October 22, 2011

Consciousness, Motivation and Violence: Review of War of Words, War of Stones

Jonathon Glassman. War of Words, War of Stones: Racial Thought and Violence in Colonial Zanzibar. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011.

PART 1: Scholars of mass violence, ethnic cleansing and genocide frequently debate the precise nature of the links between popular violence and an elite propaganda. Mass violence, they increasingly argue, is not the product of primordial hatred activated in a Hobbesian environment of weak social inhibitions. Yet this thesis has come to have something of the air of a cliché; provoking an enormous literature that is essentially a reaction against the "uncontrollable passions" thesis. Such literature argues that such violence was really about "something else", such as control over resources or political power.
In his new ambitious new book on racial violence in colonial Zanzibar, Jonathon Glassman argues that neither approach adequately captures the complexity of violence in the 1964 Zanzibar Revolution and the events leading up to it. In 1964, a group of armed Africans overthrew the Sultan of Zanzibar and purged his supporters in the rival political party. They then embarked on the massacre and intimidation of Arabs; some figures cite as many as 5,000 Arabs were killed in the months following. As in other cases, reports of violence were immediately contested—revolutionaries naturally denied the massacres, while exiles painted a gruesome picture of anti-Arab (and anti-Indian) pogroms.
In Zanzibar, Glassman argues, violence was the product of dueling discourses of civilization and barbarism from groups of "Africans" and "Arabs." Each group shaped competing approaches to the island's history and identity. In his introduction, Glassman traces the development of these identities through the history of Zanzibar, beginning with the founding of the Zanzibar Sultanate in the mid-nineteenth century, when it fell under the rule of the Busaidi family from Muscat, Oman. The Busaidi sultans expanded Zanzibar's wealth through usage of Indian merchant credit and an intense plantation slavery system built around clove production. British-imposed abolition soon destroyed the productivity of this system, and slaves and masters had to re-negotiate relationships of labor through tenancy and squatting. British colonial administrators sought to control and rationalize these relations, and they steadily increased their influence in Zanzibar until the establishment of a formal protectorate in 1890. British administrators had seen Zanzibar as an "Arab state" before the protectorate, and afterwards they continued to rule with (and often for) the Arab sultan as if Arabs were the natural ruling elite of the island.
In the half-century leading up to Zanzibar's first common roll election in 1957, British administrators nurtured a secular intelligentsia of (mostly) elite Arabs, who they inculcated thoroughly with British notions of civilizational nationalism. These Arabs served important roles as middlemen in the colonial bureaucracy. Yet they were no parrots of their would-be teachers; these elites also drew on Islamic modernism and pan-Arabism to advocate (initially) for the Arabs as the natural rulers of Zanzibar, and to mobilize Arabs (and eventually all Zanzibari citizens) against colonialism. Their vision of Zanzibari nationalism was broad and inclusive, but rested on specific values (like allegiance to the sultan) and particular exclusions. All "true" citizens were welcome under the inclusive umbrella of ustaarabu, (a Kiswahili word meaning "civilization") but such logic often criminalized mainlanders and encouraged Arab cultural chauvinism. Politically, the National Party of the Sultan's Subjects (Hizbu or ZNP) represented this ideological position.
In N'gambo, the African neighborhood east of the elite streets of Zanzibar's Stone Town, a vibrant post-bellum African culture nurtured its own intellectual vision of Zanzibar's future. This nationalist vision relied heavily on metaphors of blood and race. Africans, it argued, had been victims of Arab imperialism, and it was only by uniting with each other on the basis of skin color and shared oppression that Africans could overcome Arab hegemony. This vision came to be represented by the Afro-Shirazi Party (ASP), an outgrowth of a fusion of member of the town's African and Shirazi associations. The ASP was a complex mixture of former slaves, mainland migrants, and the indigenous Shirazi who resented Arab political dominance. Despite their links, those self-identified as Shirazi often faced criticism from the "Africans" that they were futilely trying to be "Asiatic." Instead of adopting an Arabocentric identity, the ASP argued, Africans ought to rediscover and reclaim their "tribal" ancestry. The Arabs were just as colonial as the British, the ASP claimed, but at least the British had abolished slavery. The ASP in effect, "racialized" the memory of slavery. Where the ZNP saw a shifting relationship between patron and client, the ASP saw evidence of pernicious racial oppression. This issue between the two proved to be one of the most contentious points dividing the two parties in the period known as the "Time of Politics", 1957-1963.


Anonymous,  October 26, 2011 at 7:54 PM  

You write well! I found this summary very interesting. J. Glassman is a worthy scholar of Zanzibar. I have read one of his papers along these lines. Same title I think. Zanzibar's politics is a challenge to many and causes many to take radical stand points. The revolution of 1964 continues to reverberate down the years. It has never been fully addressed by the Revolutionary Gov. Instead they have emphasised the alleged wickedness of the pre 1964 dispensation in order to gloss over their serious failures since then. Anne Chappel

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