Who was the first man to claim that the “French are also sincere Muslims”? Who attempted to bring forth the Arabs to rise up in harmony with the French to aid the French in their opposition to the Anglo-Saxons? No not de Villepin, and his lachrymose prose but his great hero, Napoleon Bonaparte.
In an extended doctoral thesis that became a book, “Edge of Empire, Conquest and Collecting on the Eastern Frontiers of the British Empire, 1750-1850” published last Summer, Maya Jasanoff, now assistant professor of British history at the University of Virginia, brings us to the attention of the behavior of Napoleon when he set out to conquer Egypt.
When Richard Gott, as always obsessively anti-American, reviewed the book in The Guardian last August he regretted that Britain had not been defeated by Napoleon because “Britain was largely engaged [...] in what was essentially a ‘counter-revolutionary’ war against Jacobinism. In fighting against France, the country that had launched the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the British were laying the groundwork for a permanently counter-revolutionary empire that would keep those rights low on the agenda.”
It must first be remembered that Napoleon’s purposes in attacking Egypt were to strangle Britain’s commerce and thus facilitate the invasion of England. Indeed when his troops left Toulon on France’s Mediterranean coast he called them “one of the wings of the army of [against] Angleterre.”
Having overthrown the conquered Malta and thrown out the Knights who had guarded it against all comers (particularly non Christian all comers) for the previous 500 years he set sail on his flagship the L’Orient. This ship, that was soon to be turned into flaming matchsticks by Admiral Nelson at the Battle of the Nile, housed what was to become Egypt’s first Arabic printing press. The first document to be printed on it was to become known as Napoleon’s “Proclamation to the Egyptians.” These are extracts translated from the contemporary Egyptian historian Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti by Dr Saladin Boustany, now director of the Al Arab publishing house in Cairo.
“O Egyptians! You have been told that I have come to this land with the intention of eradicating you religion. But that is a clear lie; do not believe it […]. I […] worship God, glory be to him, and respect his prophet and the great Quran […] O you shaykhs, judges, imams, jurbaiyya, and leading men of the country that the French are also sincere Muslims.”
In evidence for this sincerity Napoleon goes on,
“[The French] entered Rome and destroyed the throne of the Pope, who had always urged Christians to combat Islam. Then they marched to Malta, whence they expelled the knights, who claimed that God, exalted is He, sought of them that they fight the Muslims […]”
According to another eyewitness Napoleon topped and tailed the proclamation with the immortal and significant phrase, “God is great and Mohammed is his prophet.” According to Islam to say that, is to become a Muslim. In their eyes he was converting to Islam by that very proclamation, and by the tone of the proclamation he was doing it for the whole of France. Indeed one of his generals, Jacques ‘Abdallah’ Menou did convert and Bonaparte promised the conversion of the entire army (with the provisos that they were to be allowed to continue drinking wine and could keep their foreskins). None of this, however, convinced the Caliph in Constantinople or many locals who launched a Fatwa against the French.
Napoleon no doubt thought that he was very clever, trying to bring the Muslim world out in opposition to the British, but first his defeat of the Egyptians, then his pandering to them is seen across the Muslim world as the spark that lit the first stirrings of Pan-Arab nationalism and the growth of militant Islam.
One last thing. As all this was happening it is reported that a holy man was wandering around the streets of Cairo who claimed a vision in which Mohammed met up with Destiny. Mohammed was raging that the French were all over Egypt, but Destiny was able to calm him: “Console yourself,” Destiny said, “I have decided that these conquerors will become Muslims.” Apparently, she has kept her word.