Going Third World, à la Française
by Elie Kedourie, November 3, 2004
|Home Search Forum Terms|
Middle East Quarterly*
Editors' preface: A noted historian of the Middle East has said the following about the legacy of scholars who devoted their careers to the study of the region:
While this is largely true in the English-speaking countries, it is not true in France, where a few French "giants" of Islamic and Arab studies are the subjects of repeated colloquia and commemorative tomes. Two of these scholars are objects of particular veneration: Louis Massignon (1883-1962) and Jacques Berque (1910-95). They are deemed to personify French sympathy for the Arabs—as a culture and a cause—and they have become icons of Franco-Arab dialogue and what is called "entente France-Islam."
Two recent events are typical examples. In June 2004, Algeria hosted a commemoration for Berque in Algiers and in his birthplace in Frenda, in the province (wilaya) of Tiaret. The meeting was attended by former French minister Jean-Pierre Chevènement, who attested to Berque's role as his confidant. (Were Berque alive today, said Chevènement, he would have been "comforted by the courageous position of President Jacques Chirac" over Iraq.) In June 2005, Algeria will host a still-larger international conference to mark ten years since Berque's death.
In June 2004, the official French cultural center in Jerusalem convened a three-day conference on Massignon and Orientalism, which took place in Jerusalem and Nablus. A conference devoted to Massignon is held somewhere every few years; Notre Dame University convened one in October 1997.
The late Elie Kedourie, in an article published just after his death, expressed a view of the lives and legacies of Massignon and Berque that is radically at odds with the pieties propounded in these latest conferences. The following is an excerpt from that article.
Mystique et Politique
The religion of misfortune found a much devoted votary in Louis Massignon, the influential scholar of Islam who occupied an important chair at the Collège de France between 1926 and his retirement in 1954. Massignon made his name with his doctoral dissertation on Hallaj, a Muslim mystic executed by the Muslim authorities in Baghdad in 922. The work is a remarkable one, and Massignon's knowledge of Islam and its literature, and of the medieval Muslim world, is both minute and massive. Hallaj, however, was by no means a central figure in Muslim religious history, and neither was Islamic mysticism a central feature in the life of the Islamic community. It was Massignon to whom Hallaj was enormously significant, not only in himself but also as an abiding symbol of Islam and indeed of all religious life.
Massignon's preoccupation with Hallaj and his fate became intertwined with his own religious life which, curiously enough, was revolutionized by a very intense experience he underwent in the vicinity of Baghdad in 1908 when he was twenty-five years old. He had gone to Mesopotamia on an archeological expedition and in the course of it was arrested by the Ottoman authorities as a suspected spy and sent under escort to Baghdad. Near Baghdad, at Salman Pak, where stand the remains of a Sassanid palace destroyed by the Muslim conquerors, Massignon, believing himself to be in mortal danger, had some kind of revelation or visitation. It shook him to the core, and changed him from a lukewarm Catholic to a most devout and fervent believer. This intense form of Catholicism and Hallaj's mysticism thereafter became almost indistinguishable. For Massignon, Hallaj was not a historical figure but the archetype of the highest experience men can aspire to; and Islam itself, improbably enough, merged in Massignon's mind with the ascetic Catholicism he practiced, with its accent on suffering and on redemption through suffering.
All this might have remained a private preoccupation or obsession had it not carried over into his writing and teaching. A French author who used to go and hear Massignon at the Collège de France wrote that his lectures, supposedly about Muslim law or Arabic literature, would turn into savage attacks on industrial trusts, on rulers, on the Moloch State, all delivered with a sovereign lack of restraint. Massignon's writings confirm and fill out this sketch. Since the time of Hagar, whom Abraham sent away with her son Ishmael, Muslims, Massignon declared, have been the most deprived of human beings. Islam, he also affirmed, does not kneel down before gold, or before the cruelty of police techniques. Muslims have an insurmountable repugnance for banking capital, for state loans, for international cartels, alcoholic drinks, white slavery, or the "nationalization of labor." Red-light districts were introduced into Muslim lands by the colonialists. Although Massignon concedes that homosexuality is known among the Arabs, he insists that it was Europeans, and particularly European Jews, who taught them its abject and sadistic aspects. And so forth.
All of this leaves one wide-eyed in astonishment, coming as it does from the Professor of Islamic Sociology and Sociography who might be expected to know that until very recent times Muslims looked upon themselves as masters and not as victims, that Islam was par excellence a civilization in which business flourished, and that red-light districts did not suddenly appear in Muslim countries with the advent of the Christian West. What has taken place here is an intermixing of mystique and politique, to the loss of both, as well as to the detriment of the academic enterprise. Furthermore, this impossible and desperate jump from mystique to politique lands Massignon in a crude Marxism where he is utterly out of his depth. Thus, he paints a lurid scenario in which Jewish bankers, beginning in medieval Baghdad and Cairo and then moving on to Lisbon, Amsterdam, and New York, organize and finance first the slave trade and then the oil business, until they now control in secret the entire Anglo-American policy of colonial exploitation, as well as the Arab-Jewish conflict from which it benefits.
A Guest's Torment
We may say of Massignon that, out of pro-Muslim fervor, he ended up a Marxist without knowing it. In the case of another professor at the Collège de France, political commitment was much more conscious and much more articulate. Jacques Berque was born in 1910 in Algeria, the son of a French father who had become a high official in the Algerian administration. He himself served as an official in Morocco between 1934 and 1953. In leisure snatched from his official duties, he wrote an anthropological study of Berber tribal society which in 1956 simultaneously earned him his doctorate and the chair in the Social History of Contemporary Islam, which he held until his retirement in 1981. Like Massignon, therefore, he occupied one of the highest and most influential academic posts in France dealing with the Muslim world today.
From Berque's prolific writings, and particularly from his autobiography, Memoirs of Two Shores (1989), we get quite a full picture of his teaching, and the reasons that made it what it was. During his years as an official in the Maghreb, there seems to have been slowly brewing within him a rebellion against the attitudes and the outlook of his parents, a rebellion which came to be also directed against French rule and French settlers in North Africa. Like Massignon, Berque had a deeply romantic vision of the foreign society which had become the object of his affections. In his case it was Arab society, above all in the Maghreb.
As he says in a book published in 1980, the place of Arabs in his life has been primordial. The Maghreb constituted for him a quest for that which had been lost by the French of North Africa. The Arabs were primordial, also, as friends and especially, he adds, "as women to whom I owe, through the revelation of [sexual] pleasure, the healing of my adolescence." In his memoirs Berque describes how as a young man doing his military service in Morocco he used to frequent the red-light district in company with the native soldiers of his battalion. There he had his "official" girlfriend, his amie attitrée, Zohra, who had a body with the curves of a cello and a milk-white smile on a lightly bronzed face. "What a horrible word is whore," he writes. "Our relationship ... went far beyond the mercenary, it belonged to the category of gift and counter-gift."
Later, when he was an administrator in the Moroccan countryside, Berque would travel on weekends to Casablanca, a journey which took a whole day by bus, in order to visit its red-light district. Encounters there between occupiers and colonized were, he felt, frank and equal, unlike more "decent" ones which partook of the hypocritical and infamous. The red-light district had the effect of liberating a truth, the truth of desire, revealed also through the beauty of the girls with their copper-colored flesh, heavy like statues by Maillol. To Berque, these girls had "an ageless nobility and an integrity which nothing could soil."
It was through Berque's own inner rebellion that the revolutionary program of the liberation movements would eventually touch him. Berque's teaching thus seems to have derived from strong and intimate passions, and from the guilt he felt at being part of the French implantation in North Africa. He suffered in his innermost being the torment of an importunate guest who had installed himself as a master in the hearth of Islam. As the poet Yeats put it: "Come fix upon me that accusing eye, I thirst for accusation." To escape the guilt, he had to take sides.
In 1953 Berque gave up his Moroccan post to become a UNESCO official in Egypt, and there, he writes, "je me tierre-mondisais"—"I went third world." The third world with which Berque identified he saw as the violent upsurge of fundamental energies overcoming the superficiality of modern civilization. The restitution of a truly universal humanism would come through violence. Terrorism was an ordeal (in the medieval sense of the word), a rite of initiation necessary for the emancipation of the oppressed—an emancipation which was a preview of a future global society. In each of us, Berque declares, there is a third world, and the future of the third world is our own future.
Berque greatly admired the Chinese Cultural Revolution, which he described as a countrywide Chinese theater, taking the place of the traditional Chinese theater which Mao had banned. He also believed that the one-party state was an obvious necessity. Nkrumah he regarded as a humanist, and Nasser as one who made it possible for the Egyptians to attain the status of adults. Berque saw the Arabs in general as a force of resistance against injustice, and as allies of democracy and of socialism. He supported the Algerian FLN in its revolt against the French; as he saw it, his support allowed him to work simultaneously for the freedom of Algeria and for France's true, lost self.
Where now are Nkrumah's humanism, Mao's Cultural Revolution, Arab support for democracy and socialism, freedom in FLN-ruled Algeria? Not the least dismal thing about all these positions is that they render the one who holds them unfit to account for the wreckage left behind by the likes of Nkrumah, Nasser, and the FLN. Why the causes Berque so fervently espoused have ended in failure and heartbreak is a question that has to be answered by others.
 Interview with Nikki Keddie, in Nancy Elizabeth Gallagher, ed., Approaches to the History of the Middle East: Interviews with Leading Middle East Historians (London: Ithaca Press, 1994), pp. 145-6.
 El Moudjahid (Algiers), June 5, 2004.
 Le Matin (Paris), June 5, 2004.
 Program at http://www.shaml.org/agenda/2004/Orientalism_Program_Fr1.htm.