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It’s the context (and culture): stupid!

Published on 02 November 2014
Updated on 05 April 2024

Instead of the Turkish “checkerboard pattern” of checks and balances, setting group against group to the ultimate benefit of the Turkish elite, he envisaged a pyramid of tribal leaders, in which the sheikhs of tribes would be led by a sheikh of sheikhs, the sheikh of sheiks in turn by a caid, a number of caids by a aga, a number of agas by a khalifa, and a number of khalifas by an emir, (**) himself. On each level of organization the power of the secular leader was to be balanced by a religious judge. The entire structure would be held together by an appeal to Islam in which the emir would appear as the instrument of God, gathering the community of the faithful in a holy war against Christianity. The concept resemblines nothing as much as the Wahabi State of the Nedj, with its tribal organization fitted into the apparatus of a fundamentalist theocratic state.

Eric R. WOLF (1969): Peasant wars of the twentieth century. Harper & Row, New York; pg. 218

The name I have omitted is that of Abd el Kader, who led a revolt in Algeria from 1832 – two years after the French first set foot on Algerian soil – to 1847.

Under the spell of the Vietnam War, Eric R. WOLF, an anthropologist, undertook to survey six peasant wars in the XXth century in search for their causes and the origins of their success. His comparative narratives are rich in detail about the economic conditions of the peasantry in each country, the relations between the peasants and the local elites, the groups mediating between peasants and the larger society, and the peasants’ attitude to tradition. Change and revolution, he argues, have deep roots in the context (or culture) that one ignores at one’s peril.

In the case of Algeria, the French invasion disrupted peasant society to the core. In particular, it took away peasants’ traditional use rights to land (which were the mainstay of their subsistence) and destroyed the overlords’ moral obligation to look after the peasantry in time in famine. The injection of French colons, taking over by hook or crook the best lands for vineyards, added to the already severe tensions. So did the emergence of an urban proletariat.

“A long period of muted changes and adjustments, experiments in social and cultural relations ensued. It was a period marked by shifts in the cognitive and emotional evaluation of different possibilities, rather than by a single-minded ideological rehearsal of things to come.” (…) “Anti-assimilationism manifested itself in an attitude of reserve against foreign encroachment upon the intimate spheres of family life and religion.” The author quotes the French anthropologist to the fact that “for the Algerians adherence to traditional forms came to fulfill ‘essentially a symbolic function; it played the role, objectively, of a language of refusal.” He also quotes: “It is almost certain that the Islamic devotion is very much more alive since the advent of the Europeans than before, after thirty years of the protectorate than after ten.”

The reformed Islam was an attempt to return to its purity: “it asserted the authority of reformist school-men, the ulema, and furthered the creation of numerous orthodox schools (medersas) under the aegis of slogans like: ‘Arabic is my language, Algeria is my country, Islam is my religion.’” What is interesting, I may add, is the Western language of the slogan, which betrays the colonization experience; it transcends localism, which had characterized Islam before. This is the language of “Occidentalism.”[1] This reform movement came to be called “Badissia” (after the name of Ben Badis, who was one of its major proponents). Jacque BERQUE called it: “Jacobin Islam.” (pg. 229) This Jacobin Islam gave a common purpose to both the peasantry and the city workers, and was the ideological source of the ensuing insurgency. WOLF concludes: “It is the Jacobin Islam of Ben Badis which has ultimately proven victorious.” (pg. 247)

Liberation from foreign oppression does not automatically bring about a stable political system – it is just a necessary pre-condition. In Switzerland, independence anteceded democracy by 500 years. 50 years after independence, Algeria is still struggling to find its way forward between Jacobinism and low-grade Bonapartism. It does not help that formal independence rested on dependence from France in infinite overt and covert ways.

Integrist currents and millenarist visions would seem to be part of an oppressed society’s reaction to its condition. In fact, the deeper the oppression, the more fantastic and phantasmic the religious claims, and stricter the ideology.[2] In this light, IDIS’ the current assertion that it has established a Caliphate is nothing different from Abd el Kader’s ambition one-and-a-half centuries ago.

Integrism was present in the Levant since the first part of the XIXth century, as a reaction to the destruction of a society through foreign intervention (it did not help that these societies had been under Ottoman rule, a condition of oppression only partially mitigated by commonality of religion). The incubation times for integrism may be very long – often a matter of generations. Insurgency emerges suddenly, and spreads fast, jumping localities as it is fanned by imitation.

Going into Iraq in 2003, prophesies were made to the effect that “shock and awe” would yield democracy. A cursory reading of historical precedent in the region should have disabused the pundits. The chasm left by the destruction of the Saddam regime was quickly filled by integrism. In ecological terms, simple native species occupy the wasteland first – and fast. They spread because they are “adaptable,” only needing basic conditions for survival. Integrism, which has a simple answer to every situation, obtains such characteristics. Democracy, with its evolved system of checks and balances and long practice, needs time to take foot and become the dominant form.[3] For democracy too, independence is a precondition, while integrism thrives under-handedly under occupation, only to emerge robust at the end. It has thus an inherent short-term advantage over any other evolutionary political form.

In retrospect, the “success” of the US counterinsurgency policy instituted in 2007 in Iraq (say in the Anbar province) – building a close relationship to local rulers – looks very much like the “divide and rule” policy instituted by the French after the XIXth century rebellions had subsided: “Under French aegis, there thus survived a native aristocracy which would make common cause with the French and which the French co-opted as administrators of the rural population. (…) Deprived of the tribal structure to which they owed their indigenous power before the conquest, they nevertheless exercised political functions of sufficient scope on behalf of the conquerors to interpose themselves between the natives and France.” (pg. 221) It is not surprising that a new generation in Iraq is sweeping such rootless and tainted political structures aside.

The title of this blog: “It’s the context and culture, stupid!” points to the foolishness of entering a state with pre-conceived development models (based even on evidence-tested “best practice”[4]) one applies irrespective of the historical circumstances. A “Counterinsurgency Manual” is doomed to fail precisely because it tends to push the context into the background by imposing a theoretical “road map” on reality.


[1] Ian BURUMA – Avishai MARGALIT (2004): Occidentalism. The West in the eyes of its enemies. Penguin Press, New York. The authors show quite convincingly how much the “oppressed” borrowed ideological tools from the oppressing culture in an effort of turn them against the “invader”. My favorite example is the transformation of Shintoism into monotheism with Japanese characteristics. Another is the pseudo-Christian ideology of the Taiping Rebellion; one also wonders as to Mao’s true understanding of Marxism.

[2] Oppressed China has been a hotbed of millennerian movements – mostly secret societies by the name of White Lotus, Red Turbans, Boxers, and what not. See e.g. WU Han (1991): Le tyran de Nankin. L’emperuer des Ming. Ph. Picquier, Arles. The author, Mayor of Beijing, was tortured to death by the Red Guards in retribution for implying analogies between Mao Tsedong and the founder of the Ming dynasty. Karl MARX put it aptly in the Communist Manifesto: “Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your fetters.”

[3] If Douglas FEITH “virgin birth of democracy” theory is sheer phantasy, SOROS’ directive “Blaquism” (the idea than a small but determined elite can entrain a whole country) is not much better (see: George SOROS (2014): Wake up, Europe. New York Review of Books, November 20th.

[4] “Best practice” is obtained by cleverly excluding the effect of context and focusing on the impact of the proposed measure. Context, however, is overwhelming, when it comes to action in the social fabric. What is “best” should soon yield to “what’s feasible under the circumstances.” The best is the enemy of the good.

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