I’ve been reading David Macey’s “biography of Frantz Fanon”:http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/redirect?link_code=ur2&camp=1789&tag=savageminds-20&creative=9325&path=ASIN/0312300425/qid=1118547796/sr=2-3/ref=pd_bbs_b_2_3 recently. One morning not too long ago I was sitting at my kitchen table sipping a glass of iced coffee (we do this in Honolulu), and reading about the use of aerial bombardment to instill terror in Algerians. From behind my house, coming out of the mountains, I heard the rumble of an airplane which grew in intensity. Soon it was a roar, and then it was shaking the house. My fiancée and I stared at each other, wordlessly wondering if we should run outside or dive under the table. I am good at keeping calm but the vast, angry envelope of sound wrapped itself around my brain and the enormity of it shot right through my conscious mind right into my bare, animal gut. We froze, realizing we didn’t know what we should do, or if there was anything to be done at all. Slowly, the sound receded as the jet headed out towards the ocean. I realized it was Memorial Day, and the jet was doing a fly over of the Punchbowl.
It’s hard to get very far away from the war in Iraq or the military in Hawai’i. The Punchbowl, the crater of an extinct volcano only a few block from my house, is home to the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, the final resting place of more than 45,000 of my country’s war dead. Military installations are everywhere. Members of my choir miss months of practice when they get shipped overseas, and I’ve already been to one service at my synagogue where I’ve found out that fellow congregants have died overseas.
Although comparing Iraq to Vietnam is a popular pastime, I’ve seen much less discussion of the similarities to the Algerian war. And this despite the fact that France’s long entanglement in Algeria is in many ways more similar to Iraq than what happened in Vietnam. Both Iraq and Algeria involve nominally secular but culturally Christian forces occupying Muslim countries. Both involve aggressors who had lost in Vietnam and were determined not to be humiliated again. Both were, in some sense, about fulfilling the exceptionalist self-understanding and civilizing impulse of their conquerors — the difference being that the French Declaration of the Rights of Man did not, as did the slightly older America constitution, restrict women, the poor, and people of color from voting. And finally, both wars involved a terrible betrayal of the ideals of the countries that prosecuted them as torture and the blatant disregard of human rights were visited upon a populace in the name of universal justice – although to be sure, France’s strategy of fighting insurgents made Abu Ghraib an official policy at the national level, while the US government knows better than to admit its torture is ever ‘official’. Iraq is our Algeria.
What strikes me most about Macey’s discussion of the war in Algeria were the writings of French anthropologists and psychologists writing about Muslims in Algeria in the period before the war. Consider this quote from a 1908 study:
The dogma of Islam was to spread with the speed of a contagious epidemic. Its progress has less to do with theology than with mental pathology… In a sense, the Koranic hordes spread a real epidemic madness, arms in hand
Or this one:
Islam does not bring with it any justification for its existence, because it is _destructive_. It neither creates nor produced anything, and therefore could not survive at all if it could not live parasitically on human groups that do work.
Or this one, from a 1956 booklet from the French army’s Psychological Service, designed to help French army officers understand Algeria:
One might find it surprising that the occupation of Algeria was not followed by a psychological conquest, and some regard the fact that the Muslim masses remain impermeable to our civilization and our customs as an argument against our methods. We should not, however, forget the enormous economic and social backwardness of a human mass that is constantly increasing, or that the diffusion of ideas is slow and often has little lasting effect; despite the efforts that have been made by our teachers, primary schools can have a liberalizing effect only if their influence is not resisted by sectarianism and fanaticism in the home. The West’s complex and abstract notions, and its spirit of tolerance are opposed by the simple and concrete imperatives of Islam.
Now, almost a half century later, we have quotes like “this”:http://www.stuffucanuse.com/bombing_commentry/muslims_hate_the_west.htm:
Few in the Middle East have a clue about the nature, origins, or history of democracy, a word that has no history in the Arab vocabulary, or indeed any philological pedigree in any language other than Greek and Latin and their modern European offspring. Democracy’s lifeblood is secularism and religious tolerance, coupled with free speech and economic liberty… We are militarily strong, and the Arab world abjectly weak, not because of greater courage, superior numbers, higher IQs, more ores, or better weather, but because of our culture.
Or “this”:http://www.citizensoldier.org/korantwo.html one:
The bottom line is that because Koran commands the killing of those who reject Islam, it only produces peace in a society where all non-Muslims have been killed! This makes Islam a form of social Russian roulette. Even if Islamic militants are not flying airplanes into office buildings, a democratic nation with a significant Muslim population can find that its laws are hijacked if the Muslims become politically active.
Perhaps I’m just naive to find the similarities between these passages so terribly troubling — I supposed that if I worked in the Middle East or lived on the mainland I’d be much more aware of this sort of thing. The questions is why I feel that my discomfort ought to be shared by everyone? This isn’t a question about my politics or my values — I realize that people have different values than I do, and that’s not going to change. But I have this strong feeling that anyone who reads these quotes should realize that they are just an unbelievably lousy description of one religion and rely on an understanding of the relationship of religion, society, and culture that isn’t worth two bits. As a person, I may (and do) feel outraged when I read these quotes. But I also feel a separate — although, to be sure, related — sense that these descriptions is Islam are terribly done.
This distinction between my personal opinions and my professional intuitions is an important one. Some people just hate Muslims. Fine. We have nothing to say to one another, there’s no ‘dialogue’ we can have with each other. There’s no accounting for taste. But even people who disagree with my politics have to agree with me when I make arguments about the nature of religion and society. Why? Well at one obvious level I’m a professor — they’re supposed to agree with me! We professors are the experts, the authorities, who are consulted in those brief, rare moments when our research specialties become a topic of public import. But this is obviously a red herring. We have this authority because people think that our work is accurate — that we have the answers. Ricoeur, rehashing Aristotle, once argued that in order for something to be true it must have not just a semblance, but a resemblance to reality. It is not enough that we appear to be expert (that we are authorities), but that our accounts of the world are substantively correct (that we are accurate).
Beyond our authority as professional knowers of humanity, anthropologists have the ability to convince others because we provide good data and more convincing reasons. Good and convincing according to who? To our interlocutors — ‘objective’ or not, they are robustly intersubjective. There is a way or arguing about facts and interpretations that we share with others that allows us to convince them that our position is better than theirs — indeed, without this agreement about the rules of the game we would not be able to disagree with them at all. As an ethnomethodologist might put it, the opposite of agreement is not misunderstanding, it is incoherence in interaction. It is ‘talking past’ one another.
This talking past each other can happen for many different reasons. People unfamiliar with how we undertake the mutual interplay of argument, assertion, and evidence will never be convinced by my anthropological arguments. The people I lived with in Papua New Guinea argued (constantly!), but not in a way that would make debates in the US about Islam intelligible. Equally — and importantly — I think it is possible for anthropologists to talk themselves right out of this debate as well. When we talk about anthropology as an inherently critical or destabilizing project that ‘teaches’ certain things (cultural relativism, etc.) they hear us saying “we openly admit our models of society are derived from our particular and partisan values rather than the other way around.” They begin to treat us the exact same way that we treat creationists whose ‘scientific’ arguments are transparently derived from their political agenda. When we admit ourselves to be fundamentally politicized we loose our legitimacy as interlocutors, and for good reason (of course, as an activist you might think the time for talking is long since past).
Of course many political differences rely on unstated models of the human condition — Lakoff, for instance, described the metaphors of childrearing that undergird contemporary politics in the US. A transformation in this underlying picture then affects our political position. If in principle we dislike the religiously intolerant, and Muslims are intolerant, we dislike Muslims. But once we learn something about Muslims and recognize most are not intolerant, then those same principles lead us to conclude that Muslims are ok. And, of course, what we care enough about to study about is shaped by what is on our minds at the moment. But I believe that the fact that we choose our research topics based on our interests, and that we revise our policies as our results come in means only that research and politics are connected, not identical.
As we struggle both to understand and judge events in our Algeria I can’t help but feel that a judicious anthropology — one disabused of comforting notions of scientistic objectivity, but still self-confident in its analytic power — has a valuable role to play in explaining to us what our world is like. Such a role would provide anthropology a voice to which even the authors of the quotes above would have to listen. But to go further — to tell others not merely how the world is, but to derive from that how it ought to be — would give us a voice whose self-certainty and lack of humility would be opposed to the quotes above, but identical in its poise.