25 July 2015

The Mid-20th-Century Rise of Islamism in the Maghreb

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This is a French article on Bennabi, actually an obituary (“Bennabi or the Conscience of the Muslim World”), located on an Arabic website dedicated to him. This is a French article on Bennabi, actually an obituary (“Bennabi or the Conscience of the Muslim World”), located on an Arabic website dedicated to him. http://www.binnabi.net/infos/detail/KWi78Sd149FDiY/Malek_BennabiOu_la_conscience_du_monde_islamique

Boring title, right?

Actually, the explosion of anger among the masses in North Africa (the “Maghreb”) in December-January 2010-2011 initially called the Arab Spring, which toppled three regimes in the region (Tunisia, Libya and Egypt), had roots in 1930s Algeria. Let me explain.

And by the way, this is the beginning of a series of three blogs on Rached Ghannouchi, that spin out of his book I am translating (Arabic to English), The Public Freedoms of the Islamic State. Ghannouchi is the founder (and still leader) of the islamist party Ennahda (“Renaissance”), which was voted into power in Tunisia on the heels of dictator Ben Ali’s desperate escape from the country. Ghannouchi wrote this book mostly as a political prisoner in the 1980s as a doctoral dissertation. Back to him later . . .

What we call “political Islam,” or islamism (I use the lower case ‘i’ to mark it off as an ideology), or the 20th-century movement to bring specific Islamic values into the sociopolitical sphere of the nation-state, goes back to the great modern Islamic reformer Muhammad Abduh (d. 1905). Abduh, who spent the last decade or his life as Egypt’s top cleric, or Grand Mufti, wanted a “modern” Islam that could help Muslims deal with the momentous and frightening changes wrought by Western colonialism. To accomplish this, he argued, you have to cut through all the dead wood, fanciful traditions and superstitions that accumulated over time, and learn from the luminaries of early Islam and the masters of its classical tradition. In one word, you turned to the salafs, or the “pious forbears.” Hence, Abduh labeled his thought salafi (see my blog, “Whence the Salafis?” for fuller treatment of this trend).

So the new salafi teaching that Abduh was able to establish at the most prestigious center of Islamic learning, Cairo’s al-Azhar University, spread to other centers around the world, and notably to the Zaytuna mosque complex in Tunis, where the Algerian reformer Ben Badis (d. 1940) went for training in the 1910s. His own efforts led to the founding of the Algerian Association of Muslim Ulama (“Islamic scholars”), or the AUMA in 1931, a movement that was sowing the seeds of Islamic reformism (islah) in this French territory.

[Note: Algeria was not a “French colony,” like Tunisia or Morocco. The French had simply annexed it in 1830, and native Algerians carried identity cards branding them as “French Muslims.” This was discrimination every bit as thorough and brutal as South African apartheid].

Meanwhile, a bright young Algerian man, Malek Bennabi (d. 1973), was sent to the town of Constantine, where the premier institute for training lawyers and clerks for the Islamic court system was located. By then, Bennabi, a voracious reader, had not only read Abduh’s magnum opus in Arabic, The Message of God’s Unity, but also anti-colonial writers like India’s Rabindranath Tagore in French. His morning ritual included perusing the French communist paper, LHumanité. Islam remained Bennabi’s compass and soul mate all his life, but he was also an Algerian nationalist through and through, with an insatiable curiosity for current events all over the globe. Long before the Non-Aligned Movement emerged, Bennabi was an internationalist.

How does a secular-leaning Muslim anti-colonial activist become an inspiration to a nascent islamist movement in neighboring Tunisia? That is what makes this story fascinating.

Ben Badis lived in Constantine and in his autobiography (in French, like most of his many books) Bennabi relates that he would often observe him walking to his office in the morning, as he and his friends sat in their café discussing the latest news. One day, though, he got up the courage to pay him a visit. As he recounts the meeting, it was a disappointment. Dressed in his Western attire, he was not even invited to sit down. The Shaykh in traditional scholarly garb listened to him politely as he waxed eloquent about Algerian independence and, among other items, the urgency of exploiting neglected farmlands. But Ben Badis stayed mostly silent.

Bennabi remained at least sympathetic to the Islamic reformist movement, but his driving passion was elsewhere. In 1930 he moved to France and obtained a degree in electrical engineering. And though he kept in touch with the political activities of his compatriots in the homeland, he was consumed by social issues, which he also discussed with members of a Catholic students club in Paris. There he made some lasting friends with peers who were doubly “other” to him – French and Christian. Alan Christelow, historian at Idaho State University, noted how these encounters helped to widen Bennabi’s horizons and develop a certain “ecumenical” spirit. He wrote this about him in a 1992 article:


“For Bennabi, dialogue between Islam and other civilizations was possible, indeed highly desirable, but such dialogue could not take place within an asymmetrical colonial framework.”


[For more on Algeria by Allan Christelow, see my blog reviewing his 2012 book around the theme of 19th-century patriot and Sufi Shaykh, the Emir Abd el-Kader]

After his graduation he married a French woman who converted to Islam and he began to write several books – some defending Islam (The Qur’anic Phenomenon, 1946), but most developing his thought as a self-taught philosopher of civilizations, like his seminal 1948 book, Les Conditions de la Renaissance (“Conditions for Renewal”).

Meanwhile, the Algerian resistance movement launched its guerilla war against French occupation of their nation in November 1954. Two years later, Bennabi went to Egypt, partly to join the patriots in exile and partly to improve his Arabic. President Gamal Abdel Nasser provided him with a stipend so he could spend his time writing. He stayed there until 1963, just a year after Algerian independence.

During those years, Bennabi lectured often in Arabic in Lebanon and Syria, as well as in Egypt, and developed a strong reputation as a thinker who could skillfully weave themes of anti-colonialism, Arab-Islamic pride, democracy and social justice. Further, he neither lost his passion for the dialog of civilizations, nor his thirst for knowledge. By then he was also reading about economic development, sociology and political science and blending his conclusions into a series of books.

More than anything, however, Bennabi was fascinated with the idea of civilization, and in particular, he wondered why after towering over other parts of the world for so long, Islamic civilization went into such a steep decline in the late medieval period. For an explanation, he looked to 14th-century historian, the Tunisian Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406), who is considered today as the forerunner of sociology, historiography, demography and economics, and who served as advisor to several rulers in North Africa and the Middle East of his time.

Here is a sample of Bennabi's thinking, quoting from an article I wrote, which appeared in the Maghreb Review in 2004 (“Fuzzy Reformist-Islamist Borders: Malek Bennabi and Rachid Ghannouchi on Civilization” (which you can now read in "ressources"):


“Significantly, Bennabi never writes about Shari’a. In fact he totally sidesteps the classical formulations of Islamic law (according to the various schools) and speaks only of the 'qur’anic spirit.' These are the values, he argues, that reflect the qur’anic virtues with which true Muslims should adorn themselves. Muhammad himself lay great stress on the moral virtues that form the bulwark of civilizations. A civilization can coast (or even expand for a while) on the basis of technology, science and reason, but without the strength of moral character ('l’âme seule permet à l’humanité de s’élever'), it will go downhill, lose its ascending force, 'drawn by an irresistible force of gravity.'

Here is Bennabi’s diagnosis:

‘When a society reaches this stage in its evolution, when the breath that gave it its first impulse ceases to animate it, the cycle comes to an end and that civilization makes its exodus to another arena (aire), where a new cycle begins, feeding on a new bio-historical synthesis. But in the arena that is vacated, the work of science loses all meaning. Whenever the outward radiance of the spirit ceases, rational work also ceases; it is as if the human person loses his or her thirst for understanding and the will to act—as soon as that momentum is lost, the 'tension of faith.' Reason disappears because its products perish in a milieu which can no longer understand or use them. Thus Ibn Khaldun’s work seemed to come too soon, or too late: it could no longer imprint itself on the Muslim genius which had already lost its own plasticity, its ability to progress, to renew itself. The qur’anic impulse progressively lost its momentum, and the Muslim world stopped like an engine that has consumed its last liter of gasoline’” (from his 1970 book, Le Problème des idées, pp. 25-6, my translation).


The other great contribution Bennabi made, as I see it, is his concept of “colonizability.” In his attempt to shake his fellow Muslims from what he saw as cultural and spiritual lethargy, he tackled several “myths.” One of those was, “we cannot move forward because of colonialism.” “Baloney!” he retorts. Well, actually, in his own words:


“There is an historical process that one should not neglect for fear of losing sight of the essence of things, of seeing only what they appear to be. This process does not begin by colonization, but rather by the colonizability that provokes it. In fact, to a certain extent, colonization is the most happy effect of colonizability because it inverts the social evolution that gave birth to the colonizable being in the first place: he only becomes aware of his colonizability once he is colonized. He then finds himself obligated to 'denativize' himself in order to become uncolonizable, and it is in this sense that one may understand colonization as an 'historical reality'” (Vocation de l’Islam, Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1954, p. 83).


Bennabi’s loyalty to the cause of Algerian independence was rewarded as he came home in 1963. He was made Director of Higher Education and given the mission of guiding the nascent Algerian University of Algiers, as well as those that were being built from the ground up in other major cities. He also gathered around him a number of students who discussed his ideas and implemented them in their own projects in one way or another.

Bennabi was also influential in the founding of the first islamist organization in post-independence Algeria (1963), al-Qiyam (“Values”). Although the reformist leaders of the AUMA had stood and fought with others for independence, the main organ of the nationalist fight (FLN: Front for National Liberation) took charge of Algeria’s government from the start as a one-party authoritarian system, much like their mentors in Egypt. It was Muslim in name, but mostly secular in practice and socialist in ideology, and its leaders banned the AUMA.

Hence, Bennabi’s helped to establish the al-Qiyam movement. But right from the beginning, two tendencies emerged within it. The first was led by some of the religious scholars issued from the AUMA who also had close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Bennabi, by contrast, was a leader of the more pragmatic, nationalist and bilingual current.

Either way, the political movement focused on Islam was a threat to the ruling FLN party. They were closely watched, then seriously curtailed, then in 1970 they were banned.

By the 1980s, the leaders of the islamist movement that emerged at that time were all leaders who had been active with al-Qiyam. And by then Bennabi’s more reformist and pragmatic current had waned significantly.

Yet in the late 1960s, in neighboring Tunisia, a student movement was growing, which saw in Bennabi’s work the seeds of a political Islam that could bring democracy and positive socioeconomic development to their society. Rached Ghannouchi was already emerging as leader, and to him I will turn in the next post.

[This week I reconnected rather emotionally with Algeria, where I lived from 1978 to 1987, through an interview conducted in French with me and published in the daily Kabyle (the most influencial Berber tribe in Algeria) newspaper La Cité]