The invention of ‘moderate Islamists’

The invention of ‘moderate Islamists’

Famous “Islamism expert” Oliver Roy’s latest book, “En quête de L’Orient perdu” (In Search of the Lost Orient), did not provoke enough of the debate and criticism that it deserved, especially these days when we all talk and write about Islam and Islamism with reference to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Roy’s book was published in Turkish in May and the author visited Turkey afterwards, but instead of scrutinizing his book, those who interviewed him asked him more about his general views on recent politics.

Indeed, he is one of the most qualified neo-Orientalists, since his knowledge of “the Orient” is based on lifelong research, theorization and language skills. Otherwise, most of the new-Orientalist writers and so-called experts do not bother to learn much about the issues that they dare to write about, though that does not stop them from offering ambitious ideas on the subject. The books, articles and op-eds on ISIL, “its relation to Islam and Islamism” and “its roots and prospects” are mushrooming in Western languages with no new insight or depth, while also displaying insufficient knowledge. “The Orient” and “Orientals” are still the subject of patronizing knowledge and matters of judgement by “others,” now with less effort.

No doubt Roy was not one of those, since he belongs to the sophisticated school of neo-Orientalism. In fact, even the title of his book is meant to be critical of Orientalism with reference to classical Orientalists’ definition of the Orient as an exotic, ahistorical fantasy. Nevertheless, first of all, his book’s language undermines his ambition by revealing his patronizing attitude towards the people that he writes about. From “meek Afghans” who do not know anything about the world that they live in, to his reference to the Tajik government of the time as “a bunch of murderers,” he speaks the language of superiority. Besides, his cynical style is another clue for his aspirational, cool detachment from the banal facts that he talks about. It is true that his cynicism is not particular to “the world of Orientals,” but more a general claim of wisdom. To tell the truth, his cynical approach to the 1968 generation is a very entertaining revision. Nevertheless, the same cynicism is meant to be an apology for his relations with French institutions, including the defense ministry, and foreign services including the CIA and MI6. 

 This is not a place for a comprehensive book review, nor is it my intention to discredit a famous name by labelling him a neo-Orientalist who has murky political connections. Sometimes we learn a lot from Orientalists, and Roy is no exception. My point is that it was prestigious experts like Roy who promoted some very problematic concepts like “moderate Islamists” and that “secularism produces fundamentalism” (his own words). Indeed, he admits that “perhaps he invented the concept of ‘moderate Islamist’ at the time” in 1984. He stated that on his way back to Paris from the Islamic Conference in Rabat, he was determined to arrange a meeting between Burhanuddin Rabbani (then the leader of the Afghan resistance) and then-French Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson, but because the latter was a rigid secularist, Roy said he needed to present the Afghan warrior as a “moderate Islamist.”

That is not to say that it was Roy and his likes who shaped the Western politics of moderate Islam, but that is what they served for. Now, it is not only those who live in Muslim countries who pay a high price for such political fantasies but the West itself. It is true that a rigid understanding of secularism created tension and dissent in Muslim countries, though it was not secularism which produced fundamentalism, but rather the political manipulation of Islam which enforced it.