Understanding Political Islam
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Understanding Political Islam

François Burgat

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eBook - ePub

Understanding Political Islam

François Burgat

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Understanding Political Islam retraces the human and intellectual development that led François Burgat to a very firm conviction: that the roots of the tensions that afflict the Western world's relationship with the Muslim world are political rather than ideological. In his compelling account of the interactions between personal life-history and professional research trajectories, Burgat examines how the rise of political Islam has been expressed: first in the Arab world, then in its interactions with European and Western societies. An essential continuation of his work on Islamism, Burgat's unique field research and 'political trespassing' marks an overdue challenge to the academic mainstream.

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Part I

Discovering the Muslim “Other”


Intuitive Accumulation

You think that it’s you making a journey—but very soon, it’s the journey that makes you—or unmakes you.
Nicolas Bouvier, L’Usage du monde1
When I call on my memory, it tells me that I became absorbed in the Arab world one layer at a time. In various ways, these strata wound up occupying whole swaths of my life—and not only my professional life. Towards the end of the 19th century, around 1875, a branch of my father’s family, which swiftly became a distant one, had emigrated from their native Savoie to Algeria. Over a century, the links between us had stretched to airy thinness—such that they have today vanished entirely. But as a child I regularly heard speak of these “Algerian cousins.” They had left poor—likely after the economic catastrophe of losing part of their cattle that accidentally fell into a ravine on the road back from an alpine pasture. Family tradition recounts that two of them then took the road for Marseilles, and emigrated to “North Africa.” Two or three generations later, at least some of their descendants had made it in Algeria. By the turn of the 1950s, one of them had become a senator and mayor of Souk-Ahras, the ancient “Lions’ Market.” Another was an Algiers municipal architect.
My family’s mentions of these distant cousins were half-envious, half-reproving. Some of them had repatriated their earnings as early as the end of the 1950s and lived in the heart of France, in a small manor lodged amidst a vast cereal-growing estate. After all: Had they not “made the burnous-wearers2 sweat”? The phrase was reported by my mother, who had heard it used by the “Algerian cousins” during a rare visit. She did not, in passing, necessarily betray true shock at it. It spoke of “the Arabs, for whom we built so many roads and schools, and who now reveal themselves to be so ingrate.” The extended family went on to produce several of the countless shades that make up the palette of the French–Algerian relationship. There were cousins who had been “called to serve under the flag” during the Algerian War of Independence, and who took part in its worst episodes of violence, actively and without qualms. Other, women cousins filled the ranks of the first columns of “development” workers to replace France’s retreating soldiers: part-adventurers, part-idealists, part “pieds rouges,”3 part-leftist Christians. As if, on this dispossessed land, the latter were tasked with redeeming the behavior of their own brothers—or of their ancestors. It was this pied-rouge network that was to become my own, one autumn morning of 1973.
That autumn morning, I walked away from the “Sarrasin” tower erected in my native Savoie, not far from the “Maurienne” (“Moorish”) Valley. These were the products of a mixed history of which, at the time, I had almost no grasp at all, plunged as my adolescence had been in the discovery of the wider world.
At Home with the Other
My first encounter with the Arab world was not in Algeria, the country that later came to be central to my scholarly work. It occurred much further to the East, in the Orient of the “Holy Land” that was held out as being my own. In March 1964, for my sixteenth birthday, an aunt of mine—my baptism godmother—had proposed that I accompany her, via Beirut, to Jerusalem, in a mysterious—and so a magical—”Pilgrimage to the Holy Land.” This land that we were to discover was not the Orient where the Other lived. Instead, it was to be the land of my Christian roots. The Orient that I first set off to encounter was therefore a curiously “dis-Oriented” one.
For a very long while, I remained unknowing of the fact that history had long since weaved a fine thread between my childhood hometown, Albertville (which was until 1835 known as L’Hôpital, “The Hospital”) and the distant Orient. The small plateau sheltered from the flooding of the River Arly and that had, in the 12th century, at the foot of the village of Conflans, acquired its first church, had long been named “Jerusalem.” As early as the 12th century, pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land via Rome had been cared for by the knights of Saint John of Jerusalem. The order had built a “maladrerie” or “maladière” (hospice) for them: one of the institutions designed to ease the passage of travelers through one of those routes (“maupas” or “malvies”) crossing the especially difficult barrier of the Alps. “Thus did L’Hôpital-sous-Conflans come into being, which is first mentioned in the charters in 1216.”4
The “Holy Land” that I discovered was thus one where, for the needs of the holy cause, the Muslim Others had been demoted to the status of passive spectator. In the best of cases, they became part of the décor. In the worst, they were a spoilsport to Christianization. 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 décor 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 their 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 of Black 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 road,” Kerouac style or very nearly.6 This was the kind of long-distance journey in which the number of miles clocked up, ideally on the back of a truck, was worth more than any learned field trip. I came to realize only much later that I owed far more to this procession of hurried snapshots than a mere patchwork of miscellaneous memories. This phase of (very) intuitive accumulation was far from objective. It was, though, very intensive and, unbeknownst to me, beyond instructive.
During the Easter holidays before my baccalaureate, my parents paid for a language-study trip in Germany, the aim being to aid my final revision. The trip was nearly cancelled when my host family pulled out. The fallback solution suggested at the last minute was called Jugendherberge: a youth hostel. There, spellbound, I discovered a world of travelers whose strikingly varied itineraries were to become my own. “Where are you coming from? From Rome … I’m going up to Stockholm … I’m coming from Amsterdam, headed for Istanbul. You?” It became impossible not to throw myself into the same adventure.
Little could I have predicted how much this minor decision was to leave enduring marks on my future interpretations of the world. One morning of April 1966, a first, ludicrously easy hitchhike propelled me from Mannheim to the border with Denmark. It was then that I pledged to taste such pleasures again. Three months later, I made a trial run to Scandinavia’s North Cape. Amid the fog of the Norwegian town of Honningsvag, the mythical goal of Europe’s backpackers, I came to the firm conviction that the world was terribly small once one really decided to roam it.
My second great voyage came very soon after, at the end of July 1966—and this time, it involved leaving Europe. My baccalaureate under my belt, my backpack crowned by a duvet bedecked with the six, tricolor letters of the word “France,” I reached the shores of the Arab Mediterranean, via Sicily, then Tunis. My goal was more ambitious yet. I was bound for Baghdad, a magical name that everything I was ignorant of as a fresh graduate converged upon—and so, therefore, did my every desire. Thus it was, during this (“petit”) tour of the Mediterranean, that I came to be acquainted with the world that was to become my own.
“How Will You Be Able to Speak of the Orient, Once You Have Been There?”7
My first “discoveries” were modest. When an 18-year-old stepped out of the France of the “Trente Glorieuses” to live a little of Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan, the “Arab” in the “Arab world” was less of a discovery than was (to me) the unusual market economy of what was then called the “third world.” Some political rudiments did work their way through to me, for instance in Libya under the old king Idris Senussi (1889–1983). Libyans were to wait another three years for Gaddafi’s “Great Revolution of September 1.” Stunned, I observed the calm perversity of the king’s customs officers as, one by one, they pierced wretched cans of tinned food. Palestinian and Egyptian migrant workers, white with rage under the sun and in the face of this insult, had brought these from their homeland. “Chak!” the tip of the blade sounded, as it pierced the lid of each tin of peaches in syrup. “Cruik!” the blade itself concluded, as, in the blink of an eye, it punched a triangular hole into the metal, destroying the can. The customs officer then sarcastically dipped an inquisitive finger through the hole before returning the can to its owner.
Inevitably, at the heart of any discovery of the Orient lies discovering the legendary geography of the desert. The traveler who follows Libya’s Mediterranean coasts merely grazes that world. My real encounter with this mythical symbol of the Orient’s geographical Otherness came only in Yemen’s Hadhramaut, the legendary desert valley in the country’s east. Far more so than in Algeria between Touggourt and Biskra, it was there that, between 1997 and 2003, at the wheel or in the back seat of indefatigable Land Cruisers, I came to fulfil my childhood dreams of dunes, sand, and starry nights.
In 1996, however, the real surprise to me came from the peculiarities of local shops. I could buy just a single “Vache qui rit” cheese, or just two cigarettes. A juice carton past its sell-by-date exploded as I tried to open it, on the banks of the Nile, at the foot of the old Egyptian ferry that then served as a youth hostel. Here was the truly new! Here was the breach with the Old World! How was I to imagine that, a quarter of a century later, in 1991, flying an antique motor glider, I would often overfly this same majestic corniche of the Nile in order to get my taleb tayyar (student pilot) diploma, by landing my handsome white-and-red bird, engines off and airbrakes purring, in the heart of the densely populated Embaba neighborhood—a stone’s throw from Cairo’s famed camel market? (All this without prompting too much protest—or too many corrections—from my instructor.) Or that, one dark day, this instructor would take a student even clumsier than me up into the clouds, and that adventure would end in tragedy …
For the time being, the exoticism of that foundational summer of 1966 lay elsewhere. It inhered, for instance, in the young woman who, at a time of day when no sane creature would brave the heat, surreptitiously came to place a plate of cold fruit in front of the hitchhikers baking under the sun, without leaving them time or means to thank her. Or the ghostly customer who vanished after having paid for the foreign travelers’ sandwiches. These were tales that handily filled the ancestors of text messages and other cyberchats: those nearly forgotten things called “postcards.”
For the hitchhiker coming from Cairo, discovering Lebanon and Syria above all meant encountering the constraints and aberrations of the region’s geopolitics—in the most brutal way, and so in rather traumatizing fashion. Lebanon was within touching distance. But getting there was out of the question by road: the “Israeli obstacle” made this impossible. From then on, a feeling hung over my every visit to the region: the Middle East, already so tiny, was extremely constrained by Israel—or by the conflict sparked by Israel’s presence. The “near abroad” is radically near—as I was reminded when, many years later, as I drove “home” to Amman from Damascus, my car radio tuned to the Syrian state-owned station suddenly picked up an Israeli song, from across the waters of Lake Tiberias … Near the Dead Sea, “Welcome to Israel!” adverts from Israeli cell phone companies flashed up on our phones. In the Quneitra area, facing the Golan Heights that Israel has occupied since 1973 and unilaterally annexed in 1981, the inhabitants exchange surreal greetings by waving their arms from either side of an iron curtain that splits their land in two and separates their families. At such moments, the absurdity of the political situation in the region emerged in full.
Very rarely, a border with Israel opens. For instance: the border with Egypt in 1981, after the Camp David Accords of September 1978. Just one morning on a bus, as short and fascinating as the road that crosses the Sinai desert, became all it took to get from Cairo to Jerusalem. I experienced this startling geopolitical shortcut several times. This was also the case each time I would cross one of the bridges that link the two banks of the Jordan River, and the two worlds that, from each side, eye each other with especially palpable tension: at the legendary ex-Allenby Bridge, or at its northern counterpart, Sheikh Hussein Bridge. Crossing the bridge sometimes allows one to take the pulse of the political moment. I once waited there f...

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