Wednesday,26 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1277, (7 - 13 January 2016)
Wednesday,26 September, 2018
Issue 1277, (7 - 13 January 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Their destiny — and ours

A new book examines the shared destinies of the European and Arab peoples, writes David Tresilian

Their destiny — and ours
Their destiny — and ours
Al-Ahram Weekly

In his new book Les Arabes, leur destin et le nȏtre (The Arabs: their Destiny and Ours), French academic Jean-Pierre Filiu has written more than simply another primer on the modern history of the Arab world. While the book takes readers expertly through the political history of the Arab world from the early 19th century onwards, lingering particularly over developments since 1945, Filiu also presents a larger argument that he thinks this history illustrates.

The Arabs, he says, have experienced incomplete enlightenment. While the Arab renaissance, beginning in the 19th century and gathering pace with the end of European colonial rule in the middle of the 20th, brought enormous gains to Arab societies, placing them firmly in the mainstream of political, social and economic modernisation and development, it was a project that was betrayed or diverted by the emergence of military dictatorships across the Arab world from the 1950s onwards.

It was only in the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, a revolutionary wave that spread like wildfire across the Arab countries, that the Arabs re-established connections with their own best traditions, Filiu says. The Arab nahda or enlightenment, a pan-Arab movement towards political emancipation and social and intellectual modernisation and development, pushed underground by totalitarian or one-party military regimes, re-emerged in 2011 as a new generation of Arabs took to the streets in a bid to reclaim their inheritance.

“What was at stake [in these uprisings] was the same thing that had been at issue a century earlier at the end of the Ottoman Empire,” Filiu writes. They were revolutions that sought to reclaim “the right of the Arab peoples to self-determination, a right that was successively denied them first by the interference of European colonialism and then confiscated after independence by the emergence of military regimes.”

While developments over recent decades have made it difficult for some to see the wood for the trees, the direction of Arab history since the beginnings of the nahda has been clear, even if events have sometimes acted to obscure it. “The Arabs, fundamentally, are demanding nothing but their rights,” denied them, Filiu says, by a century or more of obfuscation. “The French should be able to understand this better than other peoples,” he adds, presumably because of the forward movement, punctuated by revolutions, of many accounts of modern French history.

This grand narrative of at times frustrated, but it is to be hoped ultimately successful, emancipation provides the framework for Filiu’s history. It means that Arab history, however complicated, is moving in the same direction as Western European, with “their destiny” being the same as “ours”. “The ‘Islamisation’ of the Arabs and the obsession with ‘minorities’,” features of current western discourse on the Arab world, should not blind us to the real meaning of modern Arab history, Filiu writes, which is the fight for freedom and the desire for self-determination and independence.

French history is also particularly closely bound up with the history of the modern Arab world, bringing shared destinies that much closer. Filiu begins his book by identifying “three main centres” of 19th-century Arab enlightenment – “Egypt, thanks to the power of state-led modernisation, Tunisia, thanks to constitution building and the construction of legitimacy, and the Levant, thanks to the intellectual dynamism of the region.” Each of these centres had its own contribution to make to the Arab renaissance, and each experienced the political and cultural influence, and the direct military intervention, of France.

By the end of the 19th century, Arab societies, still politically fragmented, were moving towards a consciousness of themselves as potentially independent actors on the model of the European nation-state. The Arab world in 1913 was also a radically different place to what it had been in 1798, Filiu says, when French general Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt in what is described here as a “Janus-like event” that was at once “colonial aggression” and a “cultural offensive” designed to drag the country into the modern world.

By the eve of the First World War, the Arab renaissance had shown itself to be “a multifaceted movement of intellectual emancipation, nationalist affirmation, Islamic aggiornamento, economic development, administrative rationalisation and institutional advancement. Never before had so many Arabs been in direct relation with so many others, both in the southern Mediterranean and the Diaspora, with a view to fashioning an Enlightenment vision of their own rooted in language, culture, and national pride.”

What went wrong, at least at first, was the European failure to realise that the history of Europe was, or should be, moving in parallel with the history of the Arabs. Instead of acting in a spirit of partnership, assisting the newly independent Arab countries in building their political and economic institutions, the Europeans introduced a system of League of Nations Mandates, a kind of veiled colonialism, that “forced the Arabs to submit to them rather than work in association” to realise common aims.

“A century later, we are still paying the price for this decision,” Filiu says. It denied the Arabs their self-determination, and it severed links, promised if not achieved over the previous century, of common purpose between the Europeans and the Arabs.

What came next was not enough to rebuild such common purpose. While “the Arab renaissance was betrayed by the European colonial powers after the First World War, the independence of the Arab countries [from the 1950s onwards] was not a genuine form of liberation since dictatorial cliques deprived the Arab peoples of the fruit of their struggles.” Country after country fell into the hands of military rulers, “leading to an absolutely tragic intellectual regression [and to] the loss of the thread giving meaning to the freedom struggles.”

That thread reemerged in 2011 when “a hundred million young Arabs from Morocco to the Gulf, sharing a comparable frustration at having never been so well-educated, but also so poorly employed,” rose up in protest against the systems that were suffocating their aspirations. They were protesting against the “dictatorial preservation of the status quo” in the name of the values of the nahda, Filiu says, and as such they were taking up the thread of Arab history, obscured under decades of reversals or false steps.

Filiu has written a book full of stimulating formulations. Short enough to be read in a couple of hours, it continually reminds the reader of what for Filiu are the lessons of modern Arab history – that political modernity, in the Arab world, is still an incomplete project and that if we want to understand the meaning of recent events we will have to think historically. We will need to see these events as attempts by a new generation of Arabs to renew the promise of the nahda project.

“The Egyptian Expedition and French support for [Egyptian ruler] Mohammed Ali, on the one hand, and the conquest of Algeria, on the other, set Franco-Arab relations on a shared course over the long term,” he concludes. It would be tragic, if, viewing events in the Arab world from the northern side of the Mediterranean, the European public decided “it no longer wanted to understand the dramatic events taking place on the southern side, allowing feelings of horror [at events that have taken place in some Arab countries] to paralyse the understanding and obscure the deep meaning of the fight for liberty that is taking place.”

“The two centuries of history shared by the French and the Arabs mean that it would be an illusion to try to retreat into an ivory tower from which the torments inflicted by ruthless dictators and jihadist torturers can be calmly regarded… Butchers never leave of their own accord. They have to be overthrown. If the Arabs cannot have our support, they at least deserve our comprehension,” Filiu says in his conclusion.

Jean-Pierre Filiu, Les Arabes, leur destin et le nȏtre, histoire d’une libération, Paris: La Découverte, 2015, pp262

add comment

  • follow us on