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Understanding Political Islam

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Understanding Political Islam Fran~ois Burgat Translated by Thomas Hill

Mnm:lu~$tcr University Pn·ss

Copyright e Editions LA D£COUV ERTE. Pari~. France, 2016 has been The right of Fran~ms Burgat to be Identified as the author of this work A c t 1988. Patents and DC'sig115 ht, Copyrig the with asscrh'• Land" that I d' . of the holy cau th M .iscovered was thus one where, for the needs passive spectat;;: Inethe ~~; Others had been demoted to the status of the worst, they were as ii of cases, _they became part of the decor. In po sport to Chrtstianization. On March 21, 1964, I



flew in from Beirut to "Jerusalem Airport" at Qalandia that was to be shut down in 2001. (I have, since then, proudly told my Palestinian hosts that I used the airport at the time when their fathers were free to use it too-and to visit the Dome of the Rock as they pleased.) In the course of this first encounter, I understood little of that Orient. Little in it was Arab-and even less was Muslim. That Orient was primarily Christian, peopled by a few folkloric Jews in their "Orthodox" getup, countless nuns of all nationalities and orders, Jesuits and monks wandering in a decor strewn with churches, monasteries, convents, and basilicas far more than it was filled with mosques. On returning to France, rashly encouraged by my scoutmaster, I nonetheless inflicted my "explanations" of Palestine here and there on a few dozen resigned victims. These came built upon a peremptory argument: "I was there." Long before the age of social networks, I drove it home through the formidable means of literal "slideshows." Unlike printed photographs, these enabled the presenter to show off thei r ignorance (or to reveal their narcissism) to a captive audience ... Nonetheless, I did bring back in my luggage some early intellectual spoils from "Palestine"-mainly, an anxious feeling of dissonance. The understanding of the world that I had gathered from my family environment was based on Paris Match. My history and geography lessons had not added much to it. Concerning Israelis, I had mainly learned that they had "made the desert bloom"-and that this "desert" was a land in which, for centuries, the Arabs had contented themselves with meandering the dunes atop their dromedaries. This when they were not making the Americans extract from said dunes the oil that made some of them as scandalously rich as Emir Mohammed Ben Kalish Ezab, one of the heroes of Tintin in the Land ofBlack Gold (1950).5 In Jericho, while on a search for cold drinks, our bus had by chance dropped off its pilgrim passengers near a "Palestinian refugee camp." An adolescent approached me, not scared off by my blue blazer, elasticated Scottish short-tie, and my Ray Charles or Paul Anka sunglasses (I forget which). In just a few words, he threw me into a world of perplexity: "The Jews took my country!" I was no more ignorant than the next high schooler. I had never yet heard that aspect of local history spoken of. The West Bank was still part of Jordan. The streets of the Holy City were still so narrow, and so steep, that the enormous American limousines that had been converted into collective taxis could barely drive past one another. The neighboring hilltops were not yet crowned by the invasive settler housing projects that were planted there much later, amid the oppressive atmosphere of the settlement era. My second encounter with the Arab world was more intimate, but no less superficial. It took place between 1966 and 1973, in the name of a religion that I adopted for at least six or seven years: hitchhiking and "the




6 the kind of long-d·1st d . Kerouac style or very nearly. This was ed up, ideally on the b anc, ~oa~ey in which the number of miles clock Id · I cam e to re .ack of i fi d I JOU a112e than any earne. e tnp. more worth . was truek, °n1y ied hurr of n essio proc this 51 to much later that I owed far moreII o•iapsh Th . . e aneous memones. is phase Of ( W (/'t)ffl G ~ ~~ Wtn l M' cllt-nipe 1•lhJ h \ l'


d ,rnd.Jt ~~ ►.;

lls.c~ ..~ Utpzum u peuple de gauche, La systematic refusal e eftiSt Trotskyist bias is · lslarnism. Sonia H tobacknowledge the plurali tiprovtded byGilbertAchcar's the Arab Uprisin ~r run (reviewing Achcar•/ and evolving dimension of retraces the step;° f :ford _University Press p IOoz,d Symptoms: Relapse in the one hand US O e Synan disaster H ' a to, 20l6) writes·•Achcar .. • policy· d · e ascribes t · · This mterpretati f ' an on the other all o it a twofold cause. On lacking in com ;: _ramework, that threa~ t~out 'lslarnist fundamentalism ' to parties and p XJty. It fails to take int oughout th e book is distinctly. th movements t o account th f ' e_ revolutionary proc eaturing some reference e act that subscribing vanous, and featured . ess-and that these parti to Islam was also part of S1Stently repeats and dmternal divisions, some~ anthd movements have been argues·· "In a recent artiemonstrates.• Along the g at. Fran ~o•s . Burgat contual Sadri l(h· . cIe (Nawaat same lines, Da H of" Ii . 1ar1 observed th , org, 9 January 2017) th yan erzbrun re gtous conservatis· • at Ennahda's popular b e Tunisian intellecrecognizes oneself in i'tm . or m arupulation. · Rather ase was d no mere question - l t wa s one expression of-an th wh ether or not one e revolution. The real





. n beautiful and ugly at once-but not of the counter-revolution.' It is • always easy to a d mit these facts. and to draw their co~uences.•' revolutlO vte"er, not h n Herzbrun, "Grandeur et decadence des revolutions arabes." En atten0 Nadeau, February 5, 2017, www.en-attendant-nadeau.fr /2017/02/05/


lutions-arabes-achcar/ (last accessed June 15, 2019). ~"c:Ias Dot-Pouillard, "Les gauches arabes orphelines de revolutions." Moyen8 '. nt no 29, January-March 2016, https://halshs.archives-ouvertes.fr/

rte , · (last accessed June 15, 2019). 0halshs-01272224/document J st this once, it was on the front page of Le Monde that I had the privilege of 9 c~nveying my analysis of the FIS victory in the local elections of June 12, 1990. ("5ous te voile de l'islamisme algerien." Le Monde, June 18. 1990). I wrote: "On the cheap-since these local elections do not instantly call into question the institutional balance of one of our key Mediterranean partners-, the electric shock of June 12 may prompt us to lift the veil from a political movement which our perception of has not yet overcome the stage of repulsion for. But we are now going to have to learn to live with it." 10 · what the Arab World Expects from the European Union: The Disappointed Hope of an Alternative to the United States?" Direction generale pour Jes politiques externes de l'Union, Direction B, Departement thematique, October 2006, https://journals.openedition.org/anneemaghreb/409 Oast accessed June 15, 2019). The report was commissioned by the European Parliament's Committee on Foreign Affairs, presided over by Stefan Krauss. Part of it read: "Can one earn the trust of a people while being considered the indulgent ally of its two main 'enemies' (Israel and the Arab autocrats)?( ... ] How can the EU earn the trUSt of the peoples of Libya, Algeria, Tunisia etc, when it rolls out the red carpets for those countries' leaders-when everything should lead it to condemn them for systematically flouting the most basic right and liberties?" 11 Jean Lacouture (1921-2015) was among the authors and foreign correspondents (for Combat, France Soir, Le Montie ... ) who, in line with the Communists' commitment, expressed the French left's empathy for emancipatory political dynamics in the Midclle East and East Asia, by echoing the aspirations of the "secular nationalist" generation of independence.



Saving the Other's "O A French Ob . thers": session

T~ this day, the (very) French . with Islamic Othernes . difficulty in reachin . '.11unicate directly wit: ;~;xg;~ss~ through a ten~:n:ational relationshi is to not have to I k . er m corporeal i y to refuse to p Arab male, guilty o~oev~n t~e eye the hideous ;;;: How much cos~;~they make up the de ry sin: So what if, alon _b1c-~peaking, Musli t consciously prefer to~ogtp~1c majority in theg /;'th ~1s hijab-clad Wi~· th~se creatures, have th:a with those who, in th/;~n. w_e more or le~ or ~n a competitive relatio~~~d tasthe to be (like us hon:;~~tke) ~cinity of mce time immemor· I ip wit them. o m tension are willing to . ia • we have dis I "minorities," ;~;ethr into this Other's w~r~~ed al consistent tendency W rec ti er these b on Y throu h h · e en Y, sexual A e ethnic reli · g t e door of · tinent, former!; c:ro:~e, ~hat is, except ~he generational, or, mo',~ ma proven fondness ;ze • subject! So it is that wmferson"-thatimper~nearth agnostics in or _Berbers," "Copts," a : ave always indulged Sufi mystics" i sufficient number w nd Maronites." Failin t the 19th centu;,o;:::ng fong the wa~ t:a;~t a;o rest great hope! i~ pear ead of resistance to e1~ r?therhoods were, in co omal aggression


Middle Eastern Ch . . Rel" . nstians• "U " . igious minoriti • s Amidst th " " inclination h b es have not featured e Other ? as een n among k ena le us to und ever to let them my ey research the M Ourb . . erstand th d overwhelm h mes. y fabri~ri:'~eged interest in t; ynamics affecting the t e _pe~spectives that is ac wit whom we share o~e among the Other' ~aJ_or1ty population. •a li~eally very ordinary. Th:n ideological, linguisti; rehg1~u~ and political is less t part of ourselves • Thy are those who, amids; ;: relig10us solidarity They co:~~!dingly stee~ th.';[ t1:ovide a path into the constitute practices W us m the soundn path that leads to th er s world that . e also like French ess and the universality ; Other directly. speakers drown d . our beliefs and e w1thm the American


. masses. We like them all the more when they are a i; giish-spe_aldnS whole that is perceived as being potentially hostile to r11i11oritY wit~_1° ~ree Quebec!" General de Gaulle felt the need to exclaim 11 therfl· "L00 S iv~e scenario applies, in the same way, to Middle Eastern ifl 196 · a small step from there to _striving to mtervene in th~ status 7 chnsttans minorities within the poht1cal fabric m which they hve. All held by th ese·nce we are convinced that we are helpmg them by doing so. SI the r11ore so and the French in particular, have always ta k en t h at p 1unge i;uropeans, •pefending minorities" in the Muslim world has, then, been with guS.t0al· pretext for interventions whose goa1s were not necessan·1y · been granted a historic h·cal or humanist. from 1920 to 1946, France, haVJng so~ Iodate over Syria, was in a position of colonial hegemony there. It its e;ore intervened decisively "on behalf of Christians," by creating a r , h L b I d . ·t t b t d " ·d· state the tailor-made ,or t em: e anon. n omg so, 1 se a ou 1VJ mg up the subjects of the former Ottoman province on a religiou_s basis (Alawi, pruze, Christian, etc.). France, world heavyweight champwn of secularism, was doing abroad the opposite of what it preached at home. It may seem as if those days are gone-but are they really? With respect to French attitudes towards Christian minorities in the Middle East, the problem is as much the principle (when such action comes from the state) as (when it comes from the private sphere) it is the method, and its meaning. for instance, the selective interest with respect to visas granted to Christian Iraqis that France's president and his foreign minister expressed, put into practice and made political capital from in 2015, mangles every principle of equality of treatment that the republican framework commands in dealings with citizens of a foreign country.' European NGOs set up in support of the Christians of the Middle East reflect a very commonplace and perfectly legitimate solidarity between co-religionists. Rather less strictly humanist variables are also, however, at play. Such NGOs are often exploited, if not set up from scratch, to serve a political agenda that favors delegitimizing the Syrian opposition. Many Syrian political activists who happen to be Christian (including the very media-friendly Mother Marie-Agnes de la Croix) exert their energies principally to portray the Assad regime as the "protector of minorities." Yet a closer look has long shown that Bashar al-Assad, like his father Hafez, has done rather less protecting of these minorities than he has exploited them to protect himself. Loudly asserting a specific solidarity with Christian Syrians has thereby become a means to divert attention from the very ••. "secular" and universal framework of the Syrian crisis, which is very far from boiling down to the purported danger that lslamists represent for Christians. "Long live the Christians of the Middle East!" thus begins to sound like a cry of defiance towards the most legitimate, oppositional

~i ;:




TtlE oTtlER'S " oTtl ERS": " FRENCtl O BSESS IO N


hopes of the Muslim majority It RET.-\ TJON .. serves .tion has failed to provide s u ffi c1ent e ·d to imply th at th it must be understood in th. VI ence of its "s e Syrian "French-style secularism• N1s case that what is de ecularisrn.• GoPPo,;. · amely· to b mand d l'ant to t h e radical strands of Isla . e absolutely im e . of Syr; 'riJlceton, N} , 20!:~oristes sont des pieds nickeles, les.:::tico, December 2. Olivier Roy, Ces . ne insulte acette dem1ere, ristes-sont -



2 que la


:~:i;~:.;;~~cryptage/24729 I! ':i:~~~:.-~:;~:ncai:"-.est2015,. : keles-les-mettre-sur-le-meme p essed June 15, 2019). P1eds des-p1eds-01c tte-demiere-olivier-roy (last_ ace . reated in June 1908 by une-insulte-a-ce t the characters of a collllt stnp c various authors. Its Nickel~s" refers doeprised to this day (more disc~tly~.'7i "nickels" (perfectly Louis Forton an r want above all else, to keep r e on the margins of lightweight heroes . them through work. They us iv clean), i.e. to not dirty as ·comsociety-and at its expense. b titute for · radicalization· such terms uld likely usefully su s . 3 One co r "re' ection." . - ks Musuimans (Fayard, Pans, mitment" o J 0 . la Franu diaboliu • that to his lll!nd, 4 In Jslamopsych~S£.{ :i~;~;;rprets the "reductio ad ~lamegl:. th,' quantitative 2017), Thomas u n ' roach when Kepe n . al (radicharacterizes Gilles ~epel ~1:':::m to distinguish a thorour dimension that shoul enauite distinct mass phenomeno~ t%ov~ment inexocal) phenomenon from \~ ralist. Salafi wing of the hood. Salafis had 5 The assertiveness of~; ; . blanket ostracism of the Bro :;n of the W estem rably came to respon o 's "lax" strategy of reappropna Freres musulrnan>always denounced the la~:n~ois Burgat, ·satafistes contreue June 2010, www. political apparatus. (See ti uite" Le Moniu diploma/ii/ 'essed June 15, Un changement dans la con On/06/BURGAT 119235 (last ace . 1 tique.fr 120 I . monde-dip oma ieW foreword by Jean-LOWS 2019).) ifthelostOrientAnlnterV ' NewYorl