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Profile: Antoine Sfeir

The Blanket will feature a biography of each of the 12 signatories of Manifesto: Together Facing the New Totalitarianism, along with each of the Danish cartoons their number represents.

This is the fifth in the series.

Anthony McIntyre • 10 April 2006

Antoine Sfeir has established a reputation as an authority on Islam. Born in Lebanon in 1948 he is a journalist, a professor and a writer living in France. Between 1968 and 1976 he worked in the foreign department of the newspaper L'Orient - le Jour, which specialised in Middle Eastern affairs. In 1977, he helped create the newspaper J'informe. As the director of the Eastern Journals he has worked for more that 30 years on the Arab and Muslim worlds. In addition to editing the Atlas of Religions he has written The Money of the Arabs and The Networks of Allah: The Islamic Affiliates in France and in Europe.

His opinions are much sought after at a time when Islam is Europe's fastest-growing religion. Of any European country France has the highest number of Muslims, around five million, who are ministered by up to 1500 imams, 90 % of whom did not arrive in the country through the books. French authorities have viewed this as problematical and have opted to devise measures aimed at bringing home-grown imams through in a bid to curb the rise of theocratic fascism often, seemingly, promulgated by foreign imams.

Sfeir's opposition to this form of fascism has placed him at the forefront of many disputes with its apologists. When Ayman Zawahri, described by Sfeir as 'the veritable brain of Al-Qaeda', equated the French headscarf ban with 'the burning of villages in Afghanistan, the destruction of houses over the heads of their inhabitants in Palestine, the massacre of children and the theft of oil in Iraq' Sfeir described it as 'an incitement to terrorist action.' He felt that Zawahri was intent on using the issue to mobilise Muslims throughout Europe.

In 2003 Tariq Ramadan, Swiss professor of Philosophy and Islamology bought a prosecution against Sfeir after the latter had written that Ramadan's pronouncements had influenced French Muslims in Lyon to go and fight in Afghanistan. Ramadan lost the legal battle when the Lyon appeal court found that preachers in the mould of Ramadan 'may have an influence on the young Islamists and constitute a factor of incitation that could lead them to join the partisans of violent measures.' Although Time magazine has described Ramadan as 'the leading Islamic thinker among Europe's second and third-generation Muslim immigrants', Sfeir has accused him of being a dangerouis opponent of moderate Muslims. Along with Caroline Fourest, a co-signatory of the Manifesto against Totalitarianism, Sfeir has sought to highlight what he regards as Ramadan's real agenda. Many French intellectuals have alleged this to be invidious double discoursing, anti-Semitism, sexism and reactionary politics. Despite this, in 2005, British Prime Minister Tony Blair invited Ramadan to sit on a government taskforce which would examine the roots of fundamentalism within the UK.

Alongside its admirable secularism and separation of church from state, there has existed within France an inexcusable rampant racism with no shortage of politicians willing to stoke up the tensions for their own ends. The racism is also exploited by political Islam intent on establishing a reactionary bulwark.

A French police report suggested that thirty imams in Paris and its surrounding suburbs were pushing this agenda. Between 2001 and 2004, 27 prayer leaders had been expelled from the country because of incitement. The 27th received his marching orders after he told his flock the Koran permitted men to beat their wives and that women should be stoned if they were unfaithful to their husbands. Just prior to this expulsion another imam had asked his followers to 'rejoice in the Madrid bombings.'

Compounding this is the phenomenon of conversion to Islam. Although evidence is not systematic and appears to be anecdotal some observers claim that since 9/11 there has been an increase in the rate of converts to Islam in response to US foreign policy. A report by the French agency responsible for internal intelligence calculated that the country had anywhere in the region of 30,000 to 50,000 converts, although less than a hundred were regarded as being involved in 'terrorism.' Sfeir claimed that a small number of converts, many of them disaffected youth, saw groups like Al Qaeda as 'a kind of combat against the rich, powerful, by the poor men of the planet.' He suggested that fundamentalist foreign imams, trained in values that sharply clash with French secularism, found a very fertile recruiting ground in the poorer immigrant districts. 'The kids there already watch Arab stations on satellite TV, with their bloodthirsty slogans and anti-western propaganda … they've already been totally radicalised.'

After conducting a survey of several thousand young French Muslims he expressed surprise to learn that although they claimed to practice a strict form of Islam, few were able to identify the central tents of the religion. He also found that 're-Islamisation' of second-generation Muslims in both France and Europe is fuelled by competition between the sexes. Young Muslim women tend to leave their male counterparts behind in their ability to adapt to the 'host country.' This produces a negative reaction from males who try to regain the advantage by insisting on the reassertion of Islamic values. It is easy therefore to reach the conclusion that the turn to Islam, for young men, is about material power and advantage rather than spirituality.

It was against such a background that the French Government in recent years has been pressing for a training programme for indigenous Muslim clerics that would lead to a greater respect for human rights. However in Burgundy for the previous 14 years the European Institute for Human Sciences (IESH) had been training imams ostensibly for the purposes outlined by the French Government. Its director Zuhair Mahmoud claimed that Muslims living in France are quite prepared to accept its laws.

In the 1980s it became clear that the Muslims of France and Europe were integrating definitively in their adopted countries. Here a generation has grown up with French as its mother tongue … These people need imams to pass on the religious values of their parents. Leaders from elsewhere cannot do it because they do not understand the language or the customs and habits that prevail here. They have to come from inside.

Women are also trained there and have certainly offered evidence that it could be beneficial from the point of view of women's rights. One trainee, referred to as Aziza from the east of France said:

what we have learned is to distinguish between law and custom. It has been easy for men in our society to tell us what to do by saying it comes from religion. But things like forced marriage are not in Islamic law. They are only customs and can be discarded.

The IEHS won the backing of the French Government which wanted to encourage 'a home-grown Islamic identity and wean the five-million-strong community away from its financial and doctrinal dependence on foreign states.'

But not all Muslims were happy with the growth of the IEHS nor its links to the Union of Islamic Organisations in France (UOIF) which secularists and progressives argue is linked to the conservative Muslim Brotherhood. They fear that the French Government had followed the line of least resistance and was aiming to work with conservatives rather than liberals.

According to Antoine Sfeir, 'for a long time the UOIF has been trying to infiltrate the cogs of state and assume control of the Muslim community by marginalising secular Muslims.' Sfeir would seem to hold to the position of a leading authority on Islam, Jacques Jormier, who argues that 'one does not modernize Islam but Islamize modernity.' Consequently he argues that the UOIF and its affiliates 'are a real threat to secularism.'

Sfeir has a nuanced view of US involvement in the Middle East. He has sought to show that the US may be using its presence in Iraq and other countries in the region to undermine the nation states established by the British and the French. In a lecture last year he argued that despite a two year occupation of Iraq no weapons of mass destruction were found and there was no evidence of cooperation between the Saddam regime and Al Qaeda. He outlined what he thought was the real reason behind US involvement in the Iraq. US management of Iraq was much tighter than would seem at first glance. Asserting that it was not another Vietnam he went on to pose the question, 'what if the United States were maintaining chaos in Iraq in order to stay in the country?' He bolstered his view by pointing out that if law and order were to be secured the US would have to withdraw its forces. From a US perspective he contended that the war made sense in that it increases US influence in the region.

Developing this reasoning he, along with Mezri Haddad, has argued that US pursuit of the 'Greater Middle East Project' can be easily understood given the prevalence within the region of 'religious fundamentalism and political nepotism.' However both Sfeir and Haddad argued that 'the democratic domino effect sought by US neoconservatives could turn into a nightmarish snowball pattern serving the objectives of Islamist totalitarianism.' They argue for the US to consider the Tunisian approach:

The American project aimed at democratizing the Arab-Muslim world, getting rid of the fundamentalist virus, anchoring a culture of tolerance, and achieving women's liberation do in fact vindicate Tunisia's strategic choices … the various reforms advocated by the United States for the purpose of eliminating the inherent causes of religious fundamentalism, have already been achieved in Tunisia.

They maintain that democracy can only be anchored if it is accepted that 'democracy is a comprehensive and gradual process; it is not an ex-nihilo kind of creation.' They also argue that 'there is no democracy without a minimum of social well-being and economic prosperity' and that 'there is no democratic culture without the separation of the religious from the political, without the existence of a civil society, without the secularization of education, and without the liberation of women.'

Sfeir has also raised questions about the role of the US in its dealings with Osama bin Laden. Two months before the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington bin Laden apparently met a CIA agent in Dubai. Sfeir commenting that he was not surprised said:

That is nothing extraordinary. Bin Laden maintained contacts with the CIA up to 1998. These contacts have not ceased since bin Laden settled in Afghanistan. Up to the last moment, CIA agents hoped that bin Laden would return into the bosom of the US, as was the case before 1989.

Last October as part of a 120 strong delegation of French intellectuals to Iran, Sfeir called for a better understanding between the two societies:

We have come to here to see, hear and understand Iran and its people … the information of French about Iran belongs to 50 years ago … we have to transfer what we see and feel here to French people and intellectuals … in a world sinking in struggles, these efforts can help us correct the current misunderstandings.

One challenge facing Sfeir is to overcome the very deliberate attempt to maintain as much misunderstanding as possible waged by those who want to stamp their own narrow sectarian view of the problems besetting the world in the minds of many without the issues having been fully aired in advance. By speaking out in defence of human rights and against theocratic fascism Antoine Sfeir is ensuring that the public will be informed by as wide a debate as possible rather than be a mere sponge for the purveyors of nonsense.



See also:

MANIFESTO: Together Facing the New Totalitarianism
Freedom of Speech

Antoine Sfeir
Maryam Namazie
Taslima Nasrin
Irshad Manji
Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Freedom of Expression: No Ifs and Buts
Manning the Firewalls
Ulster Muslims' Fury at Web Cartoons
For Freedom of Expression
Muslim News Interviews The Blanket
Who Fears to Speak
Cartoons and Caricatures: An anarchist take on the cartoon row
Taslima Nasrin (2000)
The Clash of the Uncivilized
Misunderstandings Abound
A Vital Question Not Easily Washed Away
Zen and the Heart of Blasphemy
Closer to Home
The Right to Offend
Wrong to Claim Freedom of Speech
The Parameters of Free Speech
Unreal Paradigms
Cowardice on Cartoon Controversary

Standing Up to the Enemies of Free Speech
Irish Republicanism and Islam
Real human rights - without any religious blackmail
Resisting Censorship
Controversy over the publication of cartoons
Stereotypes Must Be Challenged Openly
New Convert
About the Possible Posting of the Muslim Cartoons
Well Done
A Muslim's Response
Straight Talk vs Orthodoxy

One Man's Terrorist is Another Man's Prophet
Christ Collage
An Eye for An Eye
Glad to See Someone is Not Afraid
There Are No Sides to Peace
Rights and Responsibilities

Censorship: The Blanket's first article (2001): Silence is Not Golden; It is Complicity



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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



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Index: Current Articles

11 April 2006

Other Articles From This Issue:

Shed No Tears for the Donaldson Family
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Buried in Secret
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The Donaldson Dilemna
Bill Ashe

Motive for Murder
Mick Hall

Victim or Pawn?
Dr John Coulter

Agent of the Peace Process
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Happy Easter
John Kennedy

Where, O Where, Is Our James Connolly?
Paul Maguire

Nice One, Tony
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Putting on the Poor Mouth
Seaghan O Murchu

Spare Us the Cures from Quacks
Dr Seamus Kilby

Profile: Antoine Sfeir
Anthony McIntyre

The Letters page has been updated:

Standing Up to the Enemies of Free Speech


Irish Republicanism and Islam


Real human rights - without any religious blackmail


Resisting Censorship


and more...

Freedom of Speech index

4 April 2006

Interview with Michael McKevitt
Forum Magazine

Catching the Monkey
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Policing the Status Quo
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John Kennedy

T.W.A.T and the problem with Leopard spots
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Bigotry Imperils the Union
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'Fury over British PM bigot remarks'
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Then Why Is My Colour On Your Flag?
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Exorcise the Ghosts to Revive the Party
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Play Ball
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Cumann Frithdheighilte Na h-Eireann - An outline
Fionnbarra O'Dochartaigh

Irish Prisoner Suffering Extreme Medical Neglect in English Prison
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Profile: Maryam Namazie
Anthony McIntyre

Freedom of Expression: No Ifs and Buts
Maryam Namazie

Manning the Firewalls
Anthony McIntyre

Ulster Muslims' Fury at Web Cartoons
Elham Asaad Buaras

Freedom of Speech index



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