Analysis of the "African-Arab" Dichotomy on Nation-State and Identity Debate in Africa: Chad Case
During a television interview, a young Chadian poetess with a dazzling talent declared that Chad is an “Arab country”. This statement sparked a lively debate on social networks among Chadians. On one side were those who supported the statement, and on the other, those who opposed it. Is she right or wrong? This is not the direct aim of this analysis. In this article, we seek to understand the basis for her assertion.
A few months ago, during a discussion with a West African friend on the issue of negrophobia in North Africa, she asked me a troubling question: “As a black Arab, what do you think of what black people suffer in North Africa? Stunned by this question, I replied, “Black Arab, but what does that mean?”. I would like to stress that I did not perceive any racist intention on her part, nor did I intend to treat her in this way. Although our discussion continued, we were unable to conclude the subject and decided to postpone the debate until a later date. All I could gather from her was that she had a superficial idea not only of Chad, but much of Africa. Knowing the education system and the challenges it faces, but also the outside influences on it, you cannot expect much better than that.
Also very recently, while talking to a Sudanese friend about the crisis that has been raging in Sudan since March 2023, and the solutions to get out of this crisis, he asserted that Sudan is an "Arab country" and that this is an "Arab world" issue, not an "African" one. Surprised by this assertion, I asked him to explain to me the reasons and basis for it. He replied that all Sudanese speak Arabic and are therefore, de facto, Arabs. According to him, this makes Sudan an Arab country. Knowing a large number of Sudanese from all over the country and having visited it, this explanation does not seem very convincing to me.
The West African sister, the Sudanese brother and the Chadian sister all clearly confused culture, religion and identity. This confusion is widespread and constitutes a major obstacle to socio-political and cultural instability, peace, integration and development in Africa. It also represents a threat to the social, cultural and political stability of African countries. The biggest and most recent manifestation of this threat is Sudan, which split in two in 2011, forming Sudan and South Sudan.
Southern Sudan is mainly made up of Christian communities of African origin, while Northern Sudan is home to mainly Muslim communities, also of African origin, but politically oriented towards the Arab world. So, it's important to note that culture, religion and identity are distinct and complex concepts that often overlap, but are not interchangeable.
An analysis of the “African-Arab” dichotomy and its impact on the nation-state and identity debate in Africa, with a particular focus on the case of Chad, reveals the complex issues surrounding the construction of national identity in a diverse context. Chad, a country situated at the crossroads of African and Arab influences, faces unique challenges in terms of defining its national identity and positioning itself within Africa and vis-à-vis the Arab world. This in-depth analysis explores the various factors that fuel this dichotomy, as well as its consequences for the identity debate in Chad and Africa as a whole.
General overview of Chad
Analysis of the interplay between African and Arab identity in the context of Chad reveals significant cultural and social complexity. The country lies at the crossroads of sub-Saharan and North Africa, and this is reflected in its ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity. Culturally, Chad is home to a multitude of ethnic groups with varied traditions and practices. These groups are divided between Arab, Sahelian and Sudanese influences, creating a unique cultural mosaic.
Interactions between these different cultural identities can be seen in the arts, music, dance, cuisine and social practices. In linguistic terms, the presence of over 60 languages spoken in Chad testifies to the country's linguistic diversity. Arabic is widely spoken, particularly in the northern regions. However, it should be noted that Chadian Arabic also has some local peculiarities that distinguish it from other Arabic variants.
Religion also plays an important role in the interaction between African and Arab identity in Chad. While the majority of the Chadian population is Muslim, there is also a Christian presence and followers of traditional religions. These different religious practices can coexist and mutually influence people's beliefs and practices.
In its political and historical context, Chad maintains relations with both the Arab world and other African countries. As a member of the African Union and the Arab League, the country seeks to maintain close ties with both these regional spheres, while preserving its African national identity.
However, when it comes to their identity, Chadians can be divided into two groups. First and foremost, Chad has two official languages: French and Arabic. On the one hand, there is a minority group of mainly Arabic speakers and/or members of Arabized ethnic groups, who support the idea of Chad as an "Arab country". On the other side, there's another, predominantly French-speaking group who support Chad's status as an "African country". It's important to note that these determinants are not absolute. This article aims to analyze and deconstruct or synthesize the myths surrounding Chadian identity.
An "Arab country" in Africa: a discourse that can't stand up to scrutiny
At first glance, it's remarkably easy to find people from Sudan, Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia or Chad referring to their respective countries as "Arab countries". Similarly, people from West Africa or South Africa can refer to the latter as all "Arabs". This phenomenon is widespread in Africa, and it's important to be aware of it. It should be stressed that our aim is not to pass judgment on any particular identity, but rather to highlight a problem of considerable scope, which concerns both the present and the future of the African continent and its inhabitants.
Of particular interest is the question of identity and cultural belonging in a region as diverse as North Africa, and in countries such as Chad and Sudan, where a variety of ethnic groups and cultures coexist. Despite this diversity, there is a tendency among many individuals to refer to their country as an "Arab country", due in part to the presence and in part to the predominant influence of the Arab language and culture in the region and in the aforementioned countries. It is crucial to recognize that this simplified designation may ignore or minimize the other identities and cultural heritages present in these parts of Africa. Amazigh, Tuareg, Nubian and other Sudanese, Nilo-Sahelian and Saharan ethnic groups who are not of Arab origin also have a significant, even majority presence in these parts. By highlighting this phenomenon, we aim to stimulate reflection on the importance of recognizing and valuing Africa's ethnic and cultural diversity, and the impact this can have on the unity and development of the continent as a whole.
It is essential to approach this issue with respect and understanding, taking care not to pass judgment on individual identities. Rather, it's about promoting awareness and constructive dialogue that will lead to a better understanding of the different cultural realities in Africa, and encourage mutual recognition and acceptance of the diversities that characterize the African continent. By doing so, we can hope to foster a more inclusive and harmonious future for all Africans.
Chad between African identity and Arab culture
The question of Chad's identity is a complex one, reflecting a synthesis between its African heritage and the Arab cultural influences present in the country. Chad is an African country where the majority of the population is of African origin and belongs to various ethnic groups. These ethnic groups have languages, traditions and cultures that are deeply rooted in African history and identity.
However, due to its geographical proximity to North African countries, Chad has also been influenced by Arab culture, particularly in the northern and eastern parts of the country. Islam, which is a widely practiced religion in Chad, has also brought elements of Arab culture, such as the Arabic language, religious customs and social traditions.
The synthesis of African identity and Arab culture can be seen in many aspects of life in Chad. For example, mixed marriages between people of African and Arab origin can be observed, testifying to peaceful coexistence and cultural integration. Moreover, the Arabic language is widely used in government institutions and education, while coexisting with local African languages.
It is important to note that this synthesis should not be perceived as an opposition or dichotomy between African identity and Arab culture. On the contrary, it demonstrates Chad's ability to integrate different cultural influences and create a unique and diverse identity. History has made Arab culture an important component of African identity and culture.
Being "Muslim" and/or speaking "Arabic" is not synonymous with "being Arab".
Islam is a widespread religion practiced mainly with the Arabic language. The Holy Koran was revealed in Arabic, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was an Arab, and the first stories were transcribed (Hadis) in Arabic. So, the Arabic language, while one of the cultural pillars of the Arab community, is clearly the source language of Islam. However, it's essential to note that there's a big difference between "being Muslim", "speaking Arabic" and "being Arab". These three aspects are often intertwined, but they have very specific boundaries.
In Africa, and particularly in Chad, it has been observed that religion - both Islam and Christianity - is often used for personal, cultural and political ends. Similarly, culture is used for religious, political and personal ends. In this context, it becomes crucial to highlight the distinction between "culture" and "religion" in order to better understand and analyze the socio-cultural and political dynamics at play.
Firstly, it is important to note that culture encompasses a wide range of practices, beliefs, values and behaviors that are shared by a group of people. It includes aspects such as language, traditions, customs, arts, music, cuisine, clothing and social behavior. Culture is deeply rooted in the identity of individuals and communities, and evolves over time in response to internal and external influences.
Secondly, religion is a specific dimension of culture that focuses on spiritual beliefs and practices. It involves a relationship with a higher power or force, often expressed through rituals, prayers, sacred texts and religious teachings. Islam and Christianity are two of the main religions practiced in Chad, each with its own doctrines, rituals and traditions.
However, these two spheres - culture and religion - are often intertwined and interact in complex ways in Chadian society. Cultural practices can be influenced by religion and vice versa. For example, traditional ceremonies may incorporate religious elements, while religious practices may be tinged with local customs. What's more, religion and culture can be exploited for personal, political or identity-related ends. Individuals or groups may instrumentalize religion or culture to achieve personal goals, consolidate political power, reinforce ethnic or community identity, or maintain existing social structures.
Let's take the example of the young Chadian poetess, trained in Arabic. We can guess that she assumes that "speaking Arabic means being Arab" and deduces that Chad is an Arab country. However, as explained above, the Arab community and Arabic-speaking culture are an integral part of Chadian society and culture, without constituting the majority. Strictly speaking, it is estimated that the Arab population represents between 5% and 7% of the Chadian population. Even based on the idea that "the presence of an Arab population makes a country an Arab country", classifying Chad as an "Arab country" is far from reality, especially as other communities in the country exceed this percentage. Moreover, this thesis, defended by pro-Arab and Arabic speakers, is far from standing up to scrutiny.
That's why it's essential to make a clear distinction between culture and religion when analyzing social, cultural and political dynamics. Understanding this distinction enables us to better grasp the underlying factors influencing individual and collective behavior, as well as issues relating to identity, power and governance.
In Chad, culture and religion play significant roles in society, influencing the day-to-day aspects of Chadian life. First and foremost, Chad is known for its religious pluralism. This country with its cosmopolitan social structure is characterized by great religious diversity. Islam and Christianity are the main religions practiced, but there are also other traditional and animist beliefs. This religious diversity contributes to the country's cultural richness.
Islam is the majority religion in Chad, with a large proportion of the population declaring themselves Muslim. Islam has a profound influence on Chadian culture, particularly in the areas of morals, values, social structure and customs. The practice of Islam is visible through daily prayers, fasting during Ramadan, pilgrimages to Mecca and other religious rituals. Christianity is also present in Chad, with different Christian denominations represented. Practicing Christians have their own churches, customs and traditions, which are interwoven with Chadian culture. Christian celebrations such as Christmas and Easter are observed by the Christian community.
Chadian culture is diverse and rich, with a variety of ethnic groups having their own traditions, languages, arts, music, dances, clothing and customs. Cultural practices, such as traditional weddings, coming-of-age ceremonies, ritual dances and festivals, are often marked by religious elements, whether Islamic or Christian.
Things to remember about Chadian identity
Having taken stock of the situation and clarified the relationships and differences between culture, religion and identity, it is possible to retain a few important points concerning the dichotomy under study.
Firstly, it is incorrect to consider Chad as an "Arab country". This country was the cradle of one of Africa's greatest civilizations, such as the Sao civilization and the Kanem-Bornou empire. We should also mention the Ouaddaï Empire, the Baguirmi Empire, the Léré city-states ruled by the Gong in the south, the Boulala city-states in the center, and the confederate city-states ruled by the Derdei in the north. All these structures are deeply rooted in black African culture. Today, they make up modern Chad. Consequently, to promote the idea of an "Arab" identity for Chad is to distort or deny the cosmopolitan nature of the Chadian-African social and cultural component. Moreover, it's important to stress that the Arab community and culture are part of the Chadian socio-cultural mosaic.
In geographical terms, however, modern Chad lies at the heart of Africa and shares no borders with the Arab world. The limits of the Arab region can be summed up as the Arabian Peninsula, located in south-west Asia, encompassing Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Bahrain. Historically, Palestine is geographically and civilizationally part of Africa. On this basis, there is no justification for considering Chad as a geographically Arab country.
Islam is the dominant religion in Chad. However, this does not mean that Chadians are Arabs or that Chad is an Arab country. Just as Islam does not turn an Indonesian, Turk or Persian into an Arab, nor Indonesia, Turkey or Iran into Arab countries, so Chadians do not become Arabs simply because they practice Islam, nor does Chad become an Arab country because some of its inhabitants are Muslims.
What's more, just as the fact that Burkinabè or Malian people speak French doesn't make them French or their countries French, the same goes for Chadians who speak Arabic, who don't become Arabs - with the exception of those of Arab origin - nor does Chad become an Arab country.
The interaction between African and Arab identity in Chad reveals a complex and enriching dynamic. The country's cultural, linguistic and religious diversity contributes to the formation of a unique national identity, which integrates African and Arab elements while preserving its specificity. This case study highlights the importance of understanding the complexity of multiple identities and cross-influences within a given context. Without making the "African-Arab" identity dichotomy in Africa an unambiguous taboo, it's important to have the stamina to tackle the subject with the utmost frankness. Africa has 55 countries that make up the African Union. These countries are home to African ethnic groups who have inhabited the continent since the dawn of time, as well as Arabs who immigrated to Africa in the Middle Ages. From this, we can conclude that there is no such thing as an "Arab country" in Africa, and that North Africa, Chad and Sudan are all African countries. Admittedly, the countries of North Africa are moderately populated by Arabs and are under strong Arab political and socio-cultural influences. However, they are African states in every respect. The same is true of Sudan, whose Arab population is less than 10%. Just like Chad, and far from being as glimpsed by the West African sister.
In conclusion, the "African-Arab" dichotomy encompasses historical, cultural, linguistic and political issues that shape self-perceptions and social dynamics in Chad. The interplay between different ethnic and cultural identities, as well as external influences, creates a complex landscape where the construction of the nation-state and the definition of national identity are often called into question. It is essential to recognize that the "African-Arab" dichotomy should not be seen as a binary division, but rather as a spectrum of diversity and identity complexity. Chad reflects a mosaic of cultures, languages and traditions that coexist and intermingle, contributing to the richness of its national identity. To overcome the challenges associated with this dichotomy, it is crucial to encourage inclusive dialogue, mutual respect and recognition of diversity as the foundations for building the nation-state. Public policies and initiatives must focus on promoting national unity, while valuing and preserving the different cultural identities present within Chadian society.
Ultimately, analysis of the "African-Arab" dichotomy in the debate on the nation-state and identity in Chad highlights the need for an inclusive approach that respects cultural diversity and identity. By embracing this diversity, Chad can forge a strong and harmonious national identity, while preserving the richness of its different cultural components and contributing to the building of a united and prosperous Africa.