The world that will come

The Awis al-Qarni mosque in Raqqa (image: Lazhar Neftien, from Wikipedia)
The Awis al-Qarni mosque in Raqqa (image: Lazhar Neftien, from Wikipedia)

Institutional Communication Service

2 January 2018

The renowned French political scientist and Arabist Gilles Kepel (professor at the École normale supérieure, and author of many books on Jihadism, including the recently published "Terror In France: The Rise Of Jihad In The West", Princeton University Press, 2017) chairs the Middle East Mediterranean (MEM) Freethinking Platform, which was created at Università della Svizzera italiana based on the shared feeling that there is a strong need to encourage a critical and participative look at the disrupting events of today’s world, with a strong focus on the situations in the MEM region. “Inside the MEM” is the global educational component of the MEM Freethinking Platform, consisting of a series of lectures and seminars, in English language, given by Prof. Kepel.


In today’s Liquid Modernity, is Jihadism liquid too?

I believe that the latest generation of Jihadism could be considered ‘liquid’ although, perhaps, not in the way intended by Zygmunt Bauman. There are liquids in the explosives used by jihadists and, on the other hand, blood, of course, is liquid. This generation of Jihadists is undoubtedly bloodthirsty. They say that the blood of their enemy – whoever it is – is halal, the Arabic word for ‘permissible’ (a familiar use of the term is in connection with halal food i.e. that which adheres to Islamic law, as defined in the Koran).

Furthermore, this notion of liquid could be used to portray what Jihadism is in today’s society. Today’s Jihadists apply ‘soft power’, meaning that they are not organised in a defined hierarchical structure. What we are observing today is, in fact, a phenomenon that is not Leninist nor pyramidal, as was the case with Al-Qaida, an organisation in which orders would come from the top, somewhere in Waziristan or Balochistan (or wherever) and which would then be implemented by activists.

That is what happened, for instance, with 9/11 when individuals were trained and did everything by the book. Eventually, that system did not survive insofar as Al-Qaida is an elitist movement and therefore unable to mobilize the masses, even by virtual example, which was its original intention.

We should also not forget that 9/11 was something that took place before the mass communication that came with the Internet; we were in the satellite television era, when the media was easier to control. Soon afterwards, with the global emergence of the Internet, social media, and video sharing, the paradigm changed and it was no longer necessary to have an organization to pursue related interests, but rather a ‘system’ (In Arabic there is an expression, Nizam, la Tanzim, which means “System, not organisation”). The modus operandi of this ‘non-organisation’ is to spread terror amongst ‘infidel’ masses and galvanize the militant attitudes by the use of the so-called ‘network-based terrorism’, whether in Europe or in the Middle East targeting civilians or ‘soft target’ enemies, leading therefore towards a fracture within society. The belief was that European societies would soon go back to their dimension of racists and white supremacists. In fact, we have since experienced the rise of various right-wing movements, such as the Front National in France, the Afd in Germany. This allowed jihadists to recruit their militants and tell them to see the ‘others’, namely the whites, as a bunch of racists. However, this ‘system’ has failed because Marine le Pen, leader of the Front National, was eventually defeated by Macron, and since then, the extreme right in France has lost strength. Therefore, to some extent, jihadism and the extreme right, at least in the French case, are losing ground, though previously the two movements were close to each other. During the French presidential elections, in the Le Pen-Macron rounds of debates, Macron once said to Le Pen (quoting me actually) that “jihadists wanted her to be elected as it would suit their interests“.


Would an improved dialogue with Shia Iran be the key to achieving stability in the MEM region?

A dialogue between Iran and the Shiites is necessary, but it should be unbiased, not conditioned by the views and the dynamics of long-standing relationships between the West and the Arab Sunnis.

The petrol-monarchies of the Peninsula are now torn between Saudi Arabia and Qatar: if Iran is not reintegrated in the new Middle East, then they are again going to undergo a moment of crisis.

One of the main aims of the MEM Freethinking Platform is to bring together young people (the Middle Eastern leaders of tomorrow) who will be able to bring fresh thinking about the future of the region. They have been at odds with each other for six years now, since the Arab Spring, when everybody was interested in killing their next of kin. Now it is time for reconstruction, and Switzerland has a role to play in this process.


So do you believe in the potential of Lugano as a neutral venue for fostering dialogue not only North-South, but also West and Middle-East?

I believe it and South-South as well. To a large extent, not only because Lugano is the part of Switzerland that looks towards the Mediterranean, but also because Switzerland as a whole benefits from its neutral stance. When the traditional diplomatic instruments do not function anymore because they reach out to non-governmental organisations rather than States, Switzerland is rather well placed because it has no explicit agenda for itself, and therefore can initiate the dialogue. Moreover, there is no real objection from the rest of Europe because European countries know that they cannot deliver this dialogue by themselves and that is why Switzerland, and Lugano in particular, is an appropriate venue for that purpose.  


Would the idea of a Federal state in the Middle East be something to envision, coming from Lugano?

The Middle East had already adopted a Federalist model like the Swiss one, in Lebanon, which was once considered the Switzerland of the Middle East. Unfortunately, that model did not have the same success in Lebanon as in the Swiss Confederation. Today, that area of the Middle East is faced with a massive humanitarian problem, particularly in war-torn Syria. We would hope that the fall of Raqqa and the end of the ISIS para-State system would enable the reconstruction of the country, but this is not yet on the table.

This is something we have to think about, by bringing the young leaders from this area to the Summer Summit in Lugano, next year. We believe in the rebirth of the entire Lebanese-Syrian region, which was erased largely because of the dominance of the ‘petro-Islam’, and to reestablish its capacity as a mediator between Europe and the Middle East and the Near East. This element of mediation has to be revived, and the fact that Lebanon and Syria became the field for the diverging interests of the great powers means that the reconstruction of the Levant is now a major issue.

In this already complex situation, the essential role of Russia is not to be forgotten, which now has the edge in the Levant because they are backing the Assad regime and they have adopted a sort of efficient ‘cost-soldier’ strategy, caring little about protocols and civilian casualties. Now, faced with the prospect of reconstruction in the region, Russia cannot deliver it because of the financial impact of falling oil prices (caused also by the emergence of shale oil and fracking in the US). The price per barrel is estimated to drop down to 25 or even 20 dollars a barrel in a year or two from now, mainly because of technological improvements. Therefore, this is going to be a major problem for the stability in the MEM region. Moreover, the oil rent was the basis for financing of Islamism in the region, so the big question mark is how can we see the future with those changing circumstances. This is one of the challenges that we are considering here in Lugano.


Multiculturalism: is there a future or has it failed?

Multiculturalism entails the juxtaposition of communities that live apart from each other, and therefore it is not a significant recipe for integration. My gut feeling is that soon we will experience ‘Balkanisation’ (fragmentation) processes where, in the best case, organisations will fail and, in the worst case, civil wars will break out.

At the end of the day, what brings us together is more important that what divides us, which is the motto of the MEM Freethinking Platform.


Further information on the MEM Freethinking Platform at:

The original version of this interview was published in the December 2017-February 2018 issue of Ticino Welcome, n. 056, p.18-19.