Stephen Chan: When we look at con­tem­po­rary inter­na­tion­al pol­i­tics, we often look back to the sec­ond Gulf War, the war against Saddam Hussein and his much rumored, much vaunt­ed, but nonex­is­tent weapons of mass destruc­tion as the begin­ning of an adven­ture full of hubris and con­tain­ing a neme­sis that’s come back to haunt us. The unleash­ing in the after­math of that war of all kinds of seem­ing­ly religiously-based pow­ers that threat­en the Western project and which have spread their ten­ta­cles around the world in terms of ter­ror­ist actions, not to men­tion in terms of devel­op­ing a huge amount of tur­moil in the Middle East itself.

But are we right in terms of attribut­ing all of these things to one war that we ill-advisedly decid­ed to begin? My mind goes back to an ear­li­er pro­to­type of what hap­pened in Iraq. And that is with the strug­gle for the decol­o­niza­tion of Algeria. There, you had resis­tance to French colo­nial rule, and in fact it was colo­nial rule which was aid­ed and abet­ted with set­tler­dom. The colons, or those who had left met­ro­pol­i­tan France to set­tle in Algeria, had made of par­tic­u­lar­ly Northern Algeria a depart­ment of France itself. Life could be French. 

And so decol­o­niz­ing the coun­try, giv­ing in to the demands for inde­pen­dence, led to a huge resent­ment in terms of the set­tlers, in terms of French nation­al inter­est being able to project itself from both sides of the Mediterranean. And the huge vio­lence that fol­lowed, was that in any way attrib­ut­able to a French reluc­tance to embrace a more Islamic view of the world in terms of the greater pop­u­la­tion of Algeria? Or was that to do pure­ly with the pow­er pol­i­tics of hav­ing a colo­nial out­post, and set­tlers on the oth­er side of the Mediterranean?

As the resis­tance to French rule con­tin­ued to grow, as it became more vio­lent, as women using bombs in mar­ket­places for instance became a favored device of resis­tance to the French, the French devel­oped what lat­er became known in Southern Africa as the South African Apartheid doc­trine of Total Strategy.” In oth­er words put a total mil­i­tary stran­gle­hold on any pos­si­bil­i­ty of resis­tance on the part of the Algerian fight­ers. And this was a smoth­er­ing of the pos­si­bil­i­ty of resis­tance, which did not of course work. But none of it had any direct ref­er­ence to the fact that the resis­tance might have Islamic roots, although it might have Islamic ten­den­cies or even Islamic affil­i­a­tions in a remote sort of way.

And yet when we look today at North Africa, we see not only mod­ern nation-states, but we see also the advent with­in a com­par­a­tive moder­ni­ty of Islamic move­ments that are not sat­is­fied with the sta­tus quo, not sat­is­fied with the pro­jec­tion of a Western project, even though it’s tak­en on inde­pen­dent local dress. And yet it was the strug­gle for an inde­pen­dence, with Western insti­tu­tions, clad in local dress, that some­one like Frantz Fanon was attract­ed to.

Fanon, from Martinique in the Caribbean, could not have been fur­ther removed from the Algerian project at the moment of his birth and dur­ing the time in which he was grow­ing up. But he became affil­i­at­ed to it as a form of moder­ni­ty that could be sym­pa­thet­ic to the aspi­ra­tions of peo­ple with­in a con­text of polit­i­cal free­dom and in terms of a con­text of self-determination and self-choice. All of these things drew Fanon to the strug­gle in Algeria, which the Algerians rec­og­nized. He was giv­en prop­er respect and in fact buried in Algeria after his death, his body smug­gled across French lines so it could be buried by free­dom fight­ers on Algerian soil.

And yet there was noth­ing in the strug­gle at that point in time, even on the part of the lib­er­a­tion front, that was any­thing but sec­u­lar. The sec­u­lar­i­ty of the strug­gle for self-determination is some­thing which speaks to a mod­ern effort at nation-building and state-building which is present also in Iraq. So whether or not what you had in the ill-advised sec­ond Gulf War was a dis­man­tling at the effort of state-Building and nation-building, or whether it was the unleash­ing of a reli­gious genie from its bot­tle, or some curi­ous com­bi­na­tion of the two, is a mat­ter yet to be resolved but that is a com­bi­na­tion of the two. To be reduc­tion­ist and to say it is only one is I think a mis­tak­en attribution.

You can look at what hap­pened for instance dur­ing Fanon’s years in Paris. There are also the years when the Iranian philoso­pher Ali Shariati was also study­ing in that city—the same influ­ences. And these years of exile and study as it were in Paris over­lapped with the years of exile all of the Ayatollah Khomeini. And it’s not as if the Ayatollah Khomeini, who lat­er became the supreme ruler of Iran, was unin­flu­enced by intel­lec­tu­al cur­rents in Paris. He knew he had to pay atten­tion to the devel­op­ing thought of Shariati. He was very much advised and in fact had long con­ver­sa­tions with intel­lec­tu­al Palestinian exiles, who talked to him about doc­trines of immis­er­a­tion. Who talked to him about the Latin American school of Neo-Marxist depen­den­cy. Who talked to him about mod­ern cur­rents of thought, which was pro­posed in terms of oppos­ing inter­na­tion­al cap­i­tal­ism, not on a reli­gious basis but on a sec­u­lar basis, on a basis of the dis­tri­b­u­tion of capital.

All of these things had to be tak­en on board by Khomeinei so he had not just a reli­gious imprint on what he want­ed to do, but he had to have an imprint on how his new state—supposedly a theo­crat­ic state—of Iran could in some way sur­vive in a mod­ern world. And who knows what devel­op­ments would have tak­en place if there had not been imme­di­ate con­fronta­tion with the Americans over the occu­pa­tion of the embassy and the hold­ing hostage of sev­er­al American diplomats?

What you had, how­ev­er, in terms of the residue of the French colo­nial project, par­tic­u­lar­ly into Islamic areas of Africa, West Africa, as well as North Africa, is a very very curi­ous fight back not only in terms of reli­gious val­ues. But these were civilizations—African civilizations—which were not only religiously-based but city-based. In oth­er words there were kin­ship soci­eties, urban soci­eties, and cul­tures of orga­ni­za­tion, and urban cul­tures of resis­tance which were pos­si­ble with­in that form of social orga­ni­za­tion that were able to fight back from an autochtho­nous foundation.

This is some­thing which I think is com­mon­ly over­looked, that this com­bi­na­tion of sophis­ti­ca­tion was part of the fight back. It was­n’t that the French went with a Christian mis­sion to civ­i­lize vast open spaces. That was part of it, cer­tain­ly. But what they found in coun­tries like Mali for instance, and oth­ers of Islamic kin­ship states, in Senegal, were cul­tures, sites, orga­nized urban poli­ties that were able to self-organize and also to resist. So that the world pol­i­tics of today mis­takes not only the wide open space as a tab­u­la rasa, a blank black­board upon which the colo­nial project could write. But mis­takes also the foun­da­tions of sophis­ti­cat­ed resent­ment and resistance.

And yet the idea of the wide open space remains res­o­nant, very very much part of the whole Mormon project in the United States of America. Jesus went to the wide open spaces, even though when you read the Book of Mormon it was curi­ous­ly an urban­ized wide open space with great cities. The Afrikaner project in South Africa to devel­op a new fron­tier because there were wide open, unin­hab­it­ed spaces, to be met in par­tic­u­lar by the fero­cious resis­tance of the Zulu kingdom.

All of these things try to imprint upon some­thing sophis­ti­cat­ed an image of some­thing sim­ple. A con­den­sa­tion of com­plex­i­ty into some­thing that need­ed all the same to be filled by some­thing supe­ri­or. All of these things of regard and of den­i­gra­tion infil­trate into today’s reli­gion and world pol­i­tics, the way they mix, the way they mesh. And they make of some­thing very very com­plex some­thing very sim­ple at first sight. But the aim of this lec­ture and of this course is to res­ur­rect the full com­plex­i­ty of these relationships.

Further Reference

Religion and World Politics course infor­ma­tion