The Great Shift

What had happened to the Arab world?

When I studied in Paris in 1956 the great Algerian struggle for independence was getting underway. It had not yet reached the boiling point, there existed still some hope that a compromise would be found between the colonizing country France, which had been in Algeria since 1830 and the nationalist Front de la Libération Nationale (since 1954).

I had lived in the Maison de la Tunisie when Habib Bourguiba visited the nationalist students there. I was to visit Morocco a year later, still a penniless student, but had the uncommon fortune (in the wake of some famous Arabists) to be received by King Mohammed V after his return from exile.

My friends were nationalists.

Not only from North Africa, but from all over French black Africa too. In the École Pratique des Hautes Études, where I could join working groups and follow courses, the faces of my neighbors were usually black. We read Claude Lévi Strauss, but also early Franz Fanon. It was not only clear that the Tristes Tropiques were waning, but that the whole grasp of Western colonialism was loosening and slipping. We went to alternative lectures about Négritude by French-speaking poets who would later emerge as the president of their country. It was clear to me that my co-students would become part of the ruling classes in many new nations. And that the descendants of European stock had little to gain on the African continent. I could see the logic of it. The time had come for a change.

But as an anthropologist of the culture – which was my interest – of North Africa, I became convinced that the coming of independence to Africa would mean a huge feat of acculturation. Islamic and Black Africa would have their sovereign nation-states. These nation-states would, as one of my co-students told me, have their armies, their own foreign policies and their flags. They would have their ministries of education and universities and libraries and museums. They would have poets and painters on the level of European civilization, though, of course, a tinge differently.

If the colonial powers would have been far-sighted, they would have prepared for this actively. They could, after granting independence, have left with work well done. All these new states would go to swell the ranks of the United Nations and UNESCO, Western constructions, where I would years later cope with them in the form of voting blocs. But in the Fifties my basic feeling was that the coming of the modern nation-state to Africa was not only inevitable, but a good thing.

The evolution towards democratic and humanist nations with true welfare for their citizens would not be easy. This was to be expected. Not so much because of the initial local conditions but by the battle between two world visions, the American and the Russian one. The democratic pro-market vision against the autocratic state system.

For left-leaning idealists like me this was a good time in Europe. The American system was forced to accept compromises, if only to woo the populations of Europe away from Russia. This gave lee-way for welfare-states of social democratic inspiration to develop.

But in the ex-colonies these compromises were undercut by a geopolitical competition between the two world powers. You had to chose between Capitalism or Marxism. In this way Algeria, the most Westernized nation of North Africa, fell into the Russian mould, like Egypt before it, and began to slide back. Instead of a further acculturation to the best of the West, these countries turned to a third option, the Bandung Non-Aligned Movement, to Cuba or any one-party nation that would carry the torch. This might be good for medical services, that Cuba began to offer systematically to its friends in Africa, but not for talent and innovation. Armies began to take over and to drain the state of its potential. Soon the state would need these armies more than the armies them.

But my vision of two paths of acculturation to western standards, however imperfect, the American and the Russian, held. Meanwhile Europe with its soft power attracted millions of migrants from Africa and the Near East.

And sheltered dissidents from the former colonies, as it has always done.

The new nation-states, even if they had Marxist origins, had no mechanism to warn the powers against a return of history. The Islamic populations of the Arab world, of Persia and of the Maghreb, were not educated into development. Innovation was not supported, emancipation not accomplished. Freedom of speech could not do its cleansing work. And the necessity to give market forces a chance was not felt when Algeria or Libya had enough gas or oil to satisfy current needs. Within one-party nations, that were army-, police- and state-run, the retarded masses lost hope.

Islam, the law of God on earth, the totalitarian answer to every uncertainty, was like a sleeping giant under the Westernizing structures of the new nations. It was a fundamental alternative to the open society. For every question It had a historical answer. It only had to conquer the modern state by any means, democratic or military.

In 1979 Khomeini returned from Paris to Persia where the battle between Russian and American interests had not resulted in a beneficial compromise. In Egypt the long repressed anti-western and pro-Islamic Muslim Brotherhood had killed Sadat and was waiting for an opening to rise. In Algeria Islamists would win the local elections and the army would react with a crack-down. Even in Turkey after 2002 the moderate Islamic party was not only combating the power of Ataturk’s secular army but also the soft powers of Europe. And from the oil-rich friends of America a constant flow of support for Islam and its jihad by Salafist mosques penetrated the common people with past solutions to modern problems.

This was the great shift that had come about in my lifetime since I studied North Africa in Paris. Neither communism nor capitalism was the winner but theocracy. Theocracy was winning slowly and stealthily everywhere on the borders of European enlightenment, from Rabat to Ankara. If you applied one of the methods of the West for problem solving, the popular vote, the return would only be more theocracy.

Theocracy in Islam meant holy war against dissidents. The western symbols of enlightenment culture are fading, research and free-speech, tolerance and human rights, women’s rights and political debate. Sexual liberation.

The center of Paris I was walking through in 2015 looked like a dream achieved, but it was surrounded by the outskirts, les banlieues, where nightmares are incubating.