Diane Robinson-Dunn. The Harem, Slavery and British Imperial Culture: Anglo-Muslim Relations in the Late Nineteenth Century. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006. xiv + 225 pp. $80.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7190-7328-1.
Reviewed by Michelle Tusan (University of Nevada, Las Vegas)
Published on H-Albion (October, 2007)
Imperialism, Islam and English National Identity
Diane Robinson-Dunn's book, The Harem, Slavery and British Imperial Culture considers how Anglo-Muslim relations shaped English national identity. During the late nineteenth century, Britain understood itself as connected to Islam in a fundamental way through its imperial holdings in the East and considered itself one of the world's most powerful Muslim powers (p. 19). This monograph traces the uneasy relationship between British and Muslim officials, activists, and politicians that developed in both the colony and metropole during the height of the British Empire.
Four thematic chapters plus an introduction and conclusion argue for considering Islam as a central element in constituting England's sense of itself as an imperial power. By considering British imperialism, Englishness, and Islam in the same field of analysis, Robinson-Dunn embarks on a study of English Orientalism as it developed during a period that she claims "marks a new departure in Anglo-Muslim relations" (p. 2). The occupation of Egypt in 1882 provides an important turning point for this study as it represented the beginning of a sustained involvement by the English in Muslim affairs in the Middle East. Bernard Porter's "Absent-Minded Imperialists" played no role in the cultural and political conquest that Robinson-Dunn describes. Rather, the impulse of the civilizing mission and raw imperial ambition combined to forge an imperial ideology that cast the Muslim as "other" in terms of race, religion, and, most importantly, gender.
Robinson-Dunn joins other scholars who have turned their attention to Britain's imperial involvement in the Near and Middle East, a relatively neglected field of study when compared to regions that made up the formal British Empire. Three out of the four thematic chapters offer a different perspective of the attitudes and policies that shaped the anti-slavery campaigns in Egypt and England. The subtitle, however, promises a much wider ranging study than the book delivers by claiming to examine the larger subject of "Anglo-Muslim relations." When Lord Cromer claimed the title of "the greatest Mohammedan ruler in the world" for King George V, he certainly had more than Egypt in mind (p. 29, n. 77). This raises the question of how the British understood Egypt in relation to other parts of its empire in Muslim-dominated lands. How did interactions with Muslims in India, for example, compare with those in Egypt?
Chapter 2 uses the anti-slavery campaigns to introduce the main themes of the book. Here English identity finds definition in relation to a gendered Muslim other: "British officials defined both Englishness and Islam in relation to each other, and did so in gendered terms" (p. 31). This process of identity formation affected English and Muslim alike, although with very different outcomes. The English reinforced their understanding of themselves as "civilized" through their dominance of an "uncivilized" Muslim other. For Muslims, according to Robinson-Dunn, the destruction of harem slavery resulted in importing an English domestic ideal that worked to undermine Islam. However, she cites scant evidence regarding the number of Egyptians who actually adopted the ideal which calls into question the validity of this last claim. The chapter ends with a counterfactual consideration of how the English, if they had sought to understand rather than undermine Islam, might have ruled differently.
Missionaries and humanitarian aid organizations drew attention to harem slavery in Egypt while helping to sustain the interest of the English public in the topic. The institutions that shaped anti-slavery discourse in England included most notably the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society (BFASS), the main subject of chapter 3. Here again Robinson-Dunn's critique of the discourse of anti-slavery campaigners focuses on how their work undermined Muslim identity while reinforcing English cultural superiority. This particular ideology of empire as civilizing mission guided the moral impulse behind the anti-slavery campaigns: "Central to this framework was a belief that slavery was essentially immoral and that English people were responsible for its eradication" (p. 70). Here slavery is cast as a culturally relative practice with little or no human cost. Robinson-Dunn misses an opportunity to explore how the humanitarian discourse produced by organizations like the BFASS operated beyond the singular purpose of identity formation in order to better historicize the significance of the practice of harem slavery in both the English and Egyptian contexts. Broadening of the approach would have helped to nuance the by now well-rehearsed Saidian cultural critique of imperialism replicated by this study.
The question of gender politics takes center stage in chapter 4. Both conservative and feminist ideologies are discussed in relation to the harem slavery debates. Conservative arguments often worked to reinforce stereotypes of Islamic regions as a slave-ridden and corrupt. Positive images of the harem put forward by a "cultural feminist" ideology ironically had the effect of supporting separate spheres arguments that placed women in the private sphere and men in the public sphere. This "othering," according to Robinson-Dunn, extolled the virtues of the very Victorian gender system that oppressed women in England.
In chapter 5, Islam comes to the metropole. Muslim immigrants and travelers who arrived in England in the late nineteenth century further complicated the Muslim-English divide. Those Englishmen who understood Islam in a favorable light faced obstacles that hindered the creation of any meaningful "cultural exchange" (p. 184). Most of the stories chronicled in the chapter come from Muslims not from Egypt, but from other parts of the empire and included mainly sailors. This helps bring into focus the importance of the larger context of Anglo-Islamic interactions, but feels disconnected with the rest of the narrative that has thus far focused on harem slavery in Egypt. The issue of nineteenth-century Muslim immigration to England is important and one that deserves more thorough empirical treatment, rather than ballpark estimates of their presence from one nineteenth-century religious periodical. Statistics on how many of these men made their homes in England, for example, would have shed light on how these communities constituted themselves as English subject/citizens. It also would have provided an important piece of the early story of sustained Muslim immigration to England that took solid root after World War II.
Robinson-Dunn takes pains throughout not to reproduce the Orientalist gaze of nineteenth-century imperialists and makes it clear (from the beginning) her view that campaigns to end slavery represented "an imperialistic approach regarding slavery in Egypt" that interfered with indigenous practices and traditions (p. 34). Slavery, as an accepted cultural practice, helped to define Islam for the British as an uncivilized religion. This reinforced the impulse of the civilizing mission and justified British interference in limiting the practice. The central focus of the narrative remains on ideology, rather than the experiences and actions of slaves, Muslims, and English people who lived and negotiated this world. The voices of the children and women destined for the harem rarely surface. When they do, they often appear in an unsympathetic light. The story of an injured female slave seeking help from the British, for example, is dismissed as an "exaggeration" and instead read as a commentary on how the British worked to undercut Muslim masculine authority (p. 45). A similar reading accompanies analysis of the writing of a former harem slave girl and vocal critic of the institution, Melek Hanum (p. 127). This focus on ideology and discourse risks overlooking the very real unequal power relations that existed within and across imperial systems that thrived in the nineteenth century whether British, Egyptian, or Ottoman.
. See, for example, Billie Melman, Women's Orients, English Women and the Middle East: Sexuality, Religion and Work (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1992); Maya Jasanoff, The Edge of Empire: Lives, Culture, and Conquest in the East, 1750-1850 (New York: Knopf, 2005); and Priya Satia, "The Defense of Inhumanity: Air Control in Iraq and the British Idea of Arabia," American Historical Review (February 2006): 16-51.
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Michelle Tusan. Review of Robinson-Dunn, Diane, The Harem, Slavery and British Imperial Culture: Anglo-Muslim Relations in the Late Nineteenth Century.
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