Wednesday,22 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1304, (21 - 27 July 2016)
Wednesday,22 August, 2018
Issue 1304, (21 - 27 July 2016)

Ahram Weekly

French debates on Islamism

A struggle over French identity lies at the heart of current debates on Islamist extremism in France, writes Tewfick Aclimandos in the third in a series of articles

Al-Ahram Weekly

As noted in my article in Al-Ahram Weekly two weeks ago, French writer Olivier Roy says that we are witnessing an Islamisation of radicalism, the latter being a product of Western societies. The explanation of fellow French writer Gilles Kepel is different – jihad has become globalised, and the dissemination of Salafism in France facilitates the “transition to jihad” of disaffected people. For fellow writer François Burgat, nothing can be understood if history is forgotten: the practices and foreign policies of Western societies have led to a general revolt of the Muslim Third World, he says. 

Both Kepel and Burgat focus on the Islamic and global dimensions of the phenomenon. Both would say the West is at war with international jihadism, while disagreeing on who is responsible for what. They would also concur on the need to have a global understanding of a global phenomenon, which requires a study of Islamic and Islamist trends. Kepel adds that there is a war within the Muslim community between different interpretations of the religion and various attitudes towards the new world we are facing. This war is global, he says, but France is one of the critical battlegrounds as both fundamentalists and modernists there have strong social bases.

He also says the extremists, who are at war against everybody, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, target France for various reasons. Burgat would agree on some points here, while reformulating them in a more positive way. The main difference is that Kepel tends to see in fundamentalism a serious illness and to side with the aufklaerers, or the enlightened, and he focuses on the “internal war” or “fitna” within Islam.

Burgat tends to say that the whole Muslim world has spent the previous century in a struggle against political, economic and cultural alienation and oppression and adds that the Islamists have been the fiercest defenders of the Muslim world and the only ones who have had a serious “cultural liberation agenda,” this leading to their popularity. Moreover, they have led the fight against oppressive regimes supported by the West, he says, adding that no new ideas will ever be popular in the Islamic world if they are not translated into a “common Muslim idiom.”

It is difficult to know whether Roy thinks all religions are violent or all are peaceful, but he basically says Islam should not be singled out and that extremism has European social roots that have nothing to do with any specific religion.

I tend to prefer Kepel’s thesis. I understand and appreciate Roy’s virtues, and they should be integrated into any global explanation. But he underestimates the importance of discourse. It is true that discourse is not the cause of radicalism and that it only justifies it. However, this is not wholly relevant. Moreover, the justification for a first wave of radicalism can become the cause of a second. I agree with Roy when he says that radicalism will outlive the Islamic State (IS) group, and of course Kepel and Burgat would concur. But I think Roy underestimates the appeal of the caliphate. Many would-be radicals would not see the point of violence as long as the caliphate did not exist. Its existence would change the equation.

Violence then would no longer be a tool of destruction, but would also be a tool of state-building, restoration and defence. I do not see the point of stressing the fact that terrorists do not read the Islamist ideologues Sayed Qutb or Maqdisi and do not really understand their religion or the theorists’ writings. How many communists would dare to say they understood the complexities of Marx? Obviously very few. The Cuban leader Fidel Castro has said that he has never read Capital. You do not need to be a scholar to understand the slogans, and the slogans, as prescriptions for a world view and for action, are more than enough. Slogans are in direct relation with the writings of the intellectuals.

We cannot understand the reception of these academic interpretations by the French elite and public opinion if we do not keep in mind the fierce cultural battle opposing the partisans of the traditional French republican model and the proponents of the “multiculturalism” school.

For at least a century, the French school system was a crucial tool of integration, and integration took place through assimilation. A national secular and non-religious culture was disseminated to all school pupils, regardless of their religious and ethnic origins. Every one of them would be moulded and every one of them had an equal chance to succeed. France had a problem with “difference” but not with “mingling.” Marriages between people of different origins were common. Everyone could master French culture while practising his or her own religion at home.

This model has been in crisis since 1980 as school is no longer the way to social promotion. Poor people have fewer opportunities to get out of poverty. The question is whether this system, if repaired, is still good for modern times and new demographic realities – Islam is now the second religion in France and the religion that is most practised in the country – or whether it should be replaced by a “multicultural model” that recognises diversity instead of trying to create a common French identity.

I can understand the points of view of both sides, but in practice the two conceptions are going wrong and are being badly implemented and defended. The defenders of the old model downplay its shortcomings, while the proponents of the new demonise traditional French culture and its way of doing things. At the heart of the polemic rests a struggle for French identity.


The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France in Paris and a visiting professor at Cairo University.

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