A symposium postponed to the Sorbonne, an anthropologist placed under police protection… Tensions around the book by researcher Florence Bergeaud-Blackler are shaking the university. In question, the publication in January of his book The Brotherhood and its networks: the investigation (Odile Jacob). The anthropologist, known for her work on halal, endeavors to describe “frerism”, which she defines as “a politico-religious intellectual project, aiming at the establishment of a world Islamic society”.
Since this publication, prefaced by political scientist Gilles Kepel, Florence Bergeaud-Blackler has been threatened with death. After the postponement of the symposium to present her book ten days ago, she should be received on Tuesday, May 23, by the Minister of the Interior, Gérald Darmanin. Beyond the security issue, the case took a political turn assumed by the person concerned. The researcher – requested by The cross and who did not wish to return to the controversy – denounced May 11 on Europe 1 “the cowardice of the academic world” and its lack of support.
Between researchers, personal, epistemological and political differences
Researchers working on Islam and contacted by The cross confide their embarrassment. Many do not wish to express themselves openly, uncomfortable with the violent turn the debate has taken, especially on social networks. Turning to invective, he notably opposed the anthropologist on Twitter to another researcher, François Burgat, director of research emeritus at the CNRS, embodying an opposite trend. “The debate is vampirized by these two excessive personalities, the first being taken up and relayed by individuals with racist and anti-Muslim remarks”, regrets Haouès Seniguer, lecturer in political science at Sciences Po Lyon.
While specialists in Islamic studies say they do not recognize themselves in the extreme polarization – and politicization – of the debate, the affair nevertheless reveals a persistent division among them on Islam, the object of incandescent attention in France since the attacks of 2015. What is sometimes described as a “war of leaders” divides the heirs of figures close to retirement, who have enjoyed great academic recognition and trained generations of researchers: Gilles Kepel on the one hand, Olivier Roy and François Burgat on the other. Between these edges, the dispute is at the same time personal, epistemological and political.
To understand these divergences, it is common to distinguish Gilles Kepel’s reading grid from that of Olivier Roy by two formulas: the first would see in jihadist violence a form of “radicalization of Islam”, while the second would read a “Islamization of radicality”.
While Gilles Kepel would focus on the study of ideology, Islamist networks and politico-religious discourses, Olivier Roy would observe more the paths of the actors, their psychological and socio-economic conditions.. As for François Burgat, he analyzes the Islamist movements through the prism of the reaction to postcolonial domination, and is accused by some of complacency with the Islamist movement.
A militant stance
“This tension has been exacerbated with the assassination of Samuel Paty and the resurgence of terrorist attacks in France”, describes a researcher. The latter have undeniably given rise “a very great sensitivity of the population on the subject of Islam”, he explains, and aroused “a request for expertise from the public authorities”. However, both analysis grids imply different public policies, favoring the security or more psychological and social approach in the follow-up of radicalized populations or groups likely to be radicalized.
This is why this debate raises issues that go beyond the academic framework. Beyond fundamentalist networks, the question of the “control” of Islam and Muslims – even of religion in general – strongly opposed intellectuals during the debates on the law against separatism adopted in the summer of 2021. of the presidential election, the rise of identity issues, particularly under pressure from far-right candidate Éric Zemmour, further contributed to overexposing specialists.
Responding to this media request, Gilles Kepel would, according to one of his peers, “chosen to leave the academic repertoire to establish itself as an expert with the media and the public authorities”, positioning itself as “Counsellor to the Prince”. According to this academic, it is him “who managed to impose his reading grid” in the public square… unlike the university, where the “Képeliens” are a minority.
What a certain number of their colleagues ultimately regret is the almost militant posture of these researchers and their link to politics, which undermine their academic legitimacy. “Gilles Kepel like François Burgat have been off the road for about ten years.This encroaches on the scientificity of their discourse,” estimates an Islamologist, who sees a cleavage between “scientists and those who use politics to put themselves back in the center of the game”.
“A passionate and over-politicized subject”
If many lament “ego quarrels”, this polarization has been found for two decades in the university, sometimes caricatured in the media in the form of polemics between “secularists” and “Islamo-leftists”. “For some, the real problem today is Islamism; for others, it is Islamophobia,” summarizes a young researcher.
The use of certain concepts has even become a weapon to disqualify the opposing camp. “Talking about Islamophobia exposes you to censorship from some. You are considered at best naive, at worst an accomplice of Islamism,” illustrates a researcher. According to testimony, the heirs of the two schools do not work together and do not attend the same seminaries. Far from being just a “war of chapels”, these divisions within the university are therefore detrimental to research on the Muslim fact… and to its understanding by French society.
“It becomes a house arrest”, fumes a researcher. “In my research, I try to show the strengths and limitations of each theory,” testifies Elyamine Settoul, lecturer at the National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts (1).
If it is in the very nature of the university that different schools of thought clash, the subject “Islam” and its place in the media sphere make the debate particularly difficult. “It is a passionate and over-politicized subject, notes Elyamine Settoul. What is lacking on Islam are cold analyses. »
Islamic studies at university
Several universities offer a course in Islamology or the history of Muslim thought. This is particularly the case of the Institute for Research and Studies on the Arab and Muslim Worlds (Iremam) in Aix-Marseille.
The Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes (Ephe), in Paris, issues a diploma in Islamic studies.
Announced in 2020 by Emmanuel Macron, the French Institute in Islamology (IFI) was created in 2022 to “to promote the development of scientific studies” and research on Islam.
The IFI is a public interest group which brings together eight member establishments: universities of Strasbourg, Aix-Marseille, Lyon-2 and Lyon-3, the Practical School of Advanced Studies, the National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations ( Inalco), the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (Ehess), the École Normale Supérieure in Lyon.