Friday,22 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1353, (20 - 26 July 2017)
Friday,22 February, 2019
Issue 1353, (20 - 26 July 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Western expertise on Political Islam

French writing on Political Islam has its roots in the 1960s, taking off over subsequent decades with the emergence of new generations of researchers, writes Tewfick Aclimandos


Western academic traditions greatly vary, but it can be said that studies on Political Islam are to some extent related to the “critique of orientalism” that started in the 1960s. However, they also owe a lot to the decline of Western Marxism and of the political development paradigm that says that being modern is defined by some universal set of criteria and there are not many ways to satisfy this, and by a strong anti-imperialist tradition.

Some Arab intellectuals also switched sides from leftist secularism to Political Islam and started to consider the latter to be an important kind of anti-imperialism in its own right. Their Western counterparts soon took notice as a result.

I cannot claim to be able to conduct a systematic enquiry here, and this article is intended as a kind of thinking aloud, since I have a better knowledge of French academia and of Egyptian history than I do of Western thinking on Political Islam. So caution is required.

 But let us consider the case of French academia. The critique of orientalism was born during the 1960s, a decade before the Palestinian-American academic Edward Said’s seminal work Orientalism was published in the US. The father of this critique was a Marxist Egyptian, the late Anwar Abdel-Malek. Reading his books played a crucial role in my own academic formation, but despite this I later forgot his works and was only reminded of them by French academic Thomas Brisson’s work.

Abdel-Malek had three targets. He was fed up with “essentialism” — the focus on studying the great Islamic tradition that tended to explain events and historical developments by invoking a Muslim worldview that could not be understood without its own proper study. Instead, he said that social structures mattered, that the state, an authoritarian moderniser, mattered, and that class struggle mattered. The last 200 years had seen a clean break with the past, Abdel-Malek felt, and knowledge of the Islamic tradition could not help us much in understanding the contemporary Arab world.

Second, Abdel-Malek believed in national specificities, and he thought that each country in the Islamic world had had its own trajectory. He implied that nationals had a better understanding of their own country than outsiders. Third, for Abdel-Malek political ideas mattered and the study of the 19th and 20th-century Arab renaissance was crucial. The social sciences mattered much more than philology and mediaeval studies, he thought, and by the social sciences he meant intelligent Marxism, not political development theories.

Abdel-Malek’s call for the introduction of the social sciences into the study of the Arab world bore fruit. But strangely enough the academic who understood during the 1970s that a major development, the rise of Political Islam, was taking place and should be studied was basically a specialist in the Islamic tradition. The French academic Olivier Carré was already known for his work on the school textbooks published in Egypt during the Nasser period, having noticed a strong and pervasive Islamic component in them. Arab Socialism needed Islamic legitimacy, it seemed, and though Gamal Abdel-Nasser himself may have been a secularist, his Education Ministry’s curriculum was Islamic.

During the last years of the 1970s, Carré witnessed the rise of Political Islam, understood before everybody else that this was a movement that was going to last, and sent his brightest student to study it in the person of Gilles Kepel.

At the same time, the late Rémy Leveau, a French academic who had strong links with the French elite, tried to create a generation of French social scientists who would study the Arab world using the tools of the social sciences. It was high time to follow Abdel-Malek’s advice, he thought, without the adhesion to Marxist dogma. Leveau gathered a team of young people in Cairo that included Kepel, Henry Laurens, Robert Ilbert, Ghislaine Alleaume, Christian Décobert, Pierre Thénard, Luc Barbulesco and many others. The first five are now towering figures in French academia, but only Kepel is a political scientist.

Kepel’s PhD thesis was a breakthrough. It might now look outdated, as we now know much more about the developments he wrote about then, but at the time it was a pioneering work that attracted world attention. Kepel correctly identified the Egyptian writer Sayed Qotb as a key thinker of Political Islam who had also become a “martyr” for his followers to emulate. Kepel’s study of Qotb’s “Milestones” caught the essence of his thought, and though his critics spent a lot of time accusing Kepel of believing what Qotb and his colleagues had had to say about the Egyptian state, this is irrelevant to his work.

Kepel correctly identified the diversity of the Political Islam movement, studied its multiple strategies, which were often smart answers to social needs, and its presence on university campuses. He also tried to collect data on the social origins of the activists involved. The Egyptian social scientist Saadeddin Ibrahim published an important paper on this before Kepel, but the latter had a kind of advantage as he was able to benefit from the knowledge of his colleagues and of the late Jesuit Maurice Martin of the poorer areas of Cairo and Upper Egypt, as well as from Décobert’s knowledge of Islamic tradition. He was also a good reader and a subtle commentator.

Kepel later returned to Paris where he oversaw the training of hundreds of Middle East specialists, but let us skip this for now.

Another intellectual turning point occurred slightly later, and the importance and influence of this cannot be overestimated. It came when the Egyptian thinker Tarek Al-Bishri published the second edition of his book The Political Movement in Egypt with an introduction that inspired the majority of French academics I know. This was a major revisionist text in which Al-Bishri said he had been “unfair” to the Muslim Brotherhood because he had felt no empathy for its main preoccupation — the defence of authenticity and the need for “cultural independence” from the West.

In his book, Al-Bishri revisited contemporary Egyptian history, seeing in it a dialectic between the need for imported knowledge and ways of doing things and the defence of tradition, cultural authenticity and heritage. The classes and movements that had mastered the “imported culture” and modern tools of thought had led the struggle for political and economic independence and thus had achieved legitimacy, Al-Bishri said. Imported modernity had strong Egyptian roots, but no independence could be complete as long as there was not cultural independence and an end to the alienation of a foreign culture. The country’s elites had failed to understand this, he argued, unlike the “right-wing” Muslim Brotherhood and the Misr Al-Fatat, a fascist movement of the 1930s and 40s.

Al-Bishri’s argument was much more sophisticated than this, however. He acknowledged, for instance, that the Islamists were wrong when they did not accept the notion of citizenship, and he did a lot to prove that this concept was not contrary to Islam. However, his readers reached the following conclusion: that the Islamists were not necessarily a reactionary movement, but one that stood on the right side of history.

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

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