Bernard Rougier Discusses Islamism in L’Express

February 1, 2021

On 21 January the French Centrist weekly, L’Express, published a long and trenchant interview with Bernard Rougier, the university professor and Middle East specialist, on the occasion of a new and expanded edition of his 2020 book, Les territoires conquis de l’islamisme (“The Territories Conquered by Islamism”).  The interview covers the major themes of the book – notably its claim that Islamists have created in France (and by extension elsewhere) a social space dominated by Islamist ideology which enables them to act as gatekeepers to sometimes widely separated Muslim communities. Rougier argues that they are to some extent facilitated in this endeavour by a State that increasingly seems to model its interaction with such communities on “an Ottoman or Lebanese model” of consociationalism. Rougier believes that this is fundamentally destructive of France’s republican and secular tradition. He also thinks that it enables Islamists to blur the important distinction between Islamism as an ideology and Islam as a faith system, a sociology and a civilisation.

Rougier discusses his academic work on Arab, Middle Eastern and Islamic topics and his long experience of living, working and researching within the Arab world.  He explains briefly the historical background to the emergence of the highly textual, intolerant and politically activist movement, and the mixture of various streams within that movement (notably Tablighi, Salafist and Muslim Brotherhood), which represents contemporary Islamism in France and (again by extension) Europe as a whole.

Rougier discusses the way in which Islamism has found allies on the far Left and within universities. He sees this as reflecting the destructive preoccupation of the Anglo-American academy with post-colonialism and essentialist identity issues and the tendency to imagine Muslims simply as exemplary victims. He powerfully rebuts accusations of Islamophobia, which he characterises as designed to shut down debate and silence dissent – not least the voices of those many Muslims who do in fact subscribe to republican, secular and rights-based values. He describes how this is reflected in politics at both a State and perhaps more importantly a local level in France, where the growth of an ideologically charged network of individuals, associations and institutions, all hiding in plain sight, has encouraged a system of political clientelism, where the clients in effect control their patrons. This, of course, is a central concern of his book, which maps in detail both the physical and the symbolic terrain in which Islamists operate.

Rougier also comments on the draft law on “separatism” currently in front of the French parliament and President Macron’s “Republican Charter”, to which he has invited Imams in France to subscribe. Rougier believes that such measures are important. But he adds that it is also necessary constantly to reaffirm and inculcate republican and secular values through public pedagogy and more detailed and sustained action at a local level, and by encouraging those Muslims who do not want to be dominated by Islamists to take their place in the public square.  He regrets that the French academy appears to find it difficult to support proper research in these areas. These, Rougier suggests, may or may not be important areas of enquiry. But they should be open to challenge and criticism, rather than neglect; above all, he notes, the suppression of debate is deeply damaging.

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