Thursday,14 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1364, (12 - 18 October 2017)
Thursday,14 December, 2017
Issue 1364, (12 - 18 October 2017)

Ahram Weekly

A journey in Egyptian studies III

The bias towards Political Islam in Western academic circles is due to a variety of influences, writes Tewfick Aclimandos

I wrote a series of articles a few years ago in which I claimed that the strong bias favouring Political Islam in Western academic circles stemmed from a mixture of the writings of US-Palestinian academic Edward Said and those of Egyptian historian Tarek Al-Bishri.

The former claimed that the “West” had created local elites that it had educated and shared its own worldviews, making these elites scorn and despise their own people. The implication was clear: the top of society was Westernised, while the people were authentic and Muslim. The only cultural and political trend that remained an authentic one as a result was Political Islam.

Al-Bishri is an Egyptian judge and historian, a former leftist who had become an Islamist by the end of the 1970s. However, he was always keen to distance himself from Islamist political forces. Al-Bishri held that Egypt’s history over the previous two centuries had been a dialectic between imported thought and ways of doing things and authentic ones.

The first had succeeded in rooting itself and gaining legitimacy, as it had played a crucial role in modernisation and political and economic liberation. The second was all about ending cultural alienation and recovering authenticity. Al-Bishri also castigated himself for his earlier works, saying that he had misunderstood the importance of this cultural struggle.

It is easy to document Al-Bishri’s importance. The French writer François Burgat, by far the staunchest defender of Political Islam, devoted long pages to this author in his L’Islamisme en face (Face to Face with Political Islam). Gilles Kepel, a leading French expert on this topic, also paid close attention to Al-Bishri’s celebrated book Muslim and Copt in the National Community Framework.

This book, published in 1981, was censored for a while, and I remember Kepel and myself trying to find it. Kepel also entrusted me with the task of writing a review of the book for the prestigious Annales historical review in France. This was my first published text, and in retrospect it looks like schoolboy homework, but I think I was nevertheless able to point out one important problem in Al-Bishri’s thesis. The Islamists wanted to reinforce Islamic Sharia Law because it was God’s law, not because it was “culturally authentic”.

The prominent French scholars Alain Roussillon and Henry Laurens had a lot of nice things to say about Al-Bishri’s preface to the second edition of his book Egypt’s Political Movements, 1945/1953. Both considered this to be a groundbreaking and illuminating work.    

However, proving Said’s influence on this outstanding generation of scholars is more problematic. I have never been close to Burgat, but it is a safe bet to say that he liked Said’s work. Surprisingly, the late Alain Roussillon hated it. He considered Said’s book Orientalism to be a brilliant tactical move in the power play at work on American campuses and a way of delegitimising any non-Arab’s work.

By the way, my own former professor, the leading French political scientist Jean Leca, who is 20 years older than the people mentioned here, told me in 1982 that in France most scholars working on the Arab world had been born in the former French Maghreb and “had never felt the urge to learn Arabic”. He himself was a case in point. In the United States, he said, many were pro-Israel Jews. This may or may not have been true. I did not bother to check at the time, and in any case things have now radically changed in both countries.

I don’t think Said exerted any kind of influence on the work of Kepel and Laurens, but I might be wrong. I’m quite sure, however, that they owe a lot to the late Jesuit father Maurice Martin, an outstanding student of Egypt’s cities and countryside. Discussions with Martin were always enlightening, and his circle of friends and pupils included such future giants as the late Robert Mabro, the world’s greatest expert on oil issues.

Martin was a complex and subtle person, but his message was simple: you can never understand Egypt if you believe what the leftists, the secularists and the Christian urban bourgeoisie have to say. Don’t listen to them, he would say. They are the prisoners of their own ideologies and fears. Egypt is a Muslim country, and Muslim believers, whether open-minded or bigots, are the ones who matter. He also had a lot of admiration for former presidents Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Anwar Al-Sadat and Hosni Mubarak.

On this I have two different things to say. First of all, Martin consistently downplayed the importance and impact on Egypt of the Islamists in the 1970s and 1980s. He only changed his mind during the 1990s. This stance might have been a reaction to the analyses of others who thought Political Islam was necessarily Egypt’s future. Martin thought Egypt was too sophisticated for this kind of ideology, and therefore he tended to underestimate the threat.

Secondly, and this might seem strange today, Egyptian leftist, Nasserist, and liberal nationalism was intellectually in bad shape in the 1970s and 1980s. Islamist thinkers like Al-Bishri or Adel Hussein were much more stimulating, articulate, and important.

The main non-Islamist production of these years was Gamal Hamdan’s monumental work on “Egypt’s Personality”. Hamdan was a legendary recluse, living alone, never leaving his home, and writing to the last minute of his life. Some crazy stories circulated when he died, some saying he had been killed by the Israeli Mossad. I don’t think anybody in French academia apart from Alain Roussillon and myself bothered to read this long, exhaustive and exhausting book. Roussillon, who exerted tremendous influence, hated it.

He told me at the time that “this is a complete work. You cannot write anything after such a book. But unfortunately this is not a scientific book, but an ideological one with a kind of scientific veneer. It looks complex and sophisticated, but in fact its argument is quite simple, even stupid: only Egypt is Egypt, Egypt is unique, and Egypt is the best.” It should be added that the “personality” paradigm was also outmoded.

Another non-Islamist writer read by Roussillon and Kepel was the late sociologist Sayed Owais who wrote important books on popular religion and an outstanding autobiography. Both Roussillon and Kepel closely studied all these books. I never discussed Owais with them, but I think this author’s books delivered the same message as those of Martin: do not believe the secularists and the leftists.

The 1980s also saw campaigns that did a lot to discredit the non-Islamists in these scholars’ minds. Many Egyptian intellectuals organised campaigns against the Anglo-American scholar Bernard Lewis and Lucette Valensi, a French historian. Even the French scholars who disliked these two individuals were shocked by the nastiness of the campaigns against them.

The Suleiman Khater affair, in which an Egyptian soldier killed Israeli holidaymakers in Sinai in 1985, worsened things. My colleagues (and I) could not understand how a conscript who had killed Israeli women and children could be considered a hero.


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

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