For an Islam of France

Malek Chebel


Here, at last, is a concise statement of a muslim integrationist’s frame of reference. Whether viable programme or utopian reverie, remains to be seen.

🔗 2016-09-02

Malek Chebel interviewed by Eugénie Bastié for Le Figaro

Translation: Edward Shilling/The Europeans

Malek Chebel:
The apolitical Islam of our grandparents is lost

INTERVIEW : The anthropologist who for thirty years has worked to foster in France an “Islam of the Enlightenment”, is worried about the propagation of an Islam that is aggressive and fundamentalist.

Malek Chebel is an anthropologist of Islam. His most recent work is, Desire and Beauty in Islam, CNRS éditions, 2016.

LE FIGARO : You’re fighting for an “Islam of the Enlightenment”. In your view, what would be the conditions for an Islam that was compatible with modernity? How should we proceed with a “reformation of French Islam”?

MALEK CHEBEL : That’s right, for thirty years I’ve been trying to encourage what I call “The Islam of the Enlightenment”, inspired by the Western Enlightenment, whose prerequisites are liberty of conscience, the emergence of the individual, reason, and strictly equal rights for men and women. Such an Islam of the Enlightenment would first of all be an Islam of peace as the principal guarantor of its success.

How to promote it?

We need to establish, exclusively for the benefit of France, a Grand Imam of France with the following attributes and/or prerogatives:

  • To be French
  • To speak French
  • To have followed a course of theological training (between diploma and masters, or higher if the need arose)
  • To respect the strictures of French secularism [Étre laïc]
  • Give no allegiance to any foreign religious authority
  • To be elected on a programme defended before the greatest number of French muslims, irrespective of sex, age or origin.

“We need to establish, exclusively for the benefit of France, a Grand Imam of France”.

An independent commission would be charged in the name of the Republic with giving its consultative or definitive opinion, in order that muslims might find the path of dialogue and appeasement between themselves, and with the other constituent parts of the nation.

I would like this country to have available to it an organization that was required to conduct matters comprehensively in the most virtuous manner possible. Notably, a sort of muslim “primary” in the five or six large regions (Île-de-France, Hauts-de-France, etc.). Then a congress, founded on common and consensual values: secularism [laïcité], ban on proselytism, etc. The first important actions of this organization will be the best signature of the earnestness of the new Islam.

Isn’t it the case that traditional Islam is close to losing the battle within Sunni orthodoxy, to the advantage of a literal reading of the Koran?

Yes, indeed, the apolitical Islam of our grandparents and of our parents has been overshadowed by the politicized Islam of the 1980s, then the 90s, then the 2000s. The generational change – how many young people who “pose a problem” are under thirty now? – was an upheaval, the consequences of which are still visible today. It’s a deep-seated earthquake, with huge fault lines running through the cities. For two decades, the fight was led by religious fundamentalists, not just those outside France but even within provincial associations. How many young teachers in the urban fringes have tried in vain to sound the alarm?

“The burqa and its avatar, the burkini, fall into the category of provocation”.

Any analysis of this phenomenon should set in motion the active forces of the intelligentsia, sociologists of course, but also historians, semiologists, psychologists, because we can no longer function by ministerial bolts-from-the-blue or endless adjustments to security provisions, all the more vain for being repeated without success. Remember Voltaire: every repetition that fails to enrich an idea, weakens it. My position is simple: never clear the way for any act of terror by announcing in advance that the profile of the jihadist has evolved. Because whether you like it or not, except in the case of obvious clinical disturbances, most descents into jihadist terror have a phantasmagorical or at least an unconscious basis in the lethal prescriptions of decision-makers hidden away in dusty valleys. To a lesser degree, the burqa and its avatar, the burkini, are a part of this, and fall into the category of provocation.

What do you say to those who consider Islam to be an intrinsically violent and dominating religion?

There are at least two types of Islam, the one violent, the other not. The first has been around for a very long time. It is idle to deny its expansionist dimension and therefore the violence. It begins with the so-called Arab crusade, which carried the sabre as far as Andalusia. And I am not amongst those who are in denial: the connections between this violent Islam, the Caliphate, and the leaders of Islamic State, have been publicly affirmed. Islamic State bases itself without any ambiguity on this violent Islam. Few normally constituted muslims truly love it: they execrate it without prevaricating, and despite the visceral fear that they harbour, say so emphatically to nation and Republic.

Islam today scares many French people. Do you understand this fear? How to defuse it?

This Islam scares all the French, individually and collectively, because as well as being fundamentally lethal, it is blind and strikes indiscriminately. On the other hand, muslims refuse to accept that their religion is exclusively violent, and the only one to be “infected” by violence. The pope’s self-criticism supports them in that. In the end, to allay the fear, we must pour it into the great national cauldron, make of it a work of national appropriation, the narrative of a tension to be managed together, hold forums, lead them without hiding behind misleading statistics on deradicalization programmes, which alas have not fulfilled their promises. There again, an Islamic central authority could, with the prestige of its position, call for an outright and absolute repudiation of violence in the name of Allah, this God who is “beautiful and who loves beauty” (I made this the title of my last work), to quote the Prophet!

“It is a matter of urgency that muslims participate more and more in the burning issues that confront France”.

Éric Zemmour writes that “moderate muslims are moderately muslim”. What do you think about that?

Zemmour is not entirely wrong, and might even be right on this point.  Let’s say that so-called moderate muslims take their religion as fixed, ancestral, exclusively a matter of ritual, and in fact incapable of responding to contemporary social preoccupations, and of discussing them at the national level. It is a matter of urgency that muslims participate more and more in the burning issues that confront France. These muslims are not just moderate, but timorous. I want to see them engage more than they do today. By default, “islamism” stamps itself on them in the absence of philosophical controversy. This lack of dynamism is depressing, because it leaves the door open for their religion to be corrupted, by lending it a dream-like quality. Left to itself, a certain type of Islam will continue to promote the sort of unbridled and erratic proselytizing that accompanies the redeployment of IS troops to Libya. We can also fear other pockets in the Sahel, from Mauritania to the Sudan: soldiers are already being recruited there.

Face to face [with recruiters] in our neighbourhoods, apprentices of the online death-business, with their evident justificatory failings, sow a toxic kind of Islam. I think however that with growing awareness, we are capable of advancing on the path to happiness, respect, and a life lived together [vivre-ensemble]. Theology is there to be used; it will cost less dearly than all of the expenditure on security. Preventative measures applied advisedly will avoid useless expense. Together with the other established religions, and with state secularism, a sense of self-respect will be of invaluable support…. From under the rubble of the attacks of these last months, the better face of Islam ought again to take its place in media discussions, at least in order to give hope to those who have none. Our choices are limited, but they do exist…..