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Winter 2020

Derivative Imperial Nations

A critique on how current discourses understand the reality of the Americas and the Middle East, this essay offers a new perspective with analytical and political applications.

Canadian stop sign in Nunavut.


oday, there are several discourses on how states and their populations should be understood: the Marxist, postmodernist, nationalist, liberal, and imperial. Each is tied to various political movements and, in a circular fashion, offers solutions to current conflicts. To simplify: the Marxist discourse rejects nationalism except from formerly colonized groups and recommends an international world order; the postmodern builds on Marxism, but claims the peoples and nations are merely artificial constructs and advocates states or alternative political entities untethered to these; the nationalist argues that ethnic nations not only exist, but are the only grouping that should be sovereign; the liberal discourse on the state focuses on the individual; and the imperialist claims that some peoples are better than others, and therefore should lead them. In my view, none of these perspectives are adequate to describe many parts of the world, or to offer solutions to current conflicts. Rather than presenting a new ideological outlook, I offer a new category, “derivative imperial nations.” In my view, this best describes the reality of two of the most contested areas in the world today, the Americas and Middle East/North Africa, and offers a way forward—assuming there is the will—for political solutions.

“Derivative imperial nations” is the term that I think best describes states 1. which were once part of an empire, hence imperial; 2. whose main features, official language, legal system, official religion, general cultural heritage, and a significant part of the population (either numerically or politically and socially) is derived from the imperial metropole that preceded it and not from the conquered indigenous, local, or transferred inhabitants, hence derivative; 3. which have adopted the view of themselves as independent nations (understood as lands of citizenship and not subjecthood, as well as a unified people) in their official discourse, and hence nations.

Derivative imperial nations do not, therefore, describe all instances of imperial conquest and post-colonial realities. Take Armenia, for example. Conquered by a host of empires, its population living mainly in the diaspora for some time, it is now a nation-state composed of an ethnic Armenian majority in its indigenous/historical homeland, and not a derivative imperial nation. Most African states are not derivative imperial nations, in that local groups are culturally and politically dominant and the descendants of European colonizers with notable exceptions like South Africa largely absent. These countries fall under a separate typology. Other countries and peoples are simply part of existing empires, like the Tibetans in China. In short, derivative imperial nations is only one of many options for describing different peoples in relation to each other or an imperial past or present. However, it does seem the only useful category for describing the Americas and the Middle East today, not least because it gives light to a central tension in the countries of these regions. The latter arose as anti-colonial or anti-imperialist states rejecting the yoke of the metropole, but also maintained the ethnic hierarchy and many political, legal, and cultural features of the imperial regimes that preceded them. This tension is expressed in the polarized discourse in many of these countries between those who view their countries as bastions of freedom, or as centers of oppression. Together with the ideological lenses above, this creates a fraught political landscape of varying explosiveness, depending on the relative power of these different poles. I will now describe how this category fits the Americas and then North Africa and the Middle East in turn.

Canada, the country of my birth, is a very good example of a derivative imperial nation. Canada’s two official languages, legal systems, and major religions (including a religious school system), are derivative from the French and British Empires, as are a majority of the population. Other than in Nunavut, only English and French have official language status, which means that federal and provincial services are only provided in these languages. Translators are offered if need be, but one cannot demand that a judge render judgment in Punjabi. Only French and English appear on products, and are used for services. The entire educational system is conducted in one of the two languages. Common Law and the Napoleonic Code are the only legal systems with official status in Canada; community courts of other legal traditions (for example, Jewish and Muslim courts) are supplanted by these two legal systems. The two main school systems are public and Catholic, and the curriculum focuses on the cultural heritage of the two empires: Shakespeare in English class, Molière in French. Establishing schooling entirely in Tamil, or demanding that all public servants in a predominantly Filipino neighborhood speak Tagalog is not an option, legally. Canada’s political systems are also largely British and French imports (the constitutional monarchy and Quebec’s National Assembly), with some adjustments for local realities. For much of its history, Canada tried to assimilate—and thereby destroy— Native American peoples. Today it has rejected this policy, but without changing the essential nature of the state. Native Canadians continue to be governed by a special status defined by the nineteenth-century Indian Act, albeit heavily amended. Yet Canada was established as a confederation where, while still British subjects, self-rule and universal male franchise (except for Native Americans), the absence of inherited class, and the notion of a new Canadian nation all situated Canada firmly in political modernity.

Derivative imperial nations are not a particularity of the British colonial empire. In fact, all of the Americas are derivative imperial nations. So-called Latin America, a name which already points to its recent imperial past, is a case in point. The states which fought to gain their independence from Spain, from Venezuela, Bolivar’s homeland, to Argentina and Panama, all share some common features. Again, only Paraguay, Peru, and Bolivia grant official language status to indigenous languages— in other countries indigenous languages have recognized status, but in any case, Spanish is nonetheless functionally dominant. And even here, indigenous languages are woefully underrepresented in schooling, the media, and state communication. The legal systems of all of the countries in South American are based on the Napoleonic Code introduced in Spain at the time of their independence; religion and general culture are influenced by the Spanish and Portuguese, and other colonial powers, like the Dutch, in the Caribbean. Like the United States, they are also populated by the descendants of enslaved Africans brought over by the imperial state. Slavery has been an essential feature of numerous empires, and the descendants of these enslaved peoples have come to be an important part of the derivative imperial nations. Yet Latin American countries came into existence through wars of independence. Citizens were newly Mexican, Peruvian, or Cuban, supposedly liberated from their colonial masters. Nowhere was an inherited nobility or crown established, the brief exception of Brazil aside. These derivative imperial nations were part of the new political order of national citizenship that originated in Europe but succeeded sooner in the Americas. Indeed, Europe held on longer to the ancien régime that had shaped its former colonies than the colonies themselves.

The dominance of imperial legal, political, linguistic, and religious structures in derivative imperial nations does not contradict the important African and Native American cultural influence on the general culture, even though this influence has an ambivalent place in official discourse. From Samba to Jazz, hip hop to The Dozens, tap dance and tango, African influences are ubiquitous in culture across the Americas. Likewise dress, music, foodways, and crafts in many American countries are fundamentally Native American in origin. Nor has it broken the collective identity of African and Native Americans. However, these cultural influences are emphatically absent in the legal, political (with the partial exception of the influence of the Iroquois Confederacy on the American Constitution), and even linguistic regimes (even where Creole is dominant, as in Haiti, it is still significantly French) of the area. And one would not expect otherwise, given the imperial policies of the colonizers; in the case of Africans, they broke national and family bonds, and in the case of Natives, waged wars, forcibly assimilating and displacing populations. Rather, the cultural impact and continuity, and the hard-won political gains secured since independence, are a testament to these populations. Yet, despite the cultural influence of the indigenous and formerly enslaved population, official discourse still prioritizes the descendants of the colonizers today, with cultural recognition replacing official assimilation.

The non-hyphenated term American or Canadian is usually reserved for those with European ancestry, as compared to Afro-Canadian—something that betrays the view that the Canadian nation is Euro-Canadian. Even now, with the strong movement to improve Canada’s treatment of First Nations, the terms English Canadian or French Canadian are mainly used to distinguish one from the other, or to denote language usage, and not in relation to First Nations; hence we don’t hear of First Nations Canadian, or describe the revered writer Margaret Atwood as Euro-Canadian.

Immigration and multiculturalism are an important feature of “derivative imperial nations,” even though they have not changed the character of these states. Multiculturalism only affects the private sphere—culture, religion, entertainment and the like. As an official policy, in places like Canada multiculturalism should be understood as a reflection of the majority’s (i.e. old English Canadian and Quebecois’s) willingness to allow immigrants to maintain private particularities while simultaneously assimilating and thereby becoming part of the nation. (In previous generations, they would have remained forever foreign even if they assimilated, or would have been shamed for their cultural heritage.) This is not an achievement to be scoffed at. However, it should not to be confused with a state where there is a multifaceted pluralism for all immigrants—something which does not exist anywhere in the world. But most importantly it is fleeting. Within one or two generations, the children of young immigrants have acculturated, and many of the particularities of their forebears are lost. This process is automatic and well documented. The importance of immigration in the Americas does, however, tell us something else. Immigrants flocked to these derivative imperial nations, especially from Europe but now increasingly from across the globe, because of the relative political freedoms and opportunities that they offered. They have been attracted to, and have benefited from, the “nations” part of these countries’ make-up. The claims of freedom and opportunity have been real for many people, especially European immigrants. Yet the tension between the “derivative imperial” and the “nation” has meant that most immigrants to the Americas, by and large, do better than Native Americans and the descendants of enslaved Africans across almost all socio-economic and education measures. This is true even when controlled for racism—such as the success of African immigrants vs. African Americans.

The category of derivative imperial nations is, in my view, also very useful to describe North Africa and the Middle East, even though the similarities to the Americas are not immediately obvious. One reason for the seeming difference is that when most people think of empires and colonialism in the Middle East, the Europeans come to mind. Indeed, Europeans established colonial relationships in some form across most of North Africa and the Middle East in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Saudi Arabia excepted. Thus, the countries of the region joined the states of Africa and Asia in gaining independence from European metropoles after WWII. So far, so good. But if we use the criteria of derivative imperial nations—that is, if we examine the linguistic, legal, cultural, political, and ethnic features of these states—something else emerges. The nations that replaced the European colonies and protectorates are not defined by European languages, and only partially defined by European legal and political systems. Ethnically, the descendants of European settlers are absent; the major cultural influence of this area, the texts, the corpus of poetry, prose, philosophy, is not European. Instead, we find Arabic as the dominant language and in many cases the only official language; and mixtures of Sharia, the French civil code, and Ottoman law, in most of the Middle East and North Africa. Most importantly, the cultural and textual world is influenced by Arab and Islamic culture. The national school curricula reflect this dominance, and not European literary or philosophical classics. Thus, at first glance these countries do not seem to be derivative imperial nations in the way that Canada, Argentina, and Mexico obviously are. Instead, they are rightly of the Arab world: a region where despite lingering European influences, their institutions have in great part returned pride of place to indigenous language, law, and tradition, though now in the shape of modern nation states rather than the ancient Caliphates. So goes the pan-Arab version of events. Such an interpretation cannot, however, account for the non-Arab populations of the region, or indeed of the history of the Arab ones. What of the Berbers, the Copts, the Maronites, the Assyrians, the Kurds, and the Jews?

Moroccan stop sign in Arabic and Berber (Wikimedia Commons)

In my view, the operative empires in the region were not the later European ones, but the medieval Arab Caliphates. European empires did leave some traces. But the empires that provided the linguistic, legal, religious and political framework that defines the region, together with the imperial settlers who ruled over indigenous populations (and in some cases imported enslaved Africans) are the prior Muslim Arab ones. While Arabs were known outside of the Arabian Peninsula as traders, and even began to settle in parts of the neighboring Levant and Mesopotamia in antiquity (see for example the Nabateans, the Tanukhids, Banu al-Samayda, Banu Amilah, and Ghassanids), they are not indigenous to any lands outside of the Arabian Peninsula. Nor do they claim to be, proudly tracing their heritage to their land of origin.

In contrast, the medieval Arab caliphates were settler colonial empires, which like the British and Spanish brought a common religion, language, and legal system to a region stretching across the Middle East and North Africa, with its preexisting indigenous inhabitants together with significant numbers of Arab settlers who maintained their elite status. The indigenous inhabitants did not give up their political sovereignty that easily, but they ultimately lost. The story of the Islamic conquest of the Middle East and North Africa, and the European conquest of Americas differs in many ways: the proximity of the conquerors, the role of disease, the technological advantages, the forms of administration, the influence of previous empires etc. These differences should not be glossed over, and indeed can be fruitfully studied. Still, they should not obscure the fundamentally similar settler-colonial imperial structure and the indigenous substrate. Like the Maya in the Yucatan and the Cree in Manitoba and Alberta, the Berbers in Morocco and Algeria, the Assyrians in Syria and Iraq, and the Copts in Egypt did not disappear. They persisted with a common identity, defined in some cases by ethnicity and religion (the Copts, and Maronites, and Jews), and others by ethnicity and language (the Kurds and Berbers) and others by all three (Assyrians). Their political pasts before the Arab Caliphates are varied. Some were empires (the Assyrians), others city states (Lebanon) or kingdoms (the Berbers and the Jews). Most were conquered by at least two empires before the Caliphates. Some of these peoples are subdivided into tribes, although they also demonstrated linguistic and cultural commonality. While the Ottoman Empire conquered many of these areas after the fall of the Arab Caliphates, and then the European empires stepped in, the imprint of the Caliphates—like the British Empire’s in Quebec, or the American state’s in Puerto Rico—is visible but not defining.

What further makes the case for viewing the Middle East and North Africa as a set of derivative imperial nations is that they and the American ones share the same tensions. States like Egypt, Algeria, Libya, and Iraq emerged as new nations, throwing off the colonial European yoke and granting the new identities of Algerian and Iraqi to their liberated citizens. But all put in place a policy of Arabization and Islamification, intended to ultimately assimilate or reduce to second-class status the indigenous non-Arabs or displaced/diaspora peoples within these countries. We can see this pattern in all the postwar Arab League countries. Thus, not only did Berber and Aramaic and Kurdish not have official language status; Morocco, Algeria, Iraq, and Syria all adopted policies of actively suppressing these languages, barring schools, restricting the use of first names, and so on. These postwar policies look a lot like the assimilation policies that postcolonial regimes across the Americas applied to their indigenous peoples. In the case of the Copts, Nasser limited their political power by barring them from high office. In addition, policies were put in place to expel or bar non-Arab non-Muslim populations from these countries. For example, under Nassar the Egyptian state expelled their Greek and Jewish populations. Jews were expelled or emigrated under duress from most of the new states of North Africa, with the exception of Morocco. Maronite Christians who had emigrated due to hardships and persecution during the Ottoman period were denied the right of return (that is to say, Lebanese citizenship) by the new Lebanese Republic, so as to limit Christian Maronite influence. Syria similarly barred the return of Assyrian emigres. After independence from France, Algeria made Muslim parentage (at least one parent) a precondition for citizenship, thus rendering the Jewish diaspora ineligible for Algerian citizenship. In only two countries in the Middle East did indigenous peoples challenge the postwar Arab revival: Israel and Lebanon. Neither have had lasting peace, but have instead been continuously counter-challenged by Arab populations who seek to capture the state and redefine it. These countries, like the Commonwealth and the Latin American nations or the Francophone bloc, also created a transnational body linked to the mother country of their imperial past, the Arab League. Finally, while rarely mentioned, the countries of the Middle East and North Africa that form the Arab League—as well as Turkey and Iran and their preceding empires—have a long history of enslaving various populations, including Africans from the Indian ocean. The descendants of these slaves, especially those of African ancestry, continue to be an unacknowledged part of the body politic.

Even if both the Americas and the Middle East are composed of derivative imperial nations, the discourse in both areas is very different. In the Americas, the domestic discourse on history varies from those on the Right who laud their countries as lands of freedom and equality, with past wrongs largely resolved (emphasizing the nation); and those on the Left who increasingly see their countries, especially the US, as some of the most criminal imperial states in the world (emphasizing the derivative imperial). In the Middle East, by contrast, European colonialism and American intervention continue to dominate the discourse. When the Kurdish, Maronite, Berber or other issues pertaining to indigenous peoples in the region are brought up, the language used is “sectorial tensions” or “minority rights”—except by the “sects” and “minorities” themselves, who are often silenced or delegitimized. The current state of the discourse is not simply an academic matter. In the Americas there is an increasing political polarization around this very issue, as can be seen in the recent American presidential elections, which pitted two totally different understandings of America against one another. In the Middle East, political instability, Islamism, and renewed Arab (but also Turkish and Iranian) imperialism have hit indigenous national groups especially hard. They have been targeted militarily and forced into emigration. The Jews and Maronites, the two pre-Arab populations which held their own in the face of attempts to create Muslim Arab derivative imperial nations in Lebanon and Palestine, have been accused of fascism, collaboration with European colonialism, or in the case of Israel being a European settler colony. Those of Arab ancestry in Arab League countries, like those of European ancestry in the Americas, are still unwilling to give up their claims on total sovereignty and supremacy over the individual states of the region, though recently concessions in language rights have been made to Tamazight in Algeria and Morocco, which now has official language status. In both regions, Marxist, imperial, postmodern, and liberal narratives have not only obscured the reality, but have contributed to local tensions.

The concept of derivative imperial nations accounts for features left out of or obscured by current discourses about the region. For example, it rejects the postmodern view that peoples do not exist or are inventions; after all, ethnic groups clearly live with common customs, languages, and laws that have both persisted and evolved over time. Yet, the concept recognizes that within derivative imperial nations, the mixing of groups has created hybrid cultures and identities, without however erasing distinct peoplehood or its evolving nature. It challenges Marxist discourses that have focused almost exclusively on European colonialism, and that have thereby lauded and condemned national movements inconsistently or excused old imperial tendencies (USSR, China, and Arab states). It contradicts the liberal perspective in that it shows that states have, by virtue of a legal system, official languages, and political customs, an inherent collective dimension with a cultural or ethnic character. It expands the nationalist perspective in that it accepts the identity and continuity of peoples, while accepting that imperial history may require articulations of legal and political protection other than neatly bordered nation states. Finally, it rejects the imperial perspective which justifies the domination of one group by another, while acknowledging that the descendants of imperialists are ethnic and political actors, with collective identities that need to find expression without supremacy.

This challenge to current discourses also provides a template for resolving conflicts practically and conceptually, assuming that the political will exists. With its focus on the genuine loci of authority and sovereignty, derivative imperial nations offer a way forward for the Americas and the Middle East, because the concept accurately describes the current political reality in these countries. It can create a blueprint for the official rejection of imperial supremacist views, awarding official language status and political recognition (whether autonomy or sovereignty) to indigenous peoples, as well as economic reparations and adjustments to the legal system to formerly enslaved and/or indigenous peoples. Conceptually, it opens up a way for these states to redefine themselves as the composites that they are. With regard to the latter, it is essential that each country teaches the history of, and from the perspective of, each group; but that it also examines the history of each group prior to the encounter of indigenous and imperial. For the Americas, this means teaching relevant parts of American, African, and European history from antiquity to the present, as well as the encounter between the three and their relations in the derivative imperial nations. The story of global immigrants should also be included but as the late development that it is. For the Middle East, a history of the region of a similar time span is essential, as well as the histories of the indigenous and colonial groups alongside those of the diaspora populations which populated these areas and the indigenous groups who fled to other shores and themselves became diasporas there. The time span and geographical range give the proper context to the founding peoples of these states, whose identities should not be reduced to the power relations that later defined them. The long histories of European, African, and Native peoples for the Americas, and of indigenous peoples and Arabs for the Middle East, show that none of the actors have “clean histories” by today’s moral standards. This is an important point, one that does not contradict or excuse the particular dynamics of oppression and exploitation of derivative imperial nations. It is, however, a necessary corrective to the ways in which current ideologies make one group sinners and the other saints, or alternatively relativize all groups so as to defend the status quo.

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Olga Kirschbaum-Shirazki

Olga Kirschbaum-Shirazki is a historian and co-founder of the Tel Aviv Review of Books.

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