Islam, “Fundamentalism” and the French Banlieues

An Interview with Latifa Ben Mansour

The Algerian-born linguist Latifa Ben Mansour lives in France and is the author of two recent studies of the “Islamist” – or, as she prefers to put it, Muslim “fundamentalist” – movement: Frères musulmans, frère féroces [Muslim Brothers, Ferocious Brothers] and Les Mensonges des intégristes [The Lies of the Fundamentalists]. John Rosenthal spoke with her for the Transatlantic Intelligencer Review.  

JR:  

The recent riots in France have given rise to a lot of speculation in the English-language media – much more the “new” media than the established media – about the influence of Islamists among North African youth in the French “banlieues”. Many commentators seem to take the existence of such influence virtually as a given. But some years ago one had the impression that the youth culture of the banlieues was, if anything, quite hostile to the severe Islam of the fundamentalists. Take, for instance, Mahmoud Zemmouri’s 1997 film “100% Arabica”. It depicts kids from the banlieues who are much more into rai music than religion, who want to hang out and listen to the latest hits of Cheb Khaled and Cheb Mami – and the local imams try to stop them. Has this relationship changed in the meanwhile? Does Islamism now have an attraction for the youngsters of the banlieues?  

Latifa Ben Mansour:

There has been some attraction: namely, where the state is absent, where it has abdicated its responsibilities. As one says: nature abhors a vacuum. Where the state is absent, its place is going to be occupied in one way or another. It could be occupied by mafia-style groups. Or it could be occupied by so-called religious groups. One sees this very clearly in the banlieues. The fundamentalists are trying to play the role of mediator or of the big brother who tries to compensate for the failures of the state. Where is the state?

One also has to remember that drugs have ravaged the banlieues for some 20 years now. There is virtually no family that has not been affected in one way or another. There is virtually no family that has not seen at least one child go to jail for drug-related incidents or worse. When there is an abdication by the state of its responsibilities, when there is no presence or a failure of the institutions that represent the state – that’s to say, the police, the judiciary, social aid, the school system – when no one takes charge of these kids: well, at this point, in effect, movements have come forward – so-called religious movements – that exploit the chaos in which these kids live. They go to the youngsters and they say: come with us to the mosque, we’ll look after you. And while they are looking after them at the mosque, they try to show them that the source of their problems is that they are not French. Which is not entirely false either. Because they are not French like everybody else – they’re not wanted. Because they are not Christians – they’re not wanted. And so on and so forth. They touched on real wounds, on real problems.

These real problems were exploited by the conjurers that one calls “Islamists” or “Islamic fundamentalists”. And one sees the results, because some of these kids then went off to fight in Afghanistan or Iraq. That’s how one can tell just how perverted these people are. Because they tell these kids that they are their “brothers”. But what kind of brother is it that instead of helping to heal the pain of his brother, sends him to die in Afghanistan or Iraq…or elsewhere: in Chechnya or Bosnia…?

So, religion – or the manipulation of the Islamic religion by the fundamentalists – is an aspect or a parameter that has to be kept in mind when one studies the banlieues. But this form of fundamentalism exploits a misery that was already there: whether it be economic misery, the lack of work, or also, for instance, sexual misery. No one talks about this…. 

JR:

But wouldn’t what you’re calling “sexual misery” be more a consequence of the influence of the “fundamentalists” than a condition that pre-exists it?

Latifa Ben Mansour:

It’s both. It’s a matter of education. In what we can call, to go quickly, “Muslim” milieus, sexuality is only permitted in marriage. If young people break this taboo, it’s not like they have psychoanalysis available to them. There’s no Freud in the banlieues. Now, if one replaces Freud with a conjurer, a fundamentalist “leader”, who comes along and tells them in his terrifying language that what they’ve done is forbidden, that they’ve sinned, and so on, that can cause considerable damage. The fundamentalists play on the sexual malaise of young people from the banlieues. One sees especially, of course, their fury at certain young women, because they happen to be desirable and they wear the kind of clothing that young women wear. And the fundamentalists tell them: “No! If you dress like that, then you’re nothing but a prostitute.”

…The “fundamentalists” also play on a certain inter-generational malaise. The perceived “failings” of the generation of the parents – because in France, after all, they occupy the lower rungs of the social hierarchy – and a certain sense of guilt this can produce in children if they try to succeed where the parents have not. In this connection too, they touch on real wounds, facts: the parents’ experience of colonization, the fact that the parents are déclassé, and so on.

But they don’t tell these kids that if they were in their countries of origin, it’s not as if they would be better off. Above all, they tell them that if they go fight in the name of Islam or give their lives in the name of Islam, they’ll be compensated: either in this life or the hereafter. In all of this work of proselytism upon young people and also some not so young people, one has always to consider the interest that is posited. The interest to which appeal is made is not, for instance, the superior interest of the nation – as a democrat might say – but rather the superior interest of Islam or the Islamic community, the Umma. But Islam has not asked anything of these kids: above all, it has not asked that they sacrifice their lives.

JR:

How would you define Islamism and the relationship of Islamism with Islam as such and the sacred texts of Islam?

Latifa Ben Mansour

Islamism is a perversion of Islam and a form of corruption of the letter of Islamic text. It’s a matter of taking religious text, the Quran, and extracting certain verses from it and then asserting that these verses alone represent the whole text, in which there are more than 60 chapters. It’s a matter also of giving a univocal interpretation of the Quranic text, whereas if there is any language that’s metaphorical, it’s Arabic. It works to a large extent through metaphors and ambiguities. Like all Semitic languages. With Hebrew, it’s the same thing, and Aramaic as well.

It’s a matter of giving a single unique reading of the Quranic text. Now, from the start there were seven different ways of reading and interpreting the Quran. From the start, there were numerous schools of Quranic theology. To cite the four most important: the Maliki school, the Hanafi school, the Shafii school and the Hanbali school. That’s just among the Sunni. Among the Shiites, you have about the same number again, if not more. It is just one of these interpretations, the Hanbali interpretation, that was the inspiration for Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab: someone who played a very important role in the history of Saudi Arabia and who gave us “Wahhabism”. This is the foundation of Islamism: this one sole interpretation of the religious text. Not only one sole interpretation of the Quran, but also of the Hadith, the sayings of the Prophet.

Now, the Hanbali and, above all, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, considered that all other schools of interpretation were anti-Islamic interpretations – polytheistic interpretations and so on – and that they had to be combated: including with the sword. And that is what happened: for example, in Saudi Arabia. 

There’s a second point that I’d like to make and that I think needs to be emphasized. Personally, I don’t like the words “Islamism” and “Islamist”. Why not? Because beginning in the 17th and 18th Centuries, when Westerners, Europeans, began to discover the Arab countries – countries where the Muslim religion is practiced – in order to speak of Muslims, they used the term “Islamists”; and to speak of the Muslim religion, they used the term “Islamism”. Up until the beginning of the 20th Century, these were the terms that were used: for instance, by Sylvestre de Sacy, who was a very important French writer on Islam, or by de Slane, who was the translator of Ibn Khaldun into French, or by [the French historian and philosopher] Ernest Renan. When Renan spoke of Muslims, he said “Islamists”. Afterwards, this term was put away somewhere in an old cupboard and now it’s been taken out again in order to speak of a perverted form of Islam. Now, the average Westerner, the non-specialist, has a tendency to conflate the two, Muslim and Islamist, and maybe even to think that if one’s a Muslim, one is necessarily an Islamist. That’s why I don’t like the term “Islamism” and I prefer to use a term like “fundamentalism” [intégrisme]. Or one could say “totalitarianism” or “fanaticism”. That way things are clear.

JR:

But just a further question on this point. You say you prefer the term “totalitarianism”. Okay. But this is not just any sort of totalitarianism. It is, after all, an Islamic totalitarianism… 

Latifa Ben Mansour:

Muslim.

JR:

…Muslim. So, there’s, on the one hand, a certain Muslim content to this totalitarianism and, on the other, a certain content that is, more precisely, political. What are the aspects that have sources in Islamic doctrine and what are the aspects that have their sources rather in the totalitarian political ideologies of the 20th Century Europe?

Latifa Ben Mansour:

Okay. Let’s put our cards on the table. We are talking about people for whom I personally have no respect: who are even my adversaries and will be my adversaries until the end of my days. But one still has to put matters in their context. If these movements have had success, it is because in the countries where they emerged there was no democracy. Let’s take the example of Algeria. I remember very well in Algeria, when students made demands – and our demands were very moderate: for better social conditions, more freedom of thought, etc. – one confronted them with the Muslim Brotherhood. To break all demands for democratization or modernization, states encouraged these movements. Even though the states doing this were more or less secular – including Turkey. Even in Turkey, one mobilized religious movements against movements of the “left” or “extreme left”. The religious movements served, in effect, as the militias of a certain type of state.

Now, as concerns the birthplace of the “Islamist” or Islamic “fundamentalist” movement – namely, Saudi Arabia, which at the time was not yet the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – when it was a question of combating the influence of Turkey, the Saudis created movements of so-called “soldier monks” and they used the doctrine of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. If one considers the Wahhabi doctrine, it, in effect, excommunicates every practice of Islam that is not Wahhabi. For example, in North Africa and, more precisely, in Algeria, we have a tradition that is known as the “respect of saints”. If there was a man or woman that led an exemplary life, some centuries later people say that he or she was a saint and one pays tribute to the saints by visiting their birthplaces or making offerings and so on. For the Wahhabis, however, this amounts to polytheism.

Above all, one has to remember that the Saudis felt threatened, because at the very same time that they establish their monarchy, right next store an empire, the Ottoman Empire, collapses and out of it there emerges a secular republic: a republic that made no reference either to the Quran or to religion in general. And yet this did not make Turks any less Muslim than Saudis or Algerians or Moroccans or Tunisians. But Turkey was a secular state, a state that did not seek to derive its authority from God, and that was the main threat for the Saudis. At this point, the Saudis mobilized all the means at their disposal, including their financial means, to promote the development of the first “fundamentalist” movement based on Islam – or on one interpretation of Islam: I’m inclined to say a nearly delirious interpretation of Islam. That movement was, namely, the Muslim Brotherhood of Hassan Al-Banna, which emerged in Egypt in the same period.

As I put it, the “Islamists” have performed a hostile takeover of the Quran. They act as if the Quran belongs to them. For example, in Algeria, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) would say in their meetings that there were only 3 million Muslims in the country and only 3 million Algerians. All the rest were, according to them, neither Muslim, nor Algerian – because they were not adherents of their party, not adherents of the FIS. At the limit that meant that they could be persecuted or killed. That’s why I say that one is dealing here with a totalitarian movement.

JR:

Just to return for a moment to the question of doctrine. For non-Muslims, I think one of the most striking and troubling characteristics of the “Islamist” or Muslim “Fundamentalist” movement is its treatment of the place of women in society, its emphasis on controlling the lives of women. You referred earlier to what you called the “fury” of the fundamentalists in France toward young women who dress in ways they consider inappropriate. Do such elements of “Islamist” ideology have a basis in the Quran?

Latifa Ben Mansour:

In the Quran, there is a general injunction of modesty. One should be dressed modestly. But what constituted modesty in the 7th Century and what constitutes modesty 14 centuries later are not the same thing. In general, the fundamentalists claim that one should live like the Prophet and his four companions lived in the 7th Century. But at the same time, a lot of these guys are driving around in BMWs. Let’s all really try to live like the Prophet and his companions in the 7th Century. Then we would see how long they would hold out.

JR:

Another element of the “Islamist” discourse that is particularly striking is, of course, the anti-Semitism. Certain interpreters, notably in the US, are indeed inclined to see this anti-Semitism as a pervasive feature of Islam per se or even of “Arab culture”, and they cite, for instance, certain passages from the Quran or from the Hadith that express hostility toward Jews to support this contention. To what extent do you think the anti-Semitism of the “Fundamentalists” has roots in Islam?

Latifa Ben Mansour:

In my book Les Mensonges des Intégristes [The Lies of the Fundamentalists], I address this issue of the fundamentalists’ treatment of the relationship between Jews and Muslims. I considered all their arguments and in particular their main reference, which consists of a single verse of the Quran. Of course, the problem is that one can’t take a single verse out of context like that. There is a whole work of interpretation that has to be done, also to place it in its historical context, to understand why it was said, when it was said, etc. One can’t literally apply today what was said 14 centuries ago. In any case, to return to the verse in question, it says: “The Jews and the Christians will not be satisfied with you until you have abandoned your religion and follow theirs”. But there are also other Islamic references that both the fundamentalists and non-fundamentalists ignore. For example, the constitution dictated by the Prophet Muhammad in the second year of the Hijra, 624, the so-called Convention of Medina, that sets out an absolute respect for the Jewish tribes. For me it was a moment of joy to discover this text, since it shows that the picture is far more complicated. The highest priority of the text is the peaceful co-existence of Muslims and Jews. 

JR:

But to return to the present, one can hardly deny that there is widespread anti-Semitism or Judeophobia. So, where does it come from?

Latifa Ben Mansour:

I would say that there is prejudice against Jews, but not anti-Semitism in the sense of an elaborated ideology. Muslims have never produced the sort of terrifying “theorists” of anti-Semitism that one finds in the West. Anti-Semitism in this sense is a pure product of the West and certainly not of Muslims or Arabs. That anti-Semitic motifs are now taken up by the fundamentalists – certainly. The totalitarian movements that one calls “Islamist” proffer a style of discourse that is strictly anti-Semitic: with all the classical motifs of the Jewish lobby that controls the world, etc. One would say that The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is their favorite book. But as for ordinary people, it’s true there are prejudices, I don’t deny it. One can hear pitiful comments. But however much there might be prejudices, I have trouble believing that an ordinary Muslim would be anti-Semitic. The average Muslim does not have this obsession with Jews. He is concerned with his own problems and he’s not going to blame Jews for his problems – which is the essence of anti-Semitism. If there are examples to the contrary – and I guess there are more and more – then I think they indicate precisely the influence of the fundamentalists.

JR

Nowadays, one has the impression that every time there is an episode in Europe that in some form or another links violence and Muslims – whether it be the July attacks in London or the French riots – the established media go looking for comment and clarification from one person: Tariq Ramadan. Recently, he did an interview with the German weekly der Spiegel. Der Spiegel was even good enough to make the interview available in English. In it, the interviewer refers sympathetically to the alleged fact that Tariq Ramadan seems to be “just” an intellectual – an “enlightened theologian” – whereas he is continually accused of employing a “double discourse”, of pursuing other aims than what he says to his western audiences. To this, Tariq Ramadan responds that: yes, indeed, he is mistreated. He is treated, he says, like one used to treat the Jews… 

Latifa Ben Mansour

Oh-la-la! 

JR

He says: I’m treated like a “Muslim Jew”. I was wondering your reactions and your assessment of the role and discourse of Mr. Ramadan.

Latifa Ben Mansour

I would not say that he is a “Muslim Jew”. I’d say rather that he is a businessman who trades in Islam. The first thing that struck me about him is that everything he says is taped and the tapes are sold. So, he makes money off Islam. Okay, it’s his right. To each his own. But he has made Islam into his cash cow. Now, once one’s a businessman, one is no longer someone who merely represents Islam on an intellectual plane. He’s not an intellectual. 

I also find that there’s a cruel historical irony in the fact that he teaches in a junior high school [in Switzerland] that’s called the Ferdinand de Saussure Junior High. Now, Ferdinand de Saussure must be turning in his grave, because Saussure was the antithesis of a Tariq Ramadan. It was, after all, [the Swiss linguist] de Saussure who taught us to study the structure of languages and approach all questions of culture and civilization from a secular point of view. And then a Tariq Ramadan teaches in a school that bears his name! I said to myself: the poor Saussure…, it’s unjust. That merely as an aside. Just to have a laugh, since it’s better than crying. 

More seriously now. Tariq Ramadan is the grandson of Hassan Al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. As one says: no one has to pay for the deeds of their father or grandfather. Of course, I agree. And if Tariq Ramadan was an engineer, it would be nobody’s business but his own. But in fact Tariq Ramadan takes up the same discourse as his grandfather, though in a style that’s “younger”, friendlier, more dynamic – and also that is more insistent on claiming the status of “victimhood”. For instance, when Tariq Ramadan says I’m a “Muslim Jew”, he’s playing the role of the victim. 

I’ve listened to Tariq Ramadan many times preaching to us about how women should wear the veil. Now, if he wants to put a veil on his wife, it’s his business. But it is not his place to speak for me, nor for my children, nor for the other children of French people of Algerian or Moroccan or Tunisian origins. They’ll have their own representatives and they know how to speak for themselves. This question of wearing the veil or not wearing the veil seems to be a kind of obsession with him. 

Apart from that, given the attention he receives, I’ve been struck by just how insipid his prose is. For instance, the writings he has published with the [Lyon-based Islamic Publishing House] Éditions Tawhid. What he writes, one already knows from other sources. If it’s a matter of knowing how to say one’s prayers or how to perform one’s ablutions, one really does not need Tariq Ramadan to tell us. He says one has to love one’s parents…. Well, of course, one has to love one’s parents! And I’d even say: one has to love them and then rebel against them for a while and then come back and love them again. We really don’t need Tariq Ramadan to explain to us this sort of thing. The end effect of all this is just to reinforce Tariq Ramadan’s own authority. If at least he had produced a body of work that was substantial, with serious intellectual references and clear arguments. But there is nothing of the sort. 

Still, I think he is dangerous. Why? Because his modus operandi involves not only trying to pass himself off as a victim, but also inducing young French people of North African origins to consider themselves as victims: victims of colonialism – their parents were victims of colonialism – or they themselves, victims of discrimination, etc. 

I have to say that I’ve already dedicated a lot of time to this character. As far as I’m concerned, his case provides a good example of the way in which the western media are capable of making a respectable authority out of a lot of hot air. 

JR

But if his discourse is as vacuous as you say, then where is the danger? As you know, Tariq Ramadan was refused a visa to come teach in the United States. Maybe such reactions are exaggerated. 

Latifa Ben Mansour

But Tariq Ramadan continues to pursue the project of his grandfather and his father, Said Ramadan [the founder of the Islamic Center of Geneva]. It’s true that their discourse was much clearer. Said Ramadan had ties to all the Muslim fundamentalist movements throughout the world. Tariq Ramadan continues to pursue the same line, but he is the “soft” version and that’s precisely why he is dangerous. He doesn’t get his hands dirty, so to say. His discourse is so vague and insipid, it’s hard to get a grip on… But the project remains the same: the organization of young French people or Europeans or Westerners in general whose parents are Muslims or who are themselves Muslims into a fundamentalist movement and the Islamization of society: by which I mean, as I’ve indicated, a certain sort of Islamization. One should never forget that the objective of the fundamentalist movement is the conquest of the West, the recuperation of Andalusia, the reconquest of Jerusalem, and so on. It’s the grand epic: mounted on horseback with saber in hand and all that. Except now one doesn’t use horses any more. One uses the internet, and cassettes, and cd-rom. And in this connection, incidentally, Tariq Ramadan’s name is also significant. Because in the imagination of the young people of the banlieues, “Tariq” is the conqueror of Spain: Tariq ibn-Ziyad. 

JR

Let’s move on to another personality who’s been in the headlines a lot recently in connection with the French riots: namely, Nicolas Sarkozy. As you know, there is a certain interpretation of the riots that seeks to hold Sarkozy responsible for the tensions in the banlieues – or at least for exacerbating the tensions: because he spoke of the “racaille” [roughly "rabble", though the term has lately taken on other connotations in French slang], because earlier he talked about cleaning up the banlieuesau Kärcher” [a high-pressure cleaning system] , and so on. I’d like to have your reactions and, more generally, your assessment of the policies and program of Nicolas Sarkozy. 

Latifa Ben Mansour

I’m going to tell you something that you might find surprising. Nicolas Sarkozy is very respected in the banlieues. Why is he respected? He’s respected because there are many people who say: “Well, at least this guy says what he thinks.” Given the current reign of political correctness, someone who calls a cat, a cat, a dog, a dog, and so on – that’s already not bad. Because nowadays one does not call things by their names. So, in general he is respected – also by people in the banlieues

Now, did he use the phrase “we’re going to get rid of the racaille” just like that or was there something said before and after this phrase? Was the phrase taken out of its context? Does it in itself accurately represent the discourse of Nicolas Sarkozy? In my opinion, it was taken out of context. He was speaking to a woman [from one of the affected areas] who spoke of getting rid of the “racaille” and he responded and then the phrase was taken out of context. Of course, once the phrase is taken out of context, one can do whatever one wants with it. 

I should mention too that this word “racaille” is used by the youngsters – or certain youngsters – from the banlieues themselves. They say “caillera”, which is just “ racaille” in verlan [a French slang popular in the banlieues and formed by pronouncing words "in reverse"]. 

Now, what about when he said that we’re going to “clean up [the banlieues] au Kärcher”? One has to be fair and objective, because that is the only way to go forward. Why did he make the remark? Because an 11-year-old child had died at La Courneuve [a poor suburb of Paris]. The kid had gone outside to clean his father’s car. It was his father’s birthday and he was cleaning the car for his dad. There’s a clash between different gangs at La Courneuve. They open fire and they kill the kid. That’s why he talked about “cleaning up” the banlieues. It was not like he just started talking about the “ racaille” and “cleaning up au Kärcher” out of the blue. 

If people want to take such remarks out of context, in order then to accuse Sarkozy of being a racist and against the youth from the banlieues, they can do so. But it’s not true. He is not racist. He’s just been the only one to say what others won’t say. Moreover, he himself emphasizes that he is also the son of immigrants. He has experienced some of what the current generation of French children of immigrants experience. So, such accusations against Sarkozy are completely unfounded. And to try to place at his doorstep the whole failure of the state – the abdication of the state about which we have talked – it’s simply unjust. 

It’s been well known for a long time already that there are gangs in the banlieues and it’s the gangs who impose their law: mafias that have set up shop where the state has abdicated its responsibilities. There is no work in the banlieues and a parallel economy has developed. The people in the banlieues have to live, after all. And how do they live? Well, by engaging in all sorts of traffics on the black market. It could be clothes or cosmetics imported from China. Or it could go a lot further: drugs or even arms.

In the past, the mafias used to have their meetings at hotels or bars [in Paris]. Now, they have their meetings in the banlieues. When there are meetings between the main bosses of the gangs, there are riots in the banlieues. That way the police are tied down and the bosses take care of their business. There are mafia-type movements that exist in the banlieues and the first people to suffer from their presence, to be terrorized by them, are the populations of the banlieues themselves. So, if Nicolas Sarkozy tries to stir things up, all I can say is: Bravo. 

One point on which I do not agree with Nicolas Sarkozy, however, is the question of “positive discrimination”.[1] Especially given all the racism that in fact exists in France, whether in the open or merely latent. Let us suppose, for example, there are two young men applying for a post: one named Muhammad and one named Jean-Pierre. And they have the same CVs, the same level of training, the same grades, the same qualifications. But in the name of “positive discrimination”, one takes Muhammad instead of Jean-Pierre. Well, Jean-Pierre is going to know it. And he is going to resent it and he will be right. Instead of reducing tensions, “positive discrimination” will increase tensions. It will nourish resentment and hatred.

It is true that these young French persons with exotic names suffer a certain injustice, that there is discrimination. But there has to be another way to address the problem. A young person who wants to work has to be able to find work. Support systems have to be created to help these kids succeed. The failure of the state is that it was not present to assist these kids in looking for work, looking for an apartment, etc. And now one says that they are “children of the Republic”. But one should have known that earlier. These “children of the Republic” have been unemployed for years. If the younger brother sees that his elder brother or elder sister knocked themselves out to finish their studies, but got nowhere – that they’re just hanging around without a job – well, the kid is going to say himself: “okay, why should I knock myself out. I’ll go do some trafficking, become a thug.”

I don’t know if you noticed. But the kids involved in the rioting are 12-year-olds, 14, 15. They’re kids who have seen their brothers – who are 19, 20 – fail in looking for work. The most important thing is to integrate these kids into active economic life. That has to be a priority for the state.

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NOTE

[1] “Positive discrimination” – or “la discrimination positive” – is the expression commonly used in French for “affirmative action”. Nicolas Sarkozy has advocated the use of “positive discrimination” to address inequalities in French society. – Editor’s Note.