Fascination of jihad (G. Martinez-Gros)

In conclusion of his previous work, "Brief history of empires", the historian Gabriel Martinez-Gros asked himself a question: Is Islamism the real danger? ". Since then, through various articles, and now in a book (" Jihad fascination », PUF), this recognized specialist in medieval Islam and Ibn Khaldoun tries to answer this question, and to explain the impotence of the West in the face of the jihadist danger. A position taken in the public debate which is starting to cause a stir. Indeed, his approach seems somewhat curious on the part of a historian.

The war of "specialists"

The international context, then the attacks which struck France, led more or less serious specialists to speak in the media to try to explain the jihadist phenomenon. News channels and social networks first highlighted what some call - often with contempt - "jihadologists", practices for "explaining" in a few words the ideology of the Islamic State, without really looking back, but almost only through knowledge of jihadist social networks, sometimes of a few jihadists in person, and sometimes also without even being Arabists ... Ideal for the format of continuous news channels and social networks, a bit tight if you are looking for depth and a more complex and longer-term understanding.
If we hear a little less from jihadologists today (but we can be sure that they will reappear at the first attack), a real war has (re) started between more recognized specialists on these questions: Gilles Kepel, Olivier Roy, François Burgat and to a lesser degree, Jean-Pierre Filiu, even Pierre-Jean Luizard. For the details of the basic differences between these specialists, we refer to the article by Leyla Dakhli, “Islamology is a combat sport”, in issue 3 of the Revue du Crieur (March 2016). What interests us here is that most of them are not historians, and that their historical references stop at the colonial and postcolonial relations between the Muslim world and the West (two blocs both contested for their caricatural monolithism , and yet systematically used, including by those who criticize this essentialism). More simply, to explain the current phenomena, in particular jihadism, no need to go back beyond colonization. The Ottoman Empire, for its part, is hardly ever mentioned, other than by the fate reserved for it by the West.

So when a historian of medieval Islam, Gabriel Martinez-Gros, decided to take an interest in current affairs and try to explain it, in particular through the prism of a Muslim scholar of the Middle Ages (Ibn Khaldoun), one could hope to see a little more clearly there, especially that the texts of the jihadists abound in references to the "blessed" period of the first conquests.

Take inspiration from Ibn Khaldûn to explain the present?

Gabriel Martinez-Gros has been studying the great 14th-century scholar for many years, but it is in his work "Brief history of empires" that he attempted to make a "universal history" by relying on the theories of Ibn Khaldoun. Let us summarize them in a few words, based on what Martinez-Gros says: Ibn Khaldoun mixes politics and economy, and thinks that the sedentary state ("the empire") aims to accumulate wealth and to levy taxes is even its "fundamental and founding task". War is expensive, and therefore the empire is "peaceful and pacifying", the populations are disarmed and "civilized": the empire refuses them violence, but also solidarity, in exchange for protection. Thus, "the subjects of the empire are exclusively assigned to the functions of economic and intellectual production". Gabriel Martinez-Gros, interpreting Ibn Khaldoun, explains that the empire operates a "division of labor" between sedentary people, in charge of production, and Bedouins (here not necessarily nomads), in charge of violence. The consequence is that in the long term it is these Bedouins who take / have the power, "because they have the weapons". Let us not forget that Ibn Khaldoun lived in particular during the time of the Mamluks. Subsequently, the Bedouins become sedentary by pacifying themselves, and the State is then weakened because the distinction between sedentary and Bedouin is no longer clear. Martinez-Gros sums up this process as follows: “the empire kills those who do it”. Violence is thus at the heart of Ibn Khaldoun's theory of empires, it "multiplies tenfold with empire".
The universal history proposed by the historian, based on the theories of his prestigious predecessor, divided and not totally convinced. What about jihadism, the subject of his latest work?

"Return" and "crisis" of the empire

Gabriel Martinez-Gros explains that today the empire, still according to his interpretation of Ibn Khaldoun, would be "the world as a whole", a world characterized by "sedentarization, the progress of non-violence", a phenomenon which he sums up in a "triad of globalized civilization: urbanization, schooling and the decline in fertility of couples". However, according to the historian, "these undeniable advances in civilization leave pockets of resistance", which are characterized by their violence. A violence facilitated and encouraged by the wealth of sedentary people and the very ideology of the empire: peace. The historian insists throughout his work on the powerlessness and fragility of the empire due to this rejection of violence and to the “disarmament of peoples”. The whole is aggravated by "the crisis" which is not, for Martinez-Gros, the concern of the system itself, but more simply the slowdown of the economy, combined with the extension of the lifespan, a "Fatal triumph". The historian believes that, unlike the Roman or Abbasid Empire, it is no longer the weight of military spending that causes the crisis of the empire, but the weight of social spending. Thus weakened, ideologically disarmed, is the empire at the mercy of violent margins, in particular "Islamist fury"?

The jihadists: an "elite of warriors"

This disarmament and this ideology of peace for the “masses” of the empire would therefore favor, according to Gabriel Martinez-Gros, the emergence of violent groups, among which the jihadists would be the most effective because they were supported by a coherent ideology, based in particular on the rejection of "the morality of the masses". The jihadists would thus see themselves as "elite of warriors", "aristocracy", indifferent "to the sufferings of the impoverished breeding herd".
It is the moment that the historian chooses to evoke the suburbs, in a part with the surprising title: "A misinterpretation: the victimization of the suburbs". Indeed, Martinez-Gros sees in the suburbs not only poor and underprivileged places, but “dissent”. The speech here is a little confused, especially as the historian moves away for a time from the jihadists to evoke the violence in Latin America. But we understand that once again, the author believes that the empire is mistaken, does not understand, does not give the right answers by choosing "the weapons of peace - today, subsidies, dispensaries, from schools - to Bedouin societies whose morals and raison d'être are warlike, united [...] and willingly contemptuous of our refusal of the violence which they regard as cowardice ”.

Islamization of the violence of the suburbs and the fault of third worldism

In the extension of this idea, and with more and more political accents, Gabriel Martinez-Gros attacks the theory of "the Islamization of radicalism", developed by Olivier Roy, and criticized by both Kepel and Burgat. . He believes that those who support this thesis want first "to exonerate Islam, and especially the Muslim religion, of any involvement in the violence of jihadism". According to him, jihadism "is fully aware of the unity of its fight", and is indeed a global phenomenon. The "choice of Islam" by these "militants" would not be "fortuitous, nor superficial". To evoke nihilism would be not to understand that jihadism is a "very clear and old political and historical project".

To explain what he sees as blindness and an inability to understand the phenomenon, Martinez-Gros invokes the faults of “third-worldism”, what others call “colonial repentance”. This is the main axis he defends in some recent articles, from the Qantara magazine to Liberation (included on the “Equality and Reconciliation” site) or Le Point. He explicitly denounces the dichotomy between social base and ideological discourse, “an old Marxist distinction between infrastructure and superstructure, as venerable as it is inoperative”. Not hesitating to caricature certain positions that he does not share, the historian denounces those who think "that there is no history outside that of the West", the latter being guilty of all past and above all present ailments. According to him, "this strange imperialism of guilt" would have its origin in decolonization. Martinez-Gros goes so far as to assert that this Third Worldism would in fact serve to perpetuate the West's monopoly on history, "by disguising it with repentance"! He also denounces the idea that, both jihadist violence and religious or identity claims, are ultimately only reactions of rejection of the Western model. Here he joins Gilles Kepel's position on the “Islamogauchists”, always taking on caricatural accents, continuing to gradually slide what one might have thought to be a historical essay towards a political pamphlet.

Violence consubstantial with the Muslim religion?

In its last part, the author returns to Ibn Khaldoun. According to his interpretation of the theory of the Muslim scholar, "Islam, in its principle and its first historical developments, is inseparable from jihad", understanding here that Islamic religion / civilization are intimately linked to religious warfare (because here, the term jihad is used only in this sense) from the beginning.

Like the other medieval authors, Ibn Khaldoun does not separate religion from politics, but considers Islam to be an exception in the three monotheisms, because it is a "born conqueror religion". Christianity would have been born peaceful because sedentary (within the Roman Empire), violent Islam because Bedouin, "an empire to be born". If the establishment of the Islamic empire "appeased religion", the violence would still be there, in the "violent margins" which, they would have cornered jihad. However, according to the author (still claiming to be Ibn Khaldoun), jihad is an obligation. There is in these lines a form of essentialization which astonishes on the part of a historian, especially since the idea that Islam is violent by nature is very widespread among many polemicists who make their butter out of fear and especially ignorance.

Should we understand then that the "real" Islam would be that of the jihadists? Martinez-Gros is not so categorical, but the doubt is there when he asserts that jihadism "has chosen the most historic part" in the "nebula of the Muslim religion". Those who did not understand this, especially in the West, would have "gone out of history".

The conclusion of the book is rather vague. If at certain times, without fear of being caricatured, the author goes straight to the point, we do not really understand what he wants for the future, apart from "preventing the emergence of the imperial dichotomy between Bedouin and sedentary people ”. What does he mean when he says in an interview that we must “make an appeal to the people”? Or when he writes that we will have to “once again take these risks that we would have thought buried with the distant lives of our fathers and grandfathers”?
More generally, if we can sometimes share his criticisms of the Manichaeism or the simplicity of certain analyzes, we regret that finally Gabriel Martinez-Gros often falls into the same pitfalls, with the risk of giving scientific legitimacy to inflammatory political theories. . We are hardly convinced by his explanations solely through the prism of his interpretation of Ibn Khaldoun. It is not in any case with this work, which is ultimately not really a history work, that we will better explain the present by understanding the past.

Gabriel Martinez-Gros, “Fascination of Jihad. Islamist fury and defeat of the peace ”, PUF, 101 pages.

Video: France Culture - Gabriel Martinez-Gros - La Secte Des Assassins Dans Lislam Médiéval (January 2022).