The indiscriminate criminalization of the various strands of political Islam, including the most legalistic kind, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, both in the European forums, France included, and in those of its partners from the Middle East, constitutes one of the most harmful diplomatic, political and intellectual counter-performances of the West in general and of France in particular.
Today this criminalization is at the heart of the growing isolation of French diplomacy within public opinions of the Muslim world.
In today’s France under Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, as in several other European countries, the accusation of “proximity to the Muslim Brotherhood” can cause any associative structure to suffer from the “capital punishment” of dissolution through executive decree. The Collective against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) and the Coordination against Racism and Islamophobia (CRI) illustrate the reality of this Damocles sword: both associations were banned by executive decree on the basis of accusations as fragile as, for example, a few anti-Zionist “likes” on social media, which were described by the government as anti-Semitic attacks. “Islamism bashing” has created a new offense against the principles of the Republic: that of the illegal exercise of politics or, even more simply, of the elementary freedom of expression which France nevertheless constantly invokes as one of its supreme values.
Modelled on the constructed fear and hatred of Islam, a new wave of "Brotherism bashing" is currently surfing on Islamophobic political or intellectual activism, from Eric Zemmour to Marine Le Pen, Caroline Fourest or Damien Rieu. This obsession is fuelled by the old fantasy of “the Islamization of France.” From Hassan Chalghoumi to Mohamed Louizi, the enthusiastic supporter of Zemmour, via Mohamed Sifaoui, Zohra Bitan or Zineb Al Ghazaoui, this fixation is unsurprisingly echoed by a small circle of native informants presented as model Muslims (an alibi and cover up for racism), as mediatized as they are unrepresentative of the French Muslims who in their vast majority condemn their remarks.
This “Brotherhood bashing” has also always received the support of an academic fringe. From Gilles Kepel, the French heir to Bernard Lewis, to Bernard Rougier or Pierre-André Taguieff, the status of this little academic chapel is to be as over-mediatized as it is marginal in the academic arena and the scholarship on Islam.
In line with the concept of “Judeo-Bolshevism,” the accusation of “Islamo-leftism” is directed at any critic of Islamophobia who is not Muslim. By choosing to purely and simply ignore the request for an investigation into “Islamo-leftism” at the university formulated by its minister Frédérique Vidal, a request spectacularly denied since then by Vidal herself, France’s National Center of Scientific Research (CNRS), joined by the Conference of University Presidents, has however adopted a clear and courageous posture and openly asserted the purely ideological, activist, and a-scientific nature of the “Islamo-leftism” concept. Yet, despite this, the rhetoric of anti-Islamism has just erupted again under the pen of the anthropologist and research director at the CNRS Florence Bergeaud-Blackler in her book Le Frérisme et ses Réseaux. L'Enquête (Brotherism and its Networks. The Investigation), Odile Jacob 2023).
The book essentially consists of a long list of names of individuals and associations based in France, Belgium, or more broadly Europe, which the author considers to be, by means more diversified than strictly religious – such as charities, sports, and other associations, etc. – active agents of the “Islamization of Europe.” According to her, the goal of all those Islamic and “Islamo-leftist” actors is to replace Europe’s federal, republican, or monarchical institutions by a grand “Caliphate.”
In truth, the concept of “atmospheric Brotherhood” enunciated in his preface by Gilles Kepel, the intellectual sponsor of this book, in no way renews the notion of “atmospheric jihadism” that he had previously promoted with one of his disciples, Bernard Rougier. Nor does the book change the “Islamophobic atmosphere” which has taken hold at the head of the French state since October 2020, when President Macron embraced the theses of the extreme right, with whom he had decided to compete to ensure his re-election.
Bergeaud-Blackler's book nevertheless confirms a broadening of the criminalization of Muslims that began during the past decade. The initial target of the repression had been limited to candidates for terrorist action, members of so-called jihadist groups. But it quickly started to encompass all Salafists, however pietistic and quietist a majority of them may be. In complete contempt for the obvious differences between various actors, the targets then included formal membership and then simple proximity to the perfectly legalistic current of the Muslim Brotherhood. Even before the over-mediatization of the very relative conceptual contribution of Bergeaud-Blackler, the use of the evanescent notion of "atmosphere" on the scale of all of Europe had thus made it possible, by mobilizing the Anglo Saxon theory of the conveyor belt, to stigmatize the quasi entirety of the Muslim civic sphere, all persuasions combined.
Actors explicitly outside the Muslim Brotherhood, such as the Collective against Islamophobia in France (CCIF), were then sentenced to "citizen death" and duly executed by the ukases of the Minister of the Interior who, on the basis of an accusation of “separatism”, had dissolved several hundred associations. The relative novelty of FBB’s book perhaps comes from the fact that researchers explicitly hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood (such as Omero Mongiu or Haoues Seniguer) who had imprudently agreed to expose to the author their grievances vis-à-vis this current … were presented, inside or outside the book, as so many hidden agents participating in the dynamic of Islamization that she intends to denounce.
An analysis of the criminalization of all forms of Muslim citizen activism shows that FBB’s project is located at the crossroads of four reactive dynamics from different categories of actors.
In the West, the first engine of this obsessive anti-Islamism stems from the banal reactive fear in front of an exogenous lexicon in the service of a political affirmation that resonates with the decolonial dynamic. This lexicon (which is not a “grammar” as FBB thinks about colleagues she has obviously not read) is felt as a kind of death knell for a comfortable colonial and then imperial hegemony. Much more than the old competition between dogmas or even the one produced by exclusionary “French-style” secularism and its desire to expel this exogenous religion from the public space, it is more likely their status as former colonized subjects which today exacerbates the rejection of Muslims who speak out and assert themselves. Before being of a competing religion, the banal civic demands of Muslim believers appear above all like those of the ex-dominated of the colonial era. In any case, they provoke the most traditionally racist reactions (see Burgat and Chichah 2023). Let us note too that the most legitimate claims of the descendants of the colonized are, when they do not come from Islamic actors, as discredited as those of Muslims, not as “Islamists” (since those actors are not even Muslims) but as “identitarians” or “racialists.”
Closer to home, the second breeding ground for this reactive trend of which FBB is the latest symptom is nourished by the obsession of Israeli diplomacy with giving an exclusively ideological – and therefore apolitical – basis to the resistance that the violence of its occupation of Palestine very logically creates. “You have bin Laden, we have Yasser Arafat”, Ariel Sharon thought he could say in 2001, without even waiting for the electoral affirmation of the Islamic resistance movement (Hamas). The goal here is to make the world believe that the Palestinians are resisting not because they are occupied, but because they are “fréristes.”
The third component of this dynamic of criminalization of “political Islam” stems from the equally coordinated and effective efforts of the Arab autocrats. From Sisi to the Emiratis or Bashar al-Assad, the Cherifian monarch, the Algerian generals, and the Saudi monarch, they have all undertaken to ride the wave of European Islamophobia. An archetypal example of this synergy is the request expressed to Macron, in 2019 in Paris, by Egyptian President Abdelfatah al-Sisi and by Saudi Crown Prince MBS, through the person of Mohammad Abdelkarim Al-Issa, Secretary General of the World Islamic League, to combat not just terrorism or extremism but much more broadly “political Islam.” Or the thousands of dollars dumped on French authors who agreed to smear the Qatari ally of the “fréristes”, etc.
Fourth and finally, the “anti-Islamist” discourse of the Arab autocrats is supported by a fringe of Arab opponents on the left or by political agents other than Islamists. Except within a very small core of perfectly legitimate atheists, the hostility of the left against the Brotherhood dates from the latter's rivalry with Nasser in the mid-1950s. But it is in Algeria, in 1992, that it took on new impetus, with the violent “eradication” of the Islamist winners of the legislative elections by a military coup tacitly supported by France.
To this day, in Western and to a lesser extent Arab public opinions, the atrocities that marked the Algerian “Black Decade” have however been attributed solely to the Islamists. The dominant view has largely refused to take into account the reality of the direct and even sometimes exclusive involvement of the "Islamic" groups... of the army, in particular in the emblematic assassination of the monks of Timberline or in some of the most terrible massacres of civilians residing in the regions supportive… of the Islamist opposition.
This unilateralism of the media outlook very logically fuelled the rejection of the entire Islamist spectrum, perceived as a homogeneous bloc, without taking into consideration the considerable differences, programmatic and strategic, of the various oppositional Islamic trends. At the dawn of the Arab Spring, this dynamic of unilateral criminalization, powerfully relayed by authoritarian regimes weakened by the protests, found new ground. It was then that the Arab governments, their “left” or “liberal” opponents, and their traditional Western partners realized that the Tunisian or Egyptian Islamists were, all currents combined, majoritarian at the ballot box. In this context, the emergence of the violent fringe of transnational groups (including the Islamic State) and their provocative rhetoric has reinforced the credibility of the notion of a violence that is inherent to Islam itself, disregarding the infinitely more complex reality on the ground. Thus, the reading of that violence is both depoliticized and essentialized: cut off from its political and social dimensions.
The analysis of “Islamic violence” has since suffered from two structural weaknesses: it fails to recognize the decisive impact of the substitution of repressive institutions for those of political representation. And it thus reductively essentializes a “counter-violence” which is most often banally political and social. Thus, for example, in the case of Syria, the repression of Bashar El Assad, according to international observers, is completely out of proportion with the violence of Daesh. As Paulo Pinheiro, Chairman of the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, points out: "The Syrian government remains responsible for the majority of civilian casualties." But the Syrian government tries to hide its repression, while Daesh makes violent action a central axis of its communication.
From Boualem Sansal to Kamel Daoud via, alas, personalities such as the Egyptians Ala Aswani (who belatedly repented) or Samir Amin and many other "beacons" of left-wing Arab thought, the tenors of Arab anti-Islamism share the common denominator of opting, in their political competition against their Islamist rivals, for supporting the repression of their adversaries rather than a fair electoral competition, which they know is for them lost in advance. The influence of these eradicating oppositions, which are very much in the minority in the societies of the “South,” is however proportional to the over-mediatization that Western societies traditionally grant them.
Both in the USA and in Europe, Islamophobic rhetoric aims to compress the political and social matrix of Islamist violence by representing it as intrinsic to Islam. This rhetoric conveniently conceals the very dynamics from which it emerges.
Among the recurring themes of this rhetoric, the condition of the Muslim woman, a theme already mobilized during the French colonization of Algeria. However, when it comes to the complex relationship between the dynamics of “re-Islamization” and feminism, numerous researchers of all nationalities, from Faribah Adelkhah to Zahra Ali, Saba Mahmood or Nilüfer Göle, have demonstrated that Islamism and feminism are not mutually exclusive.
What then remains of the “investigation” of the book’s title? As early as 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood were indeed, as the author writes, the founders of the decolonial reaction. Was this a reprehensible political commitment? Without a shadow of a doubt, if we are to believe Baroness Catherine Ashton, head of diplomacy and former vice-president of the European Union, an active actor in 2013 of the European Union's support for the military removal of Egypt's first democratically elected president, who died after six years in detention. This was an “arbitrary assassination” according to the UN.
The victims of the intense repression of Abdelfattah al-Sisi, to whom the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour was granted in 2020 by the French state, have since been trying to make their voices heard by the European authorities. This is where, without too much difficulty, the CNRS investigator tracked their presence. Admittedly, the Muslim Brothers in exile are stepping up their efforts –unsuccessful to date, as evidenced by the irresponsible media coverage of the book that criminalizes them – to improve their image. Do they do it with as much effectiveness as the countless lobbies that gravitate around the EU, from truckers to defenders of the “Moroccanness” of Western Sahara or even the unconditional supporters of Israel? This remains to be demonstrated...
The methodology of this type of “keyboard research”, which produces results that are utterly out-of-touch and disconnected from the terrain, is also saturated with prejudices. There is no political contextualization. Little or no direct encounters from the investigated field, neither in Europe nor in the countries where political Islam originated, which for the author remains terra more or less incognita. Any scientific requirement of proximity to the field is reduced to a culpable empathy – “Burgat”, she writes, “claims to have looked Islamism ‘face-to-face’ whereas he actually did it ‘side-by-side.’” The book seeks to decipher “le frérisme” from a distance, both historical and spatial, without historicity or contradictory perspectives other than crudely caricatured. Contemplated from afar, the Brotherhood object is thus also viewed “sideways,” through the prism of the writings of its local or regional adversaries. The book thereby belongs far more to the register of socio-political repression than to scientific analysis.
“FBB has gone up a notch in distancing herself from the ethics of research by integrating into her conceptual baggage the normative prescription imposed by the researcher,” writes one of her closest colleagues, the sociologist of religions Omero Mongiu-Perria. “She no longer merely proposes to restore the reality of a field, but she defines beforehand what constitutes ‘acceptable Muslim normality’ in our societies and the Islamic-ness which would be antinomic to it and which she calls ‘brotherism.’ With much confusion and from a completely ideological position, she decrees that any visible sign of belonging to Islam and any attachment to the norms linked to religious practice or consumption means one belongs to the ‘Brotherhood matrix.’” This is a pity. Because the issue is a crucial one. For French society and for the entire “West.” For the future of their essential relations with their inseparable component and inescapable “Muslim” environment. And for their own honor.
[See the French version of this article here.]