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The Shibboleths within Albert Memmi's Universalism

[Cover of [Cover of "Decolonization and the Decolonized"]

Albert Memmi, Decolonization and the Decolonized. Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. 

“What? Post-colonialism? Have they left?”
- Aborigine activist Bobbi Sykes’ comment at an academic conference on post-colonialism[1]

Is there a place for “Muslim” or “Arab” peoples in “Western” “universal” values of equality, freedom, democracy, rights, and so forth? Both categories frequently subsume religious and/or ethnicized (mis)conceptualizations in current Western discourse. Every day in the news, there is at least one item that reveals (again) the hypocritical duality that bifurcates “West” from Other. The duality undergirds debates and policies that purportedly aim to achieve “security” and “stability,” but whose repercussions ensure the impossibility of both. What they do produce, however, are persistent attempts at domination—intellectual, cultural, military, economic, and political. The blatant racism of the colonial age now masquerades as “the universals” in these ostensibly “post-colonial” times. This type of universality, however, has little room for any difference that organizes or mobilizes, or that challenges prevailing power relations.

A story from last month prompted this review of Decolonization and the Decolonized, Albert Memmi’s follow-up to The Colonizer and the Colonized (1965).[2] The article informed us that the French branch of the Jewish Defense League, a terror group banned in the US and in Israel, but not in France, is recruiting men and women with military backgrounds to go and “defend” Jewish “settlements” in five West Bank villages. The group remains legal despite its history of sometimes violent clashes with authorities in France.

An indication of why this racist group would be tolerated in France must take into account France’s colonial history in Algeria and its subsequent initially reluctant, fiercely violent, and finally revisionist identitarian separation from its former colony. In so doing, legal and cultural distinctions were made to separate groups from among the former French subject-citizens. Some were deemed “French,” others not.

Narratively, legally, and politically, within France, the granting of Algerian independence foreclosed discussions of racism and domination that existed (and still exist). The Algerian struggle challenged pretentious French (colonial) claims that Algeria was proof of French principles of universalism, the Rights of Man, and individual progress. In his excellent book The Invention of Decolonization: The Algerian War and the Remaking of France (2006), Todd Shepard argues that these claims could not find institutional forms such as republican government, nationality, citizenship, and the constitution that could make Algeria French.

Thus, by cutting the link with Algeria, by burying the racist underpinning in a newly re-configured “French” citizen of the Fifth Republic, France was trying to hide what the Algerian Revolution had revealed—namely, the link between universalism and imperialism. The reality was that French attempts to practice universalism in the French Republics was inextricably dependent on denying rights to “Muslims.”

Repatriated Muslims who immigrated to France after independence were relegated to refugee (not citizen) status and were popularly referred to as Harkis. They were abandoned (permanently, as it turned out) to the banlieues, which became pockets of poverty and (involuntary) isolation. Ever since, they have had to prove that they were suitable to become French, as assimilable individuals perhaps, but not as corporatized groups.

Meanwhile, a contrasting approach was adopted by France in its treatment of repatriated Mozabite Jews. Purposeful efforts were exerted to assimilate Mozabites, who, unlike Muslims, were welcomed as fellow French people, even though they were non-Sephardic and polygamous. Institutionally and in the nationalist French Republican narrative, to be Jewish was to be a member of a religion, but to be Muslim was to be a member of a nationality.

This brings us back to Memmi and the ahistorical and frankly offensive arguments that he makes in his latest book. It is important to keep in mind that Memmi leaves two critical issues unaddressed in his classic The Colonizer and the Colonized. These lacunas may account for the seemingly contrasting perspective of the newer book. His argument that colonialism will inevitably collapse through revolt never delved into how the colonized overcome their posited forgetfulness of the concept of liberty and proceed to the revolt stage. More importantly, he did not address the fact that the colonizers create the institutions that will eventually shape the relationship between colonizer and colonized.

This myopia hints at why, in The Decolonizer and the Decolonized, Memmi uncritically adopts the self-serving and ethnocentric claim that colonialism has ended. It has in fact morphed into other forms, embodied today in “democracy promotion,” “the Responsibility to Protect,” dubiously-motivated military interventions for “human rights” or to spread “freedom,” the religion of neo-liberalism and “free-markets,” and so forth.

The Decolonizer and the Decolonized is polemical. Its claim of offering advice for a better future actually has the decolonized peoples of the world in its crosshairs, reserving particular virulence towards Arabs and Muslims, but also ricocheting to include Africans from Francophone countries and African Americans.

Memmi starts with the question of why decolonization did not produce freedom and prosperity. In order to be able to blame everything (corruption, tyranny, oppression, and violence) on the decolonized, he immediately refutes the existence of neo-colonialism. He absolves colonialism and formerly colonizing countries of any responsibility. When he acknowledges (rarely) an atrocity, he quickly follows up with a “you’re decolonized now, why can’t you just move on?” stance. He advocates assimilation into the purported “universal rationalism” of European domination of the world, not noticing that this “universal” system does not admit politically and actively effective difference from the dominant totalizing “norms.” 

Much of the language that he employs is racist. In discussing the immigrants and their descendants in the land of the colonizers, his polemic falls in the camp of France’s Minister of Immigration, Integration, and National Identity, Eric Besson, who in 2009 launched the “What it means to be French” debate. Delinquency, an alleged lack of desire to fit in, insistence on being different, crime, and violence are put squarely at immigrants’ feet. Memmi does not try to explain why and avoids the discussion of racism. He further insists that Muslims and Arabs (most of the time they are conflated) and Blacks (because of their “handicap of color”) are virtually impossible to integrate, in contrast with former immigrants to France from Italy, Russia, and Eastern Europe. The latter are Christian, of course. Christians supposedly saw the error of their ways a while ago and separated religion from politics and abandoned violence.

Memmi’s homogenization of Christians hides the persistence of the non-secular as well as the potential use of violence. The battle still rages on in the US, where Evangelical leaders see secularism as a bigger threat than Islam. Moreover, the Church played a political role in the color “Revolutions” of Eastern Europe. Finally, Christian Liberation Theology played a positive role for freedom in Latin America.

According to Memmi, immigration and excessive reproduction by the decolonized are a not-so-veiled attempt at Muslim conquest. They pose a threat to “the nation.” Muslims choose to live in an apparently self-created and inflicted “ghetto.” He makes no mention of who built the banlieues to begin with and for what (racist and classist) reasons. He adds that when immigrant Muslims cannot physically be in the ghetto, they carry “a portable ghetto” in the form of the hijab. Apparently, he feels sorry for the immigrants, because “they fail to see that they are acting against their own interests in rejecting the laws that freed them in favor of the dogmas that enslaved them.” They do not have the right to demand not to be “secular.”

Memmi seems to be completely ignorant of Arabic literature and its debates on secularism, freedom, democracy, and development. Instead, he asserts that all Arab intellectuals have failed. Any discussion of Islam seems like apologetics to him. “Moderate Islam” is a “misguided” concept. Islamic society is “sick” and infected with “Islamic terrorism.” He seems unaware of the nahda and claims that there is not and there was never an Arab nation. According to him, Arabs cannot “reconsider the role of religion” in civic life because their writers are imprisoned by using the “sacred language” of classical Arabic which is “enclosed in the shackles of the Koran.” Moreover, Memmi asserts that no one in the audience would “understand…purely classical Arabic.” Consequently, this double whammy forecloses the possibility of literature providing a new “collective personality” based on non-“sterile” philosophical and political debates. Interestingly, there is no analogous discussion of the revival of a significantly altered and hybridized form of Hebrew in the Zionist state.

Memmi then proclaims that the language of the colonizer is really the best means of communication and progress. The language of the decolonized is “incapable of mastering a full-blown culture” that is “innovative and inventive.” Instead, he proposes that they must lose their own identity and not question “integration.”

Memmi manages to offend everybody, including Black Americans, whom he describes as “not a decolonized people.” Nevertheless, “their evasive responses are the same.” They blame whites and history for everything and suffer from “Dolorism…a natural tendency to exaggerate one’s pains and attribute them to another.” As for “Black Africa…there has never been a period of generalized calm, entire ethnic groups are massacred.” Atrocities by whites are rationalized by Memmi: “Although it is true that only one in four slaves survived the voyage in the hold of the ship that brought them to the plantations of the New World, slave traders had no desire to see their cargo destroyed.” Similarly, the colonists, “except for occasional massacres when they felt threatened, had no interest in destroying their labor force.” Also, “Without exception, the pilot who drops his bombs on a target hopes they avoid the innocent.” This is all in contrast with the relish of the decolonized for inflicting irrational violence on everyone else.

On Palestinians and Israel, Memmi is a Zionist. There is no criticism of Israel’s use (and abuse) of the Jewish religion. This stands in stark contrast to the heaps of abuse he directs at Arab states. He clings to discredited old myths about the Palestinians having “the financial and political support of twenty-two Arab nations,” supplying weapons, money, and more, in the face of lonely Israel, which apparently receives no support, economic or military, from anyone. He asserts that Israel is “not a colonial settlement,” having “none of the characteristics of such a state.” Instead, it is a “national fact.” Its destruction would have “catastrophic consequences” that would recall “the Nazi genocide,” a “terrible price”—to the “indelible shame of the Arab states.” By contrast and in comparison to other horrors in the world, the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict turns out to be a minor drama in a small corner of the world” whose losses in Palestinian life pale in comparison with Rwanda, the Congo, Uganda, Algeria’s war of Independence, Iraq under Saddam…. His discussion of the refugee problem is completely ahistorical. He seems unaware of UNRWA, its history, and Israel’s role in its creation. Instead, he claims that Arabs created the refugee problem intentionally: “To create human time bombs, they held Palestinian refugees in camps.”

He saves his most violent attacks for Islam, rehashing the usual stereotypes about obedience and so forth. He does not recognize the place for revolution in religion (which raises the questions: Has he not read Ali Shariati? Or witnessed the Iranian Revolution?). He uses dehumanizing language when describing Muslims: “the mosques are crawling with police spies.” Similarly, “The diseases now eating away” at the West are “demographic exhaustion, immigration, mixed marriage.”

Memmi consistently sets up a fake dichotomy that has no room for nuance between or within “us” and “them.” On nationalism, there is only one model: the European. Japan and China do not qualify. As for Arab nationalism, he questions its authenticity. To prove this, he sets up a false correlation between the pillaging of the Iraqi National Museum, which happened during the criminal chaos that was unleashed in the wake of the American invasion and under the eyes of its soldiers, and a purported Arab lack of interest in their own history and culture. After making that point, he then proceeds to tell us (falsely) that the crime never really happened. In fact, the contents of the museum were “saved by an alert employee and hidden in the museum’s basement.”

Other statements made me question Memmi’s grasp on reality—for example, his statements that decadence in the Muslim world has reached such a state that “Belly dancing…has become the symbol of spirituality” or that Muslims fast because “Ramadan allowed people to lose weight safely.” He further believes that one can prove a negative, which is a logical impossibility: “During the Iraq war, Europe breathed a sigh of relief given the relative calm among its Muslim communities. But didn’t this presume that the potential to cause unrest was a reality?” So even when there is no evidence of violence among the immigrants, it is still a “reality.”

Perhaps aware that the book may be perceived as vitriolic, in his conclusion, Memmi reveals his motivation: “utopian” “desires” for a “new world” where “secularism is the primary condition of true universalism” and where “rationality” is promoted as a “condition” for that vision. Towards that end, he offers self-serving, ethnocentric, and normalizing “solutions.” He thinks his vision is “utopian” without considering the question of whose utopia. He complains in the afterward that the formerly colonized embraced him while the “left” and the “liberals” ignored him totally. Nevertheless, this lack of attention seems to have inflicted no damage on Memmi’s ego: it just “proves the accuracy of my claims.”

As happened in the post-Algerian Revolution period, contemporary arguments such as Memmi’s essentially avoid confrontation with racism. It would be more honest to admit that the universal is not a defining characteristic of either French subjecthood or of the Republic. Ultimately, the France (and the world) that Memmi is defending and envisioning would be fundamentalist-secularist, racist, and really boring.


[1] Cited in Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, (London & NY: Zed Books; Dunedin, New Zealand: University of Otago Press, 1999), 24.

[2] Albert Memmi, The Colonizer and The Colonized, (New York: Orion Press, 1965).

2 comments for "The Shibboleths within Albert Memmi's Universalism"


An excellent analysis of Albert Memmi'book,that was really very interesting and a pleasure to read.As mentioned by the author of this analysis,it seems that Memmi is trying to prove things that were only imagined by him and that he is not really aware of''or he doesn't want to ''mention a lot of changes that happened and affected the whole Arab World.I was even shocked to read that Arab people do not understand cassical arabic,which he stated as a fact, is not true at all and very misleading. At the end,I think if any writer's desire is to be believed and respected by his readers,he should be objective ,which I am sorry to say that Memmi's book is not.

Samia Mansour wrote on October 11, 2011 at 12:24 PM

Thank you to Dina Jadallah for unravelling for us Albert Memmi's half-baked and dangerously distorted theories and for exposing his myopic levels of analysis for what they are. To take three biographical landmarks of the author, "La Statue de Sel" revealed an early talent as an autobiographical writer, while "The Colonizer and the Colonized" provided a sharp insight into the fundamental dialectic between oppressor and oppressed (blinded by his zionist mindset, it might be presumed that Memmi is still to awake to the ultimate irony that his analysis, in particular, of the oppressor, provides interestingly appropriate material for a case study of Israel), it would now seem that the rampant (and often petty and smug) small mindedness of "Le Nomade Immobile" paved the way for this descent to the murky waters of hate-filled discourse and conceit of this latest book reviewed here.

Sarra M'Barek wrote on October 19, 2011 at 03:48 PM

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