European colonialism and the “mission civilisatrice”

European colonialism and the “mission civilisatrice” March 27, 2018


Paris by night
Crescent Moon with Eiffel Tower (Wikimedia Commons)


Some more from The Manuscript:


However, in the interest of historical accuracy I must say that the Islamic fundamentalist response to the dominance of the West is not the only response that the Islamic world has offered. And it is only comparatively recently that it has become the most obvious one.

In the early days of the Modern Period, it was thought that things simply needed to be adjusted somewhat. Islamic peoples and nations had been world leaders in the past, and they would be so again, if only a few changes could be made. The Ottoman sultan, for example, began to bring in military advisers from the West—especially from Prussia—to make some changes in the organization of military technology. What he did not reckon with, however, was the fact that Western technology and techniques were really insepa­rable from Western ideas. Like the leaders of mainland China today, he sought engineering and technological prowess, but ended up getting notions of democracy and human rights as well. (And this was, at least partially, from Prussians! It just goes to show how bad things were in the Ottoman empire.) He did not like this but found it virtually impossible to stop.

The coming of the printing press, which arrived relatively late in the Near East, helped to spread these new ideas, and it looked for a time as if the Arab world and other nations of Islamic background would go through the same evolution that the nations of Europe and North America had gone through. There would be resistance, but ultimately something like parliamentary democracy or a consti­tutional republic would emerge. After all, Islam is not by nature opposed to such ideas. The history of the “rightly-guided caliphs” contains plenty of mention of such things as advisory assemblies and the like.

It would have been wonderful if such an outcome had evolved. But it did not, and part of the blame, at least, must be placed upon the nations of western Europe. The freshly organized political par­ties of the Near East, armed with their newspapers, promised a new prosperity and flourishing for the Near East if only demo­cratic ideals and notions of human rights could be adopted. The region simply had to catch up with what had made Europe great. They also promised that, when they had shown that they too were capable of enlightened rule and stability under law, they would be able to persuade the French and the English and the other colonial powers to leave. But the colonial powers did not leave. They over­stayed their welcome.

Indeed, the French, in particular, stiffened their efforts to oblit­erate local patriotism. I said above that it hardly mattered whether the French or the English remained in Egypt. But this was not entirely true. The French tended to be far rougher in colonization. The British basically wanted to maintain the Suez Canal as a path­way to India, but French colonists, with their so-called “civilizing mission” (mission civilisatrice) actually sought to make Algeria part of France. They banned the teaching of Arabic in schools, making the absurd claim that it was too primitive a language to meet the demands of modern life and technology.



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