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.
Religion and World Politics course information