Rewriting the French Revolution
UCI historian highlights the role of Muslims and Islam in the French Revolution
Through archival research, Ian Coller, professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, pieces together a centuries-long history of Muslims in France. His new book, Muslims and Citizens: Islam, Politics, and the French Revolution (Yale University Press, 2020), examines how Muslims came to participate in the political struggles of the revolution and how revolutionaries used Muslims in France and beyond as a test case for their ideals.
Here, we discuss with Coller the motivation behind his book and the power of history to inform the future.
What was the impetus for writing this book?
I believe history should be shared. It should be used for bringing us together rather than pushing us apart. I have always been fascinated by the French Revolution as the first time a sense of universal humanity leapt to the front line of events and helped shape world history. We live in a time where we’re often encouraged to focus on differences between people and religions. I was interested in what French Revolutionaries thought about Islam, and how they interacted with the Muslim world. But as I started research in the archives, I found evidence of Muslims in France and elsewhere who had participated in the French Revolution. That led me to think about how their paths were shaped by revolution, and how they in turn shaped the events around them. It confirmed my sense of just how rich and diverse the past it. There are multiple possibilities for understanding our shared present and envisaging a common future.
How did you go about tackling this book? Did your research take you abroad?
When I first started work on the book, I was on a fellowship in Italy, and it happened to coincide with the wave of revolutions spreading across North Africa and the Middle East. I was invited to Tunisia in May 2011, just after the revolution happened there, and that experience had a profound effect of making me understand what revolution really means – the dizzying sense of possibility and hopes for a better future. But the aftermath of revolution and civil war has made it more difficult to access archives in the Arab world. Luckily, most of the documents I needed were located in archives in France, in places like Paris, Nantes and Marseille, where I was able to spend time tracing the fascinating paths of people I’d found. The resources available online are now just staggering, and they make it possible to trace things that would once have been almost impossible.
Your research interests include the French Revolution and the Muslim Mediterranean. How did these two fields of expertise come together for this book?
A lot of great work has been done in the past twenty years to recognize how much the revolutionary age in the late eighteenth century was happening across the Atlantic Ocean, and how central slavery was in the struggles for freedom. Yet very few historians had looked across the Mediterranean, even though it’s so much closer geographically to Europe. Less than a decade after the fall of the Bastille in 1789, forty-five thousand French troops invaded Egypt. In my first book, Arab France: Islam and the Making of Modern Europe 1798-1831, I investigated the Arabs who migrated to France with the end of that occupation. In thinking about this book, I wanted to understand better what led the French to a disastrous mistake that really brought the revolution to an end. The invasion was led by Napoleon Bonaparte, who was just a young general at the time, but someone who was completely fascinated by Islam. When he arrived in Egypt, he had pamphlets distributed in Arabic declaring that the French were Muslims. Why did he think that Egyptians would believe this fantasy? Bonaparte was highly intelligent – it wasn’t ignorance or stupidity. For me, the answer lies in the way French revolutionaries came to understand Islam. The huge clashes over the Catholic church in France led to a wave of “dechristianization” – for some that meant atheism, but for the leading Jacobins like Robespierre who influenced the young Bonaparte, it meant monotheistic faith in a “supreme being” without the elements of Christianity. They felt that this “deism” was aligned with Islam in ways that made it easier for Muslims to join the revolutionary cause. This story made me look more deeply into the Revolution itself.
You’ve written and edited quite a few works on the French Revolution, including most recently the collection, “Whose Rights? The French Revolution and the Present.” What was going on at the time that led revolutionaries to look towards the Muslim world?
The first big event of the 1780s that drew attention to what was happening in the Muslim world was the Russian annexation of the Crimea in 1783 – ironically something that happened again very recently. It was the first major Muslim territory to be seized by a European state, and some historians have seen it as leading to the birth of political Islam. At the same time, the creeping control of India by the British East India Company also alarmed Muslims. Just prior to the French Revolution, we see Muslim powers in India reaching out to Istanbul and to France, while the Ottomans themselves were seeking French support. The United States had won a war of independence against Britain with French help, and now other powers looked to France. In 1788, there were Muslim ambassadors in Paris, and they got swept up in the political storm - they were a lightning-rod for questions about the weakness of a monarchy that could no longer support its allies. The other big question in 1789 was that the monarchy failed to renegotiate treaties protecting French shipping from North African powers like Algiers and Tunis, aggravating the shortage of grain and pushing up bread prices at a time when lots of French people were facing food shortages. For the first time, Muslims in France helped to resolve these problems, and that shaped a new “fraternal” vision of Muslims.
When people think of 18th century France, they likely picture a very white, Catholic world. How will your book reframe the way we think about revolutionary era France?
There was a film that came out recently (“One Nation, One King,” 2018) that did a great job showing the ordinary men and women of Paris, and their part in making the Revolution. But it was frustrating to me because the cast was so white. That was in part what provoked me to look more closely at the people of eighteenth-century France and how diverse they really were. It wasn’t always easy to follow the paths of Muslims in France, because they weren’t usually recorded as such. But I found one Muslim who was recorded as having taken up French citizenship, and I went to the local archives to find out more about him. What I started to see was that he was just one among thousands of people from all over the world—from different parts of Europe, from the French colonies in the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean, including people of color—who were part of this transformation, who joined revolutionary committees, and fought in the armies to defend the Republic.
In your book, you write that French revolutionaries believed in a world in which Muslims could and would be French citizens. Today, Islam is the fastest growing religion in France. How do you think the French Revolution paved the way for this?
That was one of the key questions I asked in this book. France has had a large Muslim population, not just since the 1970s, but for more than 150 years, since the invasion and annexation of Algeria, then Tunisia, Morocco and West Africa. Many people from those colonies moved to France both before and after independence. But a lot of French commentators today treat Islam as if it is a new question, somehow alien to French history. I wanted to show just how far back these questions go – but even I was surprised when I found that the question of Muslim citizenship had been discussed openly and positively during the French Revolution, and that in fact Muslims were the first non-Christians to be granted citizenship at a time when prejudice and stigma were mostly focused on Jews. That decision tells us a lot about the revolution, and it opens up the longer span of French history as something that Muslims can feel belongs to them too. But it also shows that these struggles for inclusion of religious and ethnic minorities have a long history.
What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
The past is a resource that we can use to think about the present. Historians should not be gatekeepers to lock down “what really happened” but guides to open up the possibilities based on the evidence we have. European history is claimed by a lot of groups to justify hatred and exclusion of those they insist don’t “belong.” The same thing happens in the United States, and in Australia where I’m from originally. But Muslims have been present in the Americas as long as any other Europeans, and they were visiting indigenous Australia long before European settlement. I hope that readers will see from this book that history belongs to everybody, and that looking with new questions at the past—even an event that has been studied as endlessly as the French Revolution—reveals new possibilities for understanding the present and shaping the future.
Officially out on March 20, Muslims and Citizens: Islam, Politics, and the French Revolution is available for pre-purchase now.
Photo credit: Ebrahim Safi