Understanding Political Islam: A Research Trajectory on Islamist Otherness, 1973–2016

François Burgat

(La Découverte, 260 pages, 2016)

“Allah.” Why, in one’s native language, should the Muslim God exclusively take this opaque, divisive name, when the deities of other Judeo-Christian religions—the Jewish Adonai, the orthodox Bog—are invariably translated into the more relatable “God”? In practice, “this affirmation of the Other’s irreducibility to a shared conceptual universe often masks—unless it in fact reveals—a more or less conscious desire to reinforce alterity rather than to reduce it.”

François Burgat, political scientist and Arabist, recounts decades of meetings with Islamists from Algeria to Syria, through Tunisia, Yemen, Libya, Egypt, Palestine, and France. What he finds are motives far more political than ideological, and thus far from the accepted essentialist explanations that insist on seeking the keys to contemporary political Islam in the Koran of the seventh century.

For Burgat, the impact of colonialism on local cultures and political landscapes was immediately apparent as a young man visiting Algeria. In an account of the research trajectory spanning his extensive career, the author explores how his first hypotheses now stand up to more recent turbulences including the Arab Spring and the Islamic State’s astonishing mobilizing capacity of radical Islamists. It is in understanding the identity crisis of Muslim communities, and their need for distancing from the colonizer, that we can start to understand the emergence of Islamism within political Islam, he argues.

In the face of simplistic explanations that too often ignore the historical roots of these developments—famously endorsed by the academic Gilles Kepel and famously refuted by Burgat (see The New York Times Magazine, April 5, 2017)—this book is a dissonant note from the common understanding that sectarian radicalization causes political radicalization. Burgat’s analysis is the opposite: It is not by reforming religious thought that the region will be pacified. Peace will come to religious discourse once peace arrives in the region itself.

While more political/social science than memoir, Burgat’s narrative of his intellectual journey is honest and very human—an important read for anyone, whether interested in the history of “the other” or an “other history,” and essential, relatable reading to those in the field.

François Burgat is Senior Research Fellow at the French National Centre for Scientific Research, a member of the European Council on Foreign Relations, and formerly headed the French Institute of the Near East as well as the French Centre for Archeology and Social Sciences in Yemen. He speaks at conferences, think tanks, and universities worldwide to share his insights gleaned from nearly forty years of fieldwork in the Middle East and North Africa. Burgat’s most notable publications have been reissued multiple times and have been translated into five languages: L’islamisme à l’heure d’Al-Qaida (Islamism in the Shadow of al-Qaeda, University of Texas Press, 2008); L’Islamisme en face (Face to Face with Political Islam, IB Tauris, 2002); L’Islamisme au Maghreb (The Islamic Movement in North Africa, U. of Texas Press, 1993–1997).