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Reluctant Militants: Colonialism, Territory, and Sanusi Resistance on the Ottoman‐Saharan Frontier

Journal of Historical Sociology

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["Journal of Historical Sociology, EarlyView. ", "\nAbstract\nLibya's enigmatic Sanusi brotherhood has been the subject of perennial debate since its emergence in Ottoman Cyrenaica in the mid nineteenth century, becoming a screen upon which apologists and detractors could project their own political anxieties and desires. For European critics, the brotherhood embodied the irrationality and fanaticism of the Islamic East. Its networks in North and Central Africa constituted an obstacle to their expansionist designs, while Sanusi prestige throughout the Muslim world rendered the brotherhood a threat to the entire colonial order of things. Nationalist historiography has generally endorsed this view, albeit with a positive valence, characterizing the Sanusiyya as an anticolonial social movement. Meanwhile, modern critical scholarship has tried to impose order on the chaos of the turn‐of‐the‐century Sahara by assigning to the fraternity the role of a “proto‐state.” This article proposes a new framework for understanding the history and sociology of the Sanusi. Drawing on theorists of subaltern resistance such as James Scott and Michael Adas—alongside Ottoman, British, French, and Italian primary sources—I demonstrate that the brotherhood began its life as an inward‐looking Islamic social justice movement with little evident interest in state building or the geopolitical controversies of the moment. I coin the term “reluctant militants” to describe its mercurial trajectory from frontier evangelism to armed struggle in response to French and Italian colonial encirclement. This process culminated in the Long War of 1911–1931, during which the Sanusiyya played a critical part in the struggles over post‐Ottoman reconstruction, from the Maghreb to Anatolia.\n"]