“Assad has chosen Gaddafi’s fate"

French Middle East expert Gilles Kepel on the rebellion in Syria, the crucial phase of the "Arab Spring" and the Muslims in the suburbs of Paris.

Gilles Kepel, 56, is the leading expert on Islam in France. He comes from a Czech-French family and taught at the renowned Parisian elite university "Institut d'Etudes Politiques". For three decades he has observed political Islam and radical Islamism in the Arab world and in France. His best-known books include "Prophet and Pharaoh", "The spiral of terror: The way of Islam, September 11 in our suburbs", “The Black Book of Jihad: The Rise and Fall of Islam ". In February 2012 he published "Ninety-three", a tribute to Victor Hugo, and a study of the social revolution in the Parisian suburbs. Kepel met profil on the margins of a conference of "Rencontres Valmer: Beyond the Arab Spring" orgnized by the "Center for Mediterranean Integration" and the French Foreign Ministry in Marseille.

profil: Syrian dictator Bashar Assad tried unsuccessfully to put down the uprising against his rule. The rebels, however, also make no significant progress. Can the West not help the Syrians?

Kepel: We must not only consider the internal situation in the calculation of a possible intervention. Libya had only regional effects on neighboring countries, but Syria is a neighbor of Israel and Turkey. This means that a potential intervention relates to key issues of international security policy. Syria can not be considered in isolation, without talking about these strategic challenges. The security of Israel is a concern of the White House in Washington. No Western power wants to intervene in Syria.

profil: But Israel is far from the only reason for the reluctance of the international community. There is, thanks to the blockade of Russia and China, not even a UN resolution that calls on the Syrian regime to end the violence.

Kepel: Not only that. Syria is also central to Iran's influence in the Arab Levant. The Lebanon war of 2006 happened, because Israel wanted to weaken Hezbollah, which had been trained and equipped by Iran. The weapons to Hezbollah arrived via Syria. If Syria explodes or radical Sunnis take over power Iran loses direct access to Hezbollah. That would weaken Iran. And of course Hezbollah.

profil: That would be more of a reason for the U.S. to intervene in Syria.

Kepel: Barack Obama already has two wars on the neck, which he inherited and which he can not bring to an end: Iraq and Afghanistan. While the Americans were hunting Islamists in Iraq, Iran has backed up there influence. After the Western Allies and the jihadists have killed each other and were mutually weakened, Tehran came out as the strongest power in Iraq. It is so difficult to predict the effects of international intervention - that is why no Western government risks a military intervention in Syria. Any Western intervention could backfire.

profil: Can Europe just watch as President Assad slaughters the population?

Kepel: It's terrible, but it looks like this. The situation is complicated. In the United States presidential elections in the fall, and France elections now in spring. Without the French war machine Europe cannot schedule a military strike. This can only happen if the British and French do it together.

profil: Syria is therefore faced with a long and bloody civil war. What do you think of the attempts to negotiate? Can the Arab League establish itself as a political force?

Kepel: The problem is that President Assad cannot go back. He could have chosen a fate similar to that of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen - both retired without losing anything. Bashar has missed already this option. Now he just missed the second possibility: To end likeEgypt’s expresident Hosni Mubarak in court - but live. I fear that Assad has chosen the fate of Libya's former dictator Muamar Gaddafi.

profil: The "Arab Spring" is in its second year, the initial euphoria has long since passed into skepticism. How do you see the future of Arabia?

Kepel: There is not a single "Arab Spring". The transformation of the Middle East is a long process. The first phase was the revolution. In Tunisia, there were angry young people and trade unionists who overthrew their rulers. In Egypt the Facebook generation played a big role. Everywhere there were different political weights, but nowhere were the Islamists, who forced the change. The motto was: freedom, dignity, democracy. This was followed by the second phase: the free elections. It turned out that the religious parties are best organized. So they win anywhere. So this is the new Middle East: Modern Muslims are in.

profil: Modern Muslims? In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood may perhaps prove that political Islam can have a democratic face. The second winner, however, are the Salafists, who advocate a fundamentalist social and political concept. The democratic activists of Tahrir Square rightly fear their revolution went wrong.

Kepel: That is why it is now as important that the third phase of the "Arab Spring" will be addressed: the economic and social structure of the country. For example: 600,000 people have returned to Libya. You want to contribute to the success of democracy in their country, but they need first thing: work. The situation is very difficult, and unemployment is huge. Libya is once again at the very beginning, the law of the rebels prevails. In Tunisia, there is still a lack of public order. In Egypt, the situation for some other reason is extremely tight: because the army does not surrender power.

profil: You are splitting the countries of the "Arab Spring" geographically into three zones. What is the criteria?

Kepel: Zone A - the "A" stands for Arabia - including the Mediterranean countries of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, who have fought for free elections with mass protests. In Zone B the "B" stands for Bahrain. Or petroleum. In Arabic, you can not always tell the difference between "B" and "P". The Gulf region has been destabilized through the "Arab Spring" in the Mediterranean countries. Yemen’s President Saleh has even resigned. Saudi Arabia has no mass protests, but the royal family can no longer assume that their reign is eternal. Zone C is Syria – it’s the name in Arabic for Greater Syria "Bilad El-Cham" or "Shams". This is the only Arab country where we cannot decouple the internal from the strategic outer layer, so it is a special case.

profil: 25 years ago you already studied the arrival of Islam in the "banlieues", the poor suburbs around Paris. How did you come to that?

Kepel: At that time the workers went on strike in the car factories, and between the protests they prayed toward Mecca in the parking lots. This was something quite new in the French countryside. I wanted to know more about what that meant.

profil: In your recently published book in French "Ninety-three" you again analyze the social situation in these banlieues, Saint-Denis and Clichy-sous-Bois. What has changed there in a generation?

Kepel: There is not just a couple of immigrant children who want to eat "halal" food ("halal" means "allowed" in Arabic, the term refers to the dietary laws of Sharia, editor's note). In addition they have adjusted average French culture. The Muslim community sets itself apart from the rest of France. On the right side of the political spectrum, this phenomenon is being hystericalized and the left side of the political spectrum is dead silent about it in almost autistic manner. That is wrong. We have to take this social problem very serious.

profil: With your book title "Ninety-three" you take inspiration from Victor Hugo's novel of the year 1793. Where's the connection?

Kepel: Victor Hugo named his last book "Ninety-three" after the year 1793. He wrote it after the Paris Commune of 1871. (Hugo describes the counter-revolutionary movements after the French Revolution, ed) It interested him, which had social upheaval in which society and social concepts which employ the French. "93" is also the zip code of the department of Seine-Saint-Denis, where I conducted my study halal. It hosts some of the poorest suburbs of Paris.

profil: Is "halal" not primarily a specification of how animals are to be slaughtered? Muslims who eat "halal" can still sit at the table with non-Muslims, right?

Kepel: At the time of my first study in the suburbs before a quarter century, the answer was clear. When I asked: “Do you eat in the same restauants with non-Muslims," the majority said at the time: "Yes", and added: "We only eat no pork and don’t drink alcohol "But today very, very many say: “Only if it is halal."You have to understand: We French are famous for two things: food and sex. The reason is that in France all have always eaten and slept with all. The halal culture now put this into question.

profil: But at the end most of the children of immigrants will be integrated in France….

Kepel: On the contrary, it's so disturbing. This young generation of devout Muslims stay away from school canteens. They drift away more and more. Our pride in the separation of church and state is not shared in the suburbs - where they feel secularism is an anti-Muslim instrument. We must address this problem now. We should invest much more in education, much more in integration programs and job creation in these districts. Unemployment drives the boys ever deeper into their isolated communities. They have no education, they cannot find jobs, they don’t not have the right tools to understand what happened to them.

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© 2018 Tessa Szyszkowitz