Widely known French scholar Florence Bergeaud Blackler’s interview with The New Indian
Renowned French anthropologist Florence Bergeaud Blackler discusses the expansion of Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe, the Islamic Caliphate, and the halal & hijab push in western democracies, in an interview with The New Indian Editor-in-Chief Aarti Tikoo.
Blackler specializes in Islamic normativity and has written two books – The Halal Market or The Invention of a Tradition and Frérisme or Brotherism (yet to be translated into English). Her research focuses on Salafi indoctrination, halal ecosystems, and the particular form of Islamism that emerged in the 1960s in Europe and other western liberal democracies. Her works also revolve around the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in promoting a more radical version of Islam and pushing the traditional schools of Islam to the corner, in order to lead all Muslims towards the Caliphate.
This is the first part of the two-part interview. Edited excerpts:
Aarti Tikoo: What is the motivation behind your tenacious interest in the Muslim Brotherhood and the halal economy?
Florence Bergeaud-Blackler: My interest goes back 30 years when I met the Muslim Brothers for the first time at the Al-Houda Mosque in the French city of Bordeaux. At that time, I was engaged in research about Islam in urban contexts and was trying to understand how Islam was developing in the region, who were its agents, how they thought and what were their priorities.
At first, I had no idea that I came across Muslim Brothers. What tipped me off was their clear difference from the usual imams running the mosques, who were mostly newcomers and had come to France for work, soon joined by their families. On the other hand, I encountered educated individuals in this mosque, students and sometimes doctors who spoke quite decent French.
Moreover, their approach was distinct – the invitation to Islam (dawah). Many observers back then predicted that in a new secular context, Islam would fade and Muslims would move towards a mild form of religious practice, or even leave Islam. These views contrasted with my impressions on the field: these young people struck me as quite proud of their religion and were absolutely determined to propagate it. This was obvious proselytism. A trend is setting in. I observe, for instance, that the women, who were separated from the men, clearly intend to convert me.
Tikoo: How was this process of proselytism carried out and to what extent?
Blackler: These new imams spoke to their audience in French. At the same time as they were teaching them Arabic – which most of them didn’t speak anymore or never knew. The previous imams spoke in their mother tongue and their vision of Islam was inspired by the traditions of their homeland in Maghreb (northwestern Africa). But the Muslim Brothers told the youth that the traditional Islam they had been taught was not the real Islam. Instead, they propagated new literature coming from the Muslim World League (dominated by Saudi Arabia) and the Muslim Brotherhood (books by Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna and former chairman of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, Yusuf al-Qaradawi).
Such a conception of Islam exceeds religious tradition and tends towards a complete way of life. By targeting the children and the students from the 1990s, the Muslim Brothers intended to train an elite. It took me a lot of time to realize they had a plan because in those days the few specialists of the Muslim Brotherhood were all convinced that they had abandoned their ultimate goal – the global Islamic society.
Tikoo: Was this whole movement linked to the petrodollar economy?
Blackler: Huge amounts of money were indeed used to build mosques and fund Islamic associations across Europe. Saudi Arabia was the main sponsor and was supporting the Muslim Brotherhood against the Egyptian government at that time. The organization certainly received a lot of resources from the Gulf countries.
Aarti Tikoo: Is the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood-linked in some way to the process of globalization?
Blackler: In my book about the invention of a global halal market, I point out an objective confluence between shameless neoliberalism and a rising Islamic neo-fundamentalism in the 1970s-80s. The globalized economy allowed the development of a halal market. This market not only spreads products but also norms. New regulations were progressively invented in the 1980s to spread the halal norm. Starting with meat and then other food products like sweets for children, it further extended to inedible products that the body absorbs, like drugs and cosmetics. New processes and ‘spaces’ were made halal too, like banking and travel. The rise of ‘modest fashion’ (like hijab) is, of course, part of this phenomenon.
Tikoo: Let me be the devil’s advocate here. Liberalism can be seen as the fountainhead of modern Western democracies. In these liberal countries, what is actually wrong with the Muslim Brotherhood propagating its values and lobbying for halal products? Shouldn’t every community be allowed to live by their own standards?
Blackler: As long as there is a consensus about the social contract, this is not an issue. But I really doubt that the European people (and especially the French) would agree with Muslims organizing their own economy, their own social spaces like schools – in short, living the ‘halal way of life’. The French, including a part of the Muslim population, do not want a two-tier society divided between Muslims and non-Muslims, which leads to separatism. France has a different model, it is liberal but relies on the assimilation of common values and on common institutions, among which the public school system plays a key part.
The opposite situation would lead to liberal anarchy. Reasonable liberalism shouldn’t let a religious group alter the social contract. If some Muslims want to develop a halal market, it is not an issue as long as it does not imply a reorganization of society, like for instance changing the local rules of commensality and conviviality. But if hijab or halal food makes its way into the public school, it disturbs the conviviality and the consensual values that allow everyone to cohabit despite their differences.
Most of all, the fundamental values of the Muslim Brothers are different from those the European societies inherited from their history. Their project is a theocracy, which is incompatible with a democracy.
Tikoo: Some of your critics say you are lacking nuance, that Islam is not homogenous, and that you should, for instance, distinguish between Muslim Brothers and jihadists. What would be your reply to such allegations?
Blackler: I cannot respond to criticism about things I have never said and which have been deliberately falsified by my critics. Some people who attacked my work in famous French leftist publications have not even read the book. I perfectly state the difference between Muslim Brothers and jihadists, or conservatives. My book simply introduces the concept of ‘Brotherism’, which goes beyond the Brotherhood and its militants in an attempt to grasp the development of an ideology that stemmed from an Arab branch and an Indian branch.
I try to explore the worldview of the people behind it and how their ideas were introduced to Europe, where they infiltrated the Muslim community but also the rest of the society. The first students came mostly from Egypt, Pakistan, or Lebanon and met on university campuses. In Europe, they realized that their utopian project was failing in the Muslim world. At first, some controversy emerged because their position in non-Islamic territories was difficult to keep in accordance with Islamic law. But in the end, they changed the rules and decided to stay in Europe with a new mission – to islamize the non-Muslim world. I call this new ideology ‘Brotherism’, which is a mixture of ideas emanating from the Muslim Brotherhood – taken up by Al-Qaradawi – and the Jamaat-e-Islami founded by Maududi.
Tikoo: How is this agenda different from the manifestos of other Islamic organizations or even terrorist groups? For instance, they all believe in sharia, discrimination between men and women, and discrimination between people on the basis of faith.
Blackler: Muslim Brothers belong to Salafism. The Salafi fundamentals are the sacredness of the Quran and the golden age of the first Muslims. However, there is a difference in the context and the means. The specific features of Brotherism, born in the Western countries, are the high level of education of its members as well as its extreme adaptability and flexibility.
Brotherism tries to influence and use the Sunni movements, like the conductor of an orchestra. This is called Wasatiyya, the Islam of the ‘middle way’. Its agents can use all the competencies available while staying on course in the very long run. They avoid confronting the State or being directly involved in politics. Instead, they use soft power, soft law, and economy to gain influence. They are very pragmatic and opportunistic.
That is why they don’t behave as takfiris, they don’t practice excommunication. Even if they don’t approve of terrorism, they will try to benefit from a terrorist attack when it happens. This strategy is well expounded by Al-Qaradawi. Besides, their structural view of the Islamic society is inspired by Maududi, who acted as a true engineer of an Islamic system. He indeed imagined a perfect self-sufficient society based on the Quran and the Sunna (the sources of Islamic law). This combination of theory and practice form a system of action I call Brotherism. It is based on three elements: a Vision, an Identity and a Plan – VIP, a reminder that its agents consider themselves to be the Islamist elite.
Their approach is sectoral. They believe that the Muslim identity should prevail over any other identity, such as nationality. It is divided between male and female identity. All activities should be driven by the plan of God.