Fouad Laroui: To better conquer and colonize large parts of the Arab world, it had to be devalued

Fouad Laroui is an engineer and economist by training, professor of literature at the University of Amsterdam, French-language novelist, Dutch-language poet, columnist and literary critic. His latest book published by Mialet-Barrault editions “Un plea for the Arabs” evokes their history and their participation in human civilization in the universal narrative. In this interview with Libé, Fouad Laroui tells us about his plea. Release: Can you explain the purpose of this plea? What prompted you as a Moroccan writer living in the West to take this step? Fouad Laroui: It has been a long time since I have been surprised, not to say shocked, by the ignorance of the Arabs, of their history, of their current problems on the part of the West. They do not know them and have a distorted representation of them. I waited a long time for the book that was going to denounce this ignorance and try to correct these false representations, but I did not see it arrive. So I set to work myself … This ignorance of the West vis-à-vis the Arabs, don’t you think it’s wanted? It is not intended in the sense that it would be a conspiracy but let’s say it suits a lot of people. In fact, it started in the 19th century. To better conquer and colonize large parts of the Arab world, it had to be devalued. To speak of a ‘civilizing mission’, one had to believe – or pretend to believe – that these people had never known civilization. We have therefore even forgotten what influence the Abbasid Empire and the Caliphate of Cordoba had on the West – an influence that was well and truly accepted in Europe before the 19th century. It is a strange case of collective amnesia that began with the beginnings of colonialism. The Arab world as we see it today, is a creation of the West to dominate this region as described by Edward Said? Yes, that’s what I just alluded to. Edward Said has shown well how a certain image of the Orient was built in the 19th century by the arts and literature and by other means, and that this served to justify its being conquered, subdued, colonized. This image has certainly changed since then, since all the countries in question were decolonized and proved that they were different from the image that was given of them. That said, one thing has hardly changed: the ignorance of the scientific background of the Arabs and the refusal on the part of those who should know about it to integrate it into the universal narrative. It is above all this that I have tried to analyze and expose. The Arabs who live in the West, how do they do it? As you say, “they are between two fires, between racism and fanaticism”? Are they lost between a mythical identity (their glorious past) and the very complex reality of their daily life? This is the case for some. They are caught in the crossfire and therefore feel bad about themselves. But there is much worse and I show it in my book: there are those who have integrated the prevailing racism and ignorance so much that they come to denigrate themselves. This self-loathing manifests itself in various forms but it is very real, alas. From this point of view, my book may have some therapeutic value. In your book, you are optimistic despite the rise of nationalism and fascism. Do you believe that the integration of Arabs into universal history is still possible? It is not the Arabs but their past that must be integrated into the universal narrative. It’s not very complicated, after all. It is enough to review educational programs in the West, promote exhibitions, documentaries, etc. As for the Arabs themselves, it is up to them to live up to what they once were. I don’t think, moreover, that it is a group affair, of the ‘Arab world’, if it still exists. Each country should make this effort to upgrade in all areas. I don’t know if I am giving the impression of being optimistic, but in fact, I remain suspicious. The future is not written anywhere. As far as we are concerned, we Moroccans, we must take charge and enter resolutely into science, progress, research and turn our backs on obscurantism. It’s not impossible, but you have to want it. How do you see the situation of Morocco, an emerging Arab, African and Mediterranean country, which is seeking its place in this complex world in the light of the new development model? I participated with 34 other colleagues, under the direction of Chakib Benmoussa and with an excellent support team, in the preparation of the report on the NMD which has just been submitted to His Majesty the King. It is a collective work and nobody can claim such or such part of it. Right now it is being presented to Parliament and then I guess there will be a broad discussion across the country. As a member of the CSMD, my mission ended with the presentation of the report. Now it’s the turn of all Moroccans to take it up, read it, comment on it, etc. Interview by Youssef Lahlali Paris