Algeria’s Stance from the Apology of its Previous Colonizer
By Rabih Hasbany
France’s colonial rule in Algeria remains an open wound in French historical memory despite ending more than 50 years ago. It is considered a dark era in the history of the French people. While a few French leaders have been willing to acknowledge France’s history of brutality against the Algerians, most have refused to acknowledge the past, let alone proffer an apology.
In a bold and unprecedented step, however, French President Emmanuel Macron acknowledged in a recent statement the culpability of French authorities for the torture of Maurice Audin, a mathematician and supporter of Algerian nationalist movement (the Front de Libération Nationale). Audin disappeared after being arrested by the French army in 1957, during Algeria’s bloody fight for independence.
“Audin’s torture is a specific case, but it represents a cruel system put in place at the state level, the Elysee Palace said.” This was not the first time Macron acknowledged the cruelty of the French colonial system. On an earlier visit to Algeria, during last year’s presidential campaign, Macron referred to French colonization as a “crime against humanity,” a remark that reignited a bitter national debate.
Benjamin Stora, a leading French historian of Algeria, said Macron’s recognition represented a move away from the “silence of the father” stance that has characterized France’s relationship with its colonial past for decades. “It permits us to advance,” he adds, “to exit from denial and to advance in the service of truth.”
For Yasser Louati, a Muslim community organizer and noticeable activist against Islamophobia in France, Macron’s statement is a “historic moment,” but one that does not go far enough. “We also have to deal with the legacy of the colonial era,” Louati said. The fifth- or even sixth-generation of French-Algerians consists of many confused young people, uncertain about their place in France and the wider world. The school system only teaches about the war in the most neutral of terms, never in terms of real personal experience or inclusive of the trauma of exile and immigration. This has made them troubled, often angry, and at odds with their families as they question why they ever came to France in the first place. From this point of view the Algerian War, and the consequences thereof remains unfinished business in France.
Theological and Missiological Reflections
The letter to Philemon is a case study on the topic of forgiveness, illustrating how both the offender and the offended should relate to issues of restoration and compensation. In this letter, the three main players are Paul, Onesimus, and Philemon. Paul plays the role of an advocate and has the responsibility to facilitate reconciliation between Onesimus and Philemon. Onesimus, the offender, has a responsibility to face the wrongdoing of his past, confess, and make compensation. Onesimus is guilty of an offense punishable in those days by death, as a runaway slave. He was motivated by Pauls’ love to intercede on his behalf. Paul lays aside his rights and becomes Onesimus’ substitute by assuming his debt. Philemon, for his part, was confronted with his own debt to Paul, and ultimately God, and was expected to exercise love and forgiveness toward Onesimus. More than this, Paul implores Philemon to take Onesimus back in a moment of brilliant subversion, writing:
Maybe this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you could have him back forever—no longer as a slave, but much more than a slave, as a beloved brother […] If you reckon me a partner in your work, receive him as though he was me (Philemon 15-17, KNT).
In this story, we can see that although Philemon was in debt to Paul, and by extension God, Paul takes the responsibility to compensate for the wrongdoing of Onesimus. Paul’s act is of a restorative nature and it is needed to complete Onesimus’ apology to his former master. Another needed element in this process is the gracious attitude and actions of Philemon that restored Onesimus and welcomed him back in an entirely new relationship, as a brother.
This leads us to ask: How might the Algerian church embrace the apology while maintaining a critical perspective? And, what should the church’s stance be towards the colonial past?
It is important for the Algerian church to have a gracious attitude, embracing the French apology and seeking to foster forgiveness toward the French people. However, justice requires a remedy to the age-old wounds from which Algerians and the French-Algerians still suffer. The church must not deny the brutality of the colonizing power and acknowledge the suffering of those who lost their homes, their future, their beloved ones, or maybe parts of their bodies.
Kamel Daoud, an Algerian novelist, writes in his article, “What to Do When Your Colonizer Apologizes?”:
This official recognition by the French state seems just as dramatic and courageous, and it may clear the way for a re-examination of a period in history that has been denied by some and embellished by others. But I can’t help asking: Of what use is it to me, an Algerian born after the war?
Maybe history classes in the schools of France can start to teach the war in terms of the aftermath and consequences of the war on the Algerian people. As for the Algerian church, it can graciously accept the apology, but nevertheless remain steadfast in its call for justice toward those still in pain and suffering from the very real wounds of the recent past.