Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Identity Crisis in French North Africa

 Like most of the planet in the colonial period of the 19th and 20th centuries, the Muslim world was divided between two bipolar perspectives and methods of colonization. As the British used to boast: the sun never set on their empire, which controlled two-fifths of the world’s territories. For the colonized on the Indian subcontinent, sub-Saharan African, Egypt, Palestine, the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the various other colonies where Muslims resided, the methodology by which one was subjected was both harsh and simple. Either one was white and British born or was not; and if not, no matter the subconscious level of commitment towards assimilation, one would never be deemed a person deserving equal rights, protection, or liberty. The native was nothing more than a tool with which to be used to further serve the interests of the British government and its policies. The French Empire, though smaller than their British counterpart, was nonetheless extremely sizeable. It also included nations of sub-Saharan Africa, the Far East, Syria, and for our purposes the three nations of al-Maghrib, in Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. The French colonial policy of assimilation has long been a value of the French government, both its monarchy-Bourbon and Napoleonic-and its republic. Its overall purpose is to make Frenchmen from the Arabs, the African, and the Asian. We use the present context, for it can be argued that France still expects the people who have dealings with or reside in France itself, to behave, to think, to dress, and to love being French. True, the policy of assimilation (hereafter termed the policy) could allow one native of a colonized nation to rise to high status within the French system, yet we can think of only two times in France’s history that such an arrival is noteworthy. The first being that of Thomas Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie, born to a Marquis and the slave he married, a general in Napoleon’s army, and the father of Alexandre Dumas; and the second being that of Blaise Diagne, the first African deputy in the French Assembly. The policy was designed to pacify the populations of France’s colonies through the process of making them Frenchmen, and was supported by the political theorists of the Utilitarian school of the French Enlightenment. Education was the principle by which assimilation began, and the effects of the learning of the average Algerians, Tunisians, and Moroccans great-great grandfathers are the dilemma that faces the Ummah today. The French theorist, Etienne Balibar asked a very poignant question in 1998 which should be expanded to include Tunisia and Morocco: ‘Algerie, France: une ou deux nations?’ Are Algeria and France one nation? Do the values of France supersede the values of Islam?

During his Middle East Quarterly interview in 1996, Anwar N. Haddam spoke of the cultural, existential crisis of his native Algeria:

The Algerian people are winning back an awareness of their own identity. We were colonized by the French for more than a hundred and thirty years. Since 1962, we have not really been independent. We had military independence, but nothing more, being dependent in economic policy, foreign policy, foreign trade, defense policy, and so forth. Now we want back our own identity, and that's our right. This is our message in all the Muslim world. Of course because we are Muslims, Islamic parties win a majority of support; that's normal and obvious. The problem is that there are some people within the Arab world and the Muslim world who think that they have to stay within the Western ideological and civilizational sphere, who think that France should remain in Algeria. The cultural dimension to the program put forward by the FIS rejects this assimilationist approach and instead accepts the concept of the coexistence of civilizations. It aims at the preservation of the cultural and historical traditions of the Algerian society (Islam, Arabism, Amazighism), for these constitute the elements of its identity. Also, we see the rehabilitation of science for peaceful purposes of paramount importance. Algeria could be the bridge between our two civilizations, being close to France and being part of the Muslim world. All over the Muslim world, there is an awareness that what is taking place in Algeria could be an example to be followed by every Muslim country.

Howard Schneider wrote in 1999 in his Washington Post article, ‘Algerians United and Divided by Faith’ that:

In Algeria, academics and moderate Islamic activists agree that the rise in popularity of the Islamic Salvation Front in the late 1980s and early 1990s was more an expression of frustration with the country's long history of corruption and authoritarian rule than a desire to remake Algeria in the image of Iran or Saudi Arabia. Algerians regard their society as unique in the region, with its own complexities--not entirely Arab or European, but stamped with certain European trappings after more than a century of French colonial rule. These Western influences include widespread use of the French language, a taste for local wine, comparatively free association between men and women and other habits that would be difficult to supplant with the type of conformity demanded in more fundamentalist states. It is common in central Algiers, for instance, to see veiled women strolling nonchalantly with friends in sleeveless shirts and other Western fashions. Even outside Algiers, many Algerians say it is the militants who have strayed from the faith. ‘What happened in Algeria is not from Islam. Our religion is one of peace and tolerance,’ said Souhila, a teenager from Sidi Moussa, a town a half-hour's drive from Algiers that was a stronghold of the Islamic fighters.

In Tunisia, is there a correlation can the decision of Zine Alabidin Ben Ali and that of France to ban hijab at roughly the same time because of the widespread resurgence of Muslim sisters choosing to wear it in accordance with Qur’anic Edict and Decree? Furthermore as Yvonne Ridley pointed out in her article about Tunisia’s during this ban:

I would like to be more forthright with Mr. Ben Ali and remind him of his Islamic obligations as a Muslim. I doubt if Zine Alabidin Ben Ali would take much notice. The man is clearly an arrogant fool and somewhere in Tunisia there is a village which is missing its idiot (Hamman-Sousse in the Sahel, actually). This is the man who once said the hijab was something foreign and not part of Tunisian culture. Hmm, he obviously has not seen pictures taken before he came to power, clearly show Tunisian women going about their business fully covered. He has a history of despising the French colonialists who occupied his country, but at least under the French, the Tunisian people had more freedom than they do now.

Balibar questions echoes again: Is Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco merely an extension of France, even with the cessation of official French colonialism. Nearly ten years ago, Jean-Pierre Chevenement wrote in an article, ‘Stop Being Ashamed’ to his French countrymen declaring to them that the immigrants they have welcomed should be appreciative of having been colonized by the French and taught the values of the Republic. He states:

And even with the southern shores of the Mediterranean a joint commitment to enable us to drain the soil of all fundamentalism, fight against poverty and put an end to humiliation. Would it be more interesting and fruitful than indulging in morbid evocation of a past that does not pass? The war in Algeria, its violence and drama lasted seven years and ended with a settlement of one hundred thirty two years. Like it or not, people have been involved, drawn into the orbit of world history, cultures and languages have faced and met, indissoluble bonds were created. The Franco-Algerian does not leave summarized by the evocation of torture or rape, which they did exist, are in no way does the 3 million calls and the vast majority of military members served in Algeria. This view of history is not only an insult to them but it keeps us collectively to move towards integration into the French nation of youth born of immigration, which it manufactures and minority identity that anchors them a principle of hostility to the Republic. Millions of French have their roots in Algeria, but their future is in France and form a bridge between two shores. Today there are more francophones in Algeria that there never was. You cannot judge the colonial period, retaining only its violent denouement but forgetting the assets, and primarily the school, bringing to colonized peoples, with the values of the Republic, the intellectual weapons of their release.

Chevenement confirms that even as early as 2001, how the French view the values of the Republic having released the Algerian, the Tunisian, the Moroccan, and all Muslims said values have liberated from the arcane, the exotic, the antithesis of modernity, that Islam represents. Robespierre and the Declaration of the Rights of Man has set the views of France towards that which it deems unnecessary and superstitious, including the hijab in public schools and government offices, and it would seem that, at the very least, the ruling elites within Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco have answered the call of the Mother Country. We are reminded of the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes when he wrote: Man’s mind stretched to a new idea never goes back to its original dimensions. And yet this is the task The One True and Living God has Placed for all of us, as the brothers and sisters of the Algerian, the Tunisian, and the Moroccan, while we recognize how arduous and nearly impossible it will be, though the words of Haddam and Souhila bint Sidi Moussa engender reason for hope. The great scholar 'Abd al-Rahman Ibn Muhammad Ibn Khaldun al-Hadrami of Tunis, who if one truly studies, is the father of economics; Algeria has Abdelhamid Ben Badis who was instrumental in the Islamic Reform movement while living under French colonial rule; Morocco has ibn Battuta, and the Saharan Berber ibn Yasin (whose descendants are currently being killed by Moroccan and Algerian authorities for no reason at all).[1] These Muslims represent the original and reveal what Islam, when chosen of the individual’s volition, can produce and contribute to the improvement of human history. Now it must be stated that when Islam, or any value system, is wielded for the self-delusional desires of the human mind, which include but are not limited to, fame, the messiah complex, revenge, hatred of a people or their value system-September 11, July 7, French colonialism and its detrimental effects are- self-evident consequences. Yet, how do we, as an Ummah, remind those who are Muslim of the benefit of their faith, their politics, and their notions of social justice, which are inherent in being Muslim. Again, how do we explain what was taken from them generations ago? How it was taken? Why it was taken? And how it is evident in their behavior, their thoughts, their tendencies, that they are nothing more than slaves of the French, even in their contemporary times? Harriet Tubman, herself a slave fugitive, who risked all in order to free others from bondage said: I freed a thousand slaves I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves. More than money, armies, or elections, the people of al-Maghrib, as with the entire Ummah, need al Farabi’s Dialectical Theologians to liberate and release them from the psychological effects and social disease of the secularism of French Republican-Imperialism, colonialism, for it is that which makes them feel they are inferior, inadequate, and uncivilized. Simply stated, the existential crisis that plagues the people of Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco is based on the values of the French Republic. It is these values and the draconian methods by which it was forced upon their parents and grandparents that make it normal for the ruling elites of al Maghrib to behave with complete disregard of the Fifteen Rights of Islamic Political Theory and the Declaration of the Rights of Man. The Algerian, Tunisian, and Moroccan governments are merely mimicking the actions of the French administrators who once controlled their respective nations. When any notion of resistance or trouble arose, the grand chieftains of the French colonial government suspended movement, instituted curfews, shut down newspapers, censored the freedom of speech, removed hijabs, ordered French troops to torture and kill, and did whatever was necessary, by any and all means necessary to maintain French law and order.

Thus, in Algeria when Abbasi Madani, a professor at the University of Algiers,[2]Ali Belhadj, and the Front Islamique du Salut offered a platform that included the Arabization of Algerian education system, a direct rejection of the French values and language which dominated the upper echelon of Algeria including its university system; dismantling the planned economy emphasizing competition in a private sector economy which would receive loans from banks within an interest free Islamic banking system; and began to win elections in Algeria. The pro-French Algerians, aided I would imagine by the French government and business community in need of Algerian petroleum, took power in a coup d’état. What could have been, Allahu Alim; but it must be again. Algeria is a prime example of what the West fears the most, and that is Muslims exercising their rights to political self-determination, rejecting post-colonial notions of progress and cultural emulation, and rebuilding viable, commercial, states in a Islamic framework. Chevenement confirms this, as does the complete inertia of the West towards the political and human rights abuses of Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Egypt, and the entire Muslim world. The byproduct of this inertia, save for the destruction of movements like the FIS, is what transpired after the coup d’état in 1991 which claimed 200,000 lives. Idiots with guns, hatred, ignorance, extreme and always wrong ideological claims take matters into their own hands, which only further exacerbates the problem of freeing others from mental and psychological slavery. September 11, 2001 is a prime example of this byproduct.

I say to the Ummah of which I am a very proud member; we have so much work to do, and conservative, so-called moderate Islam is the only remedy, the only medicine to the social disease of the Muslim body politic. Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco need us, and we must pay closer attention.

Isma'il ibn Bilal

[1] I would add that there is no t-shirt or public outcry for the slaughter of the Berbers in North Africa. Wake UP!
[2] Madani was the RIGHT MAN for Algeria…Ali Belhadj should have followed him and never been made such a prominent figure that he was in the FIS, unless he was under the tutelage of Madani.

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