The cross : How does this common history between France and Muslims begin?
Jamal El Hamri: It opens at the beginning of the 8th century, from 720, with the Arab-Berber conquests in the south of France, and major battles such as those of Toulouse and Poitiers. During the crusades, from the 11th to the 13th century, intense civilizational exchanges were then born. When the Christians took Toledo in 1085 – which was almost contemporary with Pope Urban II’s call for a crusade – the Europeans got their hands on a treasure: the library of Toledo and its 400,000 works. It is said that there were as many books in this library as in all of Western Europe. This triggers a whole dynamic of translation from Arabic to Latin.
During the modern period, it is then the realpolitik who wins. François I appealed to Suleiman the Magnificent, sultan of the Ottoman Empire, in his rivalry with Charles Quint. It caused a scandal at first, but gradually all the European capitals imitated it and sent ambassadors to Istanbul. For the first time, we see Muslims in a peaceful and diplomatic setting.
What perception of Islam did we have in France at that time?
I H : Take the Wars of Religion. Catholics will use Islam to discredit Protestants by comparing Luther to Mohammed. On the other hand, Protestants value the fact that Muslims have no clergy to criticize the Catholic Church. Orientalism is also developing: The thousand and One Nights are translated into French, as well as the Koran. The philosophers Voltaire, Montesquieu and Rousseau all mention the prophet Mohammed in their writings. At that time, Islam was not yet very present, but it made people talk, especially to serve political purposes.
Orientalism developed all the more with colonization…
I H : Yes, from Bonaparte’s expedition to Egypt in 1798. From 1830, Algeria was part of the French colonial empire. We know Islam better and better, works like those of the historian Ibn Khaldun are translated to better understand the Muslim societies of the Maghreb. The colonial empire also made funding available for artists and scientists, who would have the opportunity to immerse themselves in predominantly Muslim societies. The ruler of Egypt also sends students to France, led by Imam Rifa’a Al-Tahtawi. His book Paris Gold (1834) will inspire the great themes of Muslim reformism.
The beginning of the 20th century, finally, is marked by the vote of the law of 1905, which was never applied in Algeria, territory nevertheless French. Ulemas such as Sheikh Ben Badis then demanded strict application of this law in the Algerian departments, so that Muslims regain freedom of action. And during the two world wars, many Muslim soldiers died for France.
Today, Islam is constantly the subject of controversy. Were relations as strained in the 20th century, when many Muslims came to settle in France to work there?
I H : In the 1950s, employers had a very good image of Islam, which was seen as a factor of social peace. In archive footage, Muslim workers at Renault or Talbot factories are seen given the opportunity to pray or take a break for breaking the fast during Ramadan. At that time, the Muslim dimension did not pose a problem.
On an international scale, a new chapter opened in the 1980s and then 1990s, with the first Gulf War: the theory of the clash of civilizations suggests that we were moving from the communist red peril to the Muslim green peril.
In this story, we have the feeling that Islam frightens and seduces by turns…
I H : Yes, during these 13 centuries, a relationship of attraction and repulsion marks the relations between France and Islam. In this protean history, it is sometimes the Muslim world that dominates, then the European world. Periods of violence or mistrust coexist with moments of attraction.
During the Crusades, for example, the faces of Muslims were deliberately blackened on the illuminations and stained glass windows of churches in France to encourage people to leave to fight. And at the same time, we translate the Arab-Muslim civilization, Averroes and Avicenna a lot. It is this form of ambivalence that makes this story endearing.