BUILDING A GLOBAL NARRATIVE. Gilles Kepel is a university professor, political scientist and Arabist. His books include Terror in France: The Rise of Jihad in the West, Away from Chaos: The Middle East and the challenge to the West, and lately Prophète en son pays (Editions de l’Observatoire: 2023) and Holocaustes (Plon: 2024). He has published 25 books, which have been translated into some 20 languages.

You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.

Gilles Kepel, what is your recent experience at École Normale Supérieure in Paris, France, where you have been a Professor for almost 40 years?

My university President decided that I must go on early retirement, a year before I should have done.

Why?

Because I’m not woke, and because I spent those 40 years from the time of writing my PhD in Egypt when Sadat was assassinated trying to make sense out of the chaos from the Middle East to Europe, and building a global narrative. I wrote Les Banlieues de l’Islam about the Muslim suburbs of France, and followed the vagaries of the Muslim world through 9/11, the Arab Springs, ISIS in Europe, and what is now happening after October 7th, 2023, up to the recent Iranian attack on Israel. Over those four decades I tried to deal with what is at stake in the Muslim world per se and in its relations with the West, with us.

“The Global South is a construct. I believe it won’t stand together.”

Gilles Kepel

Economic classification of the world’s countries by the UNCTAD: the Global North (i.e., developed countries) is highlighted in blue and the Global South (i.e., developing countries and least developed countries) is highlighted in red.[1][2] Specialgst, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Gilles Kepel, why did you title your book that was published by Columbia University Press in October 2023 as Away from Chaos?

People said: “What are you talking about? We are still in more and more chaos!”, but this was my personal story. I was under threat from ISIS. They had sentenced me to death, and I was under police protection in France. This was stressful and I suffered a terrible crisis of sciatica. I couldn’t move from my bed, but by writing a book away from my personal chaos I was revived, and finally managed to stand up and walk again.

Why are you in London today?

The thinktank Policy Exchange invited me to lecture. Many people in Britain are in panic because of the consequences of October 7th and the visible anti-Semitism that became vocal here. British society was policed thanks to its belief in the virtues of multiculturalism, but the mix is not working here anymore and has become explosive. For the first time in my career, I’m invited here to tell our British friends what we are doing and how come things do not look as bad on our side of the Channel, due to the way we implement laïcité, a strong understanding of secularism based on the strict separation of State and religion. We also witnessed expressions of anti-Semitism after October 7th, but they were to a large extent put down and managed.

In your book Holocaustes why do you say the world has changed, and that the centre of power is now in the so-called Global South

It is strange, because wokes and decolonialists invented that grand illusion of a vertical South-North ideological geography after we had the horizontal East-West divide. The East was socialism, communism or Sovietism, and on the other side stood the West, the so-called free world with Democracy as its tenet. Now that is being radically challenged and re-mixed, and we have the social construct which is labeled the virtuous Global South that stands against the evil North.

By the Global South do you mean the BRICS+ ?  

They’re part and parcel of the construct, but it’s more extended and lays on a global rewriting of modern World History at large. After the end of World War 2 in 1945, the Soviets on the one hand, the Americans, the British and the French on the other, agreed on one issue, whatever their differences: that never again would there be a Jewish Holocaust. In French we use the Hebrew parlance and call it Shoah. The State of Israel was created by a UN decision in 1947 so the Jews would have a state that provided to them a shelter, hence there would happen no such holocaust any more, no pogrom. But the raid that Hamas implemented on October 7th smashed open that very shelter.

What is the Global South reaction to the Israeli response?

South Africa ANC leaders and the Sandinistas of Nicaragua went to the UN International Court of Justice in The Hague and pleaded that the Israelis were now the ones who committed a genocide. The people who had suffered the Nazi genocide are now depicted as inflicting the same ordeal on Palestinians, the inhabitants of Gaza. Tens of thousands of Palestinians actually died because of Israeli bombings, and the South Africans, the Sandinistas and exponents of the Global South at large based on that drama their revisionist foundation of the moral order of the world.

Why is this no longer to do with East-West?

They consider that what happened during World War 2 is old hat and also it took place amongst Europeans, hence white people who now constitute a shrinking part of the World population. Instead, to them, the real evil of the world today, its foundation crime against mankind at the global scale, was colonialism. Not Shoah. And in their eyes, Israel is the epitome of that bedeviled colonialism. It is its postmodern spearhead, and Palestinians are its quintessential victims.

“The very notion of Holocaust as meaning the Jewish Holocaust by the Nazis is being put into question by those new leaders of the Global South.”

Gilles Kepel, is the Global South going to win against the North?  

The Global South is a construct. I believe it won’t stand together. What’s in common between Ethiopia and Egypt is less important than their antagonism over the Nile River waters. What’s in common between India and China is probably less important than their sheer competition for manufacturing products that are being sold to Europe and America. What’s in common between Saudi Arabia and Iran is less important than their antagonism over the oil and gas rich Persian Gulf, and the Shia-Sunni divide. All those states are members of the BRICS+ coalition, but even the peculiar relation of each of them to the West is fraught with contradictions.

Were recent events orchestrated by Iran to break the Arab-Israeli bilateral agreements?

The Abraham Accords were implemented by then President Donald Trump and Bibi Netanyahu, whose view of the Palestinian question was to make it disappear by virtue of denial. They thought that if there were a joint venture between the United Arab Emirates and other oil rich states with the Israeli Start-up Nation, this would lead to such huge wealth and development in the region that Palestinians would not be interested in being a nation anymore. And so the Palestinian issue was brushed under the carpet like dust.

And Netanyahu paid less attention than he should have to Hamas?

The strange thing was that Netanyahu had an agreement with Doha so that Qatar would fund Hamas. Every month, a plane from Qatar Airways loaded with some 30 million US dollars would come to Ben-Gurion Tel Aviv Airport. Suitcases full of cash would then be transported through the Erez barrier, the same barrier between Gaza and Israel that was crossed by Hamas the other way around on October 7th. Then the Egyptian secret service would convey that to Gaza and give it to the Hamas leadership to pay the salaries and expenses, and there were probably some significant taxes that were levied on that for the benefit of Hamas itself. Netanyahu thought that Gaza was becoming a Bantustan, and that Yahya Sinwar, the military and political leader of Hamas in Gaza, would bark but he would not bite.

Why did all this change on October 7th?

There was a very strong political dimension to the raid on October 7th. Most of those attackers were children or grandchildren of Palestinians who had been expelled from a territory which was to become Israel. There was also a very strong religious dimension. The raiders chanted, “Khaybar, Khaybar! Hey Jews, Mohammed’s army is back“, a slogan referring to the Prophet’s army’s attack on the Jewish oasis of Khaybar in year 628 CE (7 AH), which was raided and destroyed. This blend of politics and religion explains much of the atrocity of what happened on the 7th of October.

This was atrocious, but was it not also atrocious when the Israelis bombed civilians in Gaza?

This is why I put an S in the title of my book, the final s of Holocaustes. It is not that I mean that everything is equal. I mean that with what happened on the 7th of October and the Israeli bombing in Gaza afterwards, the very notion of Holocaust as meaning the Jewish Holocaust by the Nazis is being put into question by those new leaders of the Global South. They extend and reshape it with a view of restating the foundations of the moral order of the world. That is at stake, and they pinpoint Israel as the culprit, while Palestine symbolizes the resistance of the South.

And the Jewish elite in America is now challenged?

With the Iranian attack of 13-14 April 2024, things have come back to Israel being the victim – before the Israeli retaliation five days later might again turn the tables. Western powers, who were critical of Netanyahu because of the bombings and the hecatomb in the Gaza Strip, joined ranks with him. The American and British Air Force, to an extent the French Air Force, and importantly even the Jordanian Air Force, joined the Israelis and deterred the attack. Biden delivered America. This was a big win for candidate Biden, because US Jews should vote for him: he acted, while Trump but talks.

“I believe that academic knowledge has a global outreach and people are not prisoners of opinion leaders.”

Gilles Kepel, are we in a very fragmented world where nothing can be taken for granted?

The American multicultural model is in crisis, and has allowed the enemies of America to make inroads into the American political fabric. Israel was the hero of both the Democrat and the Republican leadership, Senators and Congressmen. Now you have hundreds of thousands of Arab-Americans concentrated on Michigan in the city of Dearborn, many of them Lebanese, with significant Hezbollah influence there. Hezbollah in Michigan!! This would have been unbelievable until recently. That is what the globalized, postcolonial world has become. There was that belief that the market would solve everything social or ethnic, that consumption would melt everything in the shopping center cum public square, and this is not how it works.

How is the situation of the diaspora Jews?

A few years ago, a number of French Jews started to emigrate to Israel because they had problems in the banlieues with French Arabs, but in Israel life is very expensive and you have to be an achiever. If not, you can go to the West Bank settlements and join the supremacists there with a machine gun, but that’s complicated, risky and heavily ideological. So a number of them came back to France. After World War 2, the statist Zionist doctrine gained pre-eminence among Jews worldwide. The State of Israel was the shelter for the Jews, and Jews living in diaspora felt second to that. The October 7th attack opened a breach in this doctrine. I wonder to what extent the diasporic identity of Jews, which was prevalent throughout history from after the destruction of the Second Temple to 1948, is not gaining steam again.

How is Iran going in all this? 

The Iranian attack on Israel was reactive and intended to show that they were not in a position of weakness. Iran is not going well after the very harsh repression against women, against Iranian Kurds and against Iranian Sunnis. The clerics are being marginalized by the Revolutionary Guards, a riff raff of uneducated violent tough guys from the peripheries, chastising middle class, educated women from the urban centres. The social base of the regime in Iran is shrinking, and that does not bode well for its future. Most of the Iranian population doesn’t give a damn about Hezbollah. Iran is an oil and gas producing country. It could be extremely rich, but it’s under sanctions because of their policies, and the Iranians are sick and tired of that.

All Muslims don’t have the same ideas about Islam.

Shias don’t necessarily view Islam the way Sunnis do, and after the Iranian attack on Israel and the destruction of all the flying objects from Iranian origin over the Jordanian and Iraqi and Syrian skies, we did not witness mass demonstrations against Israel in the streets of Cairo. On the contrary, the Arab Sunni states are in panic, because they fear that the Iranians might attack them. Iran has already attacked Saudi Arabia and the Emirates through Iraqi Shia or Houthi Yemeni proxies that sent drones on their territories. No Arab state that had signed the Abraham Agreements has torn that piece of paper up since October 7th. They’re just sitting around and leading their public opinion, saying, “oh it is atrocious”. But they don’t do anything, in the hope that the Iranian regime will be thrown away.

At the end of the day, do you think the real problem is the Iranian regime?

For the time being, yes. It’s also Bibi Netanyahu; and it is also the way we deal with our own societies in the so-called West, or North or G7 or what have you.

Are we on the edge of world war?

I don’t think so. Because that would mean that you have alliances which are working, and everything is so fragmented. The Global South is not an alliance that can produce anything sustainable. It’s not like the pact between Japan, Italy and Germany in WW2.

Are you going to write another book?

There will be many other things to write. With Holocaustes, that is the first time I wrote a book right after I had finished the previous one. I was promoting Prophet in his own Land, about how I saw the world changing in the last 40 years. Then suddenly October 7th happened and I was asked to debate it, and I thought, this is a complex issue, I have 40 years of experience, why don’t I bring the state of the knowledge I have accumulated and focus it on this point, and try to put it into perspective and provide analytical tools for people to understand, precisely at a time when I’m trying to put together my narrative. You can agree with it, you can disagree with it, this is what academia is for. But the challenge now is that there are no narratives allowed in academia anymore. They are bound to be “deconstructed” – to use the Derrida parlance – as it is being reworded in American campuses’ language. Wokeism and decolonialism are a semantic catastrophe in our universities on both sides of the Atlantic. That is why I am forced into early retirement!

How are you perceived?

I happen to be in the eye of the storm. I’m not committed politically. In the Arab press, I was demonized as the Jew Kepel. I’m not Jewish, and I’m not going to convert to Judaism to please jihadists. I’m neither pro-Arab nor pro-Israeli as a scholar. I have lived among Arabs all my life, in France and elsewhere, and I bear witness.

What is your personal position?

It’s none of anyone’s business. Just like in France you’re not allowed to ask me what’s my religion if you’re my state. I have my opinions and my feelings, and I cast a vote in the ballots, but as an academic this is not the issue. One of the leftist newspapers said, “Kepel is always going to TV talk shows of the extreme right”. So? If they invite me, I go. When the extreme left invites me, I go. I go because I try to reach out to anyone in the public. I believe that academic knowledge has a global outreach and people are not prisoners of opinion leaders. Opinion changes. But establishing facts, contributing to knowledge, education and culture are the things that really matter.

Gilles Kepel, thank you.

Portrait of Gilles Kepel © Hannah Assouline

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