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This book retraces the human and intellectual development that has led the author to one very firm conviction: that the tensions that afflict the Western world’s relationship with the Muslim world are at their root political, far more than they are ideological. It aims to limit itself to a precise scholarly arena: recounting, as meticulously as possible, the most striking interactions between a personal life history and professional and research trajectories. This path has consistently centered on how the rise of political Islam has been expressed: first in the Arab world, then in its interactions with French and Western societies, and finally in its interactions with other European and Western societies. It brings up-to-date theses formulated in the 2000s, in particular in the author’s previous book Islamism in the Shadow of al-Qaeda (2005, 2nd ed. 2010, English ed. 2010), by measuring them up against the lessons of the powerful revolutionary dynamics set off by the “Arab Spring” of 2011, followed by the counter-revolutionary ones.

François Burgat

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
François Burgat

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
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Approaching the Other
François Burgat

The history of Algeria provides here a kind of archetype of all that has been encompassed by the relationship between “Islam and the West” in terms of “extremism.” In the Algeria of the 1970s, the author’s political consciousness became shaped relatively late, not in response to the disparity in wealth distribution—but when, within the field of colonial history, he discovered the scale of the distortion between the arguments and tropes of his “inherited culture” and the ones that developed from his own initial scholarly readings in history.

in Understanding Political Islam
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Writing the History of a Research Career
François Burgat

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
François Burgat

The four-decade-long Libyan regime set up by Muammar Gaddafi, beyond its founding myth of the “Jamahiriyyan power of the masses,” represented the archetype of the Nasserist nationalist authoritarian, anti-Islamist type of rhetoric and governance. In Libya, the reactive nature of the self-assertion of political Islam could not, however, rely upon the counter-example of a more or less brutal “deculturation” brought about by proactive secularization—such as the process led by Tunisia’s “Supreme Combatant,” President Habib Bourguiba.

in Understanding Political Islam
François Burgat

Over the course of a scholarly career, the nature and the quality of interaction with those who share the same field of research is a thorny and important question. The question of which of the representations of the Muslim “Other” is to dominate the public sphere is altogether more important than the individualized ego-quarrels which the hastier (and often the laziest) commentators of academic debates wrap it up in. This chapter synthesizes the author’s critical examination of two main rival theses, associated with the French scholars Olivier Roy and Gilles Kepel, which have structured the French debate on the issue of political Islam.

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

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
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Where Do We Go Now?
François Burgat

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
François Burgat

Syria was the latest of the comparative investments of the author. This chapter covers both Syria before the “storm” that began in 2011, and the main stages of the aborted Syrian Spring. It addresses how, in the midst of the Syrian uprising, legalist Islamists winning at the polls in Tunisia and Egypt came to deeply transform—and not for the better—the Western imaginary concerning the Arab Spring that this same West had so briefly idealized. Further, it considers the asymmetrical internationalization of the crisis; the trap into which the West allowed itself to fall, of focusing on “ISIS and only ISIS”; and how the Syrian crisis fueled the process of religion- and sectarian-based communitarianization.

in Understanding Political Islam