French Space? Silencing the Call to Prayer in Colonial Algeria

By Michelle Weitzel
Submitted to Session P4927 (Occupying Space: Land, Religion, Power in Colonial North Africa, 2017 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
Drawing on archival research conducted at the French Archives Nationale d’Outre Mer, this paper argues that the French colonial administration viewed religious sound, and particularly the Islamic adhan, or call to prayer, as a significant site of political resistance and thus an important locus of political control. Building on research that has documented the thoroughgoing spatial, architectural, and societal change effected by the French administration, and in conversation with administrative records on state-mosque relations, surveillance, and operations, I demonstrate that French domination in Algeria also manifested through a control of the urban soundscape. Research on colonial French modes of governance that consider the sonic realm at all has focused overwhelmingly on the importance of radio in Algerian resistance efforts and in the eventual War of Independence. Such work, perhaps most evocatively typified by Franz Fanon, has deepened our understanding of international networks, listening practices, and Algerian opposition strategies, yet it rarely deals squarely with the modality of power that undergirds radio’s revolutionary capacity, namely, sound itself. In highlighting sound’s relevance as a mechanism of power that controls both territory and population in colonial Algeria, I establish historical precedence for French state control of Islamic sounds—a precedent that must be taken into account in the contemporary political moment in relation to debates on the call to prayer and the role of a public soundscape in structuring citizenship and national identity in postcolonial France.