Andersen on Murray-Miller (2022)

Murray-Miller, Gavin. Empire Unbound: France and the Muslim Mediterranean, 1880-1918. Oxford UP, 2022, pp. 304, ISBN 9780192863119

In Empire Unbound, Gavin Murray-Miller provides a fresh perspective on France’s efforts to solidify and expand their Mediterranean empire from the last decades of the nineteenth century to the end of the First World War. Part of what makes this book particularly compelling is its geographic scope. Most studies of French imperialism tend to reduce the French empire to its constituent parts, treating North Africa separately from the mandates of Syria and Lebanon. Within North Africa, many historians introduce a further spatial separation, examining Algeria apart from neighboring Morocco and Tunisia. These choices reflect not only the organization of archives, but the important and complex historical differences between French mandates, colonies, and protectorates. While recognizing how such studies have enlarged our understanding of the inner workings of these colonial polities, Murray-Miller nevertheless emphasizes in his introduction the importance of examining French imperialism as part of an interconnected web of colonial holdings, rival empires, and European metropoles. Drawing on the concept of an imperial “web” deployed by historians such as Tony Ballantyne, Murray-Miller presents France’s empire as specifically Mediterranean and, in French imperial imaginings of the time, Muslim. He notes that intense rivalries between the British, French, and Ottoman empires, as well as the movement of ideas and people between them, shaped how each of these powers administered their empires and responded to threats, real and imagined. To these big three empires in the region, his analysis also adds Spanish interventions in Morocco, Italian empire-building in Libya, and German influence in both Morocco and the Ottoman empire.

The chapters that follow proceed chronologically. The author shows convincingly that the French were not building an empire in isolation. By contrast, throughout the period covered in this study the French had to contend with their British rivals who also had colonial ambitions in the Mediterranean. Also crucial were the Ottomans who, over the course of the nineteenth century, lost considerable portions of their empire while simultaneously receiving an influx of migrants and refugees from neighboring regions. While the early decades of this imperial expansion are generally characterized as an age of “new imperialism,” in Empire Unbound the author joins scholars such as Christina Carroll in showing important continuities with the earlier era of “informal empire.”

One consistent theme throughout the book is the considerable flow of people and ideas across boundaries that, while fixed on paper, were in fact highly permeable. The author highlights the impact that French colonial expansion had on the Ottomans’ ability to manage their own populations. For example, there were many Algerians residing within the Ottoman Empire who, despite Ottoman opposition to the French annexation of Algeria, gained protections as French nationals. This included avoiding conscription into the Ottoman army which naturally was a source of tension. French protection presented problems for the Ottomans who had a different approach to managing the diverse populations within their realm, but were now “forced to consider the possibility of foreign Muslims for the first time” (81). While French imperial expansion in the region clearly had implications for the Ottomans, the reverse could be equally true as the Ottomans were often effective at encouraging subversive activity within French colonial holdings. Here we see that the French had considerable difficulty when it came to controlling their boundaries and censoring publications within them. Among the examples the author examines are Muslim elites traveling abroad for education and pilgrimages, as well as vibrant print cultures with geographically diverse readerships. French officials were highly suspicious of these types of connections, viewing them as potentially subversive and a threat to their interests. The Ottomans were eager to exploit these weaknesses and appeal to colonized Muslims directly. For example, while the British and French claimed to be “Muslim powers” because they ruled over so many Muslims, the Ottomans could claim the status of actual Muslim leaders and as such could tap into ideas of Pan-Islamism. As Murray-Miller notes, Ottoman Pan-Islamism “provided a context for imagining a form of Muslim cosmopolitanism at odds with the territorialized understandings of sovereignty and ‘national’ identification prescribed by Europeans” (80).

Like the Ottoman empire, Paris served as an important hub for dissident intellectual activity, harboring intellectuals who challenged the French, British, and Ottoman empires in various ways. The author explores the intellectual activity of Ottoman elites in exile, including some who were pro-regime, but also other groups such as the Young Turks. As French colonial lobbies and interests in Paris and North Africa sought to transform North Africa from a geographical abstraction to a political reality, they also faced many challenges from assimilated North African elites residing on both sides of the Mediterranean and pushing for expanded rights. Additional threats to French colonial interests in the region emerged from Italian influence in Tunisia, as well as Italian empire-building in Libya, a conflict that brought many refugees across the border to Tunisia. The outbreak of the Great War put pressure on the already tenuous grasp that the French had on their empire. As Murray-Miller notes, this conflict was fought between imperial states and “through the trans-political networks threading themselves throughout the Muslim world” (192). Notably, Germany sought to destabilize the Allied powers through their colonized peoples, appealing to pan-Islamic sentiments both in North Africa and among colonial soldiers in Europe. As the victors of the Great War made plans to divide the former Ottoman empire and map out new boundaries, they were compelled to confront the pan-Islamic sentiments and threat of protests within the colonies and protectorates they already had.

Ultimately, this book builds on recent scholarship exploring French officials’ determination to control migration and contain populations within neat boundaries, but consistently struggling to do both. Scholars have explored this type of fragility in colonial rule, but have generally done so at the level of individual colonies. What is innovative about this book is the ways in which it explores this phenomenon within a much larger geographical framework, showing most notably how connected the French North African empire was to events in the Ottoman empire and British-occupied Egypt. In addition to showing the fragility of French empire-building, this focus on the Mediterranean reveals the adaptability of French imperialism in the region. Particularly intriguing is the author’s examination of the intellectual work that went into linking the French empire’s identity with its vast Muslim population through claims of being a specifically “Muslim” empire. As the author notes in the conclusion, France today maintains close ties to the Muslim Mediterranean and is home to over five million Muslims. Though these connections, and the historical legacy they reflect, regularly feature in contentious political discussions, “France today remains bound to the Muslim Mediterranean, whether it chooses to or not” (259).

Margaret Andersen
The University of Tennessee, Knoxville