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North African Conceptions of Sovereignty in the Nineteenth Century

Session I-07, sponsored by American Institute for Maghrib Studies (AIMS), 2022 Annual Meeting

On Thursday, December 1 at 3:00 pm

Panel Description
This panel explores how North African and Middle Eastern actors conceived of sovereignty in the nineteenth century. Like many of the benchmarks of modernity, sovereignty was for a long time viewed as a Western creation—one that originated with the Peace of Westphalia in the seventeenth century and eventually was exported to the non-West through colonial rule. While scholars have offered trenchant critiques of such a centrifugal model of modernization, much of the legal and political history of North Africa and the Middle East continues to be written with Western models in mind. Rather than locating the invention of sovereignty in Europe—as well as related concepts like territorialism and citizenship—the papers in this panel discuss the ways in which sovereignty was envisioned by local actors in the modern Maghrib. Focusing on Morocco and Tunisia in the period before colonization, all three papers suggest that sovereignty, territorialism, and citizenship were not adopted wholesale from Western conceptions of law and politics. Instead, they emerged from the particular religious, political, and legal contexts of Muslim-ruled North Africa in the nineteenth century. Paper 1 discusses the conception of Ottoman authority in nineteenth-century Tunisia. Although French authorities aggressively portrayed the Bey of Tunis as an independent sovereign for all intents and purposes, this was a deliberate misunderstanding of the nature of Ottoman authority in the province. Drawing on Ottoman archival sources, the paper suggests that a division between “real” and “symbolic” authority artificially imposed Western categories on Ottoman Tunisia. Paper 2 examines the evolution of territorial sovereignty in nineteenth-century Morocco and Tunisia in the context of a rise in extraterritoriality. Drawing on the archives of foreign ministries from North Africa and Europe, the paper looks at how problems stemming from increasingly frequent claims of extraterritorial privilege forced North African officials and ordinary subjects to articulate emic understandings of sovereignty. Paper 3 takes the travels of the Moroccan Sultan Hassan I to the Sūs region in the 1880s as a case study through which to understand conceptions of territorialization before the colonial period. Although scholars have generally associated territorialism in Morocco with French and Spanish rule, this paper looks at the religious dimensions of the emergence of a territorial imagination in Morocco. Rather than an imitation of colonial approaches to territorialization, the Sultan’s conception of territory was firmly rooted in Islamic ideas of space and sovereignty.
  • The legal history of sovereignty has generally been told as a European story—a dimension of domestic and international law whose origins are located in the West. But the view from North Africa suggests that the evolution of territorial sovereignty (like that of legal belonging, usually referred to as citizenship or nationality) was closely bound up with the rise of extraterritoriality. The prerogatives of the various states claiming jurisdiction demanded a constant negotiation of belonging—and thus of sovereignty—on both sides of the Mediterranean. The often convoluted cases of individuals claiming extraterritorial privileges forced Maghribi Muslim rulers’ to articulate the nature of their authority over the those residing in their territory, as they contended with Western states’ interest in projecting their jurisdiction abroad. The expansion of extraterritoriality posed a significant challenge to the sovereignty of Muslim rulers. The response—strikingly similar from Tangier to Tunis—was to introduce nationality legislation that attempted to stem the tide of local subjects seeking extraterritorial privileges. This corresponds to some of the first attempts to define what Ottoman, Tunisian, or Moroccan nationality was—and further suggests the entanglement of legal belonging and extraterritoriality. The status of non-Muslims was particularly thorny in North African attempts to delineate sovereignty in the face of extraterritorial claims. This is in part because non-Muslims sought out foreign naturalization and protection in greater numbers than their Muslim counterparts; and in part because the preconceived notions of Western diplomats often presumed that the Islamic foundation of rule meant that non-Muslims were excluded from full membership in Maghribi polities. This paper offers an initial exploration of the ways in which conceptions of sovereignty among North African government officials, jurists, and ordinary individuals were forged with extraterritorial privileges in mind. I draw on correspondence in archives among government officials in pre-colonial Morocco and Tunisia, as well as the archives of the ministries of foreign affairs in France, England, the United States, and Italy. I argue that the problems stemming from ever-growing claims of extraterritorial privileges forced North African actors to articulate an emic understanding of sovereignty. A history of extraterritoriality can thus help us understand what sovereignty meant to Maghribis in the nineteenth century.
  • In 1830, following the conquest of Algiers, French statesmen began to systematically deny Ottoman sovereignty claims over Tunis, Algeria’s eastern neighbor. Tunis was an autonomous province of the Ottoman Empire since 1575, placed under the hereditary rule of the Husaynid Beys since the early eighteenth century. However, in an attempt to undermine Ottoman influence in North Africa, France began to treat the Beys as independent ruler and Tunis as a sovereign state. In support of their government’s position, French diplomats devised a number of arguments designed to “prove" that Tunis was independent from Istanbul. One French argument conceded that the Ottoman sultan held a form of authority over Tunis, but argued that this authority was merely religious – and therefore symbolic. Implicit in this view is a conception of sovereignty predicated on a strict separation between temporal (real) and spiritual (symbolic) authority. This separation, the Sublime Porte argued, was foreign to the Ottoman understanding of sovereignty. According to the latter, the sultan’s authority as a caliph was indissociable from his sovereign authority as a ruler. This paper examines the French argument about the nature of caliphal authority and the Ottoman responses to it. In doing so, I attempt to unearth an Ottoman conception of the relationship between secular and caliphal power, and shed light on how diverse ideas about imperial sovereignty circulated across legal traditions in the nineteenth-century Maghrib.
  • Scholars have demonstrated that colonization brought about a change in the status of space in Morocco. As Jonathan Wyrtzen writes, “territory itself… gained a political salience it did not have before colonial intervention.” This paper dates the political salience of territory in Morocco to the decades prior to formal Spanish and French colonization, showing it to be a product of inter-religious encounter, rather than a European import. It does so by examining an account of two trips Sultan Hassan I (r. 1873-1894) took to the Sūs region, as recorded by the historian and state functionary, Aḥmad al-Nāṣirī (d. 1897). Most histories of territory frame its emergence within intermural European conflicts; some extend this struggle to include imperial Europe’s race for the globe. By contrast, al-Nāṣirī’s descriptions of these trips and his quotations from the Sultan’s letters allow us to see how Moroccan thinkers drew on the history of Islamic thought to aid in the territorialization process. Sultan Hassan I traveled to the Sūs in 1882 and again in 1885. In introducing the first trip, al-Nāṣirī explained that the Spanish were seeking to control ports in the Sūs after the Battle of Tetouan. In a letter heavily laced with Qur’anic allusions, the Sultan described his success at regaining control of the ports by reestablishing “state protocol [al-marāsim al-Makhzanīya].” Some years later, the situation had deteriorated. This time the British sought to create an infrastructure at the Port of Āssākā. In demonstrating the preeminence of the state to the local inhabitants, the Sultan invoked a Qur’anic verse which promises that “Any sign We abrogate or cause to be forgotten, We replace with something better or similar” (2:106). With this verse, the Sultan rendered himself God’s representative in replacing an inferior infrastructure with a superior one. He continued to emphasize that the territory itself drew the diverse populations of the Sūs together; and he promised that any state building projects would take account of the needs of the local inhabitants. He positioned the race to territorialize Morocco within the frame of inter-religious competition. In these declarations, we can see the emergence of a territorial principle, in which space itself becomes the focus of state rule. While the presence of European powers was clearly important for the politicization of space in the Far Maghreb, this paper argues that the shift to territoriality was a product of inter-religious encounter.