Secret Admirers

One of the more interesting books this blogger has read lately Georgi M. Derluguian’s Bourdieu’s Secret Admirer in the Caucasus (University of Chicago Press, 2005). The book charts the collapse of Soviet socialism and rise of ethnic violence in the Caucasus region through the life of Soviet functionary and sociologist cum nationalist activist Yuri Shanibov/Musa Shanib, applying world systems theory and the analytic frameworks of Pierre Bourdieu. There are many valuable insights on identity and political violence here. Its approach to class analysis is also interesting.There are also a number of analytical frameworks useful in thinking about regime collapse in other places and conflict among other peoples, including what at first appear to be highly idiosyncratic visualizations (though some of these are so impenetrable the reader wonders if even the author ‘gets’ what’s going on — more on this later).

Its framing of the Soviet Union as a ‘developmentalist’ state (a state aggressively attempting to industrialize using a coercive state bureaucracy) is especially useful in considering the Algerian state. One could probably find use in applying the theoretic models Derluguian uses to the Maghreb countries. The ‘developmentalist’ elements of the Algerian state apparatus are probably a good place to start, given the known inspiration early state planners in Algeria drew from the Soviet (as well as Yugoslav) experiences.  In any case, the framework Derlugian offers for understanding the ‘historical trajectory’ of polity is worth exploring in greater depth. Here is an effort at understanding Algerian pathways in these terms.

Historical Trajectory of Algerian Political Development

Note: Third column should read “1965-1980,” not “1865-1980”.

Book Review: Prêcher dans le désert: islam politique et changement social en Mauritanie

Prêcher dans le désert: islam politique et changement social en Mauritanie (Karthala, 2013) by Zekeria Ould Ahmed Salem, the preeminent scholar working on political Islam and religious social movements in Mauritania, chronicles the history of Mauritania’s Islamist sub-cultures and political trends from the time of independence through the present. It brings together two decades of work in the most understudied area of the Maghreb. There are few comprehensive treatments of Islamist politics and actors in Mauritania and Prêcher dans le désert provides scholars, researchers and students with a clear and eloquent tour of the sociological, cultural, intellectual and historical setting that brought Mauritania’s Islamists from the bare margins a generation and a half ago to being a relevant social and political category worthy of independent analysis and contemplation. It argues for a re-conceptualization of Islamic ‘radicalization’ militancy as one of several possible pathways resulting from a long-term series of negotiations over Muslim identity, agency and efforts to grapple with a wide palette of complex problems around statehood, ethno-racial and caste identity, rapid socio-environmental change borne from climate change, poverty, the struggle against slavery and the shari’ah. Prêcher dans le désert covers these topics in expert fashion, as expected of Ould Ahmed Salem, whose writings on most of these subjects should be considered essential to achieving a grasp on contemporary Mauritanian society and political culture. Broken into six sections, rationally and judiciously divided and providing readers with a well structured understanding of the arguments put forth later on. It provides a deep take on the emergence and political role of Haratine religious leaders in the abolitionist movement and in Haratine urban life, including fascinating case studies based on in depth discussions with the first Haratine imams in Mauritania. (The subject has been covered in several dissertations but in this case it is related to a number of interrelated trends and placed in a more accessible format giving it a unique value. Ould Ahmed Salem also touched on the issue in his chapter ‘Bare-foot activists: Transformations in the Haratine movement in Mauritania,’ in Movers and Shakers: Social Movements in Africa, Brill, 2009.) It additionally provides the most detailed discussion of the emergence of Mauritania’s Muslim Brotherhood (Tewassoul) and a unique presentation of the role of Islam in the Mauritanian public sphere. In studying the rise of political Islam in northwest Africa or the Sahel and Maghreb there is no substitute for this book, despite numerous monographs, white papers and articles. Few texts in recent years approach its breadth and granularity. Because the space for ‘Mauritanian studies’ is limited, especially in the west, it is a milestone and cornerstone in the literature on the whole and should be a first stop for those seeking answers to questions about political Islam, radicalism and radicalization in the Sahel, Islamist movements in the Maghreb, the religious sociology of religious revival and environmental change and urbanisation, the rise of Arab and west African youth cultures and politics and contradictions of Arab and Muslim identity movements and well as slavery in northwest Africa. Aside from prose that can sometimes be denser than preferable, there is little criticism for this volume. As yet the book is only available in French, though efforts for an English translation are underway and will hopefully bring this important volume to an even wider audience beyond scholars of west Africa and the Maghreb.

The Coffin and Libya’s War in Chad

The Imtidad Blog has a translation of an excerpt from التابوت (The Coffin) Abdallah al-Ghazal’s 2003 novel on the Libya-Chad ‘Toyota War’. The conflict over the Azou Strip on the southern border between Libya and Chad was a major point in Libya foreign policy in the 1970s and 1980s, with several clashes and interventions from the Libyan side into Chad from 1978 through till 1987. The conflict was eventually settled at high costs for the Libyans especially who lost thousands and thousands of men and lots of materiel (although there are impressive descriptions of the Libyans troops and weapons from north to south over more than a thousand kilometres by air and ground the Libyans were melted in combat and suffered from trouble with their Chadian clients and their politics). The technical component in the war has aroused some interested, as the term ‘Toyota War’ suggests, though the role of air power has been another focus. The history is nowadays neglected, especially since Libya became closely tied to Chad’s leadership after the conflict ended. Academic books have been written on the subject and it features prominently in some works on African geopolitics or Libyan foreign policy in Africa; there do not seem to be many accounts of the fighting on the Libyan side that are easily accessible in general. It is not obscure to Africa or Libya watchers but does not always stand out in the way other African conflicts do.*

In any case, al-Ghazal’s novel is quite worth reading: this reader came across the Arabic version a couple of years ago and finished it in June or July of this year and not being a literary person he is not in a good place to judge its artistic quality. التابوت The Coffin holds attention and gives a sense of what an individual’s experience was like in one of these miserable and needless conflicts you read about in political and security literature or see caricatured in bad cinema (there is actually an awful Pauly Shore comedy (‘In the Army Now’) about a couple of dimwitted American reservists caught in the midsts of a Libyan invasion of Chad). It was worth going through in Arabic. The translated excerpt at Imtidad is decent but if the reader has a sense for Arabic the renderings that may come off as awkward or robotic do make sense and most of it does capture the style and feel of al-Ghazal’s narrative (that is not meant as criticism, given the blocky translations that go up on this site). Hopefully there will be more translations of the book at Imtidad as has been promised. Continue reading

Mauritania Bibliography

Inspired by the Afghanistan and AQIM bibliographies, your blogger has put together a Mauritania bibliography, focused on politics and security but also covering other topic areas. Hopefully it can be of use to those looking to find introductory writing on Mauritania’s contemporary politics and history — especially English-speakers. It is not comprehensive and can hopefully be updated over time as new material is released or additional existing material is added. Most of the material is in English or French, though there are some articles and books in Spanish, Arabic, German and Italian. The inclusion of one or the other work on the list should not be taken as an endorsement or a guarantee of quality. Another iteration would have a more careful thematic break down for each section. Thanks to readers who helped in compiling the list. The document can be viewed on the TMND Scribd.

Short Algeria Reading List

Here’s a PDF of the list of books your blogger usually gives to people when they email and ask for books about Algeria. This list only includes books and articles in English or translated into English (except for Camile Tawil’s book on the civil war which is worth seeking out if readers know a bit of Arabic); It is a quick thing for easy use by English speakers. The list also has some recent additions which are quite delicious. The division is somewhat arbitrary but readers can manage. It’s rather short, too. A longer, more academic bibliography (with more articles and papers and including things in French and Arabic and so on) would be worth the effort at some point. An update will be forthcoming. A list on Mauritania is presently in the works. The list is also on the TMND Scribd. Of course suggestions/recommendations for additions are welcome and encouraged.

N.B.: Refer to the Scribd page for the most up to date version of the list, not the PDF file linked in this post as the Scribd page is updated with far greater ease.

A friend once emailed asking for recent books on Kabylia. Do readers have suggestions?

More to Read on Algeria, etc.

The always insightful Crossing the Green Mountain provides a fine list of works worth reading by Louis Martinez and Omar Carlier. (Also view their AQIM bibliography, full of terrific readings in English and French and the rest.)

Luis Martinez

Martinez, Luis. “L’enivrement de la violence: “djihad” dans la banlieue d’Alger.” L’Algérie dans la guerre. Sous la dir. de Rémy Leveau (1995): 39-70

Martinez, Luis. “Youth, the street and violence in Algeria.” Alienation or integration of Arab youth: between family, state and street. Ed. Roel Meijer (2000): 83-105

Martinez, Luis. “Le cheminement singulier de la violence islamiste en Algérie. (Abstract: The particular path taken by Islamist violence in Algeria.).” Critique Internationale 20 (2003): 165-177;180

Martinez, Luis. “Why the violence in Algeria?.” Journal of North African Studies 9 ii (2004): 14-27

Martinez, Luis. “Why the violence in Algeria?.” Islam, democracy and the state in Algeria: lessons for the Western Mediterranean and beyond. Ed. Michael Bonner, Megan Reif & Mark Tessler (2005): 14-27

Martinez, Luis. “Autoritarisme et usage de la violence: état d’une recherche.” L’autoritarisme dans le monde arabe. Autour de Michel Camau – Luis Martinez. Coord. A.Boutaleb, J.-N.Ferrié, B.Rey (2005): 82-90

Omar Carlier

Carlier, Omar. “La guerre d’Algérie et ses prolégomènes: notes pour une anthropologie historique de la violence politique.” Naqd 4 (1993): 32-44

Carlier, Omar. Entre nation et jihad. Histoire des radicalismes algériens, Paris, Presses de Sciences Po, 1995.

Carlier, Omar. “D’une guerre à l’autre, le redéploiement de la violence entre soi.” Confluences Méditerranée 25 (1998): 123-137

Carlier, Omar. “Guerre civile, violence intime, et socialisation culturelle: la violence politique en Algérie (1954-1998).” Guerres civiles: économies de la violence, dimensions de la civilité. Sous la coord. de J.Hannoyer (1999): 69-104

Carlier, Omar. “Civil war, private violence, and cultural socialization: political violence in Algeria (1954-1988).” Algeria in others’ languages. Ed. by Anne-Emmanuelle Berger (2002): 81-106

Carlier, Omar. “Violence(s).” La guerre d’Algérie: 1954-2004, la fin de l’amnésie. [Ed.] Benjamin Stora et Mohammed Harbi (2004): 347-379

‘A Convergence of Civilizations’

Writers often discuss culture and politics and religion and misery in mostly Muslim countries in terms of exceptions and global civilizational or ideological competition with ‘the west’ or ‘secularism’. Such things make world history simple and validate their target audiences’ preconceptions and even religious convictions. They can even help provide as sense of certainty, superiority and identity. Many people have written against such things from various perspective. Many observers struggle to place the recent Arab uprisings in this framework of clashing civilizations and Eurabias. In A Convergence of Civilizations: The Transformation of Muslim Societies Around the World (Columbia, trans. 2011) Youssef Courbage and Emmanuel Todd write: Continue reading