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‘Making Yourselves Muslims’: Converting Colonists and Contesting Colonialism in French Algeria

Thu May 25th 2017, 4:30pm
Pigott, room 252

Speakers): Jennifer Sessions

Please join us for our last event of the year - Thursday May 25 at 4:30pm in Pigott, room 252 for a talk by Jennifer Sessions entitled, "‘Making Yourselves Muslims’: Converting Colonists and Contesting Colonialism in French Algeria." As always, refreshments will be served. Abstract and bio below. 

Abstract:  On April 26, 1901, members of the Righa tribe of central Algiers overran the French village of Margueritte, seizing the settlement’s male colonists and forcing them to convert to Islam by reciting the shehada and donning North African clothing. Several Europeans who could not or would not comply were killed before French troops arrived and dispelled the attackers. The Margueritte insurrection has been seen, alternatively, as the end of a nineteenth-century tradition of millenarian revolts against French domination and as an early precursor of twentieth-century Algerian nationalism. While neither of these readings is entirely wrong, what made Margueritte unique in the history of Algerian resistance to French colonialism was the forced conversion of European settlers: the insurgents’ demands that the Margueritte settlers “make yourselves Muslims.”French colonial authorities at the time saw religion as the key to the revolt and almost  immediately concluded that its causes lay in “Islamic fanaticism.” The administrators and magistrates charged with investigating the revolt focused much of their energy on the religious habits and affiliations of the revolt’s leaders. But in their preoccupation with Sufi brotherhoods and pan-Islamist conspiracies, the investigators largely overlooked the more quotidian meanings of the conversion ritual imposed on Margueritte’s colonists. Re-situating the ritualized transformation of body and soul within the context of everyday life in the settler village opens a new window onto the mundane practices by which social and racial hierarchies were enacted and embodied in French Algeria.
Bio: Jennifer Sessions is Associate Professor of History at the University of Iowa, where she teaches French and European history, with an emphasis on empire and colonialism, cultural history, and visual culture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Her first book, By Sword and Plow: France and the Conquest of Algeria was published by Cornell University Press in 2011, and was awarded the 2011 Boucher Book Prize from the French Colonial Historical Society. Her work has been supported by grants and fellowships from the Kluge Center at the Library of Congress, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the H. F. Guggenheim Foundation, and the Institute for Advanced Study in Paris, among others. She is currently working on two books about French settler colonialism in Algeria, one a microhistory of the Margueritte Insurrection of 1901 and the other a “biography” of the equestrian statue that stood on the central public square of Algiers throughout the colonial period.

We look forward to seeing you!


JP Daughton
Dan Edelstein

Chloe Edmondson