Importation, cross-fertilization, assimilation

Ben Achour has speculated that the reasons why the French model saw widespread take-up in the Muslim world have to do with its emphasis on conceptualization, formalism, and logical unity (Ben Achour 1992, 144). This is in contrast to the practice of Muslim law, which on the basis of a rule tailored to a specific case looks for the underlying rationale pilld), thereby extracting a principle that, by analogy, can then be applied to similar cases. The difference between the formal structures ended up favouring the greater flexibility of French law.

At play was a process of importing a legal model capable of adapting the social and economic transformations underway in the Arab world. Thus the model was not extended to personal status, for this matter was more closely bound up with customs that bore the deep imprint of religion. Nor, generally, was it imported by mechanical transfer: the importation process rather proceeded by cross-fertilization between different systems of law, an aspect that Ben Achour illustrates by describing the work behind the Tunisian Code des Obligations et des Contrats enacted in 1899. Drafting began in 1896 under the direction of David Santillana, a jurist and professor of Muslim law who chaired the commission entrusted with the codification project. The commission, made up of French administrators and judges, drew up a project that was translated into Arabic and was submitted to six Muslim jurisconsults reviewing the work under the guidance of the sheikh al Islam. Santillana observed that wherever interpretive discrepancies came up, they were resolved by looking at what was more coherent with European law, and in particular with French law. As Ben Achour comments, the code that came out was “Islamic and Romanist in its content, and French in its form and presentation” (ibid., 139; my translation).

Whereas in civil law the process was mainly based on importing a foreign legal system and adapting it to the local reality by cross-fertilization with the domesticsystem, in administrative law the effort was essentially to assimilate domestic law into the Western model, with a view to forging administrative structures that would first serve the interests of the colonial state and then, after independence, those of the nation-state. As Ben Achour correctly observes, “regardless of the legal forms of colonization (the colony as department, protectorate, mandate, tutelage, commonwealth, and so on), colonial policy was invariably, by its nature, assimilationist, even if this fact was not officially stated” (ibid., 128). What is more, administrative law, with its hierarchical structure, turned out to be functional as well to the postcolonial state in its effort to consolidate its own authority.

At the same time, however, French law—with its emphasis on the rights of man—contributed to fostering a political culture of opposition to power, a culture that translated into the emergence of counter-powers: labour unions, human rights leagues, and the like. Ben Achour can thus diagram the legal landscape by noting that “three areas can be distinguished that were subject to French influence: civil law, serving the needs of civil society; the administrative tradition, serving the state; and the principles of constitutionalism and the rule of law, underpinning the activity of contestation” (ibid., 146).

It is a profoundly different landscape that we are looking at today in the Arab countries of North Africa. Nationalism has become more radical, and intertwined with Arabism and Islamism: while nationalism is intent on dismantling the legacy of the former colonizer, Arabism is reclaiming its own cultural identity in opposition to Western culture and Islam, the latter of which asserts itself as absolute, thereby rejecting the very possibility of relativism. These are the values and forces that have been churning in the crucible of change that has swept through the countries affected by the deeply transformative Arab Springs—a confluence of elements that is playing itself out in ways that have yet to be seen and arc difficult to predict.

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