The controversy over the book by Florence Bergeaud-Blackler, The Brotherhood and its networks, the investigation (Odile Jacob, 2023), swells day by day, giving rise to bitter debates. Recently, my colleague and friend Haouès Seniguer published a review of this work (1), to which the author of the said work immediately responded with a review of the review (2).
I am not a specialist in the Muslim Brotherhood, and I cannot therefore question Ms Bergeaud-Blackler’s work in detail, even if I share my colleague’s point of view on its methodological weaknesses, which are striking for an academic . I note sadly that the intellectuals who challenge his demonstrations – I am thinking in particular of Haouès Seniguer and Omero Marongiu-Perria – are automatically sent back to their supposed Islam, and therefore to a kind of natural sympathy for the Muslim Brotherhood.
I knew the Brothers from the inside
Having publicly assumed to be a Catholic, a patriot and a reservist in the army, I can no doubt allow myself to evoke my personal experience without being accused of being an Islamo-leftist, a supreme flaw that repudiates the speaker.
However, I knew the Brothers from the inside in the 2000s, when I took their courses for adults in their institute in Seine-Saint-Denis. For several years, I learned Koranic Arabic and the recitation of the sacred text from them. I stopped this course before moving on to the study of law and hadiths, which limits my experience to a handful of professors and students. I therefore do not claim to know the brotherhood or its executives.
Subsequently, for my research in Islamology and for personal interest, I followed the activities of the UOIF, its gatherings at Le Bourget, some of its former members and some of the youth who were close to it. I still made hundreds of contacts with Muslims, whether they were committed, Sufis, conservatives, liberals or close to agnosticism. It was not in the strict sense of a scientific study, but I deduced several elements from it, which I allow myself to add to the debate.
First of all, the Brothers represented in the 1990s the only intellectually solid structure of the French Muslim field, which explains why many actors of French Islam were marked by the brotherhood. Their training was complete, their speakers relevant, their roots in historical Muslim traditions clear and assumed. Political speeches were extremely rare on the part of the teachers, and the students were rather on the left when they spoke in front of the coffee machine. The subject of France generally aroused indifference and that of the Republic a certain mistrust because of the affairs around the veil and a rejection felt by many.
I heard no justification for armed violence, terrorism and jihadism, even if the suffering of the Palestinians was often evoked, with a hollow denunciation of Israeli policy. If the Brotherhood executives had conquering or violent inclinations, they would have been unable to hide them for long, any ideologue inevitably seeking to convert those who listen to him. The fantasy of a conquest of France by the “women’s belly” was never mentioned, our executives having only two or three children themselves. In the group, I was the one with the most children. Besides, I have never met a Muslim woman claiming to start a family for a hypothetical settlement project.
A Spanish inn
The Brothers’ courtyards were a Spanish inn: there you met Muslims from all walks of life, of all educational and social levels, of widely varying convictions and religiosity, and I never felt a strong unity there. The national dimension often came back to fracture the best wills (Algerians against Moroccans or Tunisians, Arabs against Africans, etc.). The rare injunctions explicitly expressed by the executives were immediately debated and often criticized. The director agreed to register a Shiite, before being stigmatized by a handful of students.
I myself was registered as a Christian and was accepted as such, despite the general astonishment. Everyone hoped that I would convert, but no executive put pressure on me. When the women’s group was integrated into the men’s group for Koranic recitation, an internal revolt reestablished the physical distinction, which the managers nevertheless wanted to abolish. In short, it would have been impossible to constitute a militant avant-garde with the people I met. All wanted to live their Islam, pray every day and start a pious family, which limited their professional careers. Their allegiance to the Brotherhood was perfunctory and clearly opportunistic.
An honorable reference
What I observed subsequently, in the years 2010-2020, for my various works has constantly confirmed these impressions: the Brothers represented for many pious Muslims an honorable (but not infallible) reference, a library of books to read or leaf through, an association among others to contact to enroll in a religious approach. As for militancy, if the Brothers were no strangers to certain social or political commitments of young believers, the local sections of the CGT or SUD were always much more mobilizing, and the brotherhood seems to have been completely overtaken by militancy 2.0 and the activism of uncontrollable young adults who refused to fit into the mold of hierarchy.
I have therefore observed for several years with circumspection the Brotherhood witchcraft trials against individuals who have been close to them. I am struck to note that, even if many have evolved towards reformism or a disinvolved pietism, we continue to attribute to them the mark of the brotherhood, without questioning the reality of it. We are talking about a Brotherhood project based on texts by Al Banna (what did he not write, and often contradictory!) or on videos of imams published on the Internet, without ask about their real audience and influence.
What I understand from all these very French debates – in other European countries, we are seen as a curiosity – is that our political system is wary of Muslim conservatism, which is dressed up under the accusation of brotherhood in order to do not deal with the substantive subject. Fortunately, French law has not yet aligned itself with this faulty perception.