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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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?
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.
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.