Book review: The sword and the cross

I started this post almost a year ago and then forgot about it, and I remembered it only these days after reading the discussion that is going on here mainly between Oumelkheir and QatKhal. It is not 100% related but never mind, I just used it as an excuse to finish the post (write the last three lines) and publish it.

The sword and the cross

The relationship between religion and politics has always been very tight, and religious men have used politics as much as politicians have used religion to settle their power. Politicians do indeed need an ideology to support them and, while some have used “non-spiritual” ideologies such as secularism or communism, many others used existing religions or even created new ones to back-up their political systems.
Religion was also used to justify wars and gather and motivate the soldiers. Regardless of their real background, many wars were waged with mixed temporal and spiritual aspects.

I used the past tense here but I could have used present and my assertions would have remained as correct. And today as yesterday, religion is a central point in every conflict (armed or not), especially when a Muslim entity is involved.

Algeria’s recent history gives us many examples where conflicts were backed-up by different religions.

The most recent events revolve around the evangelicals’ activities in Algeria. The authorities control these movements and the newly converted Algerians very tightly not only because these movements don’t abide by the Algerian laws but also because of the alleged aim of these movements. It is indeed said that the hidden objective behind these conversions is the creation of a Christian minority which would enable a bigger interference from the Western countries in Algeria’s internal affairs. Another example would be the way both Algerian and French authorities handle the Tibhirine monks affair and how their death is brought up every now and then.

But I digress. It’s closer to the book’s topic to discuss about the way France used religion (both Islam and Catholicism) during its colonisation of Algeria. We all know of the French promises to guarantee the Algerians’ religious freedom and how very quickly they abolished the Hanafi jurisdiction, demolished/transformed many mosques and confiscated many Habous properties. But France as a state never said it came to Algeria to suppress Islam. There was always some important “public service” to justify every action against Islam. However, many French politicians and religious men welcomed the occupation’s collateral damages which were caused to Islam. Some (Lavigerie for example but not only) even declared openly their wish to remove Islam from Algeria and inoculate the Algerians with Christianity so that North Africa recovers its pre-Islamic (Christian Roman) state. These actions remain in many Algerians’ psyche and explain why any Christian presence, the White Fathers’ or even Notre Dame d’Afrique’s, is still considered with suspicion.

So back to the book. I was too happy when Fergus Fleming published it and I bought it right away (it means my souvenirs about it kind of faded away now). It’s always good to have the insight of someone who’s not involved in the Algerian war. If it doesn’t guarantee neutrality/objectivity, it certainly gets closer as the author’s emotions have little risk to twist the facts, unlike what we often read from Algerian or French authors.
In his book, Fleming tells us the story of two men, a French officer  (Henri Laperrine) and a former soldier who became a religious man (Charles de Foucauld), and how both in their own ways had helped France extend its authority over Algerian Sahara. Fleming had this talent of telling historical facts in such a style that keeps you reading non-stop. There are many European Christians who visit(ed?) CDF’s grave in Tamenrasset and I even hear some Algerians talking about him in the same way they talk of St. Augustine. While I have little interest in St. Augustine (i.e. I am not following the trend which started with Bouteflika celebrating the Christian scholar, a son of Algeria, as a way to prove the country’s and system’s tolerance) I was worried about this Algerian misplaced attention for CDF. I do not know what the man’s motives were when he worked for the French army (after he became a monk or a priest, forgive my ignorance) but the French colonialist army has made a great use of him and his ascetic life knowing Muslims and especially Algerians liked (things have changed now) people who led a simple life.

Looks like I always “review” books without really reviewing them, and since I have the excuse of having read it 7 years ago, I will just direct the readers to the book’s link on Amazon and recommend it to anyone interested in History and Algerian/French History in particular.

Title: The sword and the cross

Author: Fergus Fleming

Publisher: Faber and Faber 2004


10 thoughts on “Book review: The sword and the cross

  1. Sans jamais avoir eu réellement le temps d’étudier le personnage en profondeur, je sias que CDF (comme tu l’écris) est un personnage controversé.
    Regarde ce que j’ai trouvé au premier clic
    Tu as fais une belle présentation du livre, qui a une très belle photo de couverture mais ui semble plus être en rapport avec des tribus du désert d’Arabie que du Sahara algérien et encore moins touareg, tu ne trouves pas?

    • Merci Oumelkheir pour le lien!

      Je dois dire que mon opinion au sujet du Pere de Foucauld n’a pas change apres avoir lu le livre de Fleming qui pourtant est le plus neutre que j’aies pu lire sur le sujet. Le role de CDF dans la conquete du Sahara mais aussi de l’Ouest algerien et du Maroc est indeniable. Et en plus je n’apprecie en general pas la posture du bon chretien a l’ame charitable dont le but est de sauver les ames egarees des pauvres musulmans (une posture similaire a celle adoptee par certains gauchistes du monde riche). Mais enfin, ceci n’efface pas le travail qu’il a pu faire par rapport a la langue Amazigh (Targui) par exemple.

      Sinon l’interet du livre pour moi vient aussi des histoires personnelles de ces deux hommes qui ont fait qu’ils ont eu chacun des parcours differents mais complementaires. Des histoires aussi qu’il raconte sur la concurrence entre les armees francaises d’Afrique et d’Algerie, l’une venant du Sud et l’autre du Nord, pour occuper le Sahara et l’annexer a l’une ou l’autre des possessions francaises. Un autre interet lie au tribalisme de l’epoque (du present?) mis a profit par la France dans sa conquete, avec certaines tribus arabes (des Chaanba) combattant avec les francais contre les touaregs, etc. Ce qui m’a rappele les histoires similaires racontees par l’Emir Abdelkader dans ses memoires…

      Pour la photo, l’homme au dromadaire est definitivement tawa3na. Mais j’ai des doutes par rapport au groupe meme si les gosses ont des habits qu’on aurait pu trouver en Algerie. Le livre ne donne malheureusement pas d’information.

  2. Manrvi-dz, I like how you review a book you read about 7 years ago! Nonetheless you got me hooked and I have just made the purchase, so thanks.

    Having visited the Hermitage of CDF in Bechar, I can tell you the monks are active and conversions are still on the high, this may be due to their locations as well, as you know the Sahara is a very mystical space!

    Going back to the initial topic, religion is absolutely an integral part of politics, main and only example I am going to provide: Israel

    • Welcome Dz-Chick and thanks for the comment. I hope you’ll still thank me after reading the book 🙂
      Mysticism and asceticism are (or were, should I say) very important aspects in our part of the world which have been widely used by the French occupier with CDF, but also by the Ottomans and even our current ruling clans (more the mysticism than the asceticism though).

  3. And I started reading the book and got hooked from the very first pages and I can’t resist reading you a exerpt from page 14.

    “…His [George Wingrove Cooke, Times 1850] findings were unfavorable. The contry was ill-managed and unprofitable. Land distribution was afflicted by jobbery, favoritism and procrastination; there was little order outside the main urban centers and not, indeed, much order within them; the civilian and military populations seemed to work against each other, while the native population worked against both; above all. No overriding purpose was evident, everything being arranged ad hoc around the movements of the army. It was, he [Napoleon] decided, a military dictatorship that had been allowed to run wild. … ”

    Striking resemblance with the realities of today and almost 200 years later!

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