French Trends in Reading “Political Islam”

Montaser Hamada

A decade and a half after the publication of Lebanese thinker Radwan Al-Sayyid’s The Struggle over Islam, and on the margins of participating in a conference in Venice, Italy, in December 2017, in which Radwan Al-Sayed was one of the participants along with a group of Arab and European researchers to analyze the status of the activist Islamic phenomenon in the European continent in general, we were among those assigned by the conference administration to comment on one of the scholarly sessions of the conference. We indicated at the time that if Radwan Al-Sayed wrote the book The Struggle over Islam in 2014 to discuss the status of the Arab Region at that time, then the time has come to work on the features of the “struggle over European Islam” today. 

In this context, we review in this article what may be considered as “patterns of French researches” that specifically dealt with the activist Islamic phenomenon. We do not talk about dealing with the Islamic religious affair, because this field in france is open to Sufi actors, Salafists, and other types of religiousness, including the publications of the religious institutions afiliated with Arab and Middle Eastern countries in general, or the so-called “the Islam of Consulates”. Therefore, our discussion is concerned with the research interaction with the movement of activist Islam first and foremost.

The classification may be confined to the publications of the first generation (Olivier Roy, Gil Keppel, François Borga, Antoine Basbous, Alexandre Del Faro …) or the second generation (Vincent Gaiser, Samir Amgar, Thomas Guinoli, Muhammad Ali Al-‘Adrawi …) or the third generation (including in particular, French writers of Arab/Maghreb origin, including, but not limited to, Hawas Seneker, of an Algerian origin, and Mohamed Luizi of a Moroccan origin).

We decided to adopt a classification related to the nature of the methodological approach related to the project of activist Islam, ranging from the supporters of the project, in the name of research work, to those opposing it, or distancing themselves from it. That is, we are adopting a classification linked to the priority of loyalty: either for ideology or knowledge. To explain: 

  • There are researchers who totally oppose the project of activist Islam. This is evident in the contents of their publications. Among those researchers are: Jill Keppel, who is considered one of the most important French experts specializing in the issues of the Arab region and the file of Islamic movements, along with other names, most prominently: the works of Muhammad Sifawy, from a purely security perspective, in contrast to the prevailing feature in the works of Jill Keppel.

  • On the contrary, there are researchers who support the phenomenon and do not distance themselves from it. They may touch upon its troubles, but they often focus on criticizing decision-makers in the Arab region and the great powers, while keeping silent about criticizing Islamists. At the top of such researchers, comes Francois Borga. It is not a coincidence that this researcher is a permanent guest for the Islamists of the region, especially in Morocco and Tunisia (the last meeting in which Burga took part here in Morocco was organized by an institution affiliated with the “Movement for Unification and Reform” and the “Justice and Development Party”, and his last interview was published by a Moroccan newspaper close to the Islamists of the same circle).

  • As for the third trend, it is the trend that tries to reconcile the research works on the phenomenon while distancing itself from the phenomenon. This trend attempts to understand the phenomenon, without being concerned with supporting or openly criticizing it. At the top of those researchers comes “Olivier Roy” with reference works, some of which have been translated into Arabic. To refer to some of his most important works, we can mention: “The Failure of Political Islam” and “Globalized Islam” [Two translations were published in Arabic, one here in Morocco and another in Lebanon by Dar Al-Saqi], “The Holy Ignorance,” and other works. We can also mention the French historian and sociologist “Emmanuel Todd” who published a book immediately after the attacks of Charlie Hebdo, entitled: “Who is Charlie? Sociology of a Religious Crisis”.

  • The book highlights the stances of the political and intellectual elite towards religion in particular, especially Christianity and Islam in the French arena.

What concerns us most in this context is the presence of researchers, particularly from the Arab/Maghreb, in light of the large Maghrebi presence here (as opposed to the large Turkish presence in the German case, for example). Several names of young researchers appear here; at the top of them is “Samir Amgar”, who worked a lot on the Salafi and Brotherhood cases in France and Europe, and Muhammad Ali Al-Adrawi. In addition, there are Hawas Seneker, as well as Mohamed Luizi who rose remarkably in France with the publication of a book rich in data, facts and keys, “Why did I Leave the Muslim Brotherhood?” The content of the book somewhat intersects with some contents of Gilles Keppel’s book entitled “Genealogy of the Jihadist Situation in France”, and one of Michel Anfrey’s works, entitled “Thinking about Islam”.

If we compare the contents of this book in particular with most of what was piblished in the French arena, and even with most of what was published in the Moroccan arena, we would find that it is more like a testimony from inside, a documented testimony supported with data and facts. The book provides a service to researchers, the public and the elite alike, especially those who wish to read the phenomenon of activist Islam. Moreover, the book practically enriches some of the critiques that are often directed at the activist Islam project (Brotherhood, Salafi, “Jihadist”… etc.). In fact, we speak about sound and objective criticiques.

As a result of the great blend that the activist Islamists make between religion and religiousness, it is known that these critiques are often read on the basis that they are directed at religion, although the truth is otherwise. However, this is a reality that will not disappear, and it will remain so as long as this mixing will remain between religion and religiousness in most of activist Islamic projects. This gives an importance for some researches that try to make theoretical distinction between religion and religiousness, in defense of religion, and not in defense of a trend, group or party. 

As we say that, we take into account that the aforementioned book of Luizi is considered a bridge between the ideological approaches and the cognitive ones about the phenomenon of activist Islam. To clarify this, we mentione at least 3 points:

– First; The prevailing approach in the research context, not to mention the media one, when dealing with this phenomenon is generally distributed between either sanctification or demonization, as mentioned above, on the basis that the reference here is essentially an ideological not a scholarly one, even if otherwise is claimed. This means, even if the researcher or the writer claimed that the priority is for the scholarly approach as opposed to the ideological reference in dealing with the phenomenon, the conclusions often serve his ideological orientation. It is sufficient, for example, to read the articles and studies of Islamic writers and researchers in their dealings with the phenomenon, to the extent that the ideological horizon reaches the level of criticizing the other competing Islamic ideologies.

– Second; the the book is full of keys that help researchers who wish to give preference for the scholarly responsibility when critically dealing with the phenomenon, and not to the ideological affiliation.

– There is a third aspect that allows the book critic to classify Luizi’s book in the category of literature that tend more to critical scientific approach than the ideological approach. We have seen what happened with the author’s father, regarding benefitting from the public culture that helped him not to fall into pledging allegiance to this the sectarian religious project or anything else. This was the same that happened with the author of the book later as he studied the woks of many researchers who think outside the pattern of Islamic thought, that is, from outside the activist Islamic “System of Thought” if we borrow the connotations of the concept of “System of Thought” used by Michel Foucault, especially what he said in his famous book, Words and Things.

What helped the author to produce this qualitative work was his scholarly openness because he was freed from the religious-ideological framework to which he belonged, i.e. the framework of the activist Islamic mentality. The indications of the author’s epistemological openness are evident through reviewing the references of his book. Among these names we can mention: researcher Samir Amgar (who is specialized in the Wahhabi Salafi phenomenon), Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho, French researcher Pascal Boniface, Moroccan thinker Abdo Filali Ansari, the late French thinker René Girard who became famous through the translation of his book on “Violence and the Sacred”, the French novelist of Lebanese origin Amin Maalouf, the late Abd Al-Wahhab Al-Mu’addib, who came to draw from the Sufi authority in his latest works and positions, the Tunisian thinker Muhammad Al-Talibi, the preacher Jawdat Saeed, one of the symbols of the “non-violence” trend in the Islamic arena, in addition to a long list of names.

As a result, it becomes clear that the rise of the activist Islamic phenomenon in the French and European arenas generally contributed to deepening the differences in the research approach, not to mention the media coverage. Thus, the great challenge before the audience lies in reaching solid works that include qualitative keys to a clear reading of a phenomenon that clearly caused us several problems with ourselves and with the world. The least of these problems as long as we talk about the French and European arena, is feeding the phenomenon of Islamophobia, racism and the European right-wing movement. The last problem will not be the consequences of the speech of last October 2, issued by the French President, and his announcement of the official French engagement in addressing the dilemma of Islamist separatism.

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