Albert Memmi: From Anti-Colonialism to Laïcité (by way of Zionism)

30 May 2018

Albert Memmi, Tunisie, An I (CNRS Éditions, 2017).

Albert Memmi, Portraits (CNRS Éditions, 2015).

Albert Memmi, Penser à vif: de la colonization à la laïcité (Non Lieu, 2017).

The Albert Memmi Reader (University of Nebraska Press, forthcoming).


Albert Memmi is back in the spotlight. Born in Tunisia in 1920, he was renowned in the 1950s and 1960s for his novels and essays that explored the sociology of oppression: above all, racism and colonialism. Then came nearly forty years in the desert. His unflagging support of Israel was one reason, his proclivity to denounce the failures of post-colonial regimes another, for his divorce from the intellectual left. No longer was the author of Portrait du colonisé précédé d’un Portrait du colonisateur (1957) an icon of Third World liberation. Memmi remained productive as a novelist and social theorist, but being impossible to classify in partisan terms, he was easy to ignore. The resurgence of interest in Memmi today, evident in the cascade of publications under his name, is a vindication of the intractable independence of a thinker who wrote in 1947, “De plus en plus, l’idée de me cantonner à un groupe, à un système d’idées , à une appartenance, me paraît étriquée, apriorique, et étouffante.”


Four recent books signal Memmi’s resurrection. Collectively they indicate that his prospects for enduring in what Robert M. Hutchins called “the great conversation” are bright. These four texts also illustrate the knotty nature of Memmi’s thought—his simultaneous adhesion to apparently incongruous worldviews, notably anti-colonialism, laïcité, and Zionism. Tunisie, An I contains Memmi’s diaries from 1955 and 1956, the years in which Tunisia ceased to be a French protectorate and achieved independence. Expertly edited by the leading authority on Memmi, Guy Dugas of the Paul Valéry University in Montpellier, the diary illustrates Memmi’s anxiety as a Jewish leftist supporting the formation of an independent Tunisia but horrified by its incipient political culture. Tracing in his journal many examples of Arab chauvinism and state-sponsored anti-Semitism under the new nation’s leader, Habib Bouguiba, Memmi drew the  conclusion that he was destined to flee. One notation reads: “Il faut aider les Tunisiens parce que leur cause est juste. Partir parce que cette cause n’est pas mienne.” Memmi emigrated to France in August 1956, and the great majority of the country’s Jews would leave in the years that followed. In his diary Memmi also describes the more abrupt expulsion of the Jews from Egypt in 1956. His Zionism emerged from the ousting, as he perceived it, of 800,000 Jews from Arab nations. In a 1962 article in Commentary, he wrote that the need for a Jewish homeland is “not the result of Auschwitz but of the Jewish condition everywhere, including the Arab countries.”


Memmi’s mother tongue was a Judeo-Arabic dialectic; he considered himself to be an “Arab Jew.” He believed that his family, and Tunisian Jews in general, were as indigenous as anyone else, for Jews had settled in North Africa even before the advent of Islam. Memmi would later donate to Yad Vashem a medallion bearing his family name and dating to the Punic Wars. He dreamed of a post-colonial condition in which Jews and Arabs would live peacefully together. The failure of this dream to materialize in Tunisia was formative in his intellectual development.


In my recent review of Tunisie An I in The Jewish Review of Books, I explored the diary as a means of comprehending Memmi’s early commitment to what he called “telling the whole truth”—that is, his desire to reveal the injustices of colonialism, but also to call out the oppressive acts of the formerly oppressed. Even in Portrait du colonisé, which appeared with a preface by Sartre and became famous as an anti-colonial tract, Memmi posited the likelihood that post-colonial regimes would adopt a “counter-mythology,” a template of hatred mirroring the racist dogma that underpinned colonialism. Self-liberation, he foresaw, can easily turn into exclusive nationalism. Memmi sustained this double-edged thinking in the article “Decolonization” that he wrote for Encyclopaedia Universalis (1972). Here, he described a tendency toward religious intolerance and one-party government in post-colonial regimes: “Ainsi la decolonization, qui devait être une apothéose, se révèle comme un commencement ou un recommencement, un difficile accouchement. Tout est encore à faire, à construire, avant de pouvoir jouir véritablement de cette liberté toute neuve, sans quoi elle ne serait qu’un mot.”


Also edited by Guy Dugas, Portraits is a 1300-page anthology of Memmi’s non-fiction writings. At the heart of the anthology are five sociological books: Portrait du colonisé, Portrait d’un juif, La Libération du juif, L’Homme dominé, and Portrait du décolonisé arabo-musulman et de quelques autres. For this invaluable critical edition, Dugas and his team have collated the manuscript drafts of each text as well as the various published versions, including annexes to each book with book reviews and other materials illustrating the debates that Memmi’s works triggered.


Portrait du décolonisé (2004) is of particular importance in the assessment of Memmi’s long career. The basic question is how this text relates to its 1957 prequel, Portrait du colonisé. These are the bookends of Memmi’s work in political and social theory. In the later work, Memmi delivers an unflinching condemnation of the performance of post-colonial regimes in North Africa and the Middle East. He finds intellectual intolerance and violence against women to be worse than during the colonial era. Rampant too is the practice of denial, the tendency to blame the West and Israel for every social problem. Coming from an author who, in Portrait du colonisé, exposed the social injustices of European racism, the denunciation of the Arab world can seem a paradox to those not tuned into Memmi’s biography. Some commentators on Memmi have indeed spoken of his “about-face.” The former African and anti-colonial crusader, they say, has morphed into a conservative Frenchman.


More accurate would be to say that Memmi is a perennially tragic writer with a distinctively Jewish viewpoint. His hope for the elimination of injustice has always been tempered by the insight that an oppressed person is likely to become an oppressor—and that the Jews are frequently the losers in this cycle. By the time Memmi composed Portrait du colonisé, he had already concluded that a Jew could not live freely in Tunisia. The annexes that Dugas includes in this massive anthology confirm that Portrait du décolonisé is hardly a deviation from Memmi’s earlier thinking. We discover, for example, in a conference paper of 1966, that Memmi announced the need for a critical study of the decolonized. Also included in the annexes is a 1971 article in the New York Times, “What are the Oppressed without the Oppressors?” in which Memmi wrote:

Experience by now has shown that building an independent nation is almost as difficult as initially winning independence. The paradox is only apparent. Before liberation, the oppressed assert themselves against the oppressor . . . Once the colonial regime has been overthrown, it becomes necessary to stand on one’s own feet and rebuild. But how?

Memmi goes on to discuss how difficult it is to rise above the ideology of victimization and to construct a liberal society.


However, while the criticism of Arab countries in Portrait du décolonisé is consistent with Memmi’s prior social theory, there does appear to be a shift in his style of expression. Throughout his work Memmi explores the painful tensions within his own composite identity as an African, Arab, Jew, and Frenchman. In his diary he notes, “La multiplicité des personages qui sont en moi m’étonne toujours.” His terrific early autobiographical novels, La Statue de sel (1953) and Agar (1955), offer the experience of anguished introspection, which in turn reveals the complexity of a single life and the lives of those within its radius. When that experience is extrapolated to many lives, through the writing of sociology and political theory, the writer cannot settle on simple solutions. Memmi never trucked in binaries, even when, in Portrait du colonisé, he exposed racism for what it was and supported anti-colonial revolt. Yet the sense of ambiguity is absent in Portrait du décolonisé. As Lia Nicole Brozgal suggests in her book Against Autobiography (2013), Memmi casts himself in his late work as outside the Arab world: a knowing European peering in with revulsion.


Jean Amrouche, the accomplished poet who had been Memmi’s high school literature teacher in Tunis, responded to Portrait du colonisé by noting, in a letter included in the annexes of Dugas’s anthology, “Vous avez porté ce que vous avez souffert à un haut niveau de généralité.” One cannot say the same of Portrait du décolonisé, and it is not surprising that the book created problems for Memmi. Dugas provides background on Memmi’s resignation from the board of the Mouvement contre le racisme et pour l’amitié entre les peoples (MRAP), after some members of the MRAP denounced Memmi for appearing to blame Arab nations one-sidedly for all their problems. According to Dugas, this quarrel unleashed “une polémique d’une violence inouïe.” In spite of the backlash, or perhaps because of it, Memmi’s Portrait du décolonisé remains a brave and unorthodox effort to suggest that anti-colonial indignation has outlived its usefulness.


A second anthology of Memmi’s writings, Penser à vif: de la colonization à la laïcité is edited by Hervé Sanson, a researcher at the CNRS and expert on the francophone literature of the Maghreb who also collaborated with Guy Dugas on Memmi’s Portraits. The two collections are in many ways complementary. Portraits binds together five published books by Memmi with material that attests to their reception. Penser à vif adds to the known corpus of Memmi’s writings with essays and interviews going back to 1941, many of which were published in obscure venues or remained in manuscript form.


One text of particular interest is Memmi’s 1951 conference paper, “La Psychologie du bilinguisme.” The paper is vintage Memmi: splendidly composed with a sensitivity to the conflicted psyche of the multi-cultured personality type produced under colonial conditions. Memmi, who worked in the Centre psycho-pédagogie de Tunis, highlights the “déchirement intérieur” of the educated colonial subject who becomes ashamed of his or her own maternal language. Memmi does not, however, advocate abolishing French as a solution. In another text included in Sanson’s anthology, Memmi expresses his reservations about the “progressive Arabization” of North African culture in the post-colonial era, and relays a hope that the French language can retain an important place in North African literature. These thoughts occur in Memmi’s introduction to the 1964 Anthologie des écrivains maghrébins d’expression française, and their inclusion in Penser à vif is welcome, for they complicate the other essays in this volume on the problem of linguistic and cultural hybridity. It is evident that for Memmi this is a problem to be retained, not solved.


The volume as a whole contains a good deal of material revealing Memmi’s thoughts on Zionism and laïcité. Memmi’s most important statements on Zionism can be found in his 1974 Juifs et Arabes (1974). His basic argument was that while in principle, Jews and Arabs can live together in peace, the historic anti-Semitism of Arabs and Europeans has passed into post-colonial ideology and drives a wedge between the two groups: “Simply because the Moslem Arabs were the victims of European colonizers, must we be eternally resigned to being their victims?” Israel, he argued, is a “rejoinder to the oppression suffered by Jews the world over, including our own oppression as Arab Jews.” The texts that Sanson includes in Penser à vif nonetheless provide further insight. Among these are a previously unpublished critique by Memmi of the UN’s resolution 3379, which declared in 1975 (and was rescinded in 1991) that Zionism is a form of racism.  


On the subject of laïcité, the materials in Penser à vif are not merely supplementary to Memmi’s other published writing, but rather provide the best sources for his positions. The volume ends with a 50-page interview of Memmi conducted by Sanson in 2015 and 2016, and laïcité is at the center of their dialogue. Also revealing is the republication of a 1996 interview entitled “Que les Musulmans acceptent d’être sincèrement laïques; ils y gagneront.” Suffice it to say that Memmi holds a conventional view of laïcité as this principle has been articulated since the late 1980s. In other words, he affirms that religion is a private matter, that all citizens must recognize the distinction between faith and reason, and that the practice of religious faith must respect that of others. Laïcité, in other words, is the only possible common denominator for a pluralistic society, and it is the necessary basis for equality. Religious accommodations, on the other hand—such as providing halal food in public institutions or permitting students to wear religious head-coverings in public schools—erode the public space that ought to be free of religious influence. Worse still is Muslim intégrisme, which for Memmi tends toward a “totalitarian” conception of truth, in opposition to the provisional and revisable conception of truth at the heart of democratic societies.


While many American scholars, and notably Joan Scott, detect traces of colonial racism in how the French have applied laïcité since the late 1980s, Memmi, in contrast, regards laïcité as a precondition for multicultural societies. Laïcité is thus part of the post-colonial order—not a residue of the colonial order. With the sociologist Peter Baehr, I have documented in detail how a wide variety of French social theorists have plausibly developed views similar to Memmi’s. Admittedly, however, these issues are complex. Even if we limit ourselves to the contours of Memmi’s social theory, it is evident that two acute problems confront us. The first is that Memmi does not seem to have spoken of laïcité before the late 1980s. Was the ideal of religious neutrality already implicit in his early critique of anti-Semitism in Arab countries? That is, did he believe from the 1950s onward that the proper turn of events in post-colonial North Africa would have been the adoption of French constitutional principles? To the best of my knowledge, he never said so in precise terms. He only spoke broadly of the need for Arabs to transcend anti-colonial resentments and to avoid ethno-chauvinism. Which is to say that the juridical dimension of his anti-colonial theory was never highly developed in his most original writings.


The second problem is the relationship between laïcité and Zionism. Israel is a Jewish state, not a secular one. Israel is also a product of colonization, though by no means the same kind of colonization that brought the French into Algeria. Finally, the Palestinian problem implicates Israel in discrimination. In his lengthy interview, Sanson repeatedly tried to draw out Memmi on these issues. While not altogether avoiding the questions, Memmi’s responses are often oblique. It is evident that he believes that the Palestinians and their leaders bear some responsibility for their own problems, notably in their refusal to accept Israel’s right to exist. It is also evident that he detests the Israeli far right, and that he believes the Palestinians ought to have their own state. But several times in the interview he changes the subject, or he confesses that the Palestinian problem simply surpasses his capacity to define solutions.


In Men and Citizens, Judith Shklar’s classic study of Rousseau’s political thought, Shklar introduced us to the idea that an acute thinker will sometimes pose more than one way to confront a fundamental problem. In Rousseau’s case, two separate solutions to the corruption of property-based society emerge: first, to reconstitute the social order through a new contract, and second, to avoid the social order altogether through retreat into nature and solitary living. Memmi’s approach to the problem of post-colonialism follows a similar pattern. This problem for Memmi is that many new post-colonial nations have become archetypes of intolerance. Memmi formulated this most acutely by focusing on the fate of the expelled Jews. The first solution, more theoretical, would be for the new nations to adopt the best organizational principles of Western democracy. The Western democracies themselves, of course, must maintain these principles, including laïcité.


Memmi’s second solution would be to accept the premise that the orientation of most countries, particularly in North Africa and the Middle East, is not liberal democracy, but ethno-nationalism, with an anti-Semitic edge. As Memmi discussed in Juifs et Arabes, in the real world of nations, many of which have incubated hatred of the Jewish people for centuries, “an explicitly national solution” of the Jewish problem is needed—Israel. At the same time, because Israel itself demonstrates some of the same ethnocentric excesses in its policies toward the Palestinians, there is a need for a principle that helps to illuminate the problem of religious chauvinism wherever it occurs. That principle is laïcité.


If Zionism were not part of the equation, it is possible Memmi’s thought would be more unified. But for him it is more important to sustain a composite manner of thinking: “une universalité avec fidélité à soi(a phrase from his Anthologie des écrivains maghrébins). With this in mind, we can understand his commitment to both laïcité and Zionism.


Finally, a large anthology of Memmi’s writings in English will be published in 2019 by the University of Nebraska Press. Edited by Jonathan Judaken of Rhodes College and Michael Lejman of Arkansas State University Mid-South, the collection will include extracts from Memmi’s novels and major political writings. It will also contain many of Memmi’s autobiographical reflections and a good number of expressions of Memmi’s thought that were previously hard to locate and unavailable in English. It promises to be a splendid anthology that will further raise Memmi’s profile, and in so doing, raise the quality of our conversation about the post-colonial world.


Photo Credit: Unknown – Personal collection of Profburp, Famille juive Constantine, Algérie, via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.


Tags: , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *