gaze, she is able to pass through the checkpoint and plant the bombs in the cafés and airport terminals. In this radical moment of subversion, the film suggests the poverty in the “discourse of the veil” and the colonial logic of “saving Muslim women.” For to de-veil and to “look” European or modern is a ruse, for it can seemingly suggest that an embrace of European or Western values about feminism is where “freedom” resides. But as numerous feminist scholars and the film itself suggest, it’s the subjectivities and the embodiment of them that ultimately provide value and meaning and that must be understood in a wider social and political context.
These claims about the veil as oppressive not only present the West as egalitarian and free from patriarchy but also ignore the work of Muslim women both in the West and in Muslim societies struggling and fighting against the structural forces that shape women’s inequality. In doing so, imperial feminism conveniently masks how patriarchy is actually operating and rooted throughout the world, including in the West. For it is often the case that when the patriarchy and misogyny of Muslims is brought up, the women of the West, and their male accomplices, turn away from domination at home, ignoring the structures that subjugate women in the West, while also ignoring how patriarchy in Muslim societies, and the Global South more broadly, is rooted and maintained by institutions and state-building initiatives that are tied to larger political and economic questions about IMF and neoliberal policy, war, and poverty, that are a direct product of the legacies of colonialism and the violent continuation of Western intervention. As Charles Hirschkind and Saba Mahmood ask, “why were conditions of war, militarization, and starvation considered to be less injurious to women than the lack of education, employment, and, most notably, Western dress styles?”
It is this continued legacy of colonialism today and the unfin- ished project of decolonization that continue to haunt the pres- ent and make The Battle of Algiers an urgent and prescient film. Though The Battle of Algiers captured the demand for national liberation, one of the more striking moments in the film was the rooftop scene between Ali La Pointe and FLN leader Ben H’midi, who tells the younger Ali, “It’s hard enough to start a revolution, even harder to sustain it, and hardest of all to win it. But it’s only afterwards, once we’ve won, that the real difficulties begin.” Filmed in 1965 just after the military overthrow of Ahmed Ben Bella that brought Houari Boumediene to power and placed Ben Bella under house arrest, this scene is not only a reflection of the internecine fighting of the FLN three years after the end of the war but also a larger cautionary tale about the difficulties of nation building in the postindependence period for the broader Global South. Fanon warned us about this in The Wretched of the Earth, where he expressed a deep skepticism of nationalist elites whom he felt, after independence, would betray the popular will and the project of liberation by continuing to do Europe’s bidding by proxy.
This is why the film is significant today: not because it seemingly captures “terrorists at work,” and thereby provides a kind of voyeurism or even “teaching tool” in the post- 9/11 climate, but because it helps to reveal the continuities between the era of decolonization and the present. That is, the “War on Terror” is not a rupture per se but is rather another chapter in an ongoing campaign of counterinsurgency against the Global South, one that of course started centuries ago with colonialism proper, continued with neocolonial control through Bretton Woods, the IMF, and Third World debt, extended with the Cold War, deepened with “globalization” and neoliberalism, and continues today under the rubric of the “War on Terror.” The Battle of Algiers, then, is relevant precisely because the very issues the film raised about self-determination have yet to be fully contended with.
Sohail Daulatzai is the author of Fifty Years of “The Battle of Algiers”: Past as Prologue, as well as Black Star, Crescent Moon: The Muslim International and Black Freedom beyond America and co-editor of Born to Use Mics, a literary remix of Nas’s album Illmatic. He is the curator of the celebrated exhibit Return of the Mecca: The Art of Islam and Hip-Hop, and editor of the limited edition, companion commemorative book of the same name. He has written liner notes for the Sony Legacy Recordings Release of the 20th Anniversary Deluxe Box Set of Rage Against the Machine’s self titled debut album, and his other writings have appeared in The Nation, Counterpunch, Al Jazeera, Souls, Wax Poetics, and Artbound, amongst others. He is an Associate Professor in the Department of Film and Media Studies, the Department of African American Studies, and the Program in Global Middle East Studies at the University of California, Irvine. More of his work can be found at openedveins.com. Follow him @SohailDaulatzai.