Islam between Françafrique and Afrabia

By Wendell Hassan Marsh

Upon his invasion of Egypt in 1798, Napoleon had a message for those Muslims suffering under Ottoman dominion. He would liberate Egypt and Islam and make them liberal, modern. Using rhetorical formulae and forms of argumentation put together by his army of Orientalists, Napoleon superficially provided the material that his critics at home would use to argue that he had strayed from Christianity (and that some Muslims use today), that Ali Bonaparte had converted to Islam and placed the Islamic message at the centre of the republican idea. This reading fails to grasp the instrumentalisation of Islam that would characterise French imperial policy for a long time to come.

As historian David Robinson has argued, this instrumentalisation of Islam for the purpose of governing Muslim subjects is precisely what transformed France into a Muslim power over the course of the 19th century. Algeria was the laboratory in which the techniques and technologies of this instrumentalisation were worked out. Non-binding legal decrees were used to legitimate French rule and the sharīʿah in general was systematised so as to be useful to a rationalised colonial administration. Khalil’s Mukhtasar, an important guide to the dominant Maliki legal school, was translated into French and used by colonial administrators. In fact, an entire complex of translation through the training of interpreters and teachers was critical in making colonial control complete. Beyond language and law, France supported and sometimes organised a range of Islamic institutions that connected religious practice in its colonial possessions with the so-called Islamic heartlands, in order to make possible the kinds of relationships that could be beneficial to it while limiting others that were not. Finally, networks of clerics and religious associations in the form of Sufi brotherhoods were used to distribute state resources and serve as a general buffer between people and the colonial state.

This model of Islamic governance à la française was pioneered in Algeria, but it did not come into its own until the French incorporated West Africa into their sphere of Muslim possessions. Here a careful balance was kept between the administrative unity of north-western Africa and the political fragmentation that resulted from the construction of racialised concepts of Black Islam and Moorish Islam that developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This kept Islam, as much as the universalist religion would allow, local, vernacular, and administrative, that is, apolitical.

This article first appeared in print in Muzmin, an Arab edition of the Chronic (July 2015).

This article first appeared in print in Muzmin, an Arab edition of the Chronic (July 2015).

The forms of political violence that invoked the name of Islam during the recent attacks in Paris signal deep continuities with French imperialism. I do not mean this in a “chickens come home to roost” kind of way, but the political use of Islamic idioms and institutions were in many ways pioneered by the French and the strands of Islamism imbued by the neoliberalism of the day have as much in common with Western faith in the market as it differs. As Michel Houellebecq’s novel Soumission, which depicts the electoral victory of a moderate Islamist party on the masses of children of imperialism in 2022 France, the prospects of a liberal Islam are not so unimaginable. In fact, it has long been imagined by Africans, Arabs, and many of the French in between.   

Françafrique and Afrabia

Colonialism, as theorised by the likes of Samir Amin, meant the extroversion of African economies and societies, an orientation that left the periphery dependent on the centre.  On top of the material interests in exportation of raw resources and the consumption of refined products was also a trade in a corresponding veneer of specific ideas and cultural forms accumulated through the trajectory of Europe’s historical experience. While there was an important movement of migratory labour that would eventually provide antagonistic forces from below in both France and Africa, the most important movement of people that would result in the dominant ideology within French West African countries was the movement of would-be intellectuals from the colony to the metropole for their education and training. Their education in the French language and indoctrination into republican ideals made them a comprador managerial class that could do little to claim their own autonomy. In a way, the implicit deal was that in exchange for its wealth, Africa could claim to be part and parcel of the civilisation of the universal. It too could decorate its halls with Greco-Roman motifs and sport coats of arms reminiscent of mediaeval crusaders.

“Françafrique” has been used as a term to describe a particular kind of privileged relationship that tied France to its former colonial interests in Africa, particularly sub-Saharan Africa. What does privilege mean between the subject and its coloniser, if not a euphemism used to smooth over structures of subordination and dependency that characterised the uniquely neocolonial moment in the 1960s and 1970s? Senegal enjoyed this dubious privilege more than any other former colonial possession, that is, except its primary competitor, the Ivoirian exception. In Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal alike, the colonial enterprise has famously been understood as a civilising mission. Embedded within the privileged relationship are the effects of a missionary activity that sought to impose modernity, a secularised Christianity. Unlike Côte d’Ivoire and its form of settler-colonialism – which saw the direct importation, application and appropriation of French civilisational frameworks, institutions and language – the administration of Senegal required that colonialists do something with the millennium-long presence of the civilisational content associated with Islam.

Senegal’s first president, Léopold Senghor, both embodied and enacted this relationship, this fusion of France and Afrique. Taken prisoner-of-war for the sake of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity à la française during World War II, Senghor maintained French citizenship and French interests while serving as the country’s leader for 20 years of nominal independence. It was in this position, situated between the French mainland and its dispersed former subjects, that Senghor advocated for a Frenchness that transcended territory in the form of the Francophonie, the French-speaking world. He would eventually be named an “Immortal” by the French Academy, an eternal protector of the French language and culture. A Catholic by conviction, Senghor dealt with Islam and its language, Arabic, as ambiguously as the colonial authorities that preceded him. Like the French, he used Islam and Arabic to mediate between the state and the hard-to-represent peasant masses outside of the civil society of the four communes of Dakar, Saint-Louis, Gorée and Rufisque, while being cautious of the risks of transnational linkages that Islam could help to channel and encourage.

Françafrique describes much more than a life history or even the ideology of a comprador bourgeoisie situated to profit from the preservation of structures of subordination; rather, it describes an orientation, an entire series of central references, political commitments, standards of value, idioms of expression, forms of action. Alternatively, or additionally, we can describe it as a circuit through which economic, political, and cultural capital flows. The orientation of francophone Africa is often discussed in the secular terms of republican laïcité and thus has often not had to consider the place of Islam, in the singular or plural, in the maintenance or resistance of that orientation. But is secularism not disenchanted Christianity? The French military re-entry into the Sahel after the Mali crisis, and its other adventures in the Muslim world, beg the question: what is the relationship of a so-called Islamic civilisation to the secular (Christian) modernity of Françafrique?

Needless to say, Françafrique was not the only constellation of capital and culture on offer at the time of African political independence. While the bureaucratic and intellectual elite ran through these well-established circuits between France and its colonies and neo-colonies, there have also been different circuits between African countries and Arab countries within Africa and in the Middle East that have long been developing and now achieving critical mass. Some circuits have had deep historical precedents, as “seeking knowledge” and pursuing trade have rendered Muslims, no matter their ethnic composition, highly mobile. This mobility was feared and suppressed during the colonial period even as French and British powers relied on Muslim intermediaries, thus creating isolated and vernacular articulations of Islam. These circuits transformed and multiplied after independence through funding, sending and receiving teachers and students, and establishing institutions. These forms of direct collaboration intensified with the oil boom of the 1970s and have exploded since the liberalisation of pseudo-socialist African countries in the 1990s and the hatchet jobs against African states by the Bretton Woods organisations.

Scholar Ousmane Kane has called these Africans who have received Arabo-Islamic education in their home countries and in Arab states, “non-Europhone intellectuals”. The growth of this body of educated people, often more comfortable in Arabic than in French and more faithful to Islam than committed to the articles of secular faith, has presented a challenge to a social structure and economy that privileges a relationship with the francophone world. Upon their return, former students have often had an orientation to the Arab world that has not been limited to ritual prayer. Scholars such as Réné Otayak have suggested this group might constitute a counter-elite that could lead people in a different direction with a critique of the West founded on a certain Afro-pessimism. It is true that many students returned resentful of the experience of racism and disillusioned with the worldly realities of once idealized Arabs living in society. But many of those returnees have nevertheless come back as nodes in networks that run through the Arab world more than the francophone one. While many so-called experts identify this elite as a vector of radicalisation, it is highly fragmented and its precise relationship with the local masses, the mainstream elite, and external actors in the Middle East and the West is highly differentiated and at times contradictory.

Since the decade of decolonisation, the world has indeed seen dramatic changes in its political economy. The ideological defeat of state socialism, which had dominated African politics until the end of the Cold War and the neoliberal onslaught in the early 1990s, meant political and economic liberalisation, that is, the multiplication of actors outside the state. That moment was also characterised by a Western willingness to launch incredible displays of force in the Middle East to ensure flows of oil. It was in this context that Ali Mazrui saw the strategic imperative to conceptualise a geographic orientation that would turn the Middle East and Africa away from the West and towards each other in order to produce a new ideology. The result was Afrabia, Mazrui’s critical geography in which Africa, or at least the large part of it for which Islam has been a part of its historical experience, is oriented towards the Arab and Islamic world and not the West, and serves as an intermediary for the non-Muslim parts of Africa in their relations with Arabs.

As a concept, Afrabia is neither without precedent, nor without historical basis. African and Arab intellectuals throughout the 20th century have been making arguments for natural, cultural, and political unity. Indeed, pan African theorists such as Edward Blyden and Dusé Muhammad Ali understood and argued for the connection of “the darker races of the world”, citing Islam as a sort of civilisational glue that could hold things together. Also, the tricontinentalism of the Bandung moment encouraged Afro-Arab solidarity along with many other anti-imperialist geopolitical configurations. Gamal Abdel Nasser famously saw Egypt as the centre of the three concentric circles of the Arab world, the Muslim world, and the African one that drew Egypt close to other nations in those configurations. The struggles of decolonisation in Africa had vital ties and networks of support in Arab countries. Furthermore, African states have tended to side with the hallmark Arab cause of Palestine. And as late as the mid 1980s the Arab think tank, the Centre for Arab Unity Studies, held a major conference and published an extensive report that tried to exhaust the “Africa question” for the Arab nation-states.

The problem that this theorisation has always run into, however, has been twofold. The first is that its reliance on the history of African and Arab interaction as proof of future possibilities is as weak as it is strong. This history includes as many lows as it does highs. For every proof of racial equality in a supposed Islamic history, there is a proof of paternalism and exploitation. For every Mansa Musa, there is a Zanj revolt. For every claim on an African Muslim empire, there is a claim of Arab conquest of that empire. The second, and most damning problem, is that the logic of these ideological configurations accepts the idea of civilisational difference and implicitly a hierarchy established on the basis of those differences. That hierarchy goes something like the following: the West is the best, Islam is next and Africa is what’s left. Just like the European thinkers who defined the overall framework for knowledge in the 19th century, Afro-Arab thinkers saw Islam as a civilisational mediator between the African and the modern. Islam itself was a channel that brought Africa forward. This framework of civilisation itself ensured the perpetual negation of Africa and continued contradiction between historical arguments and the means to make those arguments, thereby causing a fundamental ambiguity of political potentiality.

Mazrui, in an often cited essay on Africans and the Arabs in the “New World Order”, argues that there is a demographic imperative for a future reconciliation between Africans and Arabs, pointing out that the majority of the world’s “Arabs” live on the African continent, that the largest Arab countries are African territories, and that Africa is becoming a Muslim-majority continent. Mazrui uses the slippages and overlaps between these categories (African, Arab, Muslim) to effectively bolster his argument. He takes for granted the categories themselves and is uncritical of the contradictions that have emerged from a racialist organisation of modern knowledge. Hybrid ethnicities and languages that have materialised from histories of intense Afro-Arab interactions serve as the most important element in his argument for bridges of solidarity where barriers of modern geography have been thought to hold sway. While Mazrui’s preoccupations with blood and culture in the search for historical legitimacy are deeply problematic, the attempt to make the argument when he did in the early 1990s is interesting in the way in which it tries to generate an ideology with which to make emergent circuits of capital and culture between Africa and the Middle East meaningful.

Islamic liberalism and the Francophonie

The Muslim public intellectual and new voice for today’s Islamic liberalism Tariq Ramadan loves Africa, and has done for a long time. He has called it a horizon, a breath of air, an abode of roots and most of all of memory and tradition. His several speaking and organising trips to Senegal since at least 2012 have touched on such themes as Muslims in global capitalism, tolerance of homosexuality, and breaking ties of influence with neo-traditional religious leadership. One of his most documented visits was during the 2013 Colloque International des Musulmans de l’Espace Francophone (CIMEF). CIMEF is a biannual event that brings together Muslims from the French-speaking world, and has always been held in different French-speaking countries in West Africa since its inaugural event in 2000 in Côte d’Ivoire (the event has also been held in Bénin, Niger, Burkina Faso, Togo and Mali). The organisation around the conference ensures that it is conspicuously moderate, an Islam that the West can embrace. Neither fundamentalist nor less-than-orthodox Muslims are welcome. The Islam on offer is more a public Islam for liberal democracy than a political Islam that appears to contest it.

That the Swiss national of Egyptian origin would have so active a project in a former French colony is not so preposterous, considering the tradition from which Ramadan comes. Muhammad Abduh, one the most influential figures in the hall of fame of Muslim reformers, was an unapologetic liberal and a fan of France. It is said that after his travels to Paris with his mentor Jamal al-din al-Afghani he said, “I went to the West and saw Islam, but no Muslims; I got back to the East and saw Muslims, but not Islam.” Coincidently, he saw this at the moment of France’s peak expansion as a Muslim power. Abduh was responsible for some of the first attempts to fuse Enlightenment ideas central to liberalism such as individual rights, rationalism and religious tolerance with Islamic faith, placing significant emphasis on accommodating technological progress through law. Reform was so critical, in Abduh’s opinion, because the Muslim world had to compete with Western capitalist imperialism. The choice seemed to be become modern on your own terms by making the Islamic tradition a resource, or become modern by poorly copying the West.

The discourse in Dakar and other parts of francophone Africa has not been all that different. During the 2013 CIMEF conference, the theme was the contribution of Islamic thought to the understanding of ethics, governance and power, and peace and security. Panels on ethics and “Islamic economics” and on bioethics and Islam, in particular, are touchstone topics for those reformist Muslims who take up a liberal discourse.  The conference theme is not so surprising when you consider that the organisation that sponsored the event is the Qatari Centre for Islamic Legislation and Ethics, the director of which is none other than Tariq Ramadan. Working within the tradition of liberal reform, Ramadan has made Muslim Africa an important sphere of activity for its expansion. The relationship of a Qatari funded Islamic liberalism to France and the Francophonie is up for further analysis. But it is important to mention that Qatar, an Arab gulf country with no history of French anything, has somehow managed to join the Francophonie. Perhaps we can describe it as an ideology with its constituting geographic poles in France and in the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf.

An Afrabia that takes Qatar as its centre of Islamic anything is only one of many orientations that are currently competing for dominance. To be certain there is a resistance to this configuration. In autumn 2014, a different conference on Islam and the French-speaking world was held as part of the activities associated with the 15th summit of the Organisation of the Francophonie.  “Francophone Muslim Religiosity in the World” was organised through a collaboration of the Centre d’Étude des Religions at the Université Gaston Berger in Saint-Louis, the Institut Supérieur d’Étude des Religions et de Laïcité at the University of Lyon 2 and 3, and the University of Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar. Though the two events seem to be more or less the same, the difference in circuits of support, collaboration and flows of initiative tell quite a tale.

CIMEF, organised by an Emirati organisation, took French to be simply the medium of reflection and exchange, focusing on specific problems of the ethical bases of law for Muslims. The 2014 conference’s primary thematic focus was the French language itself, proposing that French is a language of Islam, to borrow the wording of one of the lead organisers, Senegalese scholar Abdul Aziz Kébé. The first seems to have been more programmatic whereas the second seemed to be more of a local initiative within the French neocolonial framework. It’s hard to tell whether or not the former encouraged the latter or if there was any other form of relation between the two. But the differing themes, rosters of participants, and sources of support and collaboration suggest that the two conferences were opposed in some way. CIMEF used the French language to facilitate new circuits of the flows of economic and cultural capital whereas the francophone Muslim religiosity conference seemed to affirm old ones.

Modernisation theory supposed that religion would eventually disappear in the world as the global South became more developed and the liberal message of capitalism found its way into the hearts of people all over the world. The ideological alternative of socialism posed some challenges for the bourgeois ideology of liberalism, but was largely in agreement with it on the diminishing returns of religion. Paradoxically, the dominance of liberalism in the world today has encouraged a return to religion in political organisation and expression. This development is seen most vividly in Africa, where religious differences and their corresponding geopolitical orientations seem to substantiate Samuel Huntington’s thesis on the clash of civilisations and its bloody borders. But as we have seen, capitalism is ultimately indifferent to religion and can actually subsume religious differences in order to support its own expansion. Islam, whether a faith, a legal system, or a tradition, has functioned as both a mediator and a source of idioms and forms for diverse modern projects of differing ideological formations. The differing orientations of Françafrique and Afrabia are not symptomatic of a civilisational conflict, but rather configurations of different circuits vying to be the centre of capital and culture. Any conflict that emerges from that is not a civilisational one but emerges from the crisis internal to capitalism.

muzmin_coverresizedThis article features in a special, Arabic-only edition of the Chronic, published in June 2015 as “Muzmin”. The issue, which examines the division of “North” and “sub-Saharan” Africa and Ali Mazrui’s concept of “Afrabia”, was designed in collaboration with Studio Safar (Beirut) and presented at the 12th edition of Sharjah Biennial.

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