Renowned French-Egyptian journalist Alain Gresh, the former editor of the prestigious Le Monde Diplomatique, spoke in Cairo on Tuesday at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) on “Islam and its Haters in Europe,” arguing against the idea of the existence of a unified Islam or unified Muslims in the West, taking a different approach to the subject.
Islam has been a hot topic in Europe and the West since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, and has been posed as “the new enemy” by the far right and its propaganda, especially after 9/11 and the rise of radical Islamist movements from Al-Qaeda to ISIS.
With the rise of Islamist movements and the migration of more Muslims to Europe, more Westerners have tried to understand Islam by rushing to get a copy of the Quran with the idea that it would give an answer to all questions about Muslims and the Muslim world.
This idea puts all Muslims in one category of “a religiously committed group” and what this entails in generalised judgments.
Gresh chooses to approach Islam from a non-religious standpoint, taking into consideration the great differences between Muslims, questioning the identity of “a Muslim,” which he says is a vague, unifying term that is used to refer to all Muslims regardless of their relation to religion, a term that has come to replace the word “Arab.”
“As an atheist, I did not have a relation with religion as an ideology until 12 years ago, but even then I didn't look at it from a religious perspective, I rather looked at the way Islam is being used politically to play a role in Arab and Western countries, and the debate sparked over it,” he explained.
For Gresh, the problem is a social and political one before it is religious, as terrorism stems from political deadlock and social unrest and unemployment. This has led Gresh to denounce the term “terrorism” as an empty word that does not help us get to grips with what we are facing.
“Look at the guy who drove a truck into the crowds in Nice, he did not have anything to do with Islam until a few days before he decided to kill 80 people. And you have a third of those who go to fight for the Islamic State, they were not even Muslims until they joined it.”
“This idea that the Quran will answer all of your questions about Muslims is wrong. Muslims are not a unified unit. Look at differences between Catholics even though there is a head of the Church, the Pope, something that Islam does not have.”
“The bible cannot give you an understanding of the Catholics on the far right or those on the far left, and neither can the Quran [do this for Muslims]. This is why I do not look at Islam from a religious point of view, but the political use of it,” Gresh explained to the crowd that came to attend his lecture at EIPR.
The prestigious editor, who specialises in the Middle East, argued that the idea that terrorism and a refusal by Muslims in the West to adopt Western values has created hatred towards Islam is not accurate, as it “started in the Middle Ages and came back in the 1990s when there was no Islamic terrorism in Europe.”
Gresh believes there is a relation between the end of the Cold War and the “war against Islam,” and referred to Samuel Huntington's proposition that he presented in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union that the next clash will be between civilisations, where the West will confront Islamic civilisation, as Muslims were against the Western project and domination in the region.
The dominant discourse
"Communist, socialist and even right-wing currents were defeated in the Arab world, and the dream of national liberation ended up with military dictatorships supported by the left,” says Gresh.
“Thus, the only opposition was represented by the Islamic discourse, but Islam is not a political programme, and the Islamic discourse and speeches cannot tell us anything about what is happening in reality and does not designate or control the acts of its followers.”
“For instance, Muslim organisations had many different views on the invasion of Iraq, and you cannot look at Hamas and just see their affiliation to the Muslim Brotherhood. These groups have to be looked at as political organisations, and that goes for all religions, but, with Islam it is more pervasive because of the political deadlock.”
“Islamic discourse is the easiest and the most effective speech in politics for this reason.”
The author of ‘The Middle East: War Without End?’also referred to a change in Islam itself; Wahabism, which has been funded by Saudi Arabia and has tainted Islamic discourse since the 1970s. The result is the dominance of a very conservative version of Islam.
Muslims in the West
Gresh argues that the word “Muslim” has taken on a new meaning in the West as it has come to replace the word “Arab.”
“Sixty years ago we used the word Arab, and now Muslim has come to replace it regardless of relation to religion. The idea that Muslims are unified in the West is nonsense, there are huge differences between them and they come from all places, from Bangladesh to the Middle East... in addition to those who were born in Europe and do not know any other country. They are a minority, a non-unified one, I should assert.”
Just as there are differences between Muslims, secularism also comes in different forms, Gresh says.
“The relation between the state and religion differs from one country to another. In Britain, the queen is the head of the Church. Germany pays the clerics taxes, while in France that would be unfathomable given France's history and its struggle against the church.”
He also criticised those who liken Islam to the Church in France, saying “the Church was loyal to the king and against the republic, and still the state did not conquer the church. I would say that there was a compromise in the 1905 law. The church cannot get involved in politics, but citizens can belong to the church and [do so overtly].”
Gresh also looks at the political use of secularism, saying that the problem is not secularism in itself, but rather that some political factions have used the system against Muslims. He points to France’s hijab ban in 2004, which intensifies the campaign against Muslim women more than men.
“You cannot always look at a man and know he is Muslim, but you can definitely look at a woman in hijab and know she is Muslim.”
The reasons that drive youth to the Islamic State militant group, Gresh says, is that they “give these young people a hope of a utopian state that would restore the Caliphate in accordance with God’s will.”
However, he sees that the fight against ISIS is not religious, as the extremism of these young people does not stem from religion, but from persecution by the state, tyranny and bigotry against Muslims.
“There is a discourse that tells young Muslims in the West, ‘you cannot be part of society until you eat pork and drink wine,’ there is no law that enforces this but there is social stigma and pressure.”
“There is the problem of Islamic extremism, but also secularist extremism. Here in Egypt, when the liberals and secularists refuse the Muslim Brotherhood and are fine with them being killed and put in prisons, that is a drive towards extremism. There should be pluralism and acceptance of the other because the solution is not military dictatorship.”