Re-examining the place of textuality in Islamic Studies

A Genealogy of Macron’s Concept of Muslim ‘Separatism’

Rand Saleh al-Jumaily

April 11, 2021

On February 16, 2021, French MPs approved a new law entitled “Reinforcing Republican Principles” to prevent religious extremism and what the French President, Emmanuel Macron, refers to as “Islamist Separatism.” The bill was proposed in the context of what I term “Charlie Hebdo-related violence,” which began in 2015 with the attacks on the satirical magazine but whose ripple effects are still being felt today. The most recent violence includes the murder of a French teacher for showing his students caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad and three murders at the Notre-Dame de Nice Cathedral, both committed by Muslim individuals in October of 2020.[1]https://theprint.in/opinion/where-is-europe-headed-france-new-radicalism-law-exposes-macron-centrism/606681/; … Continue reading

But what is “separatism?” The French government itself has yet to define “Islamist Separatism,” but apologists have made sure to give a watered-down definition: it is when a community no longer respects the laws and values of the republic, and fights for “le communautarisme” (communitarianism) – French politicians’ favourite word to describe their fears of a disintegrating republic.[2]https://www.cnews.fr/france/2020-02-18/quest-ce-que-le-separatisme-928349. In fact, “separatism” can mean many things; Sandra Gathmann, the presenter of Al-Jazeera’s YouTube series, Start Here, explains that France’s use of the term can imply anything from radicalized young people to communities not assimilating.[3]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fQJUaYQN4os&list=LL&index=12&t=222s In the field of political science, the word “separatism” is defined as political alienation or lack of national integration and loyalty. It implies that a group rejects its belonging to the state. It can be described as a political movement and is often synonymous with autonomy and secessionism.[4]Najmul Abedin, “The Politics of Separatism: Some reflections and questions,” The Round Table 78, no. 310 (1989): 223. Given the history of economic and social marginalization of Muslims in France,[5]https://www.fairobserver.com/region/europe/ali-demirdas-islamophobia-assimilation-muslims-emmanuel-macron-far-right-election-2022-france-news-25111/ claims that Muslim communities are vulnerable to “Islamist separatism” have unfortunately implicated all those who adhere to the teachings of Islam, not just the “Islamists” in question. A community that is already experiencing Islamophobia will no doubt suffer the consequences of Macron’s claims that Islam in general is “in crisis.” For this reason, the term “separatism” suggests to the outsider a mobilization of an autonomous group or movement that acts collectively against the state and surrounding communities– a gross generalization which places many French Muslims under a discriminatory and oppressive environment. In doing so, Muslim communities are singled out as separatist in the sense that they have either othered themselves from French society as a whole or have become hostile to it.

Reading Islam as separatist in the Western imaginary is a relatively recent phenomenon, though not as novel as we might think. In my own doctoral research, I encounter parallel narratives regarding intercommunal conflict – the Muslim, whose core motives are allegedly derived from Islam, is presumed to be inherently separatist, i.e. antagonistic to inter-communal solidarity. It was primarily the Western missionaries in the 19th century Near East who began depicting local Christians as oppressed under “Mohammedan” rule, or as a “minority” community under constant threat by its Muslim neighbours. Take, for example, the relations between Kurdish and Christian tribes in late Ottoman Diyarbekir, where there was a high degree of cultural and social integration. Due to their tribal nature, these communities were often at war with others; it was not uncommon for some “Jacobites” (Syrian Orthodox) to turn up fighting as volunteers in Kurdish rebellions,[6]David Gaunt, “Relations between Kurds and Syriacs and Assyrians in Late Ottoman Diyarbekir,” in Social Relations in Ottoman Diyarbakir, 1870-1915, ed. Joost Jongerden and Jelle Verheij, (Boston: … Continue reading or for Nestorian and Kurdish tribes to ally themselves against other Nestorian or Kurdish tribes.[7]John Joseph, The Modern Assyrians of the Middle East (Boston: Brill, 2000), 73, 76, 78. And yet, today’s readings of these specific conflicts often yield a very different picture, that of the oppressed Christian under Kurdish nominal jurisdiction. For instance, one specific feud and rivalry over allegiance between a Kurdish agha and the Nestorian patriarch led to a massacre of Nestorians – a move approved by the Ottoman Pasha of Mosul, who, at the time, wanted to see the Kurds and the Nestorians destroy one another in order to extend Ottoman authority over them both.[8]Ibid., 82. A recent book implicates Islam as an important driver in this so-called “Badr Khan massacre” against the Christians,[9]Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi, The Thirty Year Genocide: Turkey’s Destruction of its Christian Minorities (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019), 5. despite other prevalent Christian denominations in the region having not been targeted. This historiography effectively changes the narrative from being a political feud and rivalry to implicating a “Muslim” population or group with alleged separatist tendencies. What I mean here by separatist tendencies is not that the Muslim group is depicted as secessionist from the Ottoman state, but that it is portrayed as seeking greater autonomy from its non-Muslim neighbour and as refusing intercommunal integration. Moreover, the insinuation within missionary accounts that conflicts were motivated by religion is reminiscent of the nuances in the new French law that has introduced tougher penalties for crimes committed in the name of religion – a redundancy since there is already several laws in France regarding the acts in question.

This pattern has echoed loud and clear until the present day, culminating in the recent historiographical use of the term “sectarianism” within Islam, i.e. Sunni vs. Shiite conflict. Fanar Haddad states that, particularly since the turn of the century, “interest in ‘sectarianism’ in the Middle East has given birth to an ever-growing field of study and a prodigious amount of commentary.”[10]Fanar Haddad, “‘Sectarianism’ and its Discontents in the Study of the Middle East,” Middle East Journal 71, no. 3 (2017): 363 “Sectarianism,” he explains, is used as a catch-all phrase meant to refer to sect-based or intercommunal violence, but that, in effect, serves to stigmatize “legitimate manifestations of religious and communal identities.”[11]Ibid., 364 It is this focus on the sectarian narrative – now also interchangeable with separatism – that is prevalent in the recent retelling of 19th century Kurdish-Nestorian relations. We see that, although missionary accounts are outdated and biased, some modern scholarship relies on these accounts without examining them through a critical lens. The narrative of the “majority” Muslim relations with “minority” non-Muslim communities in the pre-modern era is retold by scholars according to the recent turmoil in the Middle East. There is an overproduction of narratives that seek to explain occurrences deemed “natural” to Islam, such as terrorist groups like ISIS targeting Christians and Yezidis, and the sectarian violence that erupted in Iraq following the American-led invasion. Modern issues are projected onto the social and political fabric of the past.

A case in point would be the 1933 massacre of Assyrians that took place in the village of Simele in the north of Iraq. The circumstances that led to this massacre are beyond the scope of this entry. A hasty summary is as follows: a group of fully armed, young Assyrian men who crossed over to Syria via Dayraboun and were on their way back into Iraq – still fully armed – were confronted by the Iraqi army and a battle broke out. The Iraqi army pursued the Assyrians into Simele, a village that housed a majority Christian population, where a massacre took place. The reason these Assyrian men mobilized is never clear in the literature, only that they were unhappy that the Iraqi government had not met their demands and expectations. The massacre, as well as the unfortunate situation of the Assyrians in Iraq, is often attributed to “Muslim” “fanaticism” or “Muslim” “hatred” against Assyrian Christians.[12]E.g. Vahram Petrosian, “Assyrians in Iraq,” Iran & the Caucasus 10, no.1 (2006): 120; Alexander Bligh and Gadi Hitman, “The fate of the Assyrian minority in early independent Iraq; a test … Continue reading

The view that Muslims are inherently “separatist” or “sectarian” is implied, suggested, or stated outright in some of my sources on modern Iraq. Adjectives such as “Muslim” are thrown around, effectively leading to reductionist analyses: a Muslim individual acts a certain way because of his or her Muslim-ness. As I advanced in my doctoral research, I discovered that this aforementioned group of Assyrian men were in effect a group descended specifically from the Hakkari Nestorian tribes that mobilized against the Iraqi state. They put forth demands typical of a nationalist movement and disrupted Iraq’s attempt at building a nation-state (it had just become independent in 1932) by acts of dissidence – also typical of a nationalist movement. It seems that the Iraqi military dealt with this nationalist movement in the same manner as any other disruptive movement that stood in the way of nation-building during that time-period, i.e. with violence and repression. As Ussama Makdisi explains, this particular group of Assyrians “embodied the specter of further territorial division and minority separatism,”[13]Ussama Makdisi, Age of Coexistence (California: University of California Press. 2019), 160. in a period where Iraqi nationalists, communists, monarchists, liberals, Islamists, etc., were attempting to build a united frame. Why, then, does the majority of the literature on this subject present this incident as Muslim vs. Christian?

This brings us back to Macron’s words, which reverberated around the world: many who were unaware of the repercussions of Islamophobia in France, its historical language of communal separatism to designate Middle Eastern populations, and the general evolution of intercommunal narratives, applauded Macron’s move. The other side was visibly offended by Macron’s statements and saw these labels as a new and worrisome chapter in a long history of French colonialism, when, in fact, the same terminology and nuances used by Macron and those like him have deep historical roots. This terminology is prevalent not just in the media outlets, but also in academia, in the narratives that serve to analyze and explain intercommunal conflict in the Middle East and other majority “Muslim” regions. It is a rhetoric that has been subconsciously (or consciously) reinforced for over two centuries now and intensified whenever it is seen fit.

Notes / References

1 https://theprint.in/opinion/where-is-europe-headed-france-new-radicalism-law-exposes-macron-centrism/606681/; https://www.trtworld.com/magazine/macron-finds-political-lifeline-through-colonial-approach-to-islam-44108; https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/10/25/social-meboycott-french-products-online-against-macrons-islam; https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/18/world/europe/france-universities-culture-wars.html
2 https://www.cnews.fr/france/2020-02-18/quest-ce-que-le-separatisme-928349
3 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fQJUaYQN4os&list=LL&index=12&t=222s
4 Najmul Abedin, “The Politics of Separatism: Some reflections and questions,” The Round Table 78, no. 310 (1989): 223.
5 https://www.fairobserver.com/region/europe/ali-demirdas-islamophobia-assimilation-muslims-emmanuel-macron-far-right-election-2022-france-news-25111/
6 David Gaunt, “Relations between Kurds and Syriacs and Assyrians in Late Ottoman Diyarbekir,” in Social Relations in Ottoman Diyarbakir, 1870-1915, ed. Joost Jongerden and Jelle Verheij, (Boston: Brill, 2012), 246.
7 John Joseph, The Modern Assyrians of the Middle East (Boston: Brill, 2000), 73, 76, 78.
8 Ibid., 82.
9 Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi, The Thirty Year Genocide: Turkey’s Destruction of its Christian Minorities (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019), 5.
10 Fanar Haddad, “‘Sectarianism’ and its Discontents in the Study of the Middle East,” Middle East Journal 71, no. 3 (2017): 363
11 Ibid., 364
12 E.g. Vahram Petrosian, “Assyrians in Iraq,” Iran & the Caucasus 10, no.1 (2006): 120; Alexander Bligh and Gadi Hitman, “The fate of the Assyrian minority in early independent Iraq; a test case of political violence based on rational primordialism,” Middle Eastern Studies 55, no. 3 (2019); Malek Yusuf, The British Betrayal of the Assyrians (Chicago: The Kimball Press, 1935).
13 Ussama Makdisi, Age of Coexistence (California: University of California Press. 2019), 160.

Rand Saleh al-Jumaily

Rand Saleh al-Jumaily is a PhD candidate at the Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations Department at the University of Toronto. She specializes in the modern political history of Iraq. Her area of focus is on the growth of nationalist movements amongst ‘minority’ groups, with special attention on the development of Assyrian nationalism in the nascent Iraqi state. Her current project seeks to redefine the followers of the Mar Sham’un as a legitimate nationalist movement, the first Assyrian group to mobilize with clear intentions for change in its national situation and international standing.

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