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Charles de Foucauld was a French military officer and playboy who, in the 1880s, experienced a dramatic religious conversion while serving in Algeria. He went on to become a hermit in the desert, adopting a life of strict asceticism and serving as a peace-maker among the remote Tuareg people. Although many books have been written about him celebrating his Christian witness, Merad wanted to examine him from the more problematic viewpoint of Muslims in Algeria.
The Muslim problem with Foucauld is not that he is charitable. He lives the life any Christian should: a life of deep gentleness, humility, faith, and charity. Muslims have great respect for Jesus as a venerated prophet, and Merad respects Foucauld as a genuine follower of the Christ. Foucauld was also a different kind of holy man from the marabouts, wandering Islamic holy men who use their spiritual status and power to distance themselves from people and avoid physical labor. This "Christian marabout" did not see labor as beneath him, but labored just as the people he lived around did.
However, Foucauld was French in French-occupied Algeria. No matter how ascetic, how withdrawn from society Foucauld was, the fact remains that he was part of the colonizer. He was not interested in interreligious understanding. He saw Islam as a corrupt religion, and eagerly desired to convert the Muslims to Christ. This tension between his genuine human concern and the structures he was a part of forms Merad's book.
Foucauld supported colonialism, but wanted it to be human and compassionate. He writes in a letter to a friend, "It is necessary for the whole country to be covered with monks, nuns, and good Christians remaining in the world to make contact with these poor Muslims, to draw them in gently, to educate and civilize them, and finally, when they are men, to make them Christians." His condescension here is obvious. As Muslims they are neither civilized nor yet men. Yet in Foucauld's ethnocentric framework, he is taking a very compassionate stance: do not exploit the Algerians, do not harm them, but help them develop into a better people. Such a system of mass education was clearly not what the colonial authorities wanted to hear. They respected him but ignored his utopian vision of just human relations for Algeria.
But this ethnocentric view also made the Muslims keep their distance from him. If he was too sympathetic to the Muslims to be taken seriously by the colonizers, he was too French and too Christian to be trusted by the Muslims. Foucauld's quandary brings to mind Bartholome de las Casas, that Dominican priest in the Americas who supported colonialism but became a thorn in the side of Europe by chronicling colonial brutality. Rather than being wholly good or wholly bad, Foucauld and de las Casas were being compassionate toward people within a framework of disrespecting their culture and religion.
The book ends with a fascinating translator's afterward exploring what Merad's book can tell us about contemporary Christian-Muslim dialogue. The gist of it is that Christians should be more aware of the background to that dialogue. For example, there could have been no such thing as Christian-Muslim dialogue in colonial Algeria, because no dialogue can leave behind the power relations between Christians and Muslims at the time. Even now, he argues, interfaith dialogue is often cast in terms set by Christians. Certain presuppositions that the Christians come to the table with, such as the idea that one should completely set aside one's beliefs to understand another's, might be rejected by Muslims. Intellectual tools that Christians have become used to, such as historical-critical method, might also be rejected by Muslims. Rather than focusing on dialogue, we can do what Foucauld did best: focus on friendship.