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  • Between Empire, Umma, and the Muslim Third World:The French Union and African Pilgrims to Mecca, 1946-1958
  • Gregory Mann (bio) and Baz Lecocq (bio)

France was not very "Republican" in its empire. Indeed, this observation is central to a growing body of scholarship that reconsiders the relationship between republic, colony, and empire.1 Perhaps, then, it is no surprise that the Republic was less than rigorously doctrinaire in its imperial secularism.2 Throughout the twentieth century, colonial agents in French West Africa (l'Afrique Occidentale Française, or AOF) attempted to manipulate religious practices—and intervened actively in spiritual hierarchies—as a matter of policy. This essay explores one example of those interventions in Muslim practice under France's Fourth Republic (1946–58). In the 1940s and 1950s, the colonial military and the colonial state—both then in the process of struggling to define themselves within a new and amorphous "French Union"—invested a great deal of energy and resources in sponsoring and attempting to control African Muslims on pilgrimage to Mecca. They also worked hard to publicize these efforts, to market the new version of empire. Why would that be so, and what did the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca incumbent on every capable Muslim, mean for the French Union?

Sponsorship was defensive, constituting a form of surveillance intended to contain the spread in West Africa of political and religious ideas—ranging from Nasser-inflected nationalism to Wahhabi or "reformist" Islam—that colonial "experts" believed to be emanating from Egypt and the Hejaz. As an imperial strategy, this approach was neither novel nor particular to the French empire; the noted Dutch Orientalist Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje had successfully advocated such tactics in the first decades of the twentieth century, as the Ottoman [End Page 367] Empire was extending its control over the Hejaz and more completely integrating the town of Medina.3 Britain made similar attempts almost a century earlier.4 Yet although sponsorship and surveillance of the pilgrimage was old, French attempts to use the hajj to define the very nature of a secular and putatively nonracialist empire—and the relationships constituting it—were new. We argue that management of the pilgrimage represented a key element in an aggressive campaign to present the French Union in Africa as a solicitous and accommodating empire and to give content to an ill-defined new colonial citizenship.5 By the 1950s, anticolonialists directly challenged that new version of empire and its representatives in the context of the annual pilgrimage, and African pilgrims sought to reconcile newly expansive and potentially incompatible models of political membership represented by the empire, the umma, and the new third world. Thus, even as it remained an act of faith, the hajj became a platform for competing visions of state and empire at the time of a vast imperial experiment and the creation of a Muslim third world.6

What Made the Fourth Republic Distinct?

Appreciating state involvement in the pilgrimage requires an understanding of just what was distinct about French colonial practice in the Fourth Republic, which exercised sovereignty over a vast empire extending from the Antilles to North, West, and Equatorial Africa; various Pacific possessions; and, until 1954, much of Southeast Asia. Rather than view the postwar period as an inevitable shift toward independence, we understand the political scenario in those years as aleatory, inchoate, and contingent.7 That major changes were afoot was indisputable, but interpretations of their significance diverged widely. Native legal status, the indigénat, with its distinct offenses and punishments, was abolished; all French colonial subjects would soon become imperial citizens. An increasing number of them participated in a new colonial electorate. An administration that had long lived on a tight budget disproportionate to its ambitions—a circumstance that gave rise to not a little violence—became a better-funded, aggressive developmentalist state. In West Africa dockers and workers fought for and [End Page 368] won wages and benefits that were not dependent on race.8 African military veterans earned the right to pensions equivalent to those paid their European peers.9 African politicians sat in the Assembly of the French Union, and several of them came to occupy high...


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