Interviewed by Mahdi Elleuch
Arthur Asseraf is a French historian who specializes in the history of colonialism and the media in France and North Africa and has been teaching at the University of Cambridge since 2017. He came to Tunisia to partake in the launch of Colonisations. Notre histoire, an edited book that was recently published by Éditions du Seuil and he helped edit, and to launch Le Désinformateur, the biography of Messaoud Djebari that he published a year ago. He also published Electric News in Colonial Algeria with Oxford University Press in 2019 and has published many articles and contributions, including the article “‘A New Israel’: Colonial Comparisons and the Algerian Partition That Never Happened”. The Legal Agenda interviewed him about these publications, the difficulties of addressing the subject of colonialism in France and the refusal to acknowledge the colonial nature of the Israeli project, and the lessons that history can teach us about the challenges of media, truth, and freedom of expression today.
Legal Agenda (LA): Let’s begin with Colonisations. Notre histoire, the book recently published under the direction of Pierre Singaravélou and jointly edited by you and three other professors. The book includes more than 250 contributions from metropolitan France and formerly colonized regions and traces the history of more than five centuries of French colonialism. Can you tell us about the approach that you adopted in this book, its novel aspects in relation to previous publications on the subject, and – in particular – your reasons for choosing reverse chronology, starting with the debates of today and ending with the precolonial period?
Arthur Asseraf: This book has multiple distinguishing qualities. The first is its collective, pluralistic nature. It unites 268 contributors of both genders, not only from metropolitan France but also from overseas France, numerous African and Asian countries, and even other countries that were never French colonies – we searched for the best experts in each field. This doesn’t mean that the starting point wasn’t France as the publisher is French, as are the editors, even though we come from diverse roots and family trajectories and some of us teach in foreign universities. We believe that this history is far too complicated to be narrated by one expert. It is also a living history as numerous aspects are still subject to significant debate. We don’t want to portray the history of French colonialism as though it is over and done with but to highlight the knowledge obtained in this field and, at the same time, the living nature of this research, especially during the past three decades. There is also the global and comprehensive scope: we researched French colonialism wherever it occurred, on all continents over five centuries, beginning with North America, the Antilles in the Caribbean, South America, the Pacific Ocean, Africa, and Asia, whereas political discourse often reduces French colonialism to Africa.
Finally, the choice of reverse chronology stems from the continuous and eternal debates that colonialism and its legacy are still provoking in the public sphere, especially in France but also in other spheres including Tunisia, not to mention Niger during the past few months and other past colonies. This colonial past always resurfaces, everywhere and in various ways, forms, and debates. We set out from this general observation and from the major questions that people have about the history of colonialism. We noticed a large gulf between the world of research, which has accumulated much new knowledge, and the public, which lacks knowledge of this history, and we tried to address [the latter] via this book. The questions we as researchers ask are also a product of the present, whether we recognize it or not. Hence, setting out explicitly from today’s debates might be a more honest way of doing research.
There is another reason for the choice of reverse chronology, namely our search for a new understanding of this history. This history is usually presented as if it were about a person who was born, grew up, grew old, and died in a certain time, whereas the colonial empire was not like that. The French colonial empire did not come into being and die at the same time in every place; rather, it was always reshaping. The commonly adopted division between a first modern empire that existed in the 16th and 17th centuries, particularly between the Atlantic and Indian oceans, and lost large swaths to other European forces during the Revolutionary Wars and a second empire, particularly in Africa and Asia in the 19th and 20th centuries, does not withstand much scrutiny. Suffice it to say, the occupations of neighbors Algeria and Morocco were separated by more than 80 years. Hence, it might be better for us to set out from the present and go back to the various historical stages.
The final, equally important reason is that we can end with the precolonial past. How can we today understand the precolonial worlds – i.e. the various Maghrebi, African, Asian, Antillean, and even European societies – before the colonial experience? In my opinion, this is the most novel and original aspect of the book. Rarely do we try to talk in-depth about these societies in their plurality, or their interconnectivity and contact, before European colonization. For example, we have articles about trade across the Sahara or among islands in the Antilles. These societies were not asleep until the Europeans came along to wake them up. Researching this aspect is much more difficult and complicated, but it is important and very interesting.
LA: This leads us to the second question, about the paradigm that you chose (or didn’t choose) for this book. The decolonial perspective is evident from some of the topics, names, and choices – including the choice to trace five centuries of colonialism – although it is not necessarily the dominant or only one. How do you explain the resistance to decolonial studies, or even postcolonial studies before it, in France compared to Anglo-Saxon universities, for example, with you being a French professor at the British University of Cambridge?
Asseraf: This is a very important question. I myself am surprised about how the media – and even academic – sphere in France uses the division between Francophone and Anglo-Saxon to reject renewal and abort many debates. Every difference is portrayed as an import from American universities, including postcolonial theories, for example. There is deep ignorance and disregard of Francophone anticolonial literature in the 20th century (Aimé Césaire, Albert Memmi, Frantz Fanon, and so on), which is very rich, as well as of the thinkers writing today, some of whom contributed to the book, such as Patrick Chamoiseau and Achille Mbembe, irrespective of their differences. The stigmatization of decolonial studies as an import and translation seems like a defensive reaction that betrays, in particular, ignorance of this research tradition. Gender theory, for example, is stigmatized the same way, in disregard of Simone de Beauvoir’s writings from the middle of the last century. In saying that, I’m not denying the reality of the hegemonic relationships between French universities and their American and Anglo-Saxon counterparts, which possess greater resources, or that the translation movement has become increasingly unidirectional, thereby contributing to the general sense that France is receding from the center to the margin. Finally, there is also a glaring political divide in France over colonialism issues. The resistance to decolonial studies also reflects a deeper and more comprehensive resistance to any attempt to have a frank debate about the history of French colonialism and its responsibility, even for the inequality in French society today. There is real difficulty in examining and thinking not only about France’s history but also about its present and its position in the world.
LA: In one of your articles, you studied an important but ignored moment in the history of France’s colonization of Algeria, namely David Ben-Gurion’s proposal of the idea of partitioning Algeria to French President Charles de Gaulle in 1960, which was inspired by the experience of partitioning Palestine and erecting a Jewish state there. How do you see the comparison between France’s colonization of Algeria and the Zionist colonization of Palestine as two examples of “settler colonialism”? Why is there still resistance in the countries of the North, including France, to acknowledging the colonial nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Can it be explained by the fact that Palestinians are, in Edward Said’s words, the “victims of victims”?
Asseraf: Let’s begin with the plan to partition Algeria. The idea was raised in the final years of Algeria’s colonization, during the War of Independence, when the French authorities were unable to find solutions to the crisis. Thus came the idea of establishing French areas in the places of European demographic concentration in order to separate them from the rest of Algeria. Committees worked on the subject, and numerous maps for the partition were proposed but struck the major difficulty that a European majority existed only in the cities of Algiers and Oran. The idea did not entirely originate from the Israelis as it had already been considered in France before Ben-Gurion’s proposal. Ben-Gurion’s most important advice based on the Israeli experience was to establish a corridor between the sea and the desert, to rely on European labor and not employ Arabs, and to arm the European youth in order to form militias. Ultimately, the project was a bargaining chip for the French authorities, with the Algerian [National] Liberation Front even considering the preservation of Algerian territory’s unity in the Évian agreements a very significant win. The partition plans, and fear of a fate similar to the Palestinians’ Nakba, was a subject of serious discussion in its mouthpiece, the newspaper El Moudjahid.
In my first book, I dedicated a chapter to comparisons between Algeria and Palestine during the colonial period and to the Palestinian issue’s centrality to the Algerian national movement. Algerians’ pro-Palestinian actions in the 1930s preceded the protests demanding Algerian independence. The colonial authorities’ policy of repression was undoubtedly a contributing factor: action for Palestine was easier, just as action against Italians at the beginning of the Tunisian national movement was easier in this respect. However, thought about Palestine was very present in the Algerian national movement, and lessons were being drawn from there to better understand the reality and future of French colonialism.
Hence, before discussing the comparison between Algeria and Palestine, we must remember that the two situations were not unconnected. Firstly, there is the relationship between the two national liberation movements not only before but also after Algeria’s independence, which played a pivotal role in supporting the Palestinian Liberation Organization and influencing its key choices, including the choice to declare the State of Palestine in 1988 without control over its territory. Secondly, there is the close relationship between the French and Israeli governments, which peaked with the Suez Crisis in 1956.
Finally, comparing the two situations reveals some differences, even though they both fall under the category of “settler colonialism”. The most prominent is the absence of a metropole in Israeli colonialism. Algerian territory was divided into provinces subordinate to the French metropole, which made it more difficult, for example, to internationalize the Algerian cause in the United Nations than it was to do the same for the Tunisian and Moroccan causes or the Palestinian cause today. Another characteristic that distinguishes Zionist colonialism is the creation of a new culture via the use of Hebrew and the establishment of [Zionists’] own institutions. There is also the fact that the Israeli colonists had been expelled from Europe and are recognized by European history as its victims, amidst a strong sense of guilt whose effects we can observe today. From another angle, although French colonialism sought to seize land, exploit resources, and control the Algerian population, it did not attempt to erect an economy disconnected from the Algerian workforce, as occurred in the Zionist colonization of Palestine. From these angles, it might be more accurate to compare Israeli colonialism to South African apartheid, which featured White republics that were independent from not only the British metropole but also the Black inhabitants, whom they totally excluded and tried (albeit unsuccessfully) not to depend on economically. Nevertheless, there is a real problem in Europe with realizing the colonial nature of the situation in Palestine. Indeed, the debates and arguments circulating today are more or less unchanged from the 1960s.
LA: A year ago, you published Le Désinformateur, which is a biography of Messaoud Djebari, an informant and translator for the French colonial authorities in Algeria, Tunisia, and other African countries. You shed light on unusual aspects of the French colonialism experience from the perspective of the issue of information and manufacturing truth. What insight can this historical work give on current challenges concerning “fake news” and the war on information, of which we are witnessing a profound example today in the war on Gaza?
Asseraf: “Fake news” is often presented in public discourse as a new problem, but this phenomenon has existed in various eras and societies, albeit in different and developing forms. Whenever new means of communication or media appear, the forms of disinformation also develop and cause fears and concerns. In the 19th century – the period on which I worked in that book – a globalization of information occurred via telegraph cables. Consequently, news agencies appeared and the number of newspapers significantly increased all around the world. Information became available in a timely manner in all different regions. This caused much fear of disinformation and the intractable consequences it could have, such as the fall of Jules Ferry’s government in France due to news about the war in Vietnam that turned out to be inaccurate a few days later. A comparison between that period and what we are experiencing today could be beneficial, given that technological development and the acceleration of the transmission of information are once again raising the question of how to combat fake news and the criteria for trusting sources of information.
In the colonial context of the late 19th century, Europeans had a great need to know and understand what was happening in the societies they had colonized in Africa. Consequently, figures such as Djebari – who came from a very marginalized social milieu – were able to play a significant role. Djebari even fabricated stories and details from his own imagination to boost his standing and the need for his services, ultimately becoming a public figure delivering lectures in Paris. There was a similar case years ago: the justifications for occupying Iraq and claims about weapons of mass destruction were based on fabricated “information” reported by Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi, an asylum-seeker in Germany who claimed to be an engineer working in chemical weapons laboratories in order to boost his chances. That’s not to say that the war wouldn’t have been launched in the absence of these claims. Nevertheless, fake news can have grave consequences, not only for its victims – who could be entire peoples – but also for the people who manufacture it, as in Djebari’s case. Societies need to be in some minimal level of agreement about the “basic facts of what happened”, and by that, I don’t necessarily mean Western standards of “objectivity”.
LA: You also worked on the history of media in the Arab world, particularly newspapers and radio, its role in creating nationalist or patriotic sentiment, and the issues of language. How do you compare that to the role of television news channels and the connection that most have to the agendas of certain countries? Do you think that their hegemony over information has contributed to the temporary setback of the Arab revolutions? Is social media, which played an important role in these revolutions and is today playing a role in conveying the truth of what’s happening in Gaza, simultaneously contributing to the division of society into echo chambers that do not communicate or converse with one another?
Asseraf: To begin with, the current situation in which the Arab satellite channels are linked to specific countries does not seem novel to me. The beginnings of the paper press, and then the radio stations in the 20th century, were specifically tied to state projects. The reason is that in the Arab world, there weren’t many media enterprises based on the profit-seeking, capitalist model (unlike in the artistic realm, where films and records created economic “demand” that yielded private enterprises). In Tunisia, the first newspaper was The Tunisian Gazette, which became The Official Gazette and reported, in addition to legal texts, domestic and international news, and the same goes for Egypt and the Ottoman Empire. The private press developed thereafter, not just in Egypt but also in Tunisia, where there was a remarkable number of papers in the first half of the 20th century, but most of them didn’t last long.
In the case of the radio stations, too, the hegemony of states was clear from the outset, beginning with the colonial era – specifically the 1930s, when the European powers (Italy, France, Germany, and Britain) established programs and even radio stations in Arabic to influence the Arab masses – and continuing with the radio projects of the independent states, most notably Sawt al-Arab in Egypt. But the remarkable aspect, which would later apply to the satellite news channels too, is that the radio stations were not only funded by and in service of governmental projects but also often targeted Arab audiences in all the different countries, not just a narrow domestic audience. Perhaps these satellite television channels became troubling specifically because they broke the monopoly that the authoritarian regimes exercised in their own countries – especially in the Maghrebi countries at least until the 1990s – over the audio and audiovisual media.
As for social media, there was initially a moment of elation about its role, especially in the Arab revolutions. Then we moved to another stage in which we demonize it and blame it for all the world’s evils. Such a shift previously occurred whenever new forms of media appeared: initially we are enthusiastic and believe that communication will be easier, and then we become disappointed and excessively demonize them. In reality, the role of the media is more complicated than these reductions. Its role in revolutionary movements is very important as it provides the synchronization that permits new ways and means of organization and collective action, which are a key factor in the magic of revolutions. The Springtime of the Peoples in Europe, 1848, was connected to the spread of the press, especially the illustrated press.
Finally, what’s being said today about the role of social media is not particular to Arabs, as we find such criticisms about populism benefiting from the algorithms of this media and about fake news and its danger [in other regions]. I don’t deny that with social media, we have entered a new stage that needs much analysis and presents important challenges. However, in the European context at least, the portrayed break between a “golden age” of journalism, during which all information was proven, true, and objective, and the current age dominated by fake news and disinformation is exaggerated.
This perspective ignores the traditional media’s engagement in disinformation, as well as its neglect of events in certain regions of the world. We must also remember that a monopoly of a limited number of media outlets over the ability to convey information is not necessarily a healthy phenomenon as it means that the majority of people are excluded. Conversely, what we’re currently witnessing is an opening of the way for just about anyone who owns a smartphone to speak or convey information to the world. This is very important, as evidenced by the current war in Gaza. The Gazan example also shows us that this capability isn’t always available as it depends on infrastructure that governs access to the internet and allows it to be cut off under certain circumstances, as occurs during wars and as regimes facing protest movements have also done. Hence, the apparent “democratization” of the creation of information faces challenges of infrastructure, whether [that be the infrastructure of] the internet in general or of social media itself. Consequently, certain countries – or even private companies, virtually all of which are American – that control this infrastructure can control freedom of expression through monitoring, censorship, and algorithms. This also poses a real sovereignty issue for the other countries.
LA: Given the control of private capital over a large portion of the media in Europe – including the newspapers and television channels – and the recent censorship and imposition of a certain discourse about the war in Gaza, to what extent can the long-standing democracies be considered an example of respecting press freedom? And how can we relativize that without falling into the nihilistic discourse that trivializes and minimizes the gravity of denying freedoms in the countries of the South?
Asseraf: In France, a distinction is frequently made in public debate between authentic French traditions of freedom of expression and Arab societies that lack these traditions. However, this distinction ignores that when freedom of expression was enshrined in France, it was restricted to French people and didn’t extend to the colonized. The 1881 law on press freedom, which is still enforced today, explicitly stipulated that although it applied to the Algerian provinces, it only applied to French people. Hence, the regimes that repress press freedom in the independent states inherited that from the European colonial regimes.
What we’re witnessing today in terms of clampdowns on press freedom via the punishment of journalists for their opinions is indeed scary, especially as it is affecting not just journalists but also what people post about Gaza on social media, as well as the freedom to assemble and protest as marches are banned. Numerous parties, public and private, are today mobilized to suppress freedom of expression on certain subjects. However, this sometimes leads to a kind of absolute relativization, which is dangerous because it denies the importance of the battles for freedom and dismisses everything it considers to originate from the West. Undoubtedly, the best standards and practices do not necessarily come from one place, and I always remind my students that from the first centuries of Islam, Muslim societies developed complex ways to verify statements, whether in hadith science or jurisprudence. There are issues shared among human societies that need common answers, and the failure of the countries of the North to solve these issues in an ideal manner and to respect the values that they set for themselves should be confronted not with an abandonment of these issues and causes but with an intensification of the search for better, more capable answers.