An expert on Islam and the contemporary Arab world, Gilles Kepel leads the “Violence et Dogme” seminar at Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, and teaches at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po). He is the author of numerous works, most recently Passion arabe (2013), Passion française (2014) and Terreur dans l’Hexagone: Genèse du djihad français (2015). In this latest book, he puts religion at the centre of the Jihadist question. At the same time, he explores the generational change within Islamism in France and the ideological transformations this implies, and underscores increasing social polarization and the role of social media.
“We are witnessing a division within our societies between xenophobic nationalism and communitarism. The problems are yet to come.”
“It’s no surprise coming from the Forum de la Haute Horlogerie, but I have to say the timing couldn’t have been better!” Gilles Kepel found the perfect introduction to his presentation before the 400 guests at the eighth Forum, held at IMD in Lausanne on November 9th, the day after the American presidential election. Kepel, a specialist on Islam and the Arab world who lectures at Ecole Normale Supérieure and the Paris Institute of Political Studies, made extensive references to the night’s surprising result and linked it to the situation in the Middle East. “Donald Trump’s success reflects tectonic changes taking place on a global scale, including in French society,” he declared. Part of the French population has indeed expressed anti-Muslim sentiment, a situation which echoes that of the United States, whose president-elect made a bar on Muslims entering the US one of the pillars of his campaign.
The reasons for this intolerance aren’t new. For decades, oil monarchies such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia have pushed up the price of black gold. This privileged position has also benefited neighbouring countries, taking away any incentive to implement modernising reforms. The fall in oil prices from $120 to $50 a barrel means the situation is very different today. This is one of the structural reasons behind the current debacle, with the majority of countries involved, such as Syria, Libya and Yemen, falling into chaos or an authoritarian regime. Meanwhile, America has been recentering its foreign policy with a focus on tougher border protection. This is, says Gilles Kepel, “a major phenomenon. Americans are no longer willing to be responsible for what’s happening in the Middle East, and this goes some way towards explaining Donald Trump’s success.”
The cataclysmic situation in Arab countries of course has a major impact on Europe, beginning with the wave of terrorism, described by Gilles Kepel as third-generation Jihadism. The first generation came about during the Soviet war in Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989, when the mujahideen, armed by the CIA, defeated the Red Army. The USSR would collapse a few months later with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Civil war ensued, following which the Taliban seized power in Kabul, in 1996.
The second generation of Jihadists is embodied by Oussama Ben Laden and Al-Qaeda who targeted a distant enemy: the United States. Despite the unthinkable attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, the movement failed to rally the masses under its leadership. Islamic State followed, the third generation of fanaticised fighters who take Europe, seen as the world’s soft underbelly, as their target by perpetuating terrorist attacks and recruiting disoriented youth. “In France,” noted Kepel, “in neighbourhoods where 40% of the population is unemployed, traditional values and teachings are being rejected in favour of Salafism, a rigorous interpretation of the Koran, and its violent version, Jihadism.”
With the question of refugees adding to this, these events clearly have direct repercussions on Western politics. “The French government tried to negotiate with the Salafists or the Muslim Brotherhood to stem this insurrection, and what do we see across Europe: the progression of extreme right-wing parties to the point that they have jammed the wheels of democracy. Donald Trump’s messages give wings to Marine Le Pen. We can no longer ignore the hypothesis that she could win the second round [of the French presidential election].” A further consequence of the United States’ policy to disengage from the Middle East will be to allow Russia to regain a foothold in the region. A part of this region, Vladimir Putin’s new ally, Turkey, is heading deeper into dictatorship while creating networks of influence across Europe.
Those who claim Islam has nothing to do with these events, and blame attacks on a youth lacking in ideals, comparable to the Red Brigades or the Red Army Faction, have failed to understand what is really at stake, says Gilles Kepel: “The war taking place within Islam is a battle for power, a game of complex alliances opposing Sunni and Shia. This situation is liable to bring about a crisis of civilisation, hence why we need to start questioning the fundamental issues within our societies, without further delay. Without wishing to sound alarmist, it’s time we took our head out of the sand.”
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