Sheikh Khaled Bentounès, Algerian, is a Sufi spiritual guide and among the most active interfaith figures in France. In 1990 he founded the movement of Muslim Scouts in the country. Today, with the strengthening of extremism, the movement plays an important educational role: “The majority of the parents who turn to Muslim Scouting in France are concerned and wish to protect their children from the deviation of a teaching which, under the pretext of religion, can lead to radicalization, intolerance or even worse to jihadism,” Sheikh Khaled Bentounès tells us in an interview.
How did the idea of founding this movement come about?
Since its founding in 1907, the principle of Scouting found a favorable echo in all Muslim countries as a means of educating young people. Historically it spread from the ‘20s, both in North Africa than in the Middle East. Today, according to the World Organization of the Scout Movement, it represents a third of the 30 million members worldwide. It became obvious, especially in France where Islam is the second biggest religion, and due to the increasingly large presence of the Muslim diaspora in Europe, that it was necessary to meet the growing demand of parents concerned about the education of their children. Especially since Scouting’s educational philosophies of reawakening citizenship, of responsibility and of doing good are in perfect continuity with the traditional notion of chivalry. It is a matter of transmitting the transmission noble and universal values such as the defense of the weak, peace in society, and hospitality.
What characterizes Muslim Scouting in Europe?
Even in religious and philosophical diversity, the scout movement participates in a mission with a universal range, that is as much about us as it is future generations. It is essential in order to build awareness of the fraternal bonds that unite the human family, promote civic engagement, a common vision and a desire to live better together, get to know each other better and recognize one another in our cities, neighborhoods and institutions. It also works to raise awareness about nature among young people and to protect ecosystems that are now threatened.
One of the goals of Muslim Scouting is the spread of Islam. What activities do you organize to achieve this goal and what kind of Islam do you teach?
As for the teaching of the Muslim tradition, the boundaries of Muslim Scouts of France are clear and unambiguous. Through the reawakening of Muslim spirituality, it accompanies young people in building their life project through three dimensions: the educational dimension, which favors the construction of a solid base of knowledge and allows for the development of individual responsibility, giving reason its place; the cultural dimension, namely the Culture of Peace, which is founded on the principle of the sanctity of life and calls for work on one’s self in order to find balance and bring out the peacemaker; and the spiritual dimension, that is, the search for the meaning we give to our actions and the situations in life in order to build a world in synergy with one another and not one against one another. Therefore it is not a religious, ideological, political or sectarian teaching.
How many members of the European Muslim Scouting movement are there?
For twenty-five years, thousands of girls and boys, in France and in Europe, have benefitted from the educational proposition of the Muslim scout movement in France. All of them, without exception, claim Islam for peace and live together in the national community.
What motivates Muslim families in Europe to sign their children up for the Scouts?
The majority of the parents who turn to the Muslim Scouts of France are concerned with protecting their children from the deviation of a teaching that, with the pretext of religion, can lead to radicalization, intolerance or even worse to jihadism. However, it must be acknowledged that Muslim Scouting in France, twenty-five years after its conception, remains unknown to most people because of the movement’s limited economic resources. The mass media makes no effort to spread awareness. The kids can benefit from outings in nature, trips, meetings, exchanges and they participate in group work aimed at personal growth and teaching of democracy.
In recent years in Europe the danger of the radicalization of young Muslim immigrants is a much talked about topic. Can scouting play a preventive role?
The young people who sign up are by no means immigrants. For the most part they were born in France or in Europe, where they have lived for two or three generations and they are completely integrated in the society. They are European by education and culture. To label them as different citizens because of their religious beliefs is a view that does not reflect reality. They wish to be full citizens while remaining linked to the Muslim tradition. The fact that Islam has been stigmatized and assimilated to Islamism today creates a real social divide. Isn’t scouting, as a popular education movement, perhaps in the right position to teach this ideal? However, does it have the means and support needed to offer a coherent and redemptive response? Only a political decision on the European level can provide a response for the future and block the radicalization that affects a youth devoid of points of reference.
Could Muslim Scouting create a bridge between Islam and European values?
After twenty-five years of experience the answer is certainly yes. The engagement of French Muslim Scouting on the field, on the two shores of the Mediterranean, with concrete projects carried out together with other scout movements – Moroccans, Algerians, Tunisians, Syrians, Lebanese, Turkish, Egyptian, Libyan – proves it. In one of these projects, the Flame of Hope in 2007, made the rounds to thirty French cities from Bordeaux to Paris. In 2009 it made its way throughout the Mediterranean basin (Paris, Rome, Tripoli, Tunis, Algiers). In 2011 the slogan “Je vote donc je suis” (I vote therefore I am) was launched with a new tour of France which brought together veterans and young people, and concluded in Paris under the Arc de Triomphe. There it revived the Flame of the Unknown Soldier in the presence of representatives of the state and again in the absence of the media. In 2013, from Paris to Berlin, the Flame was welcomed by the President of the Federal Republic of Germany.
Muslim intellectuals often call for a reform of Islam. Could Muslim Scouting be an instrument to bring about reform?
It depends on what is implied by reform. The movement of the Muslim Scouts of France has no claim or vocation to interfere in a theological, dogmatic or religious debate which is mainly left to intellectuals, Muslim scholars and the politicians of Muslim countries. Our job is to educate Muslim youth to learn to confront without coming to blows, and promote a culture of peace and universal brotherhood among young people who today feel powerless in a world that they do not understand, preparing them to build the future with one another, not one against the other.
[This article was trasnlated from the original in Italian]