Upon conquering Algeria, in 1830, France was confronted with a deep crisis of self-doubt. With the rise of industrial capitalism, the turmoil of the patriotic wars of the Revolution and of the Napoleonic conquests through which the country had thought to spread universal ideas of freedom and equality seemed to have ended in bitterness and mediocrity. Napoleon’s self-assurance during the expedition of Egypt, thirty years earlier, was long gone. The worth of the Enlightenment that the country had promoted for so long was called into question. An inner war was raging, and France, confronted with its own modernity, seemed caught between two periods and two visions of itself.
In Paris, royalty had been restored. But King Charles X hesitated between a post-revolutionary heritage of liberalism and an impossible return to the past. The Parisian salons were haunted by the ghosts of the Terror and the Revolution and by fantasies of blue blood. Everyone was obsessed with purity of lineage. It was the time of the Rastignacs and Rubemprés immortalized by Balzac’s novels—the ambitious nouveaux riches who dreamt of restoring a “pure” aristocracy while exchanging favors in bedchambers and adding nobiliary particles to their names in order to erase their own plebeian “impurity.” The culture of the salons was a mockery of the Ancien Régime’s court culture: a culture of corruption played out in the name of ideals that Baudelaire would soon call satanisme badin—lighthearted Satanism.
Because their emancipation in 1791 had been seen as the first consequence of the passing of the Declaration of the Rights of Man—the abolition of slavery being the other—Jews, as we’ve seen, were considered one of the main symbols of this age of miscegenation, of new money and of the new urban life. Furthermore, the emancipation had spread in Europe, encouraging Jews to come out of the ghettos. A secular Jewish world would come to populate European cities and embody liberalism, to the dismay of European royals. Charles X’s abdication and exile after the riots of 1830 only made things more confused.
It is in this context that Algeria was conquered, and that, in order to find hope again and regenerate the notion of universalism, liberal philosophers and politicians began to call for the building of a new French Empire, to succeed to Napoleon’s. One of the founding fathers of liberalism, Tocqueville, pretty much set the tone in 1841, eleven years after the French army set foot in Algeria, and six before the territory was annexed by France: “I do not think that France could seriously think of leaving Algeria. The desertion it would thus create would appear to the eyes of the world as the sure announcement of its decadence Should France step back in front of such an action … it would seem as if it bent to its own powerlessness.” The second reason invoked by Tocqueville for colonizing Algeria was to bring the Enlightenment to the “ignorant races” inhabiting Africa. During most of the colonial era, it was this argument that was invoked by the progressive camp, not the reactionary one, in favor of colonization. Victor Hugo, the author of Les Misérables, favored colonization in the name of the Declaration of the Rights of Man.
Conversely, news of the conquest was received with exasperation by the reactionary camp. For those nostalgic for blue blood, empire meant the management of a new, barbaric population and, above all, the reawakening of dangerous ideas such as universalism. It could only put at risk the restoration of the Ancien Régime that was now under way, and serve the partisans of the new global era. As a scandalized Baron Jean-Jacques Baude, representative of the Loire department, phrased it at the National Assembly, “It is to the benefit of the Jews that we conquer Algiers!” In other words: to the benefit of miscegenation and global money.
By the same token, the worst massacres perpetrated by the French during the conquest were the deeds of high-ranking officers who despised the Enlightenment and did not believe in the colonization they were fighting for, like the war criminal General Thomas-Robert Bugeaud, for instance, who famously gave his soldiers the order to either burn the Arabs’ crops every year or exterminate them all. Jacques Leroy de Saint-Arnaud, one of Bugeaud’s officers, smoked out the caves in which Muslim civilians found refuge and killed by suffocation thousands of men, women, and children. Yet neither of those men favored the colonizing of Algeria, “a costly possession of which our nation should be glad to get rid of,” as Bugeaud put it at a hearing at the National Assembly.
In many quarters of the colonial administration, during the following years, these rifts and contradictions led to a curious mindset. Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt had had the effect of splitting the Muslim world in two. While a minority of religious dignitaries had fallen in love with the ideals of Enlightenment and were trying to translate them into Muslim terms—and were often marginalized in their own countries for doing so—a majority of imams were generally opposed to Western Enlightenment, and, as paradoxical as it may seem, this Muslim influence began to be seen favorably in reactionary and utopian French circles as a solution to the crisis of the modern age.
Several civil servants of the rising colonial administration thus began to take genuine interest in Muslim traditions, in what sounds like a prefiguration of what we would today call multiculturalism. But it is important to frame this word in its historical context. For these French, multiculturalism was cosmopolitanism in reverse: in other words, an identity politics. By and large, it was the anti-modern elements of the Muslim traditions that these high-ranking civil servants found so appealing. Many, for instance, used Islamic law to marry young, Arab girls, often underage, only to repudiate them after a few months in accordance with the Muslim practice, and with the blessing of local imams. Probably the most fascinating character in this crowd is the man who in 1860 would become Napoleon III’s “special adviser for oriental affairs”—i.e., the affairs of the Ottoman Empire and Muslim relations—and whose thinking would inspire the discriminative law on Muslim personal status.
Thomas-Ismayl Urbain was born in 1812 in Cayenne, the son of a woman whose mother was an emancipated slave. He was of white complexion but was one-eighth black, an octoroon, which is probably why his father, Urbain Brue, never recognized him. At eighteen, like so many of Balzac’s characters, he changed his name. Taking his father’s first name, he made it his own family name, then left Marseille, where he had spent his childhood, for the Paris of the Restoration to establish himself as a writer.
In the salons, obsessed with the blue-blood fantasy, racism was the rule. “He stinks, the Negro, open the window!” is the sentence attributed to one of the great stars of the day, Mademoiselle Mars, after a visit in her living room by Alexandre Dumas, who was one-quarter black. Dumas’s huge ego, arrogance, and talent, however, allowed him to pass beyond prejudices and become one of the most popular writers of his time, which was much more than Urbain could say for himself. Marginalized, deprived of any introduction to enter the salons, and afflicted with what he called the “double shame” of being part black and the grandson of a slave, Urbain had little chance to make it. He soon joined the legendary Parisian bohème, this “floating, decomposed, and confused mass of third-rate writers and journalists,” as Karl Marx put it, where aspiring men of letters, utopian thinkers, professional revolutionaries, and snitches interacted. From there he joined the crypto–Christian Scientist and Socialist sect that was the rage in the vanguard of the days, the Saint-Simonians. The Saint-Simonians, from among whom most of the French pre-Marxist Socialists originated, preached a “rational faith,” that is to say, a mix of mystical love for humanity and utopian totalitarian social organization whose ambition was to solve the crisis of modernity opened by the overthrow of the Ancien Régime and the Industrial Revolution, by reconciling technology and science with religion. When Urbain joined them, the leader of the movement was a Barthélémy Prosper-Enfantin, whom everyone called Père Enfantin, half an intellectual star and half a guru, who had set himself the task of uniting the materialist West and what he saw as the more spiritual “Orient” through a spiritual and physical wedding between himself and some woman he hoped to find in Egypt. The following extract of one of his speeches, typical of his pseudo-prophetic style, also conveys the French disarray of the days: “Thrones are shaken, families are torn apart, kings and love are no more. A new religion, a new politics, a new moral: here is what I bring to you. And only I could bring them to you because you have loved me and because I love you.”
Urbain soon fell under his spell. (“I love you, Father, like a child,” he wrote, underlining the word “Father” three times, as he would do in all his letters to Enfantin until the guru’s death.) Enfantin himself seems to have been quite taken with Urbain’s intensity, and especially with his blackness. Another of the Saint-Simonians, Gustave d’Eichthal, the son of a Jewish banker who had converted to Catholicism, was so struck by what he called “the dramatic power of Urbain the Black” that the two men began a homosexual relationship that lasted all their lives. This point matters because Urbain himself was ashamed of his slave ancestry. The homoerotic emphasis on his blackness, even though he was of white complexion, seems to have helped him to get in touch with the narcissistic drive that would soon lead him to define himself as “a black Muslim prophet, representative of the Muslim races elected and proclaimed by God,” and consequently start a career in the French colonial administration.
His conversion to Islam occurred in 1833, during a trip of the Saint-Simonians in Egypt, on the trail of Napoleon’s expedition there thirty years earlier, but with the goal of finding for Père Enfantin “the Messie woman” he would marry according to his mystic vision. (It seems that Enfantin was instead spotted ravaging all the brothels of Upper Egypt before he was expelled from the country.) Urbain fell in love with Muslim culture, learned Arabic, got circumcised in Egypt—which says something of his determination, given that anesthesia was likely unavailable—and took the name Ismayl. “Thank you, Prophet!” Père Enfantin wrote from Paris as soon as he heard the news. “You are the first of my children to have joined the Orient.”
Three years later, in 1837, back in Paris, Thomas-Ismayl, who, by then, had had all the time to measure the distance between his literary dreams and the reality, accepted a job as a translator in Algeria, where he started to work with General Bugeaud—the war criminal. This was when he began to speak of the Arab Muslims as “my People.” “To me,” he later wrote in his memoirs, “this was the continuation of my mission in the Orient, I would work at unifying the Muslim society of North Africa with the French civilization.” The letter he wrote to Enfantin after settling in Algiers in the spring of 1837, however, gives perhaps a more accurate idea of his deranged messianism at the time: “I hope to be one day the representative of the Muslim races elected and proclaimed by God. One day, if God would make my work fecund, and my people [the Muslims] would like to follow me, I will bring you to them to be known and loved by them.”
Three months after this letter, his first act as a self-proclaimed Muslim prophet to bring together the Muslims from Algeria and the French was a diatribe he wrote in the national press against the Jews. Indeed, Algerian Jews, discriminated against under Ottoman rule, tended to welcome the French arrival in the territory. The colonial administration, for its part, relied on Jewish merchants for its daily needs in food and equipment. This was precisely what displeased Urbain. At the time of his arrival, a couple of financial scandals involving French officers and one Jewish grocer had hit the news in Algeria, giving him an opening for his ire: “Generals and civil servants have given up the honor and dignity of France to these degraded pariahs [the Jews],” he wrote in Les Débats, a newspaper of the day. “Such an attitude,” he added, “can only distance the Arabs from us, and make them say, with some disgust, that French and Jews are one.”
It is crucial to note that, despite how it appears, Urbain’s burst of anti-Semitism here is not a consequence of his conversion to Islam. It is a product of the kind of Frenchman he was.
As we’ve seen, for the reactionary camps, Jews symbolized the degraded modern age, and, as a result, many a French civil servant thought exactly as Urbain did. “The Algerian Jew is a base and contemptible being for whom everything is summarized in money,” wrote, for instance, someone named De La Pinsonnière, in an official report on Algeria in 1833. Bugeaud, under whose orders Urbain worked, saw the Jews of Algeria as “a people despised [by the Muslims] and very worthy of it, for they have reached the ultimate height of abjection, deceit and greed.” So if there’s any causality at all between Urbain’s anti-Semitism here and his conversion to Islam, it is this: Because Jews were seen as the embodiment of modernity, Urbain was, like many of his contemporaries in France at the time, an anti-Semite. It was this uneasiness with modernity that had eased his way toward the Muslim world in the first place. Whether or not Muslims in Algeria actually despised Jews the way he claimed they did is not the subject here. What matters is that Urbain, like Bugeaud, perceived them to do so: “Muslims hold the Jews in contempt,” he wrote, a perception that was already natural for him. And it is this perception that led him to look for an alliance with the Muslims on these grounds, in order to save the West from its nihilistic materialism.
In this context, it is also worth mentioning Urbain’s views on slavery and on his own blackness. His intimate friend and lover d’Eichthal was obsessed with the slave trade. Drawing from Urbain’s example—or, rather, from his fantasy of Urbain’s example—he had written a whole “scientific” theory according to which “the black race,” as he wrote, was in essence feminine, whereas “the white race” was masculine. He dreamed of a mystical union between the two that would “restore domesticity,” in the sense that the “black would perform the domestic function” as a woman in the interest of the white. Urbain, like most of the Saint-Simonians, had had anti-slavery convictions in his youth. It seems that Urbain accepted d’Eichthal’s theory as a middle position between his past anti-slavery stand and the situation he had found in Algeria, where he had adopted a much more cautious attitude on the question of slavery in general, as he witnessed, with no apparent repulsion, the slave trade that went on at the benefit of the upper classes of Muslim society.
Since its abolition during the Revolution, slavery in France had been a subject of hothouse debates. Napoleon had reestablished it in Haiti, and in the French West Indies of Guadeloupe and Martinique, it still constituted a de facto reality sustaining the sugar industry. Finally, in 1848, under pressure from the abolitionist militant Victor Shoelcher, the National Assembly voted to abolish slavery once and for all everywhere in the empire. Everywhere, that is, except the Maghreb, where the colonial administration was keen to maintain good relations with the imams and the Muslim upper classes. Thus, in 1848, Algeria counted 18,329 slaves, and three thousand were sold each year. By 1880, two thousand slaves a year still entered the country, while the number of slaves in Morocco reached 100,000. (In Egypt, the number reached 515,000.)
Urbain was of course no stranger to this French administration’s mindset. He saw his blackness, however discreet, as an obstacle to his social climbing in France, which may have been one of the reasons he converted to Islam in the first place. But now, as a Muslim from the colonial administration with contacts in the world of the ulema (doctors of Islamic law), he certainly was not ready to risk this position over a conflict on slavery.
Another field, somewhat related, in which his being a Muslim helped him to overcome “the shame” of his origin was marriage. “A rich marriage was unworkable for me because of the original stain of my birth and my modest resources,” he wrote in his memoirs. And a poor wife was no solution, either: “If she were as educated as I am, she would suffer from my mediocre means,” whereas, if she had an inferior education, she would “make my life painful.” Therefore, “in such uncertainty, I resolved to take a Muslim wife.” Which he did, in the person of Djeyhmouna Bent Messaoud Ez Zebeiri, twelve years old. The marriage was performed by an imam in 1840, with the blessing of the girl’s father.
Urbain’s correspondence shows that he assumed at first that he would repudiate her after a few months, as so many French civil servants did at the time. In the end, he remained married to Djeyhmouna, who eventually gave him a daughter but whom he treated all his life as some sort of inferior being. As he wrote to d’Eichthal, his true lifelong confidant, “I was not strong enough for an equal marriage.”
I have expanded a bit on Thomas-Ismayl Urbain because his trajectory gives a sense of the paradoxes and complexities with which colonial France approached Muslim traditions and cultures. Probably the climax of those contradictions occurred in the 1860s, when Urbain became Napoleon III’s special adviser for oriental affairs and, as one of the leaders of the “Arabophile” lobby, drew the outlines of France’s “Muslim personal status” law, which would have the unintended consequence of creating a quasi-apartheid system depriving Muslims of any rights.
Urbain was as much against the French settlers, whose sole policy consisted in stealing as much land as they could from the Arabs, as he was against an integration policy that he feared would risk destroying the Muslim customs and spirituality that, in his view, saved Algeria—and ultimately could save France as well—from Western nihilism and decadence. It is not too much to say that the theory he landed on anticipates by more than a century what we would today call “identity politics.” The name he found for it was l’associationisme—a barbarism even in French, but, in short, it meant that the only harmonious way for France to manage its empire while avoiding a corruption universalism was to favor the rise of two separate societies that would live side by side under the same administration, but without mixing. “Nobody,” he wrote, in order to rationalize his notion, “can say my political law, my social organization, my lifestyle represent for humanity the final expression of progress. Progress cannot have the same form for the Arab and for the French, for the Muslim, and for the Christian.” Urbain’s speculations found a political echo in Napoleon III, who had come to the throne in 1852 after a coup d’état and was desperately looking for an imperial destiny worthy of his uncle’s glory.
They had a lot in common. Both were eccentrics and somewhat losers, both had nostalgia for France’s glory days, and both had spent their youth among the Parisian bohème, fomenting great designs and eager to make history. When, after a trip to Syria in 1860, Napoleon III realized that fifteen million Arabs lived under Ottoman rule, he began to imagine that he could free this population from the Turks and become their leader. France could turn into a powerful “royaume arabe”—an Arab kingdom—over which he would benevolently rule, thus finding a role worthy of the Bonaparte name. Algeria turned into a kind of test for that grand project, and acquired a critical importance. That was when he called Urbain to his side.
For Urbain, as well as for the conservative imams he was in touch with, the problem in allowing Muslims to become citizens and benefit from expanded civil rights was that they would have had to submit to the Civil Code instituted by Napoleon I in 1808, which defined the rules of citizenry in France. In practical terms, to obey the Civil Code meant giving up traditions such as polygamy, repudiation, and slavery that benefited the Muslim upper classes. A Muslim personal status, on the other hand, would allow those traditions to live on, although at a price that would mostly affect the lower classes of Muslims. Thus the Muslim status was instituted.
In the end, the Arab Kingdom never saw the light of day—Napoleon III’s reign ended ten years later, with the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the Paris Commune, and was succeeded by the Third Republic. Meanwhile in Algeria, French colonial settlers used the status law in order to marginalize the Muslims even more and monopolize land. But in terms of civil rights, the consequences of the personal status had been obvious from the start.
This discriminatory system against the lower classes of the Muslim population in Algeria in the name of Islam shaped French imperialism until the crumbling of the empire. It was the basis for the quasi invisibility the migrants suffered when they began to travel to the metropole. As late as 1947, when de Gaulle passed a law to reform the Muslim status and give Muslims a say in local elections, Muslim women were denied the right to vote, in order to appease the Muslim clerics. Everywhere else on French territory, women had had the vote since the end of World War II.
To make things perfectly clear: I am not suggesting that an interest in Islam necessarily leads to identity politics and apartheid, nor that Urbain and his like were wrong to point out the dilemmas of the modern crisis. The search for transcendental meaning is, in a sense, part of that crisis itself and probably can’t be avoided any more than modernity can. But, at least since Napoleon’s expedition in Egypt, the same crisis also affected the Muslim world. And while some of the religious dignitaries there fought to develop an “Islamic Enlightenment” based on a dialogue with the West, a majority simply took shelter in a conservative view, and people like Urbain, eager to escape the West and full of the enthusiasm of the convert, were naturally inclined to turn to them.
Let us take a look at how this vision of Islam spread across Europe long after Urbain’s death and in a completely different context. Let us turn our attention to “Judaism and Islam as Opposites,” an article that the Nazi propagandist Johann von Leers published in 1942 in Die Judenfrage, an anti-Semitic propaganda journal of the Nazi regime. Von Leers explained in it what was, in his view, the superiority of Islam as far as “the Jewish question” was concerned: In the Muslim world, he wrote, “Jews are despised in the filthy lanes of the mellah [where] they lived under a special law which kept them in a state of oppression and anxiety. If the rest of the world had adopted a similar policy, we would not have a Jewish question.” Isn’t this almost word for word the conception French civil servants like Urbain had of the way Muslims despised Jews? Like Urbain, von Leers saw the Muslim world as an escape from the curses of modernity, but he took this view to its extreme. And, in his case, the word “escape” is to be taken literally: in the mid-1950s, on the run after the Nazi defeat, he ultimately found refuge in Cairo, where Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian Socialist leader, put him in charge of anti-Jewish activities (and where he was joined later by Aloïs Brunner, the commander of the Drancy camp during my grandfather’s incarceration, on his way to Syria). Like Urbain, von Leers also converted to Islam, taking the name Omar Amin, and it was under this name that von Leers helped expel the Jews from Egypt in 1956 before being appointed head of the Institute for the Study of Zionism, in Cairo, where he began recycling the Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda from World War II into an “anti-Zionist” narrative aimed at the Arab masses. One of his accomplishments was the translation into Arabic of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The translator was French, a former collaborator of the Vichy regime.
From Hate: The Rising Tide of Anti-Semitism in France (and What It Means for Us) by Marc Weitzmann (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, March 12, 2019). Reprinted with permission.
Read Marc Weitzmann’s five-part original series in Tablet: France’s Toxic Hate.
Marc Weitzmann is the author of 12 books, including, most recently, Hate: The Rising Tide of Anti-Semitism in France (and What It Means for Us). He is a regular contributor to Le Monde and Le Point and hosts Signes des Temps, a weekly public radio show on France Culture.