Muslim Bodies as Postcolonial Migrants: Integration, Racialization, and the Failure to Face Colonial Legacies

Patterns of migration continually evolve and transform as global events take place. Colonialism is responsible for many of these contemporary patterns and established attitudes and power dynamics central to migration. This is crucial to understanding today’s trends and also directs us towards another form of colonial legacy–the postcolonial migrant. Muslim migrants emigrating to former colonial powers make up part of this group, whose experience stems from their “‘pre-migration histories’ in colonial states” We can see how this history is convoluted between the colonized and the colonizer, but these relationships are also quite fluid, as in the case of France and Algeria and in looking at the EU’s response to the migrant crisis more generally. Because colonization established many contemporary patterns of migration, we see how Muslim postcolonial migrants are racialized and troubled with processes of integration as former colonial powers fail to face their legacies.

“Processes of racialization begin by attributing racial meaning to people’s identity and, in particular, as they relate to social structures and institutional systems, such as housing, employment, and education.” As we will see, these processes play out in France’s colonization of Algeria and the ways in which Algerians in France continue to be racialized. It is important to emphasize this in looking at Muslim Algerian migrants today, as France continues to regulate their rights based on racialized notions. “Islam… came to acquire a new alienness” beginning in the nineteenth century and France aggressively latched onto this idea. France colonized Algeria in 1830 and remained in power until 1962, when Algeria gained independence. During this period, there was a great deal of connectivity between France and Algeria, and after a set of reforms introduced in 1947, Algerian men were “granted full citizenship in mainland France and instituted unregulated passage between Algeria and France.” This accounts for much of the migration between the two states today. Yet, other regulations undermined the relationship as under these reforms, “Arab-Berber Algerians were officially called French-Algerian Muslims (Français-musulmans d’Algérie), which introduced an ethnically-inspired sub-category of citizens that Algerians resented.” This was an initial step in creating a racialized group of Muslim Algerians, some of which later represented postcolonial migrants in contemporary France. 

France’s process of racialization did not end there. Although France had “always looked to encourage European migration”, it increasingly identified Algerians to be “ethnically distinct and undesirable” and therefore “harder to integrate.” Moreover, as if these claims did not sufficiently echo colonial legacies, many racialized discourses of Algerian Muslim migrants attack the younger population, wherein “post-colonial stereotyping of young Algerian males centred on criminalization, and alleged their refusal to ‘integrate’, whereas young women of Algerian descent were represented as ‘passive’ and ‘submissive’, and, in theory, more predisposed to ‘integrate’.” These racialized ideas have tangible effects on Muslim migrants. As the definition of racialization suggests, it is important to understand how racialized groups navigate social structures and institutional systems. These discourses in France highlight the “ways in which migrant bodies have become nexus points for spatial practices across many scales,” such as exclusion from accessible and fair housing, evident in the populous “shanty-towns” where many Algerians are forced to reside. 

Postcolonial Muslim migrants serve as a point for these spatial practices also in the ways states regulate their bodies. France defines all citizens as French first, with other aspects, such as religion, following. We can see how these practices are closely tied to colonial history. In their “civilizing missions”, France’s goal was “fundamentally unattainable because the colonized peoples were perceived as un-civilizable.” Sticking with their tendency to ascribe “otherness” to these racialized groups, France then implemented segregation policies, specifically in northern Africa, to further separate themselves from those they colonized. In the process, the French often used dress as an outlet to discern themselves from Muslims. The headscarf then served “antithetical” to French interests and values. Evidently, we see how this manifests in contemporary French politics. In 2004, France passed a bill that banned religious symbols in schools. Although it is in the name of secularism, the bill aims to regulate Muslim women who choose to cover. Even today, France continues to justify that the headscarf is at odds with their values. As Joan Walloch Scott argues,  “France, dealing with an influx of mostly poor North African immigrants – who are officially citizens – from the former colonies fares little better, as the ban on headscarves, rather than ‘liberating’ young women, perpetuates racist and sexist stereotypes of the Muslims within its midst.” In this way, we see that colonial history produced not only contemporary migration patterns, but also political and civil rights issues that affect Muslim postcolonial migrants today. 

As a result of colonialism, there is a great deal of migration between France and Algeria. This network, though, also carries with it racialized discourses of Muslim Algerians that have tangible effects on their ability to access fair and equitable services. Moreover, the politics in contemporary France reflect colonial legacies of regulating Muslim bodies. 

On a larger scale, the migrant crisis in Europe further exemplifies to us how colonial powers are struggling to confront their colonial legacies. It is crucial to consider European ideas of superiority and racialized discourses of “others” when we look at this crisis. A Muslim migrant emigrating from a former colony “as a postcolonial subject who ‘radically contests the place assigned to them by political and legal boudaries’ disrupts the European order” and highlights the effects that “colonialism still has in shaping political and social structures, in a way that Europeans can no longer ignore.” According to these ideas of superiority, largely established in the colonial era, Muslim postcolonial migrants challenge an inherant European identity and cannot take part. As we can see, colonial legacies of racial superiority create superficial issues of “assimilation” in the migrant crisis. 

Moreover, “in order to consign this problem to its poorer neighbours, Europe has essentially turned the crisis into a test of ‘postcolonial responsibility’ whereby non-European nation states such as Turkey and Libya are confronted with a dutiful obligation to serve Europe and help it to ‘re-fortify’ its borders, for quite modest returns.”  This tendency to default responsibility and place it on poorer states reflects lingering colonial legacies in power and privilege. As we can see, in upholding ideas of Muslim postcolonial migrants as the “other” and holding influence over poorer nations, Europe is “maintaining empire and global class differentiation in the wake of decolonization.”  

It is imperative to understand these colonial histories in our modern context as we face such issues as immigration and migrant rights. Muslim postcolonial migrants, a 21st century colonial legacy, face continued racialization and difficulties as they migrate and settle in former colonial states. As we can see, looking at migrant issues without considering their roots in colonial era dynamics undermines their complexity and disables any hope for working to improve them.  

Works Cited

“History in Focus.” The colonial and post-colonial dimensions of Algerian migration to France, an article from History in Focus. Accessed October 10, 2019.

Nietfeld, Kay. Future Germany . Photograph. Berlin , n.d. AP Photo. 

Madokoro, Laura. Postcolonial Migrants and Identity Politics: Europe, Russia, Japan and the United States in Comparison. New York: Berghahn Books, 2012.

Masuzawa, Tomoko. The Invention of World Religions: or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism. Chicago, IL: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2007.

Nair, Parvati. “Postcolonial Theories of Migration.” The Encyclopedia of Global Human Migration, April 2013.

Odwyer, Caoimhe. “A Postcolonial Analysis of the European ‘Migrant Crisis’.” E-International Relations. Accessed October 1, 2019.

“Research Guides: Race, Racialization and Racism: Key Concepts.” Key Concepts – Race, Racialization and Racism – Research Guides at University of Winnipeg. Accessed October abcdef28, 2019.  

Scott, Joan W. The Politics of the Veil. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.

Susan P. Mains, Mary Gilmartin, Declan Cullen, Robina Mohammad, Divya P. Tolia-Kelly, Parvati Raghuram, Jamie Winders. (2013) Postcolonial migrations. Social & Cultural abcdefGeography 14:2, pages 131-144. 

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