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Arab Lives are Woven into the European Fabric for Good and Bad: Here’s What We Know About Them

posted on: Jul 25, 2018

Arab Lives are Woven into the European Fabric for Good and Bad: Here’s What We Know About Them
The early Arab occupation of parts of Europe was less invasive than later European colonization of the Arabs.

By: John Mason/ Arab America Contributing Writer

Early Arab invaders of Europe were quite effective in integrating local populations into the larger Arab society. To the contrary, later European colonization of Arab regions was not nearly as effective in bringing Arabs into their overall society. Post-World War II Arab immigration to Europe has been problematic for many Arab immigrants, though some European countries have handled them better than others. Contributing writer, John Mason, reviews the effects of the early Arab occupation on parts of Europe; the mostly negative impact of Europe on its Arab colonies; followed by a look at Arabs immigrating to Europe and the problems they face.

Early History of Arab Rule in Europe

As I wrote in an earlier piece, not everyone knows that the Arabs ruled important parts of Europe from the early days of its expansion. As early as the 8th century, the expanding Arab empire had swept into Europe through the Iberian Peninsula, today’s Spain and Portugal. As part of this same expansion, the Arab empire had spread to Sicily and briefly to France, Switzerland, and Italy. The Arabs eventually evolved a sophisticated culture and technology which by the Middle Ages included medicine, astronomy, history, mathematics, philosophy, and a rich Islamic theology.

By the 15th century, Arab rule had begun to wane and it withdrew to its earlier borders. This period coincided with the emergence of Europe from the Dark Ages into a period when science, technology, art, philosophy, and religion flourished. Not known to many people is that during the Dark Ages of Europe, the Arabs were the protectors or guardians of Greek and Roman learning. In time, the Arabs added much to that learning through their own intellectual developments.

European Colonization of the Arab World

Just as the Arabs had invaded parts of Europe, the Europeans, once they had regained their power, reversed the pattern and colonized much of the Arab World. Before World War I, but especially after, Great Britain and France began taking advantage of the weakened Ottoman Empire to divide up the Middle East among themselves. This area included the countries of present-day Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and the area known as Palestine. Much of the fracturing of the region was carried out through a secret agreement made by the European colonialists. Under this duplicitous agreement, Britain came to rule Palestine under a mandate from 1923-1948, the latter date, of course, signaling the founding of the State of Israel. Britain also occupied Egypt for many decades.

In a slightly different category were the present-day countries of Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria in North Africa. This area lying just across the Mediterranean from France became the object of French colonial interest early on, before the breakup of the Middle East. Thus Algeria came under French rule in 1830, Tunisia in 1881, and Morocco in 1912.

For his long 19th century struggle against the French colonial invasion, the Algerian Sufi religious scholar and military leader, Abdelkader ibn Muhieddine, is still revered today. Along with his religious followers and tribesmen, he deterred the French army for many years. He is especially known for his broad support of other peoples’ rights and launched a campaign in 1860 to save a Christian community in Damascus, present-day Syria, from a massacre.

Arab Lives are Woven into the European Fabric for Good and Bad: Here’s What We Know About Them
Famous 19th century Algerian religious and military leader, Abdelkader, who spearheaded the resistance against French colonialists.

British and French withdrawal from the Middle East and North Africa following World War II coincided with the emergence of individual Arab states. The withdrawal was mostly peaceful, with the exception of the bloody French-Algerian War from 1954-1962, during which Algerian families lost on average one person per family.

The Positive and Negative Effects of European Colonization of the Arab World

The French approach to colonizing Arabs was to bring French power to bear on the population, which included reducing the authority of Muslim leaders. The French wanted nothing less than to bring the Arabs into the orbit of French “Civilization.” They did this through their schools and universities, teaching about French culture in the French language. This “civilizing” goal has backfired in the context of French-educated people who have immigrated to France, but who have not been received as “French,” but rather as “the other,” namely Arabs and Muslims.

The French did not so much want to do business in their Arab colonies as to retain control, which they did through a strong military force. They did establish factories and infrastructure with conscript labor, towards the goal of integrating Arab colonies into the world economy, though mainly so the colonies would be able to pay their own way.

Unlike France, Britain did not wish to “civilize” its Arab subjects per se, much less make them into British citizens. Rather, they wanted to modernize their colonies in part to be able to exploit their material resources and thereby tax them so they would be able to pay for themselves. Particularly when it came to oil, the British wished to make lots of money off their colonies, rather than just stabilize their economies.

Arab Lives are Woven into the European Fabric for Good and Bad: Here’s What We Know About Them
Britain ruled Egypt from 1882 to 1956.

The British kept far fewer administrators in their colonies than the French. Both the French and the British used significant levels of military force in maintaining stability in their colonies. The British purposely used the tactic of “divide-and-conquer” of the colonized along tribal and class lines, so as to better control them. Quite differently, the French used an idealized version of “French civilization” to unify its colonies, though they perhaps missed the point that in so doing they were creating “perfect French citizens” who, as immigrants, would later come to haunt them.

Arab Migration from Former Colonies to Europe

Since World War II Arabs have migrated from former French and British colonies. Algerians, Moroccans, Tunisians, Lebanese and Syrians migrated to France with more-or-less permanent status. Arabs also came to other European countries through a Labor Export agreement, including Germany, Spain, Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, and, of course, France. Also, more recently, Arabs affected by conflicts in Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and Libya have arrived in Europe. Most of the Arab immigrants are Muslim, but there are significant pockets of Christian minorities. Some Arabs are third and fourth generation or even more, especially in France.  

Additionally, poverty, environmental decline, and political oppression in sub-Saharan countries have also driven many non-Arab Muslims to Europe.      

More recently, the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ created large numbers of disaffected youth, who hoped there might have been a chance for democracy in their countries. However, with their dreams shattered, many fled to Europe. Such immigration from the Arab World to Europe has created significant social and political dislocations on both ends of that process.

Arab Lives are Woven into the European Fabric for Good and Bad: Here’s What We Know About Them
“Arab Spring” protests by Egyptians against their authoritarian rulers–2010-2011.

The Future of Arabs in Europe

Some European countries have been a lot better at integrating Arabs than others. The main recipient, France, has been less successful than others in incorporating them into French society. Arab Muslims have had a particularly hard time in advancing in that society. However, when Arab Muslims are able to enter the higher reaches of French society, it is because they have mastered all of the niceties of French civilization, perhaps even better than the French themselves. In fairness, many Muslim Arabs have succeeded in France through their activism in exposing the society’s suppression and oppression of migrants from their former colonies.  

Other European countries, including the UK, Germany, and the Scandinavian countries have a better record of dealing with Arab immigrants than France. Only when terrorism is reduced in Europe and the world in general will Arabs find themselves able to live more equitably and thus more comfortably in Europe.

John Mason, an anthropologist specializing in Arab culture and society, is the author of recently-published LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, 2017, New Academia Publishing. Part of this entry was adapted from his book.