Sports and Modernity in Colonial Algeria, 1910-1962
I examine notions of modernity and ideas about the nation as well as Islamic conceptions of society in colonial Algeria, focusing on modern sports. The period under study begins with the formation of indigenous sports associations around 1910 and ends with Algerian independence in 1962. At the beginning of the 20th century, Algeria had been under French rule already for some generations and even the Southern territories in the Sahara had been integrated into the colonial administration. Around 1910, in different parts of the country, the first indigenous sports associations were established, which were founded explicitly as clubs for Muslims. In the 1930s, there developed a specifically Muslim scout movement (al--Kashshāfa al--islāmiyya al--jazā’iriyya / les Scouts Musulmans Algériens). The structures of scouting were to become a sort of basic grid for the nationalist movement, which finally organized itself as the Jabhat al--tahrīr al--watanī / Front de Libération Nationale (FLN). During the Algerian War, the FLN made use of soccer for its diplomatic efforts in an international context and formed – even prior to independence – a national team, consisting of professional players who, for the most part, had previously played in France.
The indigenous sports teams and scouting troops developed alongside the already existing ones of the population of European origin. Catholic organizations were very active in the realm of sports and were present through missionary schools or in the patronages of the different orders. Apart from that, the state incorporated physical education into the school curricula. The colonial state, moreover, employed large sports festivals to demonstrate the integration of Algeria and the other North African colonies into “greater France”, for instance in the framework of the centennial of conquest in 1930 or with some events celebrated by the Vichy Regime in 1941/2. In the field of popular sports the teams, at times, reflected the origin of French settlers, who had immigrated from Spain, Italy, or Malta. In contrast, indigenous sports clubs often referred to Muslim identity, arguably also to suggest an Arab-‐Berber unity, which colonialism not infrequently denied. Under these circumstances competitions could acquire nationalist significance. On the “Muslim” side, the founding of associations and scouts’ groups was promoted by nationalist as well as by Islamist movements – the Muslim scout movement eventually even split up. For the reformist Islamic tendency establishing associations and private schools were among the most important means for the envisaged reform of society. Especially after World War I, with its immense losses for Algeria (and France in general), physical force evolved as a topos in social debates.
At the center of my study will be the question on how modern sports found their way into Algerian society and which role they played in the new social and political movements that based themselves on the emerging middle class. I start from the thesis that the different ideas of reform, which in the colonial situation had to engage with a modernity, perceived as Western, aimed at a strengthening of the self – for which physical fitness was crucial. Modern sports equipped the colonized with new opportunities to prove their agency in everyday life. Indigenous athletes’ successes against European opponents, for example, could contribute to relativizing common stereotypes of inferiority. Further questions regard the experience of being modern in everyday practice, the connections to emerging notions of the nation and debates on gender and concepts of masculinity and femininity. I will base my research on autobiographical writings, the contemporary press and colonial documents and archives. For a comparative perspective, I will also take into account studies on Egypt and the Arab East.