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    Conservative Trends of the Algerian Nationalist Movement

    Algerian Ulema Association

    The growing public awareness of events in the Arab world, such as the failed Syrian Revolt against French colonialism in 1925 and the deteriorating situation in “British” Palestine led to a large-scale Arab revolt there in 1936. 

    Numerous Algerians travelled to the eastern Arab countries, the Mashriq, for the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca or to be educated in the great centres of Islamic learning. Regional conversations about pan- Islamism or pan-Arabism also reached North Africa via radio and by a transnational newspaper network that linked Algiers, Cairo, Tunis, and even Zanzibar, allowing local organisations with common interests to exchange information and opinions. Thus the notable deterioration in relations between Algeria’s Muslims and its small but centuries-old Jewish community was due not only to the fact that the French had elevated the latter by granting them full citizenship but also to popular outrage at the Zionist project in Palestine. 

    The Ulema Association 

    A movement of reformist Ulema, or religious scholars, was one of the most important vectors for this Arabist current. The two most prominent figures among the Ulema, Sheikh ‘Abd al-Hamid Ben Badis and Bashir Ibrahimi, typified the movement’s origins in that they both came from established patrician families but received traditional Koranic educations and spent long periods of time in centres of Islamic scholarship outside Algeria. The Ulema were reformist in the sense of being greatly influenced by the Islamic modernist thinkers of the late nineteenth century and by the Salafi movement, which advocated a return to “original” or “orthodox” Islam. Their primary mission was therefore educational and cultural: they founded schools for Arabic instruction and criticised the Maghrib’s indigenous “unorthodox” Islamic institutions such as marabout preachers, Sufi brotherhoods, and the frequent worship of local saints. But in the colonial context, such concerns had inherent political ramifications. Many in the existing religious establishment, for example, were technically French civil servants since the colonial authorities sought to monitor and control what transpired in mosques and Koranic schools. 

    The Ulema also taught a nationalist history that directly contradicted the French curriculum’s argument that no Algerian nation had ever existed; Ahmad Tewfik al Madani, who later became an important FLN diplomatic operative, published the first nationalist history book in 1932, Kitab al Jaza’ir (The book of Algeria). Accordingly, Ben Badis publicly responded to Ferhat Abbas’s antinationalist article in 1936 by asserting categorically that “this Muslim population is not part of France, cannot be part of France, and does not want to be part of France.” 

    It should be noted that the Ulema did found schools with official sanction, such as the Progress Club in downtown Algiers, which served as a venue for discussion and debate among the Muslim elite, Europeans, representatives of the Jewish community, and so on. 

    Bashir Ibrahimi also strove to build a Muslim cultural organisation that would straddle both sides of the Mediterranean, suggesting that political separation of Algeria and France was not his paramount concern. 

    But on the whole, one progressively minded French education official was justified in his mournful observation that “the reformist Ulema will end up being the only masters of Arabic in Algeria, alas they will teach Arabic as the language of liberation and resistance!” Notably, Tewfik al Madani and Ben Badis each maintained an active correspondence with the prominent Syrian Arab nationalist thinker the emir Shakib Arslan and with the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Amin al-Husayni, a Palestinian nationalist and religious leader who fled the British Mandate after the failure of the Arab revolt there in 1936– 1939. 

    In the 1930s a teenage Mostefa Lacheraf, later the FLN’s leading intellectuals, attended both a French lycée in the morning and an Ulema school afterward. In his memoirs, he described the latter as a rich site of political imagination and exchange, or “a kind of sociological cell in full cultural bloom and [where] the contrasting currents of nationalism in the Algeria of those days awoke together.”

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    Item Reviewed: Conservative Trends of the Algerian Nationalist Movement Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Algeria Gate
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