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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.

From historical roots to electioneering exploitation
François Burgat

The tensions and rifts between France and the Muslim world, whether domestic or regional, may be analysed as resulting from various historic dynamics. The most important of these rifts is an internal one. It is by far the most structural – and the most decisive. Above all, it is rooted in the contemporary, post-Revolutionary history of French society. This rift has, however, been made more explicit and amplified by recent political power struggles, particularly since 2018. Like many of their European counterparts, for several decades, French political forces had thrown themselves into defiant electioneering one-upmanship against their fellow citizens descended from Muslim backgrounds. Since 2018, this posture has no longer been the sole preserve of far-right political forces. It has become the position of a quasi-majority of the political landscape. Far more consequentially, it has become the policy of the government of President Emmanuel Macron. This chapter examines the historical roots of Islamophobia in the French context, as well as how the issue of Muslims and Islamophobia has become deeply politicised in France.

in The rise of global Islamophobia in the War on Terror
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
François Burgat

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
François Burgat

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
A French Obsession
François Burgat

To this day, the (very) French difficulty in reaching a rational relationship with Islamic Otherness is expressed through a tendency to refuse to communicate directly with the Other in corporal form. How much cosier it is to not have to look in the eye the hideous Arabic-speaking, Muslim, Arab male, guilty of every sin. So what if, along with his hijab-clad wife, they make up the demographic majority in the region? We more or less consciously prefer to deal with those who, in the immediate vicinity of those creatures, have the good taste to be (like us honest folk) in tension or in a competitive relationship with them. Since time immemorial, we have displayed a consistent tendency. We are willing to enter into this Other’s world only through the door of its “minorities,” whether these be ethnic, religious, generational, or, more recently, sexual. Anyone, that is, except the Other “in person”—that impertinent, formerly colonized subject. So it is that France has always indulged in a proven fondness for “Berbers,” “Copts,” and “Maronites,” a fondness who nature and consequences this chapter analyzes.

in Understanding Political Islam
François Burgat

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
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Modernization without Colonization
François Burgat

His period in Yemen enabled the author to step out of both the North African and the Middle Eastern versions of the colonial paradigm. Given how central this variable has been to the scholarly construction of political Islam, this was a fundamental change.The history of contemporary Yemen is defined by a certain dualism, from the outset of the competition between the Ottoman and British empires in 1839 to the country’s reunification in May 1990 that formally brought to an end the long and turbulent North/South division. This provided political scientists with a unique laboratory through which to examine the coexistence between how politics expressed itself in the “Afghanistan of the Gulf” in the North, that is, in a region cut off from any direct Western influence—and, in the South, the successor to the only country in the region ever explicitly to adopt the references of a USSR-imported Marxism, wide open to foreign influences.Yemen was also, and primarily, an entry point into the distinctive political problematic associated with the Gulf, including in the fields of sectarian divide or Al-Qaeda-type radicalization.

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