Moustafa Bayoumi had an interesting Facebook post this morning that speaks to the histories of colonialism that may inform the recent French idiocies around the uses of the burkini at French beaches. The post is here:

I found it provocative and decided to engage with him figuratively. That I am currently designing some photo projects for 2017 that look at the continuing ‘rot’ of colonial and imperial rule and the ways it scars and distorts life, ecology and economy, his arguments were very interesting. However, though Bayoumi makes some good points, but I can’t help but feel that he overstates his case, perhaps even over determines it, by suggesting a rather idealized idea of ‘direct’ vs’ indirect’ colonial rule. This idea does not stand the test of history in any way.

So here is why.

He says:

“Over the many centuries of their colonial rule, the British tended to favor the system of indirect rule over others. They would commonly govern through intermediaries, usually local princes and kings (see: the princely states) or they would create princes and kings (e.g. Abdullah of Transjordan). (The British love kings!) Often times, this also meant placing local minorities into positions of dominance, and the minority populations would rule the majority with British might standing quietly behind the throne.”

I say: This isn’t really strictly correct. First of all, Transjordan isn’t an example of British colonial rule. It was a nation created out of the fragments of the Ottoman Empire, and in the aftermath of WW II it fell in a region that came under a British Mandate. It was a protectorate i.e. “…a dependent territory that has been granted local autonomy and some independence while still retaining the suzerainty of a greater sovereign state.” But it was never a colony.

India, however, or Australia were colonies. There you see that the British, particularly after the 1857 uprising, tore apart the entire political, legal, cultural, linguistic, educational, and economic infrastructure of the country. Furthermore, it would be egregious to ignore the massive levels of violence and military actions required to gain a foothold in India, and to keep it. Here, Chatterjee’s The Black Hole of Empire, makes for illuminating reading among many others.

He says:

“One consequence of indirect rule was that a lot of attention was paid to cultural differences in the British Empire. Very often, the British Empire elevated and sometime created cultural differences as ways to further their rule. It was all very racist and hierarchical, of course, with the Europeans always on top, but there was a certain sensibility and understanding that empires were and should be multicultural, and that they should then be ruled through the hierarchy of cultures.”

I say: Multiculturalism as we use it today can’t be teleologically extended back in time to suggest some sort of benign acceptance and respect for difference. On the contrary, the British disdain and denigration of all things Indian is also a well document fact – I recommend works such as Gauri Viswanathan’s brilliant ‘Masks of Conquest’ to see how the British saw and related to Indian cultural production, literary works, and society, and the efforts that they went to ‘improve’ or ‘fix’ what they in their Evangelical zeal saw as a depraved and backward society. Of course, here too there are variations, but the British abhorrence of all things Indian claimed to have emerged at the post-rebellion stage of their presence in India, but there is a good argument to be made that this abhorrence, echoed by the Portuguese earlier, had earlier roots.

He says:

“The French, on the other hand, generally governed by direct rule. Rather than coopt (or even create) local authority for their own purposes, the French tended to destroy local traditional authority where they encountered it and then replace it with a French official designated to oversee the territory (e.g. Algeria). The French believed that the best thing possible for their subjects would be for them to become as French as possible. That was “la mission civilisatrice,” the civilizing mission. It means leaving your past behind to adopt all things French. You were even called an “évolué,” that is to say an evolved subject, because you had assimilated to being French.”

I say: Which is precisely, as I point out above, what the British set out to do in their greatest colony. We can see the same practice in their colonies in the Indies, and in Africa, where entire people’s were slaughtered, and entire structures of society eradicated. We should not forget the British in Kenya, and the Mau Mau, or the British in the Sudan and the Mahdi. I think it would be a bit of a stretch to say that the British were ‘indirect’ in their rule, when in fact their ‘mass’ of ‘indirect’ rule, even if they pretended towards this, were achieved by the use of very direct means of brutal force and structural destruction of the society. Lets take such as the British in China, and the genocidal war unleashed so that they could be the main drug-dealers and pushers in the country? I don’t have a fine enough knife to see differences in attitude or prejudice here, to be honest.

He says

“Now, it’s easy to overstate the difference between direct and indirect rule, and colonial historians often warn people about this fact. The results of European colonialism, namely that you were ultimately ruled by outsiders who extracted valuable resources from your lands and restructured your society as they saw fit, were not that remarkably different. Neither direct nor indirect rule gave any real sovereignty to locals. Both divided local societies and created local elites and intermediaries through which European rule was guaranteed. And at various times, the French and the British used both direct and indirect rule to oversee their colonies.”

I say:

Precisely. So we are back to square one. If earlier colonial histories cannot explain the difference, we can ask a couple of things. First, why should earlier colonial histories even be able to explain the difference? And where else could we look?

I am averse to pointing fingers far into the past, and drawing a historicist line between events 100 years ago and today without acknowledging the many political, social, cultural and economic facts and events that have happened since! That is, one can look for legacies and continuities, but only by looking at the way it has influenced and informed events and developments since. Simply put: don’t ignore practices that are more recent and that have a stronger relationship to living political and social actors. We may carry forward historical prejudices and ideas, but we manifest them in entirely new and unexpected ways.

This isn’t just an esoteric discussion. The legacies of colonialism and its continuing consequences for the ecology, for certain communities is a core focus for a new set of photography works I will produce in 2017. So these questions are pertinent and interesting. Personally, I prefer to look at France and her recent descent into panic and simple-mindedness, the ‘debris’ of colonial practices that lie all around us. I am of course here using the brilliant Ann Laura Stoler’s phrasing. I quote, from her fabulous work ‘Imperial Debris’:

“For students of colonial studies, the protracted weight of ruination should sound an alarm. The point would not be, as some French scholars have recently done, to mount a charge that every injustice of the contemporary world has imperial roots, but rather to delineate the specific ways in which peoples and places are laid to waste, where debris falls, around whose lives it accumulates, and what constitutes ‘the rot that remains’. One task of a renewed colonial studies would be to sharpen our sense and sense of how to track the tangibilities of empire as effective histories of the present. This would not be to settle scores of the past, to dredge up what is long gone, but to focus a finer historical lens on distinctions between what is residual and tenacious, what is dominant but hard to see, and not the least, what is emergent in today’s imperial formations and critically resurgent in responses to them.” (page 29)

To that end, we should look up Bernadot’s Loger les immigres, or Balibar’s ‘Uprisings in the Banlieues’, to help us see how. For, as Stolar points out:

“…To call the low-come high rises that hover on the periphery of Paris ‘ruins of French empire’ is a metaphoric, political and material claim. It makes pointed material and affective connections that public commentators have made only as a generic indictment of a colonial history that is now of the past. It reconnects the timing of their construction with the material cement blocks that were used, with the former North African people housed in them, with the political and economic barriers erected to keep them in place. In connects state racism…(to the lives) of those who live on the outskirts of France’ political and economic life and in barrack-like tenements.”

It is from these present day realities, and their connections to specific colonial economic and political practices, that we can begin to understand the differences in attitude, language, law and practice. Works such as Didier Fassin’s ‘Enforcing Order: An Ethnography of Urban Policing’which “Describing the invisible manifestations of violence and unrecognized forms of discrimination against minority youngsters, undocumented immigrants and Roma people, he analyses the conditions that make them possible and tolerable, including entrenched policies of segregation and stigmatization, economic marginalization and racial discrimination.” or even the fantastic ‘Judging Mohammad: Juvenile Delinquency, Immigration and Exclusion’ by Susan J. Terri say a lot more about how the ‘burkina’ nonsense and ethnically biased ideas about ‘secularism’ have emerged.

He ends:

“The point I am making is much smaller than that, and it is merely to say that the approaches to living in pluralistic societies are informed—though should not be determined—by the past, and in this case, part of what we should consider in this week’s installment of the Grand Prix of Political Idiocy is the way that French and British imperialism codified and lived with difference.”

I agree:

Indeed. I think it isn’t the earlier past, but the recent past, that is a better determinant here. We need not create ‘small’ differences in colonial histories, keeping also in mind that the colonial project was never a uniform one anywhere in the world, and nor did it follow a consistent instruction manual. Be that as it may, I think it is more interesting to grapple with present day realities and their materiality, though rightfully informed by colonial histories and prejudices, fears and arrogance’s. For example, there are many interesting investigative journalism pieces, academic works, and intellectual diatribes that point out the many ways in which being non-White in France has made people the target of repressive policing, draconian legal and incarceration practices, ghetto-ization and physical segregation, social marginalization all done through laws, campaigns and fraudulent pretexts to declare an ’emergency’. Some I have mentioned above. A recent one is an investigation by the journalist Johann Hari for his book Chasing The Scream: The First And Last Days of the War on Drugs, which took him to France, the European nation with the most extreme, racially determined, effort against drugs. In a recent piece he argued that:

The constant police harassment makes the messages of fundamentalist groups – you’ll never be French; they’ll never accept you; a democratic society is a con; white people get to use and sell drugs with impunity, while you get condemned for it – seem more plausible.

For almost all the people who have carried out murderous attacks in the past two years, this was a core part of their formative experience as French citizens. Sharif and Said Kouachi – who committed the murders at Charlie Hebdo – had been drug users and dealers. Amedy Coulibaly, who murdered Jewish people in a supermarket on the day of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, had been picked up by the police for drug offences. The Bataclan killers, the Nice murderer – the pattern runs across almost all of them.

His point is that the Islamophobia gripping France is really just the face of a racism gripping France, much like it has the USA. Its targets today happen to be Muslims, but it could have been different, had the demographic been different. I am more willing to look at such material discussions and arguments, than perhaps those who quickly shift our focus to institutions and structures that are not ostensibly there, but perhaps more importantly, ignore the many social, political and economic shifts that have taken since.