During a recent debate on the Senegalese television channel TFM about the ongoing violence in Palestine, Tariq Ramadan accused one of his interlocutors Bakary Sambe of the most offensive crime for an African intellectual: having a colonized mind.
Sambe, a professor at Senegal’s Gaston Berger University and coordinator of the Observatory of Radicalisms and Religious Conflicts in Africa, had been asked about American leadership in peace talks when his response solicited Ramadan’s comments. In a clear departure from the flow of the conversation, Sambe offered his reflections on the Islamist threat of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood while staring directly at Ramadan. Observing that Sambe’s comments had “nothing to do with” the conversation, Ramadan asked Sambe if he was speaking live from Washington or London. Humorously, Sambe slips and says that he is speaking from Washington, before correcting himself by saying that he was speaking from here (here being Dakar). Ramadan then gives a dismissive gesture while Sambe appears clearly flustered and at a lost for words.
It is then that Ramadan accuses Sambe of having a bit of colonized mind. Sambe then erupts saying “you are the first colonizers, you Arabs.”
Perhaps some context is in order. The exchange, I think, reflects an especially charged anti-Arab discourse in Senegal that seems especially prominent as of late. Sambe’s charge of Arab racism and Arab paternalism especially within Islam comes just as Sengalese neo-traditional religious leadership has been threatened by a rising tide of Islamic reformism since the end of the nineties. The threat has been particularly real since the short-lived secession of Northern Mali that claimed many foreign fighters as its combatants. Increasingly, Senegalese intellectuals have been resisting what they see as an increased influence of Arab countries in their affairs, citing the flow of petro-dollars as an unnatural catalyst in the transformation of the Senegal scene.
Sambe appears to be no different. He advocated for French intervention in Northern Mali and a cursory Google search yields a number of indications that, for him, calling out Arab racism is a professional preoccupation. It also seems that Sambe has run into Tariq Ramadan before with result similar to that of the debate.
However, what is telling in this exchange is not the content of the anti-Arab discourse but its function. Sambe was struggling to make a case for an unsupportable position in favor of Israel. As empty and poorly argued as Sambe’s argument was, Ramadan pushed him gently resulting in Sambe having nothing else to say other than call Ramadan and all Arabs colonizers–with the irony being that Sambe was in the midst of making a reactionary argument in support of Israel’s settler-colonialism.
As empty and irrelevant as it seems, we should still consider the accusation of Arab colonialism and the figure of the colonizing Arab. Colonialism is not simply a mode of exploitation. It is a moment of exploitation in a world system. Colonialism was a historical period defined by the exploitation of people and extraction of resources in the periphery for the benefit of the metropolitan center.
The figure of an external Arab influence has been a persistent one that has lingered and been available for African and European actors before, during and after the colonial period. Think of the charge of “Arab-led slavery,” “the expulsion of the Arab” in the Zanzibar revolution, and “the African-Arab divide” in Darfur as ripe and ready examples. The condemnation of the Arab figure, on the other hand, has not been a constant critique but one that is available only when politically convenient.
Nevertheless, we might ask what the Swiss-national with Egyptian roots was doing in Dakar last weekend. On Friday, August 1st, Ramadan tweeted information for a rally to be held in Dakar to end the spirit of victimhood. He then appeared in a debate the following day with the Israeli and Palestinian ambassadors to Senegal along with Sambe and another speaker. Although he has not made an official statement about his activities in Senegal, most of Ramadan’s public appearances have been related to expressions of solidarity and civic engagement. Both the Macky Sall government of Senegal and the Senegalese public have formally and informally called for an end to Israeli aggression, according to the Palestinian Ambassador to West Africa Abdalrahim Alfarra. Accordingly, it follows that a pro-Palestine activist may water in rich soil to bear fruit for his activities.
Ramadan, however, has a history with Senegal prior to the current conflict. In 2012, he spoke in Dakar–switching between French and Arabic–about the role of Muslims in the global economy. He would return to the regional hub in August 2013 for a meeting of the “Colloque international musulman dans l’espace francophone.” A month before, he spoke in Dakar on a panel entitled “Ethics, Governance, and Citizenship.” His comments on homosexuality left a lasting impression in a country where it has been a highly politicized topic in recent years.
Strictly speaking, these activities can’t be called colonial even if we recognize that Ramadan is an external actor with a limited knowledge of internal dynamics who is leveraging an idea within Senegal of the public role of Islam in a liberal democracy. Meanwhile, even though Sambe publicly supports imperialism and its proxies (i.e., Israeli aggression, France’s intervention in Northern Mali, etc.), he nevertheless also appears to be defending his claim to national autonomy.
One can’t help but think that the focus on the “Arab Man’s Burden” in Africa manages to screen off more important social tensions within Senegal while simultaneously doing nothing to actually combat the contemporary dangers of Gulf country land grabs and financial speculation in the guise of a morally sanctioned Islamic banking. While history certainly helps us understand how exploitation happens, playing the who-colonized-who-first game is counterproductive in the current fight against exploitation in our age of neoliberalism.