Written by Hilary Barnes
Put yourselves in the shoes of a Moslem for a moment. Why didn’t Algeria consult the Brits, the French, the USA and the Japanese before launching an operation to free the hostages at the Amenas gas field facility? Did the French ask the Algerians before they colonised Algeria, did anyone ask the people living in Palestine before turning a piece of it into the state of Israel?
Algerian and Moslem self-respect virtually grantee that they are not going to ask these powers before seeking to rescue over 500 Algerians supposedly caught up along with the foreigners in this hostage drama. And the Algerians have plenty of experience dealing with Islamic extremists not to need any advice from foreigners.
This, of course, is just one fragment of the drama that is being played out between the Europeans and the Moslem world in West Africa, implicating the rest of the Moslem world as well.
It is also a drama that reflects a fundamental, and for Europe disturbing, change in the balance of power between Europe, the former colonial master, and Africa with its rapidly growing population on which Europe is increasingly in need to supplement its own dwindling manpower resources.
This drama has grown out of the scientific, technological, intellectual, economic and political domination and humiliation of the Moslem world by the European powers (supplemented later by the USA) over the past four hundred years, and the conflicts that this has generated within the Moslem world.
The terms in which Islam thinks are quite different and generally in conflict with the terms in which the West thinks, although this is not something one notices much as a reader of the western press or listening to western statesmen.
Faith, of course, is central to Islam, but it is only one part of a much more comprehensive project for the creation of a just community, the Ouma, or the Dar el-Islam, “the realm of submission to God“, which faces the rest of the world, the Dar el-Harb, “the realm of war,” which it is legitimate for Islam to convert and conquer (or conquer and convert).
Islam is at once a religious, political and social project. Islam has no church, no pope, no clergy, for religion is what you do, attest to the existence of the one God and Mohamed his (strictly human) messenger, pray five dimes a day, give to the poor, fast at Ramadan and visit Mecca before you die.
Islam’s law is the law of God as passed on by his messenger and developed by extension from the message itself.
The western form of democracy is conducted in terms of states and governments, freedom and democracy, and God is not an important and often not any part of this concept.
Islam is a community that has no need of states, a western innovation, and flourished very well without them until states were imposed on them by the Europeans in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The law of man is the western concept of law, and it is this conception that was imposed on the world order by the western powers post-World War II, including individual rights and human rights, which have no part or a minor part in Islam’s conception of the world.
The western conception of individual rights is of course fundamental to the western concept of democracy.
Democracy is not a concept that is foreign to Islam, but it is something quite different, a process of consultation by the leaders of tribal and clan chiefs to reach agreement on how the community should be run and on its objectives. When the western form of democracy is tried it sometimes works quite well, but it never sits easily on a foundation that is Islam.
When western powers try to impose democracy, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, it does not work. And when the Arab Spring is greeted by westerners as a great opportunity for the Arab world to adopt western forms of democracy, the western world is sorely disappointed. Islam trumps the western concept almost every time.
Since the radicalisation of Islam in the latter part of the 20th century, this means that the Moslem Brotherhood usually holds the strongest cards, for the Brotherhood is nothing if not a movement to restore Moslem self respect in face of westernisation.
In the West, Islam is sometimes seen as a fascist movement, but it is more appropriate to see it as a collectivist movement concerned with the creation a just community by promoting the common good, to which the interests of the individual are subordinate.
In the western world, resting on the wealth generated by the capitalist economy, the individual is all important, with individual wealth generated by the enterprise of the individual and his or her limited joint stock company (another concept that sits very uneasily with Islam) the key to the western world’s immense wealth.
Capitalism and industrialisation broke up traditional western society and it communal and family ties. When it came to the Moslem world it broke up traditional Moslem society as well. The reaction by Islamic extremists is an attempt to restore the moral unity of the Islamic world against the corruption, the decadence and the growing inequality that it has has experienced since the Europeans moved in and Islamic modernisers were tempted to refashion Islam in the image, technologically and economically, of the West.
How the war in Mali fits into all this was outlined in an excellent article by French General Patrice Sartre in Le Figaro (print version) on January 17, “Notre avenir au Mali“.
West Africa fell to the Moslem influence very early on in the history of Islam. From the 16th century onwards the Europeans countered this influence by establishing a presence via the Gulf of Guinea, which firmly fixed a confrontation of black v white in the minds of both black and white, adding another complication to the general scheme of things.
Can Europe construct a stable and prosperous future with Africa, the population of which within 40 years will be three times the population of Europe? Perhaps, but at the price of lucidity concerning the future balance of power. “Tomorrow we shall have even more need for Africa, but will Africa have need of us?” asked General Sartre.
Europe will be more or less absent from Africa, but Africa will be everywhere in Europe, sure of its moral strength and demographically strong as well, while Europe struggles with a guilty conscience over its colonial past and uneasiness about its relationship with its growing Moslem populations.
“Islam underlines the reversal of the balance by the psychological fragility that it has installed in a Europe already disturbed by the image of Africa that is sent by its suburbs (a reference of France’s “sensitive” suburbs inhabited largely by African immigrants).“Whatever solicitude we may feel for the inhabitants of Mopti and Bamako, we cannot dissimulate our fear that radical Islam, already installed on one side of the Mediterranean, will install itself on the other tomorrow.”
At present Europe has the advantage of technological superiority on its side. But for how long can technology alone compensate for the mounting disequilibrium? asked the general.
Today the technological difference enables French forces in Mali to retake a town from the jihadists, but it does not enable them to take control of Mali, he said.
Meanwhile, after dominating the world for so long, the Europeans find themselves so terribly alone in face of the African problems that it hesitates to support France in its solitary fight.
Yet the key to longer term success of the conflict raging in Mali must be a cooperation between European military technology and African troops, not in hundreds but in thousands, as a condition of controlling the Sahel and the Sahara, according to General Sartre.
For this the cooperation of Algeria is essential. Algeria is in a position to gain from a manoeuvre which will benefit it in terms of domestic and above all regional security, and also from it stature as an African country: that is to say, to put Europe in its debt and even in a position of repentance (for past colonial sins).
(In writing this article, a debt is owed by the author to “Destiny Disrupted“, by Tamin Ansary, an excellent book about how the Moslem world views the West).