Monday,23 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1299, (9 - 15 June 2016)
Monday,23 July, 2018
Issue 1299, (9 - 15 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Religions, powers, and le tout Paris

This year’s Arab History Days in Paris attracted impressive audiences, testifying to growing European public interest in the Arab world, writes David Tresilian

Religions, powers, and le tout Paris
Religions, powers, and le tout Paris
Al-Ahram Weekly

This year’s edition of the Rendez-vous de l’histoire du monde arabe, or Arab History Days, at the Institut du monde arabe in Paris saw large and varied audiences gathering in the Institut’s flagship building on the left bank of the Seine to hear lectures, discussions and now and then some impassioned debates on “religions and powers” in the Arab world, the theme of the event which ran from 20 to 22 May. 

From 10 am until 8 or 9 pm across the three days of the event, the Institut’s main auditorium, top-floor seminar room, and meeting rooms were taken over by sessions on subjects as varied as “languages of Islam from the 11th to 15th centuries,” one of the first round-table discussions on the first day, to “religious elites and political power,” one of the last on the event’s final day. 

The Paris public turned out in force to hear discussions of issues such as freedom of conscience in the Arab world, the place of women and minorities in Arab societies and their relations to political and other forms of power, and the history and development of Arab and Islamic political systems and regimes. Distinguished speakers that included eminent French and francophone academics working on the Middle East and Arab world were much in evidence, as were writers, media figures, and politicians.

Former French prime minister Dominique de Villepin turned up to speak on French foreign policy towards the Arab world on the first day of the event, accompanied by former French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine. French academic and specialist on Political Islam Gilles Kepel was doing a roaring trade with his new book Terreur dans l’Hexagone, an account of last year’s terrorist atrocities in Paris, and Wided Bouchamaoui, one of the Tunisian winners of last year’s Nobel Peace Prize, gave a vigorous account of Tunisia since the 2011 Revolution to an appreciative Paris audience.

Like last year’s inaugural event on Arab cities, this year’s Arab History Days were an opportunity to show off the depth and scope of French academic work on the Arab world and the impressive involvement of French NGOs, associations, community groups and individuals in every part of the region. Young researchers were given the opportunity to present “my thesis in five minutes” to a wider audience, serving as a window on some of the research that will doubtless give rise to essential works of reference in the years to come, while more established figures were invited to present their thoughts to a non-academic public passionately interested in their ideas.

According to Institut president Jacques Lang speaking before Bouchamaoui’s keynote session, this year’s Arab History Days were expected to attract some 4,000 people over the course of the event’s three days. Two hundred writers and academics, most of them French, but many of them Arab and from the traditionally francophone countries of the Arab world, had gathered in Paris to discuss issues of critical import to the region and to further its public understanding, he said. The Institut hoped to make all the discussions available on its Website later in the year. 

Lang presented this year’s prize for the best work in French on the Arab world, the Grand Prix des Rendez-Vous de l’Histoire du Monde Arabe, to a work by a young researcher, Vanessa Van Renterghem, entitled Les Elites bagdadiennes au temps des Seldjoukides (The Baghdad Elite in the Seljuk Period). In making the award, chair of the jury Henry Laurens, himself the author of numerous works on the modern Arab world including a multi-volume history of Palestine, said that while the shortlist had contained many excellent works Van Ranterghem’s exhaustive account of the ruling families of Seljuk Baghdad had stood out for the contribution it had made to the historiography of an under-researched period and the ambition and scope of the author’s research.

The Seljuk Empire was a mediaeval Turko-Persian political unit that originated from the Qynyq branch of the Oghuz Turks and controlled a vast area stretching from the Hindu Kush to eastern Anatolia and Central Asia to the Persian Gulf between the 10th and 12th centuries CE. It was a kind of forerunner of the later Ottoman Empire that centuries later controlled much of the same vast area. Among the many important Arab and Islamic urban centres it controlled was Abbasid Baghdad.

Commenting on the History Days, Abdeljalil Lahjomri, permanent secretary of the Académie du Royaume du Maroc, the Moroccan Royal Academy, said that in sponsoring the event the Academy had been particularly mindful of the need to support high-quality research on all aspects of Arab history and society. On the Arab’s world’s “long, slow and painful path towards modernity,” Lahjomri said, Arab societies were seeking ways in which “to encounter themselves.” This could only happen if further work was done on Arab history of the sort celebrated during the Arab History Days.


RELIGION AND RELIGIONS: Among the issues discussed on the first day of the History Days was the place of religious minorities in the Arab world, with a rewarding discussion of “religion and the contestation of power in Islam” leading the way.

Speaking on the Islamisation of North Africa after the Arab conquests in the 7th century CE, Sobhi Bouderbala, a professor at the University of Tunis, summarised what was and what could be known about the conversion of the region’s Berber populations. The absence of documentary evidence from the period was a stumbling block for historians, he said, but tax records could provide proxy evidence for both the spread of Islam and for the use of the Arabic language.  

While it seems that the North African Berbers were in some cases slow to embrace Islam, different forms of relationship to religious orthodoxy could be detected in the history of Middle Eastern Sufi orders, according to Giuseppe Cecere, a professor at the University of Bologna in Italy. Standard accounts often hold that the Sufi orders, thought of as a “mystical” strand within Islam in contrast to the legalism of the ulema, or clerical authorities, have historically had a quietist relationship to political power, unlike the ulema whose role as the upholders of religious orthodoxy has sometimes led them to challenge it.

However, this view was not necessarily correct, Cecere said, since there had been examples of Sufi orders actively contesting the political authorities in Muslim societies. The evidence suggested that the Sufi orders had played an important role in evicting the Shia Fatimid Dynasty from power in Egypt in the 12th century CE, he said, and centuries later the Sufi orders had actively cooperated with Mohamed Ali’s project to centralise political power and build a modern state in 19th-century Egypt, unlike the ulema who in some cases had contested it.

Later on the first day of the event, two sessions looked at the historical place of religious minorities and freedom of conscience in Muslim societies. In the first, entitled “Jews and Christians in the Lands of Islam,” Annliese Nef, a lecturer at the Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, reminded audiences that from the advent of Islam onwards both Jews and Christians had been protected persons in countries under Muslim rule, notably because they were explicitly recognised as “people of the Book” and the holders of important parts of religious revelation in the Qu’ran. 

However, it was less often remembered, Nef said, that in the early centuries of Muslim rule Christians and Jews were in the numerical majority, often overwhelmingly so, in many parts of the Middle East and North Africa, since much of this vast region had previously been ruled by the Christian Byzantine Empire. As a result it was helpful to think of the early Islamic Empire within a properly “imperial framework,” Nef said, with different groups cooperating to build a new and recognisably Islamic civilisation to replace that of Byzantine rule. It was far from being the case that only Muslims contributed to this new civilisation, she said, since many of the early Islamic philosophers, scientists, translators, architects and technicians were in fact of Jewish or Christian origin. 

As the Islamic Empire matured, with the garrisoned, largely non-Muslim societies, such as had originally existed in Egypt or Mesopotamia (Iraq), for example, giving way to more settled, Muslim-majority ones, the canon lawyers set to work codifying the status of the religious minorities who would now also have been minorities in numerical terms. The status of the dhimmi, or protected persons, was now codified, Nef said, adding that this status did not necessarily correspond to an individual’s economic or social position. 

Some of Empire’s most important officials were Jews or Christians, she said, in some cases even constituting the state’s administrative, educational, or economic elite.

The second session on the theme of religious minorities and freedom of conscience in Muslim societies brought such questions right up to date with a discussion of contemporary “Freedom of Religion in the Mediterranean World.” Introducing this, Valentine Zuber of the Ecole pratique des hautes études in Paris noted that most countries in the world today have ratified the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 18 of which guarantees freedom of conscience and religion and the freedom to change religion.

However, this article has sometimes raised problems, with article 10 of the 1990 Declaration of Human Rights in Islam, a declaration of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, apparently not recognising religions other than Islam or the right to change religion. Against this background, participants in the session examined the texts of the new constitutions of Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco, all ratified since the 2011 Arab Spring Revolutions, for what they had to say about freedom of religion.

Article 6 of the 2014 Tunisian Constitution explicitly recognises freedom of religion, Ali Merghani of the Université Paris 1, said, though it was sometimes forgotten that in doing so it was simply reiterating a right already found in the country’s 1959 Constitution. However, the situation was different in Morocco, where this constitutional right, existing in draft, had apparently been removed before ratification. In the case of the 2012 and 2014 Egyptian Constitutions there was “silence on the issue,” Merghani said, adding that this was possibly because citizenship rights were linked to membership of a religious community. 

In general, the participants felt, an intriguing inverse dynamic could be detected on opposite sides of the Mediterranean. Whereas in the countries of the southern side, Alessandro Ferrari of the Università degli Studi dell’Insubria (Come-Varese) in Italy said, there was a movement towards an individualist conception of legal rights (or de-confessionalisation), notably since the 2011 Revolutions, on the northern side issues of personal status were increasingly being seen as matter for communities, usually religious communities, to decide, often under the impetus of theories of multiculturalism.

While it was unlikely that this “communitarian” conception of legal rights, linked to a process of re-confessionalisation, would make much headway in most of Europe, since the tradition of individual rights was too strong, in some European countries there had been an interest in groups, as well as individuals, being seen as the bearers of certain rights, he said. In most cases, these were linked to a religion and could lead to civil status issues such as matters of family law being dealt with under communal legal jurisdictions.

The discussion provided a contemporary twist on the long-held contrast between societies in which matters of religious affiliation have traditionally governed citizenship status, among them most obviously Lebanon, and European countries where citizenship status is generally always delinked from religious affiliation. 


HISTORY AND THE PRESENT: It would be impossible for any single individual to try to do justice to this year’s offerings, which ranged from discussion of the early centuries of Islam to urgent contemporary issues. 

A balance was often struck between matters of contemporary debate, such as the centenary of the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement which divided the Middle East between Britain and France at the end of the First World War, beginning at least a generation of European colonial rule, and issues which may have seemed more remote from contemporary concerns, such as the historical forms of political power in Arab societies.

Yet, it would be impossible, Leila Shahid, former Palestinian ambassador to the EU, said during a session on the centenary of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, to try to understand today’s Arab world without reference to this Agreement and the 1917 Balfour Declaration that followed it, guaranteeing the British government’s support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”  

Today, she said, with the Arab world going through what may be a new phase of dissolution, it was essential to be reminded of the circumstances of the Agreement and what it represented. “A vast empire [the Ottoman] was collapsing, there was massive foreign intervention, technological change and the discovery of vast oil reserves in the Middle East had drawn international attention to the region, and there was a growing nationalist movement hoping for a new and more just international order.”

“There was chaos throughout the region. What the Arabs hoped to see was cooperation in building it anew, but what they got instead was betrayal.” New forms of political regime arose in imitation of European models, republics in French-ruled Syria and Lebanon, constitutional monarchies in British-ruled Egypt and Iraq. 

Both forms, the participants in a session on “Religions, Monarchies and Republics” said, were innovations in an Arab world that had historically been more familiar with caliphs, sultans and emirs, or at least with the authority of local notables or with some variety of confessional rule. But both had to be seen against the pressures for constitutional change that had been growing throughout the Arab, Turkish and European provinces of the Ottoman Empire in its final decades before the First World War as well as in Qajar-ruled Iran. 

Change was also much in evidence in one of event’s most animated sessions, a debate on the second day on “Islamic Feminism” which examined the sometimes sensitive relationship between feminism, or feminisms, and political power, social conventions, and religion. 

Veteran Algerian feminist Wassyla Tamzali gave a spirited account of the struggles of Algerian feminists in the country’s immediate post-independence decades, when feminism in Algeria was co-opted by an official third-worldist discourse, a mélange of Soviet secularisation theory and emancipationist rhetoric drawn from writers such as the Martinique-born psycho-analyst Frantz Fanon, only to come to grief when this project collapsed into the rigidities of military rule. 

Despite the disasters Algeria had gone through, Tamzali said, it was important not to jettison the achievements of the Algerian feminism of the 1960s and 1970s, which had taken enormous steps in liberating Algerian women from their traditionally limited roles and had “deconstructed and reconstructed the image of Algerian women.” Algerian feminists at the time had had to “choose solitude and marginalisation,” she said, in their fight for the rights of women, including accusations that they were simply “clones of western feminists” or “agents of westernisation.”

It was perhaps an indication of some of the changes that Algeria and some other countries have experienced over the past two decades or so that Tamzali’s words were not always well-received by other members of her panel. Her variety of “secular feminism” was disconnected from Algerian society, hostile to religion, and the result of a western and francophone education, some panel members said. It was an elitist construction cut off from the mass of Algerian women, who neither knew nor cared for such views, seeing them as linked to a discredited military regime and to decades of self-serving elite rule.

“You have denounced us as bourgeois, privileged, and as not being women of the people, but you have done nothing to recognise what we achieved,” Tamzali said. “Worse, your populist discourse is simply one of the weapons of power, since in attacking the intellectuals and the foreign-educated [in Algeria] you are serving no one but the power in place.” 

This session of this year’s Arab History Days in particular was very much on the frontiers of contemporary debate.

Les Rendez-vous de l’histoire du monde arabe. Religions et pouvoirs, Institut du monde arabe, Paris, 20 to 22 May 2016.

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