North Africa: a complex cultural miscellany (Part I). By Kamal Salhi.

In the first of two instalments, Dr Kamal Salhi, from the University of Leeds and editor of the International Journal of Francophone Studies, reflects on problems relating to culture in North Africa. Part II to follow next Friday.

North Africa: a complex cultural miscellany (Part I)

 Since the 1990s, marking Algeria’s violent struggle to establish a liberal democracy, North Africa has been torn between the forces of anarchy in the shape of decentralized violence, and the forces of tyranny in the shape of orchestrated centralized repression. The continued surge of political Islam posed a threat to a number of the states in the region, as in Morocco, Mauritania and Mali, while others were subdued as in the case of Tunisia’s repressive policies under Ben Ali’s Regime. What has happened across the region is that cultural diversity and the valuing of this diversity, has become the unintentional by-product of the collapse of the grand vision of the homogeneous ‘nation-region’.

The problem of belonging, of collective identity, emerges as the central challenge for modern North African society at the start of the twenty-first century. This is an upshot of colonization, coupled with the global conditions that have underpinned the rise of communitarianism and other attempts to find moral foundations for modern societies. All the parties involved in the recent social, cultural, and political developments in Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Libya, and Egypt have embarked on a search for bonds capable of holding their modern societies together beyond the constrictions of corrupt authoritarianism. In public and academic debate, it has become widely accepted that their social institutions cannot survive when they are viewed in terms of rationality and functional efficiency. Of all the concepts that have captured and stimulated new notions of the politically permissible, the umbrella concept of ‘multiculturalism’ occupies pride of place. It is the latest modish notion to capture the imagination of political and cultural theorists, sociologists, and anthropologists. The loosening of the authority of established institutions is reflected in various problems that have intensified the search for bonds. In the reality of the globalized world, liberal Europe (the former colonial powers) and the West (the neocolonial powers) seem to be losing the capacity to provide developing postcolonial societies with commonly accepted rules and institutions legitimized by a binding base of shared values.

Admittedly, the mass-protests are a surge against globalized disempowerment that might put an end to ‘postcolonialism’. From the 1990s the region has produced a culture driven by defiance, and the events are a rebellion against hegemony and domestic tyranny. New realities of North Africa are most powerfully encoded in culture. Current critical predicaments are situations where aspects of a culture can be used to legitimize violence in its direct or structural form. How do critics and theorists seek to explain these sorts of ethnic and cultural processes? Most research into ethnicity and culture seeks to explain the emergence and mobilization of ethnic identities by reference to shifts in macro-structures or historical conditions. This field of research has focused on determining which factors can be held responsible for shaping the opportunity structure for identity entrepreneurs, ranging from nationalist and regionalist actors to ethnic ‘minority’ movements. Let us situate these approaches to see how situations conducive to conflict are structured, in terms of the opportunities for, and constraints on, the adoption of certain codes and related forms of collective action.

The term ‘culture’ can be used in various ways, covering a range of descriptive definitions, such as those devised in the nineteenth century by such scholars as the German Gustav Klemm and the Briton Edward Bennett Tylor, as well as more modern interpretative conceptions such as that of Clifford Geertz, in which the emphasis is on meaning as distinct from description. Tylor defined ‘culture’ as a complex whole that includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.[1] Although Tylor’s conclusions were published in the nineteenth century, his concept still retains currency for the ‘descriptive’, as opposed to the ‘interpretative’, understanding of culture and has been described by John Thompson as a “classic definition.”[2] A more recent, but still similar, conception of culture advanced by Marvin Harris defines it as the total socially acquired life-way or life-style of a group of people, consisting of the patterned, repetitive ways of thinking, feeling, and acting that are characteristic of the members of a particular society or segment of a society.[3] Accounts of culture usually belong to one of three broad categories. The first consists of those relating to the mind, such as religion and education, which come under the general headings of knowledge, belief, and morals in Tylor’s definition, or thinking in Harris’s definition. The second category is formed by several areas of artistic life, such as literature, the performing arts, which belong generally to the sphere of art in Tylor’s definition, or thinking or feeling in Harris’s definition. The third category is to be found in the relationships that bring together or separate human beings, which belong to the realms of custom, law, morals, and other habits in Tylor’s concept and of feeling and acting in Harris’s definition.

However, in the context of North Africa, a region dominated by Arab-Muslim hegemony, none of those options allows for the representation of cultures as entities or groups of people in their own right. Furthermore, the increasing urbanization in the region heightens all the complexities of the ethno-social and ethno-cultural trends there. The growth of towns and cities, for example, can be associated in social and theoretical analyses with the processes involved in asserting symbolic boundaries and forming a collective identity. If we seek to explain processes of ethnic identity construction, mobilization, and conflict in North Africa by identifying various structural features, we may end up claiming that these factors cause collective ethnic action. This would inevitably lead to oversimplification; especially as militant ethnic discourses in North Africa often correlate the presence or absence of such macro-structural variables as language, religion, gender, and socio-economic inequality with the presence or absence of ethnic conflict or mobilization.

One reason why ethnicity on its own may not be a suitable analytical concept is that definitions of the term will often be rejected on political grounds, as has been manifestly demonstrated by the successive pro-Arab hegemonic elites in the region. Gaining an ethnic tag can often generate rewards in terms of claims to group rights and self-determination, and the proposition of a definition of ethnicity that excludes competing claimants of rights to self-determination is certain to elicit criticism from those excluded. The concept of ethnicity, particularly when it implies recognition of minority structures, can therefore find no definition free of its own political consequences, and in practice ethnicity is increasingly distorted to further these political outcomes. This is why ethnicity is likely to be a contested concept in the context of postcolonial North Africa – practically in the resolution of conflicts and theoretically when attempts are made to understand the region’s cultural mosaic – and why research in Europe and the West has turned to ‘minority cultures’ to replace this contested concept with analytical approaches.

[1] Edward B. Tylor, Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Language, Art, and Custom (London: John Murray, 1871), vol. 1.

[2] John B. Thompson, Ideology and Modern Culture: Critical Social Theory in the Era of Mass Communication (Cambridge: Polity, 1990): 128.

[3] Marvin Harris, Culture, People, Nature: An Introduction to General Anthropology (New York: Harper & Row, 2nd ed. 1975).

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