Kristof glosses over colonial era

There's a strange cultural phenomenon — perhaps part of the return of conservatism in the West following the social revolutions symbolized by May 1968 — that has made apologia for colonialism popular again among liberals. I know where it once came from: my maternal grandfather, a man I loved dearly, came from a Belgian colonial family (his father was among the first Europeans to go into deep inner Congo, looking for gold and diamonds in Katanga) would often complain that critics of colonialism forget that Europeans built hospitals and roads and so on where none existed — but would rarely mention the hundreds of thousands of people killed or the exploitation that took place. I didn't like what he said and attributed to his age and conservative mindset, as well as his own experience as a settler in Morocco, which was not at all the exploitative model seen in Congo.

I'm a bit puzzled to read this tidbit in Nick Kristof's latest column:

Many Arabs have an alternative theory about the reason for the region’s backwardness: Western colonialism. But that seems equally specious and has the sequencing wrong. “For all its discontents, the Middle East’s colonial period brought fundamental transformation, not stagnation; rising literacy and education, not spreading ignorance; and enrichment at unprecedented rates, not immiserization,” writes Timur Kuran, a Duke University economic historian, in a meticulously researched new book, “The Long pergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East.”

It's absolutely true to say that colonialism shook up the Muslim world and introduced new technologies and methods of doing business, just as it is correct to say that much of that area stagnated since the late Middle Ages, and that cultural issues, including religion, certainly played a role in that. Kristof's point about Islamic inheritance law and much mainstream Sunni jurisprudence certainly holds. It's not a popular argument to make, but the practice of Islam by mainstream ulema and their alliance with political elites certainly contributed to hundreds of years of stagnation and despotism. 

But you can't just gloss over the colonial era like that. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed by the French in the Maghreb (particularly Algeria) in campaigns of pacifications. Great areas of farmland were handed out to settlers in Algeria at the expense of local people, creating vast gulfs in wealth distribution that continue to this day (since in so many countries, nationalized assets of colonial elites were simply passed on to a native elite). The colonial era also shaped much of the legal and security framework that newly independent Arab regimes turned from repressing pro-independence activists to repressing communists, Islamists and other regime opponents. It also fuelled Muslim chauvinism, not only because the colonists were non-Muslims, but also because minorities (Christians, Jews) were often given privileged status precisely to fragment local opinion. We live with the inheritance of that era to this day.

The ongoing wave of uprisings, if there is a transition to democracy, will have to unravel the perpetuation of the colonial mindset by the post-independence elites. This is something both natives and former colonial powers (by encouraging friendly autocratic elites to emerge post-independence) have to take responsibility for.

11 Comments

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.