THE capture of Algiers in 1830 marked a significant departure in the expansionist policy of France, for North Africa was quite unlike older French colonial possessions in the Caribbean Sea and the Indian Ocean. The French soon discovered that North Africa -- or the Maghreb, as the Arabs called it -- did not produce tropical goods and that the native population could neither be destroyed to make way for European colonists nor enslaved to work for them. They also found that Islam provided the natives with a religious and a cultural ideal which they would stubbornly defend. France had not been fitted by experience to understand and govern an Islamic and essentially Oriental people. In the years that followed the fall of Algiers she therefore had to fumble her way. Gradually she acquired in Algeria the reservoir of experience which she was to utilize after 1881 in Tunisia and after 1912 in Morocco. But even today France possesses neither a colonial administration nor a body of doctrine sufficiently well developed to enable her to coördinate her Moslem policy effectively.
Contrary to general belief, North Africa is not inhabited by Arabs but by Berbers who in the course of time have become Arabized. Actually, it took the Arab invaders no less than five centuries to Mohammedanize the Berbers and to impose on the more sedentary tribes among them a thin veneer of Arabic culture. Throughout their history the Berbers have shown a remarkable power to resist cultural absorption by invading peoples. They have appeared to submit to the superior military strength of the Phœnicians, the Romans, the Vandals, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Turks and the French. Yet through all these vicissitudes they have preserved their civilization almost intact. They maintain their intense particularism and their hatred for all outsiders. However, their resistance to outside control, which once took the form of social revolt, now finds its outlet through nationalist agitation.
For several centuries the centers of resistance to foreign influences -- marabouts) which sprang up in North Africa in defiance of the Prophet's injunctions against sects and holy men. The French administration, consequently, has sought to neutralize, or even utilize, their influence by granting them subsidies and pensions. The result of this policy has been to lessen the prestige of the fraternities and the marabouts, for the Berber looks askance at collusion between his religious leaders and the foreigner. But today, instead of seeking redress in a religious schism as he once did, he is turning to nationalism and Pan Arabism.
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