Research centers dedicated to the study of the Arab world have long cultivated a kind of emotional block with respect to the key figures of political Islam. Often, whosoever wishes to speak on Islamists must invite their most bitter opponents (whether those in power, or from the left)—and … those opponents only. Countering these instincts, this chapter covers the author’s formative encounters with the key Tunisian figure Rached Ghannouchi, and its role in building the foundations of his approach to theorizing political Islam. It analyzes the reasons behind his divergence with the rejection of the all-but-undifferentiated rejection of Islamism, and their likely origin in the fact that the author’s first contacts in the field of political Islam were sociological and human—rather than merely reading based and theoretical.

in Understanding Political Islam

In Palestine two distinct problematics exist side by side, depending on whether one remains within the bounds of Israeli territory, within which an Islamist movement has also developed—or if one focuses on the Occupied Territories purportedly under the “control” of the Palestinian Authority. From an internal perspective, the key originality of the question of political Islam in Palestine is the unfinished quality of Palestinian para-statal structures, deprived to this day of the greater share of the prerogatives of a state. This explains the relatively late emergence of Hamas in 1987. How and why could one fight a “state” that did not really exist—and that was itself supposed to be part of the “resistance” to the nation’s shared enemy?

in Understanding Political Islam

At their core, the public relations of the “Arab Pinochets” towards their Western partners have rested on the deterrent power of the “fundamentalism” of their bogeyman dissidents. The idea was thus absolutely unacceptable to them that anyone might convince a Western public that some of these bogeymen might be declared innocent—or that their “crimes” might be reduced to the level of the counter-violence of an opposition forced into legitimate self-defense. This chapter thus examines one testing-ground for this struggle in which the author was closely involved, in particular as when called as an expert-witness for the highly politically contested asylum claims of Islamist figures in several countries.

in Understanding Political Islam
Failure of Islam, or: Failure of Politics?

This chapter continues the critical examination of the theses associated with Roy and Kepel that structure the French debate on the issue of Islamist radicalization. Kepel’s approach, like Roy’s, exacerbated an already-apparent contradiction. This consisted of minimizing the impact of ancient and ongoing North/South relations of domination on the behavior of the players concerned—if not ignoring it altogether. Fixated upon the form in which hostility to the Other is expressed, Kepel’s reading sidelines investigation into—or that takes into any sufficient account—the roots of the rising hostility towards the Western world across whole swaths of the Muslim world. To arrive at a nearly identical result, Roy, almost from thin air, created a jihadi who sprung from nowhere, asking us to believe that this figure was entirely disconnected from its original milieu (Muslims in France). The result was to make it impossible to think through any short-term or historical correlation with the injustices of all kinds endured in this milieu. Kepel, for his part, mentioned such suffering only in passing—all the better to gloss over it.

in Understanding Political Islam
Abstract only
Where Do We Go Now?

The weapon of mass destruction against terrorism might well have already been invented. One thing lies at the root of the repeated failure of our “war” against the terrorist: a blind refusal to put that weapon into practice. Granted, the weapon is especially expensive. The privileged of the world order of the 21st century, great and small, “Western” and “Muslim,” seem unwilling to pay its price. The weapon has a name which those who hold power in all its forms have little time for. That name is “sharing.”

in Understanding Political Islam

Egypt was an especially important milestone in the development of the author’s approach as a comparatist. From Cairo, then from Sudan, he was able to start seeing North Africa through a new lens: no longer from within it, nor from inside the distorting mirror of France. It was from the symbolic heart of Arabism that his perspective on the Arab world gradually became decentered, and then recomposed. It was from Egypt (together with Sudan, Jordan, and neighboring Palestine) that he laid out the core of his analytical framework of the “Islamist question.” It also, however, involved breaking with the historical, political, sociological, and religious configuration of North Africa. (There were, for instance, no Copts to be found in Algeria.) Reaching Egypt also meant exiting the French colonial paradigm, notwithstanding the many extant traces of the Napoleonic expedition.

in Understanding Political Islam
Abstract only
Writing the History of a Research Career

The introduction outlines the book’s aims and sets out its major arguments and the author’s methodological contributions to the study of Islamism. A coherent approach to political Islam requires dividing it into two aspects. First, the reasons why what the author terms a Muslim “vocabulary” (to distinguish it from the concept of a Muslim “grammar”) has become so popular. The author traces these back to post-colonial identity politics. Second, the conditions in which this Muslim vocabulary has been deployed to serve politics as diverse as those of, on the one hand, the Tunisian Islamist leader Rached Ghannouchi through, at the other extreme, the leader of the Islamic State (ISIS), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

in Understanding Political Islam

The author’s discovery of the Muslim “Other” first came through a phase of “intuitive” accumulation, through very extensive youthful travels that were quite without scholarly ambition or methodology. These took him from the “Holy Land” of Palestine and Israel, experienced in terms that were more Christian than they were Muslim; then around the entire arc of the Mediterranean; and finally, around the world.

in Understanding Political Islam

This chapter addresses how, gradually, the question of the relationship to the Muslim Other moved out from the lands of the South or the Orient, and landed at Europe’s doorstep. In this context, fitting inside one another like so many Russian dolls, (non-Muslim) French representations of Islam in France appear as tied above all to the identity-based problematic of how Otherness is constructed. It examines why, for an overwhelming majority of French people, “Islam in France” refers to the resounding intrusion into the national fabric of the very symbol of the Other’s culture. Things get “worse” when one grasps the measure of the fact that “the Other’s culture” is not just any culture—but a religious one at that; that this Other is not just any Other—but the previously colonized Other; and that the encounter with this particular Other occurs within a territorial framework (“at home”) that charges it with specific meaning.

in Understanding Political Islam

Even before the alchemy of the rise of political Islam took us from the era of the “fellagas” into the age of the “fundamentalists,” the ethnic and linguistic Othering of Arabness had been quite enough to create powerful reflexes of rejection towards it. Things took a distinct turn for the worse, however, once the Other, after he had “spoken Arab” to us, got it into his head to start wanting to “speak Muslim” too. However, to this day, a strand of the Arab political classes—the one that has easiest access to our media—has remained stuck in a stance of indiscriminate rejection of the Islamist generation, which this chapter examines in detail.

in Understanding Political Islam