The Napoleonic origins of two centuries of Muslim suffering


"I have not come to you except for the purpose of restoring your rights from the hands of the oppressors." It is not difficult to imagine these words being spoken by US president George W. Bush or British prime minister Tony Blair during a visit to Iraq. They also echo what proconsul Paul Bremer said upon his arrival in Baghdad. In fact they were spoken by a 28-year-old man who arrived in Egypt from France on June 28, 1798, with a fleet of 400 ships carrying 36,000 men. This young man, who would later etch his name in history as the last maverick king of France, had the singular distinction of inaugurating a new phase of history by invading and occupying a Muslim heartland.

During the next one hundred and fifty years, the whole Muslim world was colonized. Napoleon’s occupation of Egypt lasted only three years (1798-1801), but it established patterns of occupation and oppression that survive to this day. These patterns of occupation, as well as mechanisms and policies of oppression established during these three years, have now served Western occupation armies for more than two centuries. Thus this long-forgotten occupation of Egypt is an important event in Muslim history, and might justifiably be called the mother of all subsequent occupations.

Since that fateful day in 1798, the entire Muslim world has suffered a long series of invasions and occupations, involving the destruction of its most fundamental institutions and traditions. There have, of course, been variations in the techniques first used by Napoleon; far more lethal weapons have been invented and the modus operandi of ruling occupied lands has been further refined, but fundamental patterns first established in Egypt have not changed. For instance, the Iraqi Governing Council is an exact copy of the Divans established by Napoleon soon after his arrival. The technique employed by Napoleon, to use "natives" to kill "natives", is being replicated by the new Afghan army as well as by the new Iraqi army. Napoleon called resistance to occupation an "uprising"; those who took part were called "insurgents". The same lexicon is being used in Iraq, Afghanistan and other occupied Muslim lands.

When the population of Cairo rose against the occupiers on October 21-22, 1798, Napoleon ordered his army to use brutal force to subdue the "uprising". The French positioned their cannons on high ground and rained fire on the strongholds of the resistance; even the venerated al-Azhar mosque was not spared. Is this not exactly what is happening in Falluja, Najaf and Karbala today? The French were able to put an end to military resistance within 36 hours, but they did not stop when the active fighting ended. Instead, they started house-to-house searches, punishing the general populace and executing those who were thought to have been most active against them. This is precisely what we see happening now in occupied Iraq.

As the era of direct colonization ended, with the granting of so-called independence to Muslim lands, the colonizers devised new methods of controlling the economic, political and cultural lives of Muslims; but in these "new methods" too one can detect the precedents established by Napoleon. Even the new constitutions and the methods used to enact them are similar to those used by Napoleon. Seen in this perspective, 2004 marks the two hundred and sixth year of continuous oppression and suffering of Muslims at the hands of Western powers.

This epoch-making occupation of Egypt has been chronicled in minute detail by the French themselves in the massive Description de l’Egypte, the handiwork of the large contingent of scholars who accompanied Napoleon. Published over twenty years between 1809 and 1829, and consisting of ten albums of plates, nine volumes of text, and three volumes of atlases and maps, the Description is a monumental work that launched the field of Egyptology. It is also the most detailed account available of a Muslim society on the eve of its encounter with the modern West. We also have numerous other accounts of the French experience in Egypt, written by the invaders and occupiers, including the Memoirs of Antoine Fauvelet de Borrienne, a schoolmate of Napoleon at the military school at Brienne le Chateau in the early 1780s, who was his private secretary at the time of the invasion of Egypt. But the true measure of this event can be understood neither from the scholarly Description de l’Egypte nor from the eyewitness account of Bourrienne; rather, it is to be found in a now forgotten text, written by Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti, the most illustrious Muslim historian of the eighteenth century, who wrote in the grand tradition of al-Tabari and Ibn Khaldun.

Born into a family of ulama in 1753, Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti wrote three accounts of these cataclysmic years of French occupation of Egypt. The fact that al-Jabarti and his eyewitness account of the barbaric acts of a generation of Frenchmen, who were supposedly fired by the spirit of enlightenment and noble ideals of freedom and liberty, has largely been ignored, by both Muslim and Western scholars, is perhaps an indication of their importance. Al-Jabarti was effectively written out of history because his was the true voice of the oppressed, the invaded and the occupied; he spoke the truth about the cruelty of this invasion in a language that is reminiscent of the greatest historians of all time an objective, detached factual language that chronicled events painstakingly and collected details without partisanship. Because of his criticism of Muhammad Ali, who was made viceroy of Egypt by the Ottomans (1805 to 1849), publications of his works was banned until 1870, and it was not until 1879-80 that the entire work was published.

Al Jabarti’s first book, Tarikh Muddat al Faransis bi Misr, (‘The History of the Era of the French in Egypt’) is now available in an English translation by Shmuel Moreh, an Israeli Arabist. Written at the time of the French invasion, and covering a little over six months, this chronicle of the early days of the French occupation is of immense importance in understanding the patterns of occupation as they came into being: Napoleon’s efforts to curry favor with the local population; his proclamations of sympathy with Islam and the Prophet (saw); and his pattern of rule. It also provides insights into multiple Muslim failures. One is astonished to find that, while al-Jabarti is deeply troubled by the invasion and occupation of his land and the cruelty of the invaders, he remains balanced in his attitude and admires the French for their learning. This is a unique and remarkable aspect of the Muddat, which helps make it an important historical document. Al-Jabarti was to write two more books: Mazhar al-taqdis bi zawal dawlat al-Faransis (‘The Sacred Aspects of the Fall of the French’) and Ajaib al athar fil tarajim wal Akhbar (‘The Wonderous Vestiges in the Biographies and History’). The first chronicles the events leading to the departure of the French from Egypt; the latter is a monumental work of Egyptian history from 1688 to 1821.

Among the challenges facing Muslims today is to understand current affairs and the present situation of the Muslim Ummah as part of a continuum of historical developments, rather than as disjointed, isolated events occurring in Iraq, Palestine, Kashmir and other Muslim lands. This isolationist approach to history is a fabrication of the colonial powers, designed to destroy all sense of connection with our past and of historical continuity from the past to the present. Let us be very clear: what is happening in Iraq and elsewhere in the Muslim world today has is connected with what happened in Egypt in June 1798 onwards. These links must be explored in great depth so that a true history of oppression and suffering of Muslims can be written. This is not a task for individuals, but for institutions. It requires not individual works of scholarship, but the emergence of a discourse. But unfortunately, there is not a single institution in the Muslim world devoted to this task. This is a tragedy of immense proportions: one fifth of the world’s population is being robbed of its true history, and there is not one institution among the thousands of institutions in all our lands that is really interested in this catastrophe.

This column cannot be used to write that history, but it would not be out of place to point out certain elements of this pattern of events that began in June 1798 and continues to take its toll more than two centuries later. Edward Said pointed out in Orientalism, his most famous work, that Napoleon’s arrival in Egypt was preceded by a good amount of preparatory work. Among Napoleon’s sources were the writings of the Comte de Volney, a French traveler whose Voyage en Egypte et en Syrie (‘Travels in Egypt and Syria’) appeared in two volumes in 1787. Later, during his captivity at Saint Helena, while dictating his reflections on the Egyptian expedition (Campagnes d’Egypte et de Syrie, 1798-1799, ‘The Egyptian and Syrian Campaigns, 1798-1799’) to General Bertand, Napoleon referred explicitly to Volney, saying that he had deduced from Volney that there were three obstacles to French hegemony in the Orient, and so realized that he had to fight three wars: one against England, the second against the Ottoman Porte, and the third against Muslims. Napoleon was far more shrewd than Bush, Rumsfeld and Bremer put together; he took Volney’s words almost literally, but in his own peculiar manner. He gathered a team of scientists and scholars to accompany him on his trip, he named his flagship Orient, and as soon as he had a secure landing, he issued a proclamation in which he attempted to use Egyptian enmity toward the Mamlukes to secure his domination.

Napoleon’s proclamation of July 2, 1798, should be framed and hung at the entrance of every department of history throughout the Muslim world, as a memento of their unmaking. This document is a key to our two centuries of suffering. It is a manual of the West’s long, sustained, cruel and devastating war against Islam and Muslims that continues to this day. This is the mother of all proclamations that was to be recast in different circumstances under different names. This is the proclamation that should be memorized by all those who wish to understand the anatomy of the long and brutal genocide of Muslims that has entered its two hundred and seventh year in this month, June 2004.

This proclamation, preserved for us, with a commentary, by Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti, declares in no uncertain terms that Napoleon was in fact fighting for the oppressed Egyptians, that he had come to Egypt to liberate them from the oppression of the Mamlukes, that he had the greatest reverence for Islam and its Prophet, and that he was, in fact, fighting for Islam. Essentially the same claims are made in statements by George W. Bush and others, claiming to be liberating Iraq, and fighting for true Islam against those seeking to distort it. Other techniques and stratagems used by Napoleon have also been replicated over and over in subsequent invasions and occupations. Napoleon enlisted the help of those wearing the attire of ulama but who did not deserve to be called by that noble word, to translate his proclamation into Qur’anic Arabic. Note that he did not use the colloquial tongue for this purpose; he understood that the use of Qur’anic Arabic would give his words a degree of respectability. He then hired local imams, muftis, and qadis to read this nefarious proclamation out in mosques, schools, and other social and religious gatherings.

Napoleon’s shrewdness can be judged from one particular event. He invited sixty of the leading ulama of al-Azhar to his quarters, gave them full military honors, fed them lavishly, flattered them with his eloquent speech on the Qur’an and the Prophet, and gave them gifts. By the time they left his quarters, they had been won over; from this point onward, Napoleon could rest in peace. He was so sure of his methods that when he left Egypt, he advised his deputy, Jean-Baptiste Kleber, always to administer Egypt through the locals!

Although it is true that Napoleon’s fertile mind had not invented all the tricks he used in Egypt, he was the main architect of the policy of using the religious sentiments of Muslims against them. He might have learned the tricks of divide and conquer from the English, who arrived in India 148 years (since 1650, when the East India Company first established a factory in Bengal), but compared to the crudeness of the British, who could only think in terms of betrayals, false promises and outright deceptions, Napoleon was a far more sophisticated and learned man, with a great sense of history. He not only invaded and occupied a Muslim heartland, he also inaugurated a long era of cultural, political and economic dominance that continues to this day. He removed the first of the three obstacles he recognized to French dominance of the Orient, the power of the Ottomans, by his cunning rather than his might. The English and the French later resolved the second obstacle by coming to an understanding about their mutual spheres of influence and control; the same understanding has now produced the US-British alliance with Europe as the silent partner in the misdeed. The third obstacle is Islam itself, and the British, French and Americans are now hard at work to remove it from the collective lives of Muslims.

They wish to extinguish the Light of Allah with their mouths, but Allah has willed to spread His light in all its fullness, however hateful this may be to those who deny the Truth. (al-Qur’an 61:8)

Guaranteeing that Islam as a religion will never perish, this and similar ayaat of the Qur’an promise to Muslims that eventually it will be Allah’s word that will prevail, yet this is not a license for us to sit back and let the oppressors continue their misdeeds. In fact, the responsibility to oppose the oppressors is a duty that no Muslim can relinquish without grave consequences, for the individual as well as for the collective lives of the believers. What lies ahead for the Muslim Ummah will be determined, to a large extent, by Muslim response to the multiple levels of aggression against them, now entering its two hundred and seventh year.


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