Thursday,25 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1371, (30 November - 6 December 2017)
Thursday,25 April, 2019
Issue 1371, (30 November - 6 December 2017)

Ahram Weekly

We, the West and Political Islam

The reaction of the Western media to last week’s attack in Sinai has revealed a depressingly familiar pattern of misunderstanding, condescension and half-baked political radicalism, writes Tewfick Aclimandos

Once again I have a lot to complain about.

After the hideous massacre in Sinai last week, I received a lot of telephone calls from the Western media. Some of the journalists were competent and asked good questions. Others were aggressive and said some stupid things. All, however, asked the following question: is this massacre to be explained by the repression of the regime? 

The question of whether this terrible crime proves that a repressive approach is not successful and is failing is a legitimate one.  But to say that this approach was the direct cause of this crime is preposterous. One journalist went even further: it seemed to me that she was expressing a kind of schadenfreude, seeing in this crime proof that the regime in Cairo was a total failure. It had been relying on the security organisations and had nevertheless been unable to bring security, she said. 

Even former president Mohamed Morsi, one Western journalist said, had had a better record. I replied that Morsi had made a deal with the radicals and had paid a heavy price for placating them. If you believe we should negotiate with the terrorists, please say so, I said. 

Even journalists from the better Western newspapers were unconvincing. “The regime should focus on winning hearts and minds and on the economic development of North Sinai” was a common theme. Of course this is right, but many journalists seem to believe that the regime is not aware of it. Even the Americans do not know exactly how to proceed in Afghanistan, and they have much more money to spend than is available in Egypt.

Moreover, the Cairo authorities had done their homework and were able to submit a detailed and accurate version of what happened. This was also the case in the earlier Wahat incident. So the usual Western media argument that the regime says stupid things and then complains that it is not believed is inappropriate, at least for the events that have taken place over the last 40 days. Perhaps the accurate accounts came too late, many days after the events when the Western media had already switched its attention to other subjects. Probably the regime should adopt a strategy that opts for quicker reactions, even if these are not wholly accurate. Probably its version of events does not address all the relevant strategic and political issues. But overall it was satisfactory.

The regime wants to be liked, and the Western media does not like it. Both have points to make. There are a lot of practices and policies that could and should be criticised and even condemned. But the regime has also realised this, and not all Egypt’s problems are due to its practices. It inherited a terrible situation, a society with many ills, a sick economy, a state apparatus that was not really functioning, a significant number of awful practices and many agencies that had fallen into bad habits. 

Failing to mention these things diminishes the credibility of the Western media’s criticisms. The systematic lecturing it falls into after every terrorist attack in Egypt becomes unbearable. We are in mourning, our sorrow is immense, and we have to hear amateurs from abroad saying that the attacks are due to errors made by the state and not evil acts carried out by terrorists. 

Three things should be done: we should change some of our ways, improve our communication skills, and carefully study our target, the Western media and intellectual community. I do not claim that this will be easy or that it will necessarily be enough. In the latter area, for example, we face a major challenge in the growing power of ideological groups in the Western media and universities.

Consider France, for example. One smart insider, one of the finest minds I have ever met, told me on Saturday that “the radical left has won the battle in the universities, and it is now winning it in the media in France. It has made a lot of young recruits. However, the radical left’s credibility in general is in decline in most Western societies, and its predominance in the media and the universities only aggravates the divorce between these institutions and the rest of society.”

The radical left is over-represented in all Western media and university circles, including those dealing with the Arab world or with the study of Muslim communities in Western societies – two very different subjects. It has several sub-groups, including those that support third world causes, Trotskyists, socialist revolutionaries, Maoists, anarchists and various “multiculturalists” and “post-colonialist” activists. 

Many of these are pro-radical Islam or pro-Muslim Brothers, and they have opened the doors of Western institutions to radical activists. Their rationale varies from group to group: some do care about the proletariat, and since the proletariat is Muslim they consider Islam to be a revolutionary force that they can use for their own ends. Others see Islam as the religion of those who are oppressed in Western societies. 

Some claim that the European states are racist and that they endorse racist policies, handling their Muslim communities as if they were dealing with natives in the former Western colonies. Others say that the European societies should accept the fact that they are now multicultural and should open their arms to Islam, while at the same time claiming that the Islamists are the best advocates of the Muslim religion. Some think Political Islam is the most popular force in the Muslim world and the only one that genuinely represents the poor. They see it as “authentic” and as being devoted to “liberation” from “cultural alienation.” 

The previous generation of European leftists played an important role in cultural relations between the Arab world and the West. They were often staunch advocates of Arab and third world causes, and some of them still are. They also played a major role in translation from Arabic to Western languages and the other way around. I do not have the exact figures, but my impression is that radical left-wing European writers, including many prominent ones, write most of the books that are translated into Arabic in Egypt. In short, our debt to them is immense.

However, their role has had some unintended effects. We cannot understand Western societies if we only read books by left-wing authors. We should also pay attention to other schools, other approaches and other authors. The opposite is also true: those providing Western societies with analysis of our societies (and others) often come from radical left-wing backgrounds. They often produce excellent works, but they have sided over the last three decades with Political Islam.

Over these three decades, as a result of the growing presence of Muslim communities in Europe and in the wake of the 11 September attacks in the US, Islam is no longer just an issue to be discussed by specialists. It is now discussed by all. The French debates in this regard have been particularly poisonous, and they will be the subject of my next article.

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

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