In 1996, seven Trappist monks were kidnapped from their monastery in Tibhirine, Algeria and murdered by a faction of the Groupe islamique armé. Rather than characterize their deaths in terms of a fundamental clash of civilizations, in Decolonizing Christianity: Religion and the End of Empire in France and Algeria, Darcie Fontaine instead insists on contextualizing their lives, by exploring how these monks dwelt and worked—as Christians—in Algeria. This comprehensively researched, nuanced study explores Christians’ shifting beliefs about the relationship between religion, imperialism and politics and argues that the Algerian war of independence played a key role in shaping postcolonial Christian institutions and ideologies. Significantly, this ‘social history of theology,’ as Fontaine puts it, asserts that there was no single ‘unified Christian discourse’ about Algeria. Instead, she describes how various protestant and catholic Christians mobilized religious ideologies to serve a variety of ends. While many Euro-Algerians and members of the military utilized Christianity to justify France’s presence in Algeria, other more ‘liberal’ or ‘progressivist’ Christians questioned the continued viability of Algerie Française. Importantly, the changing views of these leftist Christians were shaped by their involvement with the Algerian community. As Fontaine argues, ‘[I]t was through this engagement in social projects at the grass roots that they also came to realize that the institutions and practices of Christianity in Algeria would also have to be decolonized’. By focusing on the ‘the engagement of Christians on the ground,’ Fontaine distinguishes her monograph from intellectual histories about the Algerian war. Namely, she argues that her approach uncovers a more nuanced, granular narrative, rather than a linear account of anti-colonial resistance. This attention to the social history of Christianity also leads Fontaine to make important historical connections between Christians in both Algeria and France. She expertly shows how metropolitan social catholic movements in the 1930s and 1940s influenced Christian activists in Algeria. Her study is thus a response to Ann Stoler and Frederick Cooper’s now classic but still vital call to analyse empire and metropole in a single analytic frame. Following Dipesh Chakrabarty, Fontaine works to provincialize the history of Christianity. This act of ‘decentring’ allows her to explore the complex ways that Christian institutions detangled or reframed themselves as separate from the imperial project. After the war, for example, religious officials attempted to ‘decolonize’ the church. While catholic institutions initiated both concrete and symbolic measures (including returning mosques that had been converted into churches during colonialism) with the goal to show the church’s active desire to remain part of Algeria, the protestant church, by contrast, focused mostly on protecting church assets in the nascent state. While I would have liked to hear more about the intricacies of these bureaucratic transitions, such details nonetheless firmly undergird Fontaine’s overarching argument that ‘provincializing’ Christianity also serves to de-essentialize religion. Significantly, Fontaine argues that such an effort is important for understanding how secularism or laïcité is discussed in France today. The study ‘offers a parallel genealogy…that disrupts the normalized narrative of a universally secular French nation-state in conflict with Christianity, and then Islam’. Another of Fontaine’s central arguments is that the war in Algeria became a ‘testing ground’ for how the church—both protestant and catholic—would approach the postcolonial moment. She demonstrates how various organizations, including CIMADE, began to take on increasingly humanitarian roles during the war and how this engagement influenced how Christian institutions embraced development in the decolonizing world. It is this thread of the argument that I especially invite Fontaine to explore further. It seems like many Christians in post-colonial Algeria heralded development initiatives as being inherently good for the new country. While Fontaine acknowledges that many were attempting to figure out what development meant, I encourage her to look more critically at the question of development itself. She could draw, in particular, from the robust body of literature that has called for an examined look at modernization efforts in the ‘Third World.’ Within this field, Elizabeth Foster and Giuliana Chamedes have explicitly probed the complex relationship of Christian institutions to postcolonial development initiatives. Finally, the book argues that leftist Christians’ perspectives on religion and empire began to change when they interacted with Algerians on-the-ground. Although we get glimpses of these exchanges, and several descriptions of specific connections between Christian and Algerian activists, I yearned for an even more comprehensive conversation about Algerians themselves, one that probed the diverse ways that questions of class, ethnicity, and regional distinctions shaped interactions between Algerians and European Christians. In sum, Decolonizing Christianity is a most welcome addition to histories of empire, religion, and politics. It is a must-read for historians of France and Algeria, scholars of the new imperial history, and social and intellectual historians interested in contextualizing Christianity. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for the Study of French History. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: email@example.com This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
French History – Oxford University Press
Published: May 3, 2018
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