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  • Les Lumières et l’Islam: quelle alterité pour demain? par Hédia Khadhar
  • John Tolan
Les Lumières et l’Islam: quelle alterité pour demain? Par Hédia Khadhar. Paris: L’Harmattan, 2017. 283 pp.

Hédia Khadhar, emerita professor of French literature at the University of Tunis, brings together in this volume thirty-one essays published over the last thirty years. The subjects range from the portrayal of Islam and Muslims in the works of Diderot or Montesquieu, to the reception of Rousseau in the nineteenth-century Arabic world, to street art in Tunis in the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring. They reflect the author’s rich career and widely ranging interests. The book exhibits some of the drawbacks common to this type of collected volume. The brief Introduction does not sufficiently explain the choice of articles or place them in historiographical context. It seems unnecessary, for example, to republish a two-page preface to Mahbouba Saï Tlili’s Voltaire et l’Islam (Tunis: Arabesques, 2009), or brief introductions to academic conferences from the 1980s. A narrower selection of articles, with a more developed introduction and conclusion would have produced a stronger volume. A number of the essays deal with the portrayal of Islam, Muslims, and the Maghreb by French writers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: writers from Diderot (whose political thought was the subject of Khadhar’s 1987 dissertation at Paris IV), Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Rousseau, to lesser-known hagiographers, narrators of voyages and captivity, and novelists. Mme de Villedieu, for example, was a popular seventeenth-century novelist whose Nouvelles affriquaines staged stories of love and adventure in the Bardo palace in Tunis. Khadhar pays particular attention to the role of women in the construction of narratives of Oriental domination and despotism: the European captives and concubines whose fate is bemoaned in many captivity narratives; Roxane in Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes, who rebels in the harem where Usbek has imprisoned her; Schéhérazade in Antoine Galland’s Mille et une nuits, who successfully transforms a brutal tyrant into a docile husband. A number of the articles trace the reception of the French Enlightenment in the nineteenth-century Arabic world. Here Khadhar is sensitive to the conflicted and at times contradictory responses to European thought and culture in a context of resistance against French (and British) military aggression and the desire to ‘modernize’ Arab nations the better to emulate and compete with European powers. She gives fascinating accounts of how Arab (in particular Tunisian and Egyptian) intellectuals reacted to the writings of Rousseau, Montesquieu, Voltaire, and others. We find sensitive treatment of a number of minor and major figures of the Nahda (Arab Renaissance), in particular of Rifā‘a al-Tahtāwī, whom Muhammad Ali sent to Paris in 1826 and who offers a rich narrative of his French education, of Parisian life, and of the Revolution of 1830. She also looks at the institutions created by the French colonizers to spread French culture and values, such as the Collège Sadiki in Tunis, which paradoxically undermined the colonial enterprise by underlining the hypocrisy of trumpeting liberty, equality, and fraternity as quintessentially French values while denying them to France’s colonial subjects. The final essays deal with the Arab Spring in Tunisia and its aftermath. Numerous participants and commentators of Tunisia’s 2011 revolution drew comparisons with 1789; others drew parallels between Tunis in 2011 and Paris in 1830 or 1968. French historical and political references pervade Tunisian culture; here as elsewhere, the postcolonial Maghreb has complex and paradoxical relationship with its former colonial master. These essays provide fascinating glimpses at mutual perceptions of Europe and the Maghreb over the past four centuries. [End Page 648]

John Tolan
Université de Nantes


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