Muriam Haleh Davis, Markets of Civilization: Islam and Racial Capitalism in Algeria (Duke University Press, 2022).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Muriam Haleh Davis (MHD): This book came out of my PhD dissertation, which was focused on late colonial development in Algeria. While the book is a very substantial revision of that project, there were a number of questions that led me to tackle the relationship between economic development and decolonization as a graduate student: How did economic planning as a discipline account for the cultural and religious specificity of Algerian Muslims? How did the discourses and practices of French development influence the Algerian nation-state after independence? Should we consider that Islam functioned as a racial or religious category in colonial Algeria?

This last question is something that has long animated my thinking, as I was trained in critical race theory at UC Irvine before starting a PhD in history. While I had been steeped in post-colonial theory and discourse analysis, many accounts of the “Othering” of Muslims seemed to focus almost exclusively on representation or textual analysis. It seemed important to think about race and political economy together, especially at a moment where there were charged debates between post-colonial and Marxist theorists. I wanted to show not only the porous line between racial and religious categories, but also how ideas regarding the capacities of Muslims for rational behavior were constitutive of economic thought. While “homo Islamicus” has long provided a foil that allowed “homo economicus” to be legible (as I argue in the book), we can see that these tropes in turn structured the concrete economic reforms. The book therefore focuses on the measures introduced by French colonial planners and their attempts to introduce a liberal market society in Algeria during the Algerian Revolution.

Lastly, I wanted to tell this story using Arabic sources in order show how the racial formation engendered by colonialism influenced Algerian politics after independence. In the fifth chapter, I explore what the creation of a “racial regime of religion” meant for Algeria’s place in pan-Arab and also pan-African discourses in the early 1960s. I show how Algerian politicians and intellectuals participated in broader discussions regarding the relationship between national identity, Islam, and Arabness. The specific use of racial-religious categories by the French state therefore had important ramifications for how Algerian nationalists understood their relationship to the Mashreq.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

MHD: As indicated by the title, the book wrestles with how to think about racial capitalism in a context where religion rather than skin color was the most obvious pole around which racial categories were structured. It shows how religion was not a question of personal faith or belief, but rather a system that determined access to property, capital, and livelihood. The literature on racial capital has mostly focused on the Atlantic world as well as South Africa, but I wanted to try to think about how we might theorize these questions from the Mediterranean. The framework of racial capitalism shifts our thinking on underdevelopment in a number of ways that seem vital to account for in studying the Maghreb. One of the central ideas in this canon—formulated by thinkers in the black radical tradition like Cedric Robinson and WEB Du Bois—is to insist on the inequalities forged by racial structures are fundamental for capitalist accumulation. This is quite a different approach than the argument that certain “racialized” groups suffer disproportionately under capitalism or that capitalism uses race to further divide the working class.

In terms of political economy, my book also intervenes in the scholarship on neoliberalism which, except for a few very important exceptions, has tended to center European debates. Given that many of the same people were involved in European integration and colonial development, I wanted to detail how colonial spaces were fundamental for the postwar orthodoxies regarding market society that have been studied as the beginning of a neoliberal school of thought.

The book also tries to revive an older tradition of studying Algeria, and the Algerian revolution, as a set of conditions and historical events from which we can theorize (pace Frantz Fanon, Pierre Bourdieu, or Jean-Paul Sartre). I suspect that the book might be too theoretical for some historians, and too historical for some social theorists, but the decision to embark on a work of historically grounded theorization was a very conscious one. So in methodological terms, I hope the work highlights how theoretical frameworks emerge out of specific historical conjectures even as they simultaneously provide historians with tools that can be used to narrate the past.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have? 

MHD: My hope is that people who are not specialists of Algerian history also read this book. While it narrates the ways that settler colonialism and then decolonization influenced economic policies, I also hope that people interested in racial capitalism, as well as contemporary debates on Islam and Islamophobia, read the book. In France there have been a number of polemics on “Islamo-Leftism” in recent years (which I have written about for Jadaliyya here), which often hinge on the question of whether or not Islam is a racial category. The sixth chapter of the book details how a spate of French revolutionaries from various Trotskyst and anarchist tripes—from Daniel Guérin to Michel Raptis (aka Pablo)—could only understand the Algerian Revolution from the vantage point of a French anti-clerical tradition on the left. They tended to be skeptical—if not condescending—of any attempts to articulate a revolutionary program that used Islamic references, as was the case under Ben Bella, for example. These debates in the 1960s thus give important historical context for current claims by some on the far left in France that radical leftist politics must completely ban any traces of religion from their understanding and that any discussion of Islamophobia inevitably endangers the real discussion, which is that on class.

I also hope that scholars of Arab nationalism read the work, particularly the fifth chapter that I mentioned earlier, which I think explains many of the reasons why Algeria in particular—and the Maghreb in general—have been considered peripheral to the “core” of Middle Eastern studies, which often focuses on Egypt or Palestine.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

MHD: I am currently working on two projects: one is an article on Algerian readings of Fanon after 1962, and the second—a longer-term project—is on the discipline of sociology in Algeria. In many ways, these interests came out of questions raised in my first book. The book argues that Fanon—despite his formidable contributions to the Algerian Revolution—did not completely escape from certain French tropes regarding revolution and Islam. It also looks at how the postwar social sciences allowed for economic planning to serve as a tool of social engineering in that sociology and psychology were increasingly central to economic developments. So I think my current research extends some of the themes of Markets of Civilization in new ways. 

J: You mentioned that the book also explores Algerian history after independence, could you say more about this?

MHD: The study of Algerian history has often been dominated by the War of Independence for many reasons, some of which have to do with access to archival sources. But one of my goals of this project was to study the first years of independence and demonstrate the influence of colonial development on state-building and economic policy under Ahmed Ben Bella. This chapter was particularly difficult to write in that the Algerian archives are almost non-existent for this period. Yet by working in other collections—many of them private—that contained documents from this period, I was able to more fully document how Algerian nationalists envisioned the link between Islam and the policy of self-management. I argue that Ben Bella’s notion of a “specifically Muslim socialism” was indebted to a colonial logic, even if it was deployed for resolutely anti-colonial purposes. So while French planners insisted that Islam was an essential and inescapable obstacle to introducing a market society, Ben Bella argued that the religion provided the necessary basis for socialism. In both cases, there is an assumption that Islam is a key variable in shaping economic policies and behaviors. Put differently, Ben Bella’s vision was undoubtedly a radical break with the political aims and economic orthodoxies of colonial development, but it nevertheless perpetuated the notion that economic planning should express a set of essential civilizational attributes that were rooted in Islam.


Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction, pp. 3-7)

The French state progressively occupied Algerian territory over the course of the nineteenth century, establishing a system of rule in which religion represented a set of origins and imagined bloodlines that structured access to property, citizenship, and livelihood. Islam did not merely justify unequal access to economic value but rather constituted the very terms in which economic policies were envisaged and implemented. This book argues that Islam formed the basis of a racial regime of religion, revealing the porous boundary between race and religion. It considers different moments in which colonial officials, social scientists, French politicians, and Algerian nationalists debated economic policies in light of their understandings of the economic aptitudes and capacities of Muslims. Drawing on archival material and interviews, it analyzes how the French and Algerian states introduced economic and social reforms from the interwar period (1918–39) to the first years of Algerian independence under President Ahmed Ben Bella (1962–65).

The heart of this narrative arc takes place in the late 1950s, when the Algerian War of Independence (1954–62) and European integration led French officials to introduce the Constantine Plan, which outlined major economic and social reforms. Against the backdrop of the Cold War, liberal politicians articulated the need to include Algeria in the nascent European Economic Community and insisted on an intimate link between economic development and military pacification. After World War II, politicians across Europe adopted liberal economic policies and tried to disavow the importance of racial categories in organizing economic and political inequalities. Rather than demonizing Islam or espousing arguments based on biological racism, observers described Muslims as particularly susceptible to pan-Islamism, a political threat that mirrored the dangers of communism. The French scholar René Jammes, for example, wrote that both Muslims and communists were inherently against free thought and concluded that a Muslim was, in many ways, “very close to a material communist.” The difference between them, he argued, was “purely formal”—Muslims proclaimed fidelity to Allah, while communists worshiped the “laws of nature.” Jammes’s comments underscore how the geopolitical realities of postwar Europe shaped dominant attitudes to economic orthodoxies and religious attachments. Liberal economists repurposed Smith’s writings to address the threat of totalitarianism, which they saw emanating from diverse sources, including communism and fascism. The body of thought they developed from the late 1930s to the 1960s has come to be understood as an early articulation of neoliberalism in France. Yet there are good reasons to study how decolonization shaped these economic debates. Broadening the geographic scope challenges the notion that the history of economic thought is the purview of a narrow circle of intellectuals in Europe and helps foreground the role of race in fashioning the modern subject as one who embodied the values of individualism, progress, and private property. Economists and philosophers long debated whether these principles could apply to so-called Oriental subjects, understanding their alleged fatalism and communalism to be rooted in Islam.

As feminist critics have noted, the figure of the rational European individual (man) was also the subject of property and self-interest. Anxieties about gender also played out in discussions on economic prosperity in Algeria as colonial officials sought to protect the virility of empire against racial degeneration. Issues of sexual practice and the question of polygamy became a pretext for excluding Algerian Muslims from French citizenship after 1865.  Liberal notions of the self were defined against subjects—colonized populations and women—who were supposedly governed by dangerous passions rather than self-interest. This provided a ready vocabulary for making sense of pan-Islamism and communism after World War II. From the 1950s to the present, economic reforms promoted by local governments and international financial institutions have ushered in new forms of dispossession, as Julia Elyachar has brilliantly elucidated in the case of Egypt. Even if organizations such as the World Bank and IMF now shy away from the patently Eurocentric vocabulary of civilization, they nevertheless promote specific social values in the name of an allegedly universal form of economic rationality.

Following the work of Edward Said, postcolonial theory and representations of Islam have often been analyzed separately from the material ways in which capitalism organized the distribution of resources. Yet by insisting that the realm of economic interest was constructed against the passionate attachments of religion and race, this book indicates one possible rapprochement between political economy and postcolonial theory. The notion that universal human interest constitutes a self-evident domain underpins many Marxist approaches, which argue that “no matter what the subjective clothing, objectively constituted needs, aspirations, and capacity will express themselves in resistance to exploitation and oppression everywhere and in all times.” These debates intensified after the 2013 publication of Vivek Chibber’s Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital, which defends the use of universal categories in studying global capitalist development. In particular, Chibber takes issue with postcolonial approaches that highlight the specificity of capitalism in colonial contexts and critique the Eurocentrism of orthodox Marxism.

This argument overlooks the fact that philosophers and political theorists upheld the ability to recognize supposedly objective interests as a mark of European (masculine) individuality. An awareness of material self-interest was understood to be a civilizational capacity that certain people did not possess. Put differently, the ability of Europeans to recognize allegedly universal interests was defined against the inability of colonized subjects to embody the values of economic modernity. In Algeria, appeals to “universal human interests” were part of colonialism’s lexicon for maintaining the division between subjects and citizens. Moreover, the conceptual distinction between homo economicus and homo islamicus had concrete effects on how capitalism was introduced and organized.

Muslims were not the only religious group whose racialization dovetailed with economic anxieties regarding the global capitalist order. In the nineteenth century, politicians often conflated Jewishness and communism, resulting in the widespread fear that Judeo-Bolshevism was a major threat to Europe. The figure of the Jew, like that of the Muslim, had been associated with deviant economic behaviors and served as a foil for a French identity grounded in Christianity. Moreover, the consolidation of France’s colonization of North Africa in the late nineteenth century coincided with the rise of the myth of Jewish financial power. This should encourage us to think relationally about anti-Semitism and the racialization of Muslims. If the entanglements between anti-Semitism and French attitudes toward Islam are increasingly well-trodden territory, we might ask why there has been such reluctance among scholars of French history to treat Islam as a racial category. Part of the reason surely resides in a modern attachment to the division between race and religion. For many observers, race is understood to be based on “permanent” features such as skin color, biology, or physiognomy, while religion is presumed to describe the more flexible realm of belief, ritual, and faith.

In recent decades, scholars of the French empire have shown that race was a factor in constructing and policing colonial legal structures, categories of citizenship, and boundaries of national belonging. The field has also seen heated debates over the role of republicanism in promoting inequalities. Focusing on the legal frameworks of the empire, however, risks reproducing the color-blind fantasies of the French state, whose republican values discourage explicit references to the racial categories that structure economic and political precarity. Rather than studying the mechanisms of formal belonging, this work focuses on economic policies to elucidate the functioning of a racial regime of religion. On the basis of religion, Muslims in Algeria were disproportionately subjected to racism as Ruth Wilson Gilmore defines it: “state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” This is not to claim that Islam inevitably operated as a racial category wherever European colonialists encountered indigenous Muslims, although a number of scholars have fruitfully investigated the racialization of Islam on a global scale and have questioned the analytic distinction between race and religion. Cemil Aydin argues that the concept of the “Muslim world” has offered a racialized language for understanding Islam from the late nineteenth century to the present, while other scholars have focused on how the American War on Terror has created a global geography of Islamophobia that overlaps with racial categories. My research, however, highlights Algeria’s status as a settler colony and the need to remain attentive to specific racial formations.