Dictating Islam to Muslims

At the Napoleon’s Egypt blog, Jaubert’s important letter critical of Napoleon Bonaparte’s use of the naval forces. It also contains the crucial passage, “You will laugh outright, perhaps you witlings of Paris, at the Mahometan proclamation to the Commander in Chief. He is proof, however, against all your raillery; and the thing itself will certainly produce a most surprising effect. You recollect that produced by the magic cry of GUERRE AUX CHATEAUX, PAIX AUX CABANES [War to Palaces, peace to cottages].” Jaubert is referring to Bonaparte’s broadsheet to the Egyptians in which he claims that the Deism of the French revolution, being non-Trinitarian and opposed to the Catholic hierarchy, is more or less a form of “Islam” (in the vague sense of a strictly monotheistic, non-Christian religion). Jaubert thought Bonaparte’s stratagem brilliant, but knew it would be laughed at in worldly Paris. He compared it to the class war the French Revolutionaries unleashed in the early 1790s, when they tried to convince the working and poor strata that an attack on monarchy promised a better life for the disadvantaged. In fact, the Egyptian Muslims do not appear to have believed that Deism looked anything like Islam, since they emphasized practice (prayers, fasting, etc.) over mere doctrine. The Chronicler Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti pointed out that if strict monotheism and rejection of the trinity made a belief “Islam,” then Jews would be Muslims. Bonaparte’s attempt to convince the Egyptian Muslims that he was one of them is reminiscent of American claims to be supporting “true” “moderate” Islam against Salafi fundamentalists who had “hijacked” the religion– as if any Muslim thinks Washington can tell what true Islam is.

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