II: New democracies?

Anticolonial nationalism and Arab nationalism

The first part of this book sought to shed light on the ambiguities of humanitarian intervention. It did so by scrutinizing colonial thought in an analysis that keyed in on the Western conceit of the presumed superiority of Western civilization and the inferiority of non-Western humanity—a presumption that formed the backdrop against which the European powers set out on a “civilizing mission” intended to shepherd that humanity towards what they saw as the higher standard of their civilization. But the mission backfired, as we saw, when the colonized recognized their own humanity, along with the colonizers’ inhumanity, thereby setting in train a process of emancipation. So, if we have so far looked at the problem by dissecting the Western mindset, we will now switch sides and look at it from the vantage point of the “colonized,” in an exploration that will take us to the formation of the independent Arab states and the season that has come to be known as the Arab Spring.

Anticolonial nationalism

Let us enter into this analysis by turning to the case of French Algeria. The transformations the country went through as a result of the French conquest have been analysed by the sociologist Abdelmalek Sayad, who notes, to begin with, that the aims of this colonial venture were the ones that had been described by Montesquieu, namely, to gain control over the country’s raw materials and open a market for the goods produced in the mother country (Sayad 2003, 22).

Following various attempts at growing exotic produce in a Mediterranean climate, the decision was finally made to introduce viticulture under an agricultural system based on the French colonists’ appropriation of land. This colonial system was violent, for in addition to being based on armed conflict and land appropriation, it wiped out traditional agriculture, thereby radically modifying the Algerian people’s system of social and cultural relations. “In the outcome” Sayad observes, “the whole of the colonized society was massively disrupted, with a complete destructuring of all social units at all levels” (ibid., 25; my translation). More to the point, a proletarianization process was set off based on the commodification of labour in the metropolis.

Sayad deepens the analysis of the conditions that explain the relationship between the colonized and the colonizer. He reconstructs this as a “passional” relationship


Sayad died in 1998, before completing the manuscript, which was published posthumously under the editorship of Salvatore Pallida and Nino Recupero. Cf. Montesquieu (1748) 1989, pt. 4, bk. 21, chap. 21, pp. 391-93.

enmeshed in history, and in whose formation both sides played a part—both the dominant party (France) and the dominated one (Algeria). This was a colonial relationship that set up a relational structure of reciprocal influences. When it proved just too difficult to arrive at the “essence” of colonization, the notion was introduced of “passional relationships” (ibid., 35), in which only one party is understood to be possessed of rationality, while the other party is thought to lack precisely this capacity.

Sayad seeks to break the barrier in which these representations are encased, so as to grasp the dialectic underpinning the interactive relationships that were forged in the era of colonization. Through his analysis, centred on the political outcome of colonization, he outlines the process that led to the formation of an “anticolonial” or “anticolonialist” nationalism which nonetheless never managed to throw off the yoke of colonial domination. In this process, a movement was mounted to resist colonial power, but this movement “never managed to free itself of the bonds of the colonial condition so as to be able to think of itself as fully independent, with its own worldview” (ibid., 42). This inability of Algerian nationalism to shape its own identity can be ascribed to its having been a “child of colonization”: it was in reaction to colonization that this movement took shape, but in a process marked by contradictory impulses, for even as it rejected the colonial set-up, it continued to mimic the colonial mindset in a way that shaped the movement itself down to the core.

At the same time, this nationalism was not all assimilationist, for it sprang up in a Muslim country and “charted its own path toward religion, sacralizing itself in a literal sense, merging the political sphere with the cultural, and more specifically with the religious one, in such a way as to make religion the essential linchpin of national identity” (ibid., 44).[1]

According to Sayad, this cross-fertilization between the political and the religious is reflected in two aspects of the “sacred”: on the one hand there could be observed a “religious sacred” that enveloped Muslim society in its every manifestation; on the other there emerged a “nationalist sacred” that first sacralized the political concept of nation and then the cause of political nationalism. In this sense, religion can be said to have been bent to the service of nationalism.

This “nationalist sacred” that emerged in reaction to colonization thus set itself up against the “sacred of the civilizing mission.” But the two worlds remained inextricably bound up even so, in that the colonization that gave rise to Algerian nationalism never ceased to exert a power of obsession over that movement. Indeed, as Sayad observes, even in his own time the identity of nationalism continued to be the “negative” one that had been impressed on it by colonization, just as there continued to be an unresolved overlap between the two spheres of the religious and the political. Sayad gives even greater scope to his inquiry by arguing that in trying to understand these unresolved issues that come to light through his analysis, we should not be looking at them in the context of this or that specific country but should rather proceed on an ideal-typical Weberian approach that makes it possible to “take a different perspective on colonialization (though not on colonialism) as a phenomenon both general and universal, a phenomenon incident to civilization itself (but in a different way than is understood by those who speak of the ‘civilizing mission’ of colonization)” (Sayad 2003, 50).

Sayad’s reflection is fully consonant with that of other commentators—such as Bassam Tibi (1996)—who have underscored that the concept of nation is extraneous to the Muslim tradition, central to which is not the nation but the community of believers (umma).

  • [1] In the second place—and in making this argument Pellitteri draws especially on the work of the Algerian historian Abu l-Qasim Sa'd Allah—it is to Algeria that we can trace the birth of Arab nationalism, for this is where the Arab resistance to French occupation was mounted, and in this fight for Algerian liberation two conceptions of nationality confronted each other: the French conception (with its principle of laicité) and the Arab Islamic conception claimed for Algeria (ibid., 32). In the third place, the idea of an Arab nation emerged out of the complex relation between Arabism and Islam. Following the Algerian thinker, Pellitteri states that “Arab resistance in Algeria was at the same time Arab and Islamic” (ibid.; my translation). In offering this analysis, Abu l-Qasim Sa'd Allah rejects the Eurocentric narrative that identifies three moments in the development of Arab nationalism: its birth, traced to the eighteenthcentury formation of Wahhabism in the Arabian peninsula; a second stage, descried in the anti-Ottoman policy that in the early nineteenth century was carried forward by Muhammad All; and then a further resurgence with the Arab revolt that in 1916 al-Husayn of Mecca led against the Ottoman Empire. But in reality, as Abu l-Qasim Sa'd Allah observes, none of these three moments were tied to Arab nationalism: the Wahhabite movement was essentially concerned to purify Islam; the policy championed by Muhammad All was a form of expansionism encroaching on the Ottoman Empire; and far from advancing the cause of Arab nationalism, al-Husayn’s revolt cleared the way for the advance of colonialism and Zionism (ibid., 34).
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