50 Years Later, Film on Algerian War of Independence Continues to Inspire Freedom Struggles (2/2)
Sohail Daulatzai, author of “Fifty Years of The Battle of Algiers: Past as Prologue,” sits down with former Black Panther Eddie Conway to discuss why the 1966 movie remains highly influential in the age of the war on terrorism and authoritarian capitalism
EDDIE CONWAY: Okay, I’m Eddie Conway for The Real News. I’m back again to talk to the author of this book “Fifty Years of ‘The Battle of Algiers’”.
So, thanks for joining me.
This is Sohail Daulatzai. He is Associate Professor of Film and Media Studies as well as African-American Studies at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of “Black Star, Crescent Moon: The Muslim International and Black Freedom Beyond America”. And obviously his most recent book “Fifty Years of ‘The Battle of Algiers’”. Thanks for joining me again.
SOHAIL DAULATZAI: Thanks for having me.
EDDIE CONWAY: You know, when I talk to people in the black community, they’re looking at the reaction towards Trump’s ban on seven countries and on Muslims being allowed to come in the country. They see the activities at the airports, in the capitals across the nation. And so, I talk to black people and I ask activists in fact, “What do you feel about this?” and a lot of them will say, “We have been struggling for 500 years. We have been pleading for help. We have been looking for support and allies. Muslims haven’t been forthcoming with that kind of help. Why should we involve ourselves now that they are feeling the same kind of oppression that we felt?” So, what’s your response to that?
SOHAIL DAULATZAI: I mean, I think it gets at some really important questions. I would say that when we’re talking about the question of white supremacy, I think that that’s something that we have to see ourselves as all subject to in different ways, right?
But at the same time when we think about the history of how black social movements have taken place in this country, you know, they’ve in many ways always seen themselves as internationalist and they’ve always seen kind of… the question of racism or white supremacy as a global phenomenon.
So, you know, Malcolm X, for example. He saw black people not as part of a national minority but as part of a global majority. And part of his work and all the travelling that he was doing was making those connections; something that the establishment civil rights leaders weren’t doing. They saw themselves as Americans. And so, that America’s enemies became black people’s enemies abroad. And Malcolm tried to challenge that.
And then, of course, as you know very well with the Black Panther Party, they saw themselves as internationalists too, right? They saw themselves in solidarity with the Vietnamese people and they saw themselves in solidarity with the Brown Berets and other groups here in the United States. So, you know, and there’s numerous other examples that we can point to, but I say that to say that like, you know, black politics and black radical politics have always seen themselves in relationship to the struggles of other peoples.
Now, the point that I think that some feel today, and not all because I mean, you’re still seeing you know, Dream Defenders and a whole bunch of other groups who travel to Palestine and see the relationship between Zionist occupation of Palestine and police forces here. Those histories are still very much alive today in terms of, like, black internationalism.
But the idea that black people feel that, like, when it comes to our issues, black people’s issues, right, that other communities of color don’t necessarily come to their aid. I think there’s some truth to that and I think that part of the problem I’m having with some of the ban, for example, that’s taking place… I mean obviously, the ban is a problem. But the way in which people are trying to address the ban is saying things like, “Well, this person’s a PhD, or they’re a doctor.” Like, essentially what they’re saying is that, “They’re a good citizen,” right?
EDDIE CONWAY: Uh huh.
SOHAIL DAULATZAI: “And they just want to come here to America and this land of opportunity. They just want to benefit from the greatness that is America, so they should be let in.” I mean, that’s the kind of response, not by everybody, but that’s kind of been the most consistent response that we see coming out. And so, to me, what is that about?
Like, what are we erasing when we say stuff like that? And I think the point for me is in general – I mean, I’m talking in broad brush strokes, not everybody – but in general when immigrants come who are not white, but not black also, there’s a kind of aspirational or honorary whiteness that they want to try and achieve when they come to this country. And they feel like they left a place of devastation and they want to come to this land of opportunity that they’re told, right?
And I think it ignores then what happened to Native folks here with Native genocide and black people here with the experiences of slavery. And, in fact then, many of these immigrant groups come here and, you know, their whole thing is like, “We’re just going to step over the backs of Native peoples and black people to make our way into American society.”
And so that sentiment I think is very real and I think that’s why I think it’s important that all of us squarely face this question of kind of racial capitalism and white supremacy; that if we don’t undo white supremacy, right, if we don’t continue to challenge it at its foundation and we ignore the way which it affects one group of people, then it’s going to continue to affect another group of people or other groups of people.
So, I feel like there’s a commonality there and it doesn’t mean that we’re all affected in the same way. Black people here have a particular history of being subject to that but so do many of these immigrants in terms of the wars that you know, the United States and Europe have exacted upon them. Those are white supremacist wars, right?
To me, we have to see policing here and the military abroad as flipsides of the same coin. The military is doing the security work of protecting and serving the empire abroad. Just like the police here are protecting and serving white life and white property here domestically. And if we can start to understand what some of those connections are, then I feel like we have a more united front to fight against these forces.
EDDIE CONWAY: Uh huh. Okay, let’s look for a minute, because you raised the issue in your book about women and how Western civilization is claiming that it’s coming to the aid of Muslim women because they are so oppressed. They have to wear burkas. They suffer all kinds of oppression at the hands of Muslim men.
And, of course, that’s the same story we had in Africa in the Congo, white nuns being raped or other reasons, in fact, I think they… Granada was another case of white medical students being isolated and they had to go and overthrow a government. So, I see this military action being used all the time.
And so, when you talk about it in the book, what are you actually saying?
SOHAIL DAULATZAI: Well, I mean, I think in many ways it’s what many feminist scholars have called kind of “imperial feminism,” right? That is to say, like, historically, European empires they use the woman, the idea of the Third World woman, in this case, the Muslim woman. You know, much of their civilizing process was, “They’re so oppressed and the measure and the symbol of their oppression is the fact that they wear this veil. And so, we have to take off their veil and free them.”
And it served a couple of purposes. One, it said that these women are oppressed. They have no agency and they just need our help, i.e., the West’s help.
EDDIE CONWAY: Uh huh.
SOHAIL DAULATZAI: But two, it also served to kind of reinforce ideas they had about the men of those societies. “They’re oppressive. They’re controlling. They’re domineering. They’re savage. They’re irrational. They don’t believe in modernity and Western ideas of liberal freedom” and blah, blah, blah. So, it did double work and there’s a deep history of all this.
In the film, that scene in the film where… in many ways the film turns, in terms of, like, the narrative, right, when the women get involved. But also in the Algerian war when the women got involved, it changed the nature of the war. And so, that very powerful scene in the film where the women are like, okay, this idea that in France the French had about unveiling the Algerian women. The women essentially say, “Okay, we’ll take off the veil. We’ll cut our hair. We’ll put on lipstick. We’ll look like you want us to look, right? And therefore, you won’t be suspicious of us. You’ll think we’re on your side. That we agree with your ideals. And we’ll walk through the checkpoint, but as we do that,” as the film shows, “we’ll carry the bombs into these cafes and we’ll explode them there.” Essentially saying, “We’ll play by your rules, but we’ll ultimately end up subverting them,” right? And so, I think it’s a very powerful scene because it really reveals it’s not about how you look or what you wear when we’re talking about patriarchy.
Laura Bush in 2001 declared “America’s going to war to save the Afghan women.” And that’s a classic colonial trope. I think the real point here is to say that patriarchy is something that exists worldwide. It just looks different in different places, right? And so, here in the West, what does patriarchy look like, right? How is it that women are forced to kind of subject themselves to the male gaze? They have to look a certain way. They have to dress a certain way. They have to speak a certain way, right, without stepping out of line, and to be taken, you know… there’s a limit to how seriously they can be taken.
So, that patriarchy here is a different face than patriarchy elsewhere and I think that’s the important point to take. But I think when the question of the Muslim veil comes up, it becomes very useful for the West to say, “We here in the West, we’re not patriarchal. Our women here are equal,” right, even though the intimate partner violence, domestic abuse, rape, rape culture; all that stuff is so rampant here in this country. But it’s their way of saying, “Hey, we’re free. We treat our women equally and those people don’t treat their women equally. So, we have to go as part of our civilizing mission to show them how to treat their women.”
So, it serves the purposes of the West to do that and again that Muslim veil has become that symbol of all of that. It’s also seen as a symbol of, you know, “These people don’t want to integrate,” right? It becomes a visible symbol of their foreignness. So, there’s a lot of reasons why that veil gets deployed in the way it does. And ultimately, it becomes justifiable to drop bombs then on people to ironically save the women. You know?
EDDIE CONWAY: Uh huh. Like, it’s interesting because in the Spanish American War, an American general destroyed a whole village, just one of the first times, to save the village. And that was repeated in Vietnam and in other cases. And now I believe it’s happening in Yemen and in other places. Bombs were being dropped. People were being destroyed to save them from something, you know?
I’m interested though, like the Battle of Algiers and this whole global South thing and the West. It seems to infer that there is a conflict between color and religion as opposed to economics. What’s the case? Is this a religious war, a war of color or is it a war of economics? What’s the basis of this?
SOHAIL DAULATZAI: Right. I mean, I think that’s the heart of this. I think that it’s all those things combined. I don’t think it’s any one thing. And if we look, right, like, the history of the foundation of the West is this moment of 1492 in many ways. Spain kicks the Moors out, right? And the idea of race or whiteness and white Christianity is constructed against a black Moor, right, the Moor, the black Muslim.
So, religion has always been a central part of how race thinking operated, right?
But that was also tied to how economics unfolded, right? So, this nexus of race, religion and capitalism have been central to how Europe came, and the United States by extension, to dominate the world. I mean, we think about the United States here with “manifest destiny,” right? With taking Native… these were savages, right? And they could not become Christians. They could not become… even their conversion wasn’t enough to save them. And so, they had to just be exterminated.
And, you know, as some scholars have said, in the United States, the Indian Wars in many ways are still being fought. The United States just pushes it throughout other parts of the world.
So, this nexus of race, religion and economics have always worked hand-in-hand with each other to kind of like in many ways lubricate European and American empire. So, I don’t think that it’s any one thing in and of itself. I think they all work hand-in-hand.
And so, I think that’s also part of the appeal of a film like “The Battle of Algiers” was that, and this was one of the things that I think I talked about in the book, is its appeal throughout its early release. When it first got released in ’66 and then throughout the ’70’s, even into the ’80’s and maybe some would argue even into the’90’s. I mean, there was a universal appeal to the film, right? I mean, people saw around the world, people saw themselves in the Algerians.
But I think what’s interesting that’s happened after 9/11 is that kind of universalism that the film offered, you know, got narrowed. Now the film after 9/11 because of the War on Terror, now it’s seen in many ways as a film about Muslims, particular Muslims committing violent acts.
And so, there’s a certain kind of hesitation people have. A lot of my students who I show it to when they’re watching those scenes and those women walking through the checkpoints and planting the bombs, they feel very uncomfortable. And that’s very different than when the film was first released, right?
So, I think that universalism that the film kind of initially had in some ways has been narrowed now because of the ideologies that are in play in the world. And so, I find that that’s something that’s interesting to think about in terms of like, why is that universalism not allowed? Why can’t people see beyond this being a Muslim? Why can’t they see this as a human being, who’s struggling for dignity?
EDDIE CONWAY: Uh huh. The one other thing, because I kind of study history a little bit myself, and I know that the Irish Republican Army used similar tactics. In Nepal they had similar tactics. Even for a while they had those in Sri Lanka.
I’m wondering, but it seems that small unit guerilla warfare cell kind of tactics have kind of disappeared. Do you think this film and those kinds of tactics will reappear in the future?
SOHAIL DAULATZAI:I mean, that’s an open question, Eddie. I mean, I think that I would love to even get your perspective on where we are now in terms of how different it is then say, Nixon or whatever that time that we’re talking about around 45, 50 years ago.
I mean, will it reappear? It’ll only reappear if people feel that it’s necessary. If the grievances that people have, if the claims that they’re trying to make on self-determination, on dignity, on rights, on resources; if those claims aren’t met then I think that it’s inevitable that guerilla warfare will emerge again. I think it’s inevitable. That’s just a fact of history, right? You can’t push people. You only push people into a corner so far before they’re going to fight back in those ways. A
And, of course, the way the West claims is, “Violence is endemic to those people whoever they are, right, that’s just what they are. So, we have to control them by violence.” They don’t understand that no, violence isn’t their first response. Violence more often than not is people’s last response and you just haven’t been listening. It’s like Dr. King himself said, “The riot is the rhyme of the unheard. It’s the language of the unheard,” right?
Like, “You haven’t been hearing us. And so now that we take to the streets, now you’re going to say, ‘Oh, my God, look at these people. They’re just violent and rioting.’” Well, the thing is you’ve been tone deaf to everything that they’ve been saying, asking for and even demanding. And what choice do they have? And so, I just feel like that’s a fact of history. And I don’t think that like, you know, that’s going to change any time soon.
I think the question is going to become for the United States, and people in Europe, those who hold that kind of power, on what side of history do they want to be on? The winning side or the losing side? They think they’re on the winning side now, but they’re actually on the wrong side of history.
EDDIE CONWAY: Okay, thank you for joining me. I appreciate this and hopefully we’ll continue this conversation in the future.
SOHAIL DAULATZAI: Absolutely, thank you.
EDDIE CONWAY: And thank you for joining The Real News.