Bruno Etienne, L’islamisme radical (Paris: Hachette, 1987.)

Gilles Kepel, Les banlieues de l’islam: naissance d’une religion en France (Paris: Seuil, 1987.)


The last ten years have seen a new concentration on the study of Islam by French sociologists and political scientists. What gives a particular urgency to the writing is not only Iran and after. It is also the drama of bombs in Paris, “terrorism” and “law and order,” hostages taken and sometimes killed, sometimes released in Lebanon. The racism of Jean-Marie Le Pen, along with the role of what is somewhat simplistically called the far right in French electoral politics, is a factor as well. Large arms deals with certain Middle Eastern powers are less visible than publicity about a mosque being built down the road or a prayer room just opened in a car factory. Islam’s new status as an officially recognized religion in France has increased the unease and focus on just what “Islam” means in the Hexagon itself, as in the wider world.

These two books by two political scientists reflect the state of the art. Bruno Etienne’s research has been primarily in the Maghrib (Algeria) and Gilles Kepel’s in the Mashriq (Egypt). Etienne, the elder, had his professional training in the period marked by the Algerian war and the French departure from their major colonial possession. Kepel is the product of a time when Third Worldism had already suffered its first major reverses and Sadat had replaced a defeated Nasser. In the early 1960s, Islam attracted relatively little attention by today’s standards, and seemed more or less subsumed within the politics of triumphant nationalism. A decade later, the practical political failures of ideologies of progress and the increasing asymmetries of neo-colonialism appeared to frame the reemergence of religion as a force in societies of very different characters.

Both L’islamisme radical and Les banlieues de I’islam address readers for whom Islam is a present problem, one of the here and now not the there and then. Overtly topical, they clearly wish to challenge received ideas in contemporary contexts: readers, they assume, increasingly confront the presence, on their own streets as it were, of “the barbarians.” In Constantine Cavafy’s poem, cited by Etienne, “men have come from the frontiers saying that there are no more barbarians. And now without the barbarians, what will become of us? Those people were in a way a kind of solution…" But for the French, particularly those prey to xenophobic nightmares, the barbarians are not only still there; they risk investing the heart of the city. And “they” are, as Cavafy knew, a necessity, an image of the divisions within, scapegoats and a source of diffuse threat. It is not only immigrants which cause resentment: it is Muslim immigrants.

Both authors explicitly wish to correct the mythologies of the Islamic presence. Kepel’s is the more rhetorically no-nonsense and hard-nosed approach: invoking conversations, documents, archives, sermons and speeches as the material of his science, he aims to break through misapprehension and false images to an analysis “without concession” to social phenomena in contemporary France. Where Etienne aims at both a more personal and a more general picture of radical Islam as a whole, Kepel programmatically defines his inquiry as being into the “concrete situation” of Muslim immigrants in France (from Africa and Turkey as well as the Maghrib), their languages of reference in Islam, the nature of rival ideologies, and how cleavages arise (p. 10). Etienne goes back to the Prophet, Kepel to 1974 and the severe government decree of that year regulating immigration and immigrant worker status.


L’islamisme radical begins with a program of treating one aspect of Islam only, that of radical Arab Islam — radical in the sense of what is at the root as well as in our more obviously political sense of the term. There are in fact very few topics, theological or sociological, that the book does not in some way touch on in its intellectual exuberance. Borrowing Muhammad Arkoun’s phrase, Etienne sees the doctrine of radical Islam as serving as the chief vehicle of a “contemporary Islamic discourse” (22).

Islam is characterized by “la tension vers I’Unité” in the community as a result of the fundamental organizing notion of the oneness of God, whatever its social, historical and geographical variations (21). The second key principe, and it is crucial in the book, is that militantisme is of the essence of Islam: it makes of every Muslim both a proselytizer and a combatant. (The sentence, on page 22, is underlined for emphasis.) Whatever forms of historical Islams there may be in particular socioeconomic configurations, there exists this central, permanent core of da‘wa (call) and jihad (struggle). When the radicals reinterpret the history of East and West, they do so always in the light of these constants. For all Muslims who read in Western writings of our profound respect for la conscience musulmane, says Etienne, those writings can only be seen as signs either of a lack of confidence in our own religious traditions or of the power Islam has over us (23).

Etienne, too, is in this sense a fundamentalist: he believes that the basic terms, the fundamentals of Islam set in the first years of the Prophetic mission, motivate the tradition to the present day. One implication of this view is that the original stress on the unity of the umma (Islamic community) and the oneness of God (and on a homogeneous creation of the universe) simply leaves no place for those not of the Muslim faith except that of subaltern status. There cannot be what is generally called pluralism in the sociopolitical order and acknowledgement of the equal status of non-Muslim others (76-7). It also seems to be an explanation for the impossibility of pluralist democracy in the modern Arab world at all. The legal position of those in the category of dhimmi is quite unambiguous, protected but always inferior.

All the distinctions between the different categories of believers and between believers and non-believers are not so much legal, though legal they definitely are, as interiorized values, matters of popular language and daily behavior, of “pratiques sociales réeles” (16). They are continuously lived.

This question of distinctions is important in Etienne’s analysis for another reason. The differentiations of status among the early Muslims, especially marked in the hadith legitimating the various categories of the first generation and the clan recognized as having primacy (the Qureish), led to what Etienne calls a “series of confusions” which came to the point of political explosion with the Ummayad rulers. It is his argument that the theological, legal, social and political problems posed then are still insoluble now. This is one source of internal division that perennially accompanies or dialectically is part of the imperative of unity (107).

It is not only theological divisions that arise. Material interests clash. There is a permanent struggle of groups, “usually classes” (26-7). The dominated live out their revolt against the dominators, but only within the frame of reference of dominant patterns of legitimacy (27). An associated and further major distinction is between those who see authority in khilafa (exoteric political rule) and those who find it in imama (esoteric spiritual direction). The Shi‘a, the latter tendency, are also defined as the type case of the dominated. In the Lebanese and Iran-Iraq wars of the contemporary moment they form a kind of “emergent class.” They have a more general significance as the bearers of a permanent revolt against the injustice done to ‘Ali and his followers, whether that revolt is actualized or not. The Sunnis, on the contrary, represent consensus and the status quo (29-30). This does not entail Sunni homogeneity of belief and practice, as the opposition between champions of kalam (speculative theology) and the masters of tasawwuf (Islamic mysticism) bears witness. But it does mean that the Sunni-Shi‘a divide is the great schism of Islam (31).

I think it is fair to the vision of Islam conjured up in L’islamisme radical to say that, for Etienne, these struggles and divisions as he defines them are also continuous through time and in character. They do not change, or appear to lead to change in any structural way. Rather, as I understand him, they are part of the enduring, given structure of “Islam,” with its dynamics: dominated contests dominator; jihad and da‘wa are fluctuating but ever-present historical forces; Sunnism asserts consensus and Shi‘ism battles for its own order of justice. Yet the sense of recurrent patterns of unity and multiplicity is what strikes me, patterns whose nature is set almost from the first moment of what Max Weber called the Annunciation and the Prophecy. In Islam things are ineluctably thus.

Symbolic Capital

When we come to the questions of colonialism and modern nationalism, Etienne’s main argument is one of echec, failure. But what sort or sorts of failure? His explanation is that the concepts of “nation” and “progress” were “too foreign doubtless to the culture of Muslim Arabs”; they did not “take” and we Western intellectuals did not realize the extent to which our modern notions had no real hold on Arab Muslim civil society (85). The irruption of the modern market economy shattered traditional social forms, while the nation states of the (Arab) Third World, self-styled socialist or capitalist, founder on the realities of neo-colonialism as does the whole “nationalist problematic.” Progressivist ideologies and ideologues rail. The state is autocratic and repressive.

The notion of echec is analytically crucial as well, because it explains how the way opened for progress and modernity to be “Islamized.” Radical Islam operates what Etienne calls a “transfer of enthusiasm” from the frustrations of the now disappointed moment of independence (134). The Arab states cannot absorb the new generations for whom this moment no longer represents a source of social, political or, above all, symbolic capital (borrowing, as Etienne often does, from the work of Pierre Bourdieu).

Those who are competing for symbolic capital and are producers of that capital in the present conjuncture draw on the same resource — Islam (154). And it is a competition. Etienne notes mordantly that it is only certain mosques that are packed at certain times; some stay empty. It is not because there is a generalized “pious renewal” but rather that certain preachers attract the crowd, others do not, and he tries to explain why. This is part of his attack on concepts (or slogans) such as “fundamentalism” or “Islamic renewal,” or the French term integrisme. These tell us nothing. Indeed, they tenaciously prevent our comprehending that what he calls “the essence of politics” may be found in the field of religion, whether in revolts of the Christian West or the Muslim East.

These battles are also between four discursive traditions which are interpenetrating as well as competing: 1) the colonial discourse, to which the others are in some sense a response; 2) that of progress and scientific rationality, which in turn is often part of 3) nationalist discourse. Finally there is 4) the traditional discourse. Only 2) and 4) are truly incompatible, the whole point of the colonial discourse being, as Jacques Berque has argued, to deny the indigenous as subject and to rewrite his/her history, depriving the traditional culture of significance (155-7).

The Islamic movements are themselves struggling with each other (207-08). How are we to distinguish between the different groups? Etienne suggests a classification following what he calls their efficacité: not their structure, historical profile or aims, but rather their activités réelles.

There are those of a more “classical” pattern: the cure of souls, maintenance of the faith, prayer assemblies and so on (rather clumsily labelled neo-turuqisme). Second are the conversionist associations, recuperating Muslims whose ardor and commitment has waned, redefining the religious-political field against the state by reference to unity and the oneness of God alone. Third are the “more activist,” the real islamistes with their political project and now in his view distinguished according to the criteria of the refusal or acceptance of violence. The classification, in other words, comes to depend essentially on means adopted in pursuit of the aims.

There is much more than this, too much really. Etienne writes with enthusiasm, a healthy disrespect for the conventions of academe, a willingness to risk going where angels fear to tread, and a kind of grab-you-by-the-lapel, almost conversational immediacy that is disarming as well as genuinely engaging. We get everything, and then a bit more. The price paid for this readiness to cover the Islamic waterfront from end to end and take on all comers is a certain exhaustion that occasionally overtakes the reader. We are always hurrying to catch up with the figure rushing ahead of us pointing out every sight of interest. No sooner do you look one way than you are grabbed by the arm and swung round for a glimpse of something else before being hurried off again. It is exhilarating, and confusing.

The concepts used are often both baldly stated and imprecise: dominators and dominated, sufism versus kalam, group and class struggles. These do not really help us examine the huge range of material in any detail. The emphasis on da‘wa and jihad is not too productive either, and might be read as saying that Islam contains these essential elements which occur and recur endlessly in a rather static way. It is all given from the beginning. We are right on the edge of the old Western image of civilization or religious tradition that simply repeats and imitates itself unchangingly. I do not think that Etienne wants to say this, but I cannot be sure. And the insistence on the impossibility of pluralism or anything but a subaltern place for the “sincere Westerner” or the non-Muslim Middle Eastern Arab is subject to a Le Pen-type reading of what this irreducibly hostile “Islam” is all about.

My final reservation centers on the style, which has a personal, interlocutory quality I like. But the “I” (the je) of the narrative often becomes irritatingly intrusive, as though Bruno Etienne was too insistent on the fact that he was there, he saw, he spoke with, he knows. Instead of being colloquial and immediate this begins to seem precious. It is as if we are to be impressed by the Islamic street credibility of the French academic. The use of the device of frequently referring to an “honorable viellard fassi” (a distinguished old man from Fez, to give it a clumsy translation), the elderly, severe Fassi who in person and by letter instructs him, can seem like a parody of a medieval disputation and too close for comfort to the fictionalized trope of the calm, sure, unchanging old East faced with the agitated, questioning, experimenting young West.

Patient Detailing

Gilles Kepel’s stance could hardly be more different. Another classic figure comes to mind: the observer and the observed, scientist and slide. Here we are with the interviewer and the subjects of interview, with cases, types, figures and facts. After the fireworks of Etienne, the sterner atmosphere of the lecture room takes over.

The aims are more specific, the method more rigorous. Kepel wants to trace out the phases of development of Islam in France, concentrating most on the last fifteen years. How are Muslims (of many different nationalities and backgrounds) inserted in French society, French legal structures, French consciousness? And how do the different groups, associations, individuals who have come to France, often in very different circumstances, organize their own worlds in a world where they are so much subjected to others’ power and forms of life? What part does religion play in the sardonically labelled universe of “métro-boulot-dodo” (subway-job-sleep) that is their experience?

Not that Kepel’s approach focuses experience very closely. He is not particularly interested in trying to recreate something of the meaning of ordinary, everyday life to the immigrants, although excerpts from interviews occasionally provide a startling image, like this 30-year-old Turkish worker speaking of his life before coming back to Islam:

I lived a completely vagabond life…like fish which are thrown in all directions after dynamiting. If you’ve seen that you know that a fish shocked by dynamite goes in zig-zags, hitting against this stone and that&hellip That’s how life went on (46).

In general Kepel concentrates on a patient detailing of the specific organizations, institutions and state interventions, and how they have interwoven in irnmigrants, lives in the major cities of France. Those lives and histories are very heterogeneous. He is at pains to discuss differences of point of origin, period of migration, nature of settlement, etc.

The English-speaking reader unfamiliar with the enormous literature in French on these topics may feel a lack of depth to the book, a lack of context which might not trouble a French reader. You want more to help you grasp the structural place of migrants in the French and European economy, as well as a greater sense of what he calls the “provisoire durable” of their lives.

That said, the book is highly informative. It is a good guide to the evolution of the key institutions of French Islam: the Mosque in Paris, whose political history is almost worth a book in itself; the role of organizations such as the Jama‘at al-Tabligh; the often fierce competition between Arab states fought out in subsidies and networks of supposed or real clients, those same states frequently being taken for a ride by the not-so-simple seekers of ail money for mosques; the emergence of mosque construction and the establishment of places of prayer as major social centers in factories, hostels and on the streets of immigrant quarters.

End of Complacency

Not the least interesting theme is the way “Islam” was initially identified by the French ruling classes, management and technocrats as “un islam de paix social,” and how that idea had to change as “islam” became in some of its guises a good deal less comforting to the bosses. The latter began to worry about strikes, about fomenting unrest, about whether that investment in a factory prayer room or meeting place was quite such a cheap way of keeping them quiet after all. The “stabilizing factor” is then seen as a threat. What goes on in the prayer rooms? Managers do not know. If the apparently docile labor force seems in the early 1980s to mobilize around a potent appeal of religious preaching combined with trade union activity, precisely at a moment when the word “ayatollah” is entering the vocabulary of French political pathology, then authority is deeply dismayed. Islam may not be such a marginal cost to patrons and the state after all. Large numbers of workers may in fact not claim Islamic identity as central to their lives but key strata of the society in which they live will still see it to be a cause and characteristic of the “new instability.” Gone are the days when a tame religious leader at a ceremony for the new mosque in Paris in 1922 could laud the sympathy of la France for Muslims who, protected subjects or foreigners, are for her also friends (70); or when the great Marshal Lyautey in the same year and referring to the same project might exclaim: “When the minaret you are about to build rises up, it will climb to the beautiful skies of the Ile-de-France as one more prayer of which the Catholic towers of Notre Dame will in no way be jealous” (71).

Such complaisant and complacent visions of the great colonial days have no contemporary equivalent. Now another note is sounded. Christian milieu, which might have been favorably disposed to providing holy places for small Muslim congregations of poor, ill-organized and marginalized migrants, became distinctly more ambivalent by the 1970s as the quasi-mythical “oil money” makes possible a visibility of Islam in the city. An editorial in the Catholic daily la Croix, trying to explain the hesitation felt by some parishoners, put it rather well:

Your triumphant minaret challenges my anemic belltower. Your conquering Islam overwhelms a hesitant faith. If the mosque “does us harm,” it is because it reflects with melancholy sharpness the decline in Christian values and Christian practices (121).

In the various communities, groups jostle for support, shadowy state patrons often pushing them on. For all there is a problem the book takes to be central: how do people attempt to deal with the contradiction between the apparent anomie of daily life in France and the “univocality” of Islamic teachings? Manners, ordinary behavior, inheritance, obtaining properly slaughtered meat, whether or not women should work, what banking practices to follow, and on and on — all these are part of the huge range of questions preachers, guides and “marabouts with visiting cards” answer in their conflicting ways.

Not all are contesting one another by any means. Some organizations, among them the most successful such as the Jama‘at al-Tabligh, are pliant. The Jama‘at stresses missionary work, the Prophetic model, obedience to the letter of the Quran and the Sunna, dhikr rituals of remembrance and a devaluing of this world while aspiring to the next in one's moral acts. Work has only a relative significance: we are here to serve God. Complaisance is not entirely dead after all. Kepel dryly notes that this association has the best relations with the authorities, and it is not difficult to see why. Iranian-backed groups who take a militant oppositional line at the other extreme may be too easily picked off by the state and may alienate Arab and Turkish migrants concerned to establish themselves in France rather than in the often equally dubious freedoms of “back home,” a home with whose controls they may feel little sympathy any more.

It is a complex world, turbulent and full of cross-currents. Les banlieues de l’islam is a good preliminary guide. What we need now in English is a developed analytical treatment of such patterns of migrant life and their relations to interventions by the non-Muslim (and Muslim) state, with the frequently unintended consequences of such interventions. “The eruption of the minaret, experienced as an aggression” by many solid citizens as well as once-Communist supporters who now vote for Le Pen — this phenomenon raises new questions for us as well.

How to cite this article:

Michael Gilsenan "Apprehensions of Islam," Middle East Report 153 (July/August 1988).

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