A Thousand-Plus Years of Anti-Muslim Feeling in France

Roundup: Talking About History

Alain Ruscio, in Le Monde Diplomatique (March 2004):

Many French people dislike and resent Frances Maghrebi residents and indeed Muslims in general. Why? Those who know a little history are likely to date the antipathy from the first French colonial conquests in 1830; men who did their national service in the 1950s will tell you it began in 1954 with the start of the war in Algeria. Young Maghrebis from underprivileged suburbs blame the rightwing political leader Jean-Marie Le Pen. But each generation believes a conflict of ideas begins in its own time. It takes an effort to think beyond the present and trace contemporary phenomena to their origins in the past.

Most French people would be surprised to be told that anti-Arab racism dates from the Middle Ages, the Christian reconquest of Spain, the Crusades and even earlier. Some of the most important constituent elements of French historical culture, the battles of Poitiers and Roncevaux and the Crusades, were seen as clashes with the Arab-Muslim world. That great definer of Frenchness, the Vicomte de Chateaubriand, summing up a received idea deep in the national psyche, described the battle of Poitiers (traditionally dated 732 although it likely took place in 733) as “one of the greatest events in history. Had the Saracens been victorious, the world would have been Mahometan”. His meaning is clear: civilisation had triumphed over barbarity.

The battle has been presented to generations of schoolchildren as the foundation of France. It appears in Gallimards famous collection Trente journées qui ont fait la France (Thirty Days That Made France) (1). The victorious Charles Martel, who had in fact raided churches in his time, became, in French memory, “the rampart of Christendom”. Many people recognise that image of waves of Muslims breaking on the solid defences of the Franks.

This is because Poitiers in 732 is always among the few dates people remember from school, along with Charlemagnes coronation in 800, the battle of Marignan in 1515 and the storming of the Bastille in 1789. This is more than coincidence. During the Algerian war, the diehards of the Secret Army Organisation (OAS) adopted the name Charles Martel for their commando units. And after 11 September 2001, Stéphane Denis, a journalist on Le Figaro, wrote that the West had no reason to be ashamed of the Crusades: “After all, I’ve never heard an Arab apologise for attacking Poitiers” (2). During the last presidential election, walls in cities were daubed with the slogan “Martel 732, Le Pen 2002”.

Yet authoritative historical studies agree that the importance of the battle has been greatly exaggerated. The Arab conquest was already a fait accompli. The main purpose of the raid on Poitiers was to plunder Tours and the riches of St Martins Abbey. It was a powerful attack, but the goal was neither territorial conquest nor lasting political domination. According to historian Henri Pirenne, “the battle of Poitiers does not warrant the importance attributed to it. It cannot compare with the defeat of Attila. It marked the end of a raid, but did not stop anything. Had Charles been defeated, the only result would have been greater plunder” (3). The Arab retreat had more to do with the growing pains of a young but already huge empire than any blows that Charles dealt it....

Previously, all pagan peoples of Europe, including those that had migrated from Asia, had been converted to Christianity. The only exceptions were Moorish Spain at the southwestern extremity of Christian Europe and the Ottoman Turks who threatened Byzantium at its eastern extremity. They were not assimilable. “Germans,” Pirenne wrote, “became Romanised as soon as they entered the Roman empire. Romans became Arabised as soon as they were conquered by Islam.” This was a mortal danger for Christendom. “With the emergence of Islam,” Pirenne continued, “a new world appeared on the shores of the Mediterranean. A rift had opened that would last to our time. Along the Mare Nostrum there were now two different and mutually hostile civilisations” (8). The idea of the Crusade, or holy war, was born when it became obvious to the kings and popes of the Christian West that this new enemy could not be assimilated. It was natural for the chroniclers of the times to lump all the Wests enemies together. Through a process of self-deception not uncommon in history, Basques, Normans and Magyars all became Saracens.

From then on the spirit of the Crusades became part of the Western mindset. The infidels - a defamatory term in a deeply religious age - were Muslim. This view of Islam has lasted through the centuries. Chateaubriand cited the Crusades as one of the few subjects worthy of epic treatment (Génie du christianisme, 1816). In 1841 Eugène Delacroix painted a lyrical Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople. In the poem 1453, written in 1848 as part of the Legend Of The Centuries, Victor Hugo describes how the Turks fighting at Constantinople saw a giant horseman at the gates. When Mehmet II asked who he is, the horseman replied: “I am Death, and you are Nothingness. My name is France. I shall return when daylight comes, bringing deliverance and liberty. Behind me shadows lie in wait. The lion at my back is God.”

When the French began to conquer Algeria in 1830, they were predisposed to think of it as another holy war. Although religion was not their main motivation, hostility to the “false religion” of the Muslims pervaded French society. The conquest and subsequent “pacification” of the North African colony did nothing to appease it. Since then, the confrontation has never really ceased. Each generation has experienced it: the war against the invader led by Abd al-Kader (1832-1847), the uprising in Kabylia (1871), the struggle against the Kroumirs and the establishment of the protectorate over Tunisia (1880-1881), the rebellion in Algeria (1916-1917), the Rif war (1924-1926), the rebellion and repression in Algeria (1945), the clashes with the Istiqlal (Independence party) and the king in Morocco (1952-1956) and with the Neo- Destour movement in Tunisia (1952-1954). The Algerian war was another episode in a long series of clashes between the peoples of the region and the colonial power.

Does this mean Islamophobia (9) and anti-Arab racism are intrinsic to French culture? It is not that simple. We must never forget that some French people have always stood up against anti-Muslim hostility. There have always been French men and women who paid tribute to the splendour of Islamic civilisation and the beauty of its achievements, who were able to observe the Arabs and Berbers without prejudice.

Eugène Fromentin (Un été dans le Sahara, Une année dans le Sahel) is a good example. Or consider this passage from Alphonse de Lamartine, written in 1833: “We must pay tribute to the cult of Mahomet for imposing two great duties on man: prayer and charity, the two supreme truths of every religion.” He praises Islam as “moral, patient, resigned, charitable and tolerant by nature”.

More French people stood up against the racism of the colonial era at its height than we would now believe. Moral resistance to racism has always been accompanied by political resistance to colonisation, or at least to its excesses (consider the protest of Jean Jaurès against the conquest of Morocco; the strike called by the French Communist party and the Conféderation Générale du Travail Unitaire in 1925 against the Rif war; or Charles-André Juliens protests against repression and injustice throughout North Africa, and French resistance to the Algerian war).

Those young Muslims of France tempted by Islamic fundamentalism, who believe racism is spreading, are fighting the wrong enemy. There are, as there were in medieval times, two nations called France. One has a racist culture of confrontation; it is a widespread culture and outbreaks of fever cannot be ruled out. But it is losing ground. The historical trend is towards the other nation - the France of understanding and fraternity.

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