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Rachid Benzine: "The danger of minds’ salafisation"

Monday, 18 May 2015

At a time when a growing number of French nationals join the lands of jihad, the Islamic scholar Rachid Benzine goes back to the social roots of the phenomenon. And the dangers of the current radical Salafism.

From a traditional Islam to an identity, rogue and "ideologized" Islam, Rachid Benzine, Islamic scholar and lecturer at the IEP of Aix-en-Provence and associate researcher at the Observatory of the religious, explains the present context, the reasons behind the departure for jihad of a large number of youngsters, and debunks the myths related to radical Salafism and French hypocrisies. By calling for a collective reflection.

The department of Yvelines is highly affected by departures for jihad, and half of those who leave come from the city of Trappes. You, who grew up there, what is your view on this?

Trappes is part of the cities of France where many families find themselves coming from the former French colonial empire. It is therefore not surprising that current rifts in the Muslim world are particularly echoed and extended in sometimes tragic ways. All this, of course, deeply saddens me.

It’s been 38 years that I've lived in Trappes. This is where I grew up, where I went to school, where I awoke to the meeting and respect for others. My family is very rooted in the Muslim faith and in Moroccan culture; I myself studied at a Koranic school. But traditional Islam carried by my family was never an Islam of isolationism and rupture with others. Quite the contrary! Our religious and cultural roots, which we were and remain proud of, helped us go without fear to the encounter of French society and made us want to participate in it.

Today, we are witnessing, unfortunately, the phenomena of "over-Islamisation", where an identity Islam, and sometimes political, more than spiritual, invades and builds itself at odds with the French society. This Islam saturates the entire space of Muslim sense.

When was this?

Since "the affair of scarves" of Creil in 1989, twenty-five years ago, there is a constant rise in power of this identity Islam. Until when? There is, obviously, a great failure of the Republic who didn’t manage to convince Muslims that they had their place within it, and that we must learn to harmoniously combine our differences.

On one side we have the realities of massive exclusion due to unemployment, on the other, the actions of international trends of re-Islamization of the world under ultra forms. And the need to assert a different identity from the French identity is expressed particularly in consumer behavior: It’s the Islam of halal food and ostentatious clothes. An Islam which is built, more or less consciously, in a parallel society.

The aspects on which we tend to focus ...

Aspects that are linked to a religious overinvestment at the expense of other aspects of human life. To the "living together" is increasingly preferred the "living between oneself" or "relocating" for those who can.

Because they feel unloved, rejected or stigmatized in French society, more and more Muslims seek refuge in behaviors that distinguish them and which are opposed to their non-Muslim environment. The great contemporary international currents of re-Islamization of the world, whether Wahhabi Salafists (Saudi Arabia) or the Muslim Brotherhood (Egypt), encourage, of course, these new ways of being, and they have the financial means to do so. But if this "salafisation of minds and this" frériste "drift manage to have much influence, it is primarily because something broke among Muslims of France.

The first generation of North African and black African migrants tried to live in peace with the other inhabitants of France. The second generation ", that of the" march for equality and against racism "of 1983, claimed a right to live in dignity which was based on the values ​​of the Republic. But now that a" third generation " comes to think: "We will never make us an honorable place in this society; it is useless to try to be liked; let’s live as we like while playing all the possible power relations. "This attitude feeds on primary readings, errant of the Koranic text, and a misuse of the prophetic tradition.

How do you define Salafism?

Salafism as a contemporary ideological movement is complex and constantly evolving. It is a movement which first wants a return to the sources, "Salaf" as pious elders of the ideal Muslim community of the first times around Muhammad, model prophet. But it is actually a fantasized representation of the past, which is a collective illusion, a sort of comforting myth. There has never been a perfect human group and the tribe of men in the first times had no reason to be. They simply were men of their time in their society, supporters or opponents of "ideology" and "politics" of Muhammad.

There have been, during the millennium and a half of the history of Islam, repeatedly attempts to imagine or to find a supposed past, purified of the turpitude of this difficult present and the fantasy of a return to an ideal time. This is the myth of the golden age, that of the past or the lost paradise that is found in many societies, especially in crises or major political upheaval. Societies cling to what they can to support an impossible or difficult present. However, the salafisms of the Arab and modern and contemporary Muslim world are many. There were those related to the first trauma of colonization. There are also other cases, like the tribal Wahhabism, born in the eighteenth century, which is an internal reform movement with a mythical descent from Ibn Hanbal who then passes by Ibn Taymiyya, before reaching Ibn 'Abd-al-Wahhab who became the ideologue of tribes of central Arabia.

What about the current radical salafisms?

They are still different. They are part of the terrible upheavals of recent history, in a widespread moving away from tradition in Muslim societies themselves and more outside of them, in the migrant Diasporas. We need to know which Salafism we’re talking about.

All, have in common, however, this fantasy of an ideal past that one has the illusion of being able to revive by collectively or individually behaving in this or that way. This leads to behaviors, almost fetishistic and more so with the latest audio-visual media outlets that offer a huge diffusion field and expansion to these fantasies. The fantasy creativity seems to have no limits.

These Salafist movements are mainly observed in contemporary Sunnism (in Saudi Arabia, in particular), in which anyone can be self-proclaimed preacher or religious scholar. All he needs is to be heard and for his word to be attractive while relying on a lot of tapes and videos. Shiism, which has an institutional religious hierarchy, is much more structured.

Current Salafists are not located in an optimistic and integrative perspective but in that of a rupture fed by multiple collective and individual frustrations. Their Salafism is an ideology of compensation, which appropriates, as so many remedies to discomfort, the comforting reassembled legendary models of the past, as I said above.

Which models, exactly?

Models that are of the Sunnah and Hadith (that is to say, the actions and words attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, which were documented two centuries after his death in 632), which dates back to the ninth and tenth centuries . These models are not historical truths but are already representations, a historic building, and a fantasy of Islam. Note also that it’s around this time that the split between Shiites (partisans of Ali, cousin and son in law of the Prophet) and Sunnites happened. Islam is already a matter of politics...

The Koran therefore was open to various interpretations ...

The different readings of the Koran that are made today especially within ideology. Wahhabi Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood are themselves overwhelmed by millenarian type or apocalyptic currents, which convey the idea that we have entered the era of "Final times" and that we must therefore prepare the final battle between the powers of darkness and the forces of light.

This is what the Islam of al-Qaeda, of Daech, or that of Boko Haram stands for, whose concepts attract a part of our youth. Within Islam, there are now many struggles, manipulated by various political forces, all of which compete on their claim to be just reading the Koran and its true understanding. Most of the time, this leads to fundamentalist bidding and especially to many misinterpretations.

Which ones?

When one reads the Koran well, we see that it does not try to kill people but, instead, to preserve life as the Qur'anic discourse takes place in a survival and solidarity economy, a trading economy. In some passages it even discovered that men called to fight refused to do so! Moreover, in the Koran, it is always God who punishes, and never a man who would take the initiative to punish himself, another man. When you look, for example, at how the issue of adultery is dealt with, there must first be provided a number of evidence; Then there is the saying of a severe punishment (one hundred lashes each), but afterwards It says that the man and woman involved should be married! However, in the hadith collections, so favored by Salafis and "jihadists", there is the punishment of stoning.

So you see a danger in what you call the "salafisation"?

I see danger in everything that tends to deny the complexity of the world and all that tends to separate the lives of people into "pure" and "impure" into "legal" and "illegal" into "true believers" and "misbelievers", while in our lives all that is inextricably mingled. I am afraid of any religion that is experienced in merger and not in reflection. I fear any religious attitude that asserts excluding.

In what is now called the "Salafi", that is to say, a desperate attempt to replicate and imagine the lifestyle of the early companions of the Prophet, yes, I see the danger because there are negation of the changing world and belief. What is experienced today as "Salafism" is almost a "ready to wear" timeless Islam, a kind of "kit" of survival for troubled times.

That is to say?

We say to our young people:. "It's a simple! Live in the way we tell you, apply the prophetic hadiths, and everything will be fine even if you do not make it today, tomorrow you will be saved!” This is a simple model to follow, which puts you under anesthesia and keeps you from thinking. It tells you: "To be a good Muslim and entitled to Paradise, do not shake hands with a woman, you should dress well; to bed that way; going to the bathroom by entering this foot first and not the other, etc ... "

Certainly this religious proposal is reassuring. It seems to give almost eternal marks in a period where everything is upset and changes at breakneck speed. That is why we are seeing the return of strict moral teachings of the Puritans speech. But part of our youth also needs to feel alive. It is asking for life sense, participation in a common destiny with others, or even to risk their life for others.

Thus some are seduced by the call to go "do jihad" in Syria or Iraq. Young people who meet these demands are often generous spirits who were revolted by situations of injustice which dominate the Middle East. When they arrive, most will not say, "I'm going to go kill people" but rather, "I'm going to rescue my brothers!". Let us not condemn "en bloc" these young people. Do not confuse all with Mohamed Merah, the Kouachi brothers or Amedy Coulibaly who themselves had deliberately chosen to kill and spread terror. You know, moreover, that a non-negligible share of young European converts, including adolescent girls, are among these candidates for jihad. Once arrived at the scene of the fighting, they are usually abandoned to their fate and realize they have been deceived.

If the Quran is this much manipulated, according to you, what clear message should be given to young people?

Contrary to what many preachers and Muslims ideologues want to suggest today, the Koran readings have always been plural in the history of Islam. The long tradition of religious studies in Islam has always given way to debate, and there has been in the past, periods of much greater openness than what we know today where fundamentalists seem to have imposed on all their "tempo".

It is necessary that young people know this, and for them to awaken to this pluralism of religious thought which alone can honor the freedom of man. With new generations often poorly trained in Islamic knowledge and Islam of spiritual freedom, we must work on the texts. We must teach the history of Islam, the conditions of its appearance, the human context that served as a receptacle for the Koran and that gave it ultimately some form. The responsibility of the Ministry of National Education and the Ministry of Culture are particularly challenged in this regard.

Do you think, moreover, that Muslim organizations should speak out more strongly on current issues?

Regarding official Muslim institutions in France, you know they are still fragile, unrepresentative, and often conflicting, for reasons related to national, multiple and conflicting allegiances. All in recent months have continued, however, to denounce frankly terrorist excesses. But one of the weaknesses of their position is that besides the fact that their audience and their credibility in the Muslim world are of little importance, these bodies remain propped on a still apologetic discourse of Islam.

Even after the violence in the Muslim world today is huge, we always hear the same mantra: "All this is not Islam!". However, even if it is not all Islam, it is nevertheless something that flourishes in Islam and therefore it is appropriate to question what in Islam allows such monstrosities. To prevent this cancer of religious violence to corrupt all Muslim societies, including Western societies, let’s reread the basic texts and question the interpretation made of them.

What is it?

In recent decades, the true Muslim institutions in the world have tended to favor pietistic and obscurantist readings, fueled in large-part by a desire to stand out from the West regarded as an enemy of faith and morals. This is largely because the critical relationship to religion is totally refused and encouraged by the authorities in the Muslim world.

What about the responsibility of Western countries?

Saying that, indeed, I do not exonerate the Western countries, which are more concerned with energy management of gas and oil than by human rights. One only  need to see how the French authorities, left and right, are courting Saudi and Qatari obscurantist regimes which nevertheless finance a large part of the most anti-Western Islam. We cannot condemn young people who go to Syria and Iraq, and be at the same time obliged to those who have supported Al Qaeda ideologically and militarily and Daech.

This interview was originally publihsed in french in L’ Express. All rights reserved.

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