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Book Reviews

From an Imagined East to the Real East

Olivier Roy, En quête de l’Orient perdu. Entretien avec Jean-Louis Schlegel, Seuil, Paris, 2014

En quête de l’Orient perdu is a long interview that Jean-Louis Schlegel, the philosopher and sociologist, conducted with Olivier Roy, the French political scientist. Together they retrace the intellectual and human journey that has led Roy from the École Normale in Paris to Afghanistan and Tajikistan, via Pakistan, and to becoming a specialist in political Islam and a refined expert in Central Asian societies.

 

 

It was 1969 when a young Roy, aged only 19 and fascinated by the unexplored East and by the idea of “authentic, uncontaminated cultures,” set off hitch-hiking on his “great journey” to discover Afghanistan. He was in search of a “lost East,” of the “true Afghanistan,” true nomads and true tribes and driven by the culturalist illusion i.e. the idea of entering a world where the autochthonous culture and mentality were preserved intact. But the exotic spirit that had inspired the young student’s travels very quickly evaporated. Indeed, the “lost” East was nothing other than an “imaginary” East and remaining a prisoner of the cliché, of childhood dreams and postcard images precluded knowledge of the reality. And it was this awareness that, along with the conviction that genuine research cannot do without fieldwork, has allowed Roy over the years to develop that wealth of knowledge that, in 1985, was poured into the book Afghanistan. Islam et modernité politique; a book that immediately became a bestseller in the academic and diplomatic world. His competence began to be recognised in the 1980s. In 1984 he began working with the Quai d’Orsay’s Analysis and Forecasting Centre, in 1985 he obtained a post at the CNRS, and in 1988, after the Russian withdrawal from Afghanistan was announced, he was appointed to monitor the negotiations, with a view to guiding the post-soviet transition.

 

 

Page after page, the book emphasizes the academic’s journey in intellectual maturation. A journey resulting in the books that have marked his intellectual career, from L’échec de l’islam politique to La sainte ignorance. The interview also becomes an opportunity for Roy to clear up the misunderstanding that would have grown up around L’échec de l’islam politique over the years, namely, the idea that the author would have predicted the end of political Islam. Whereas the book’s thesis – as Roy wishes to make clear – was actually the structural failure of Islamist ideology. Indeed, by its very nature, a state cannot be Islamic: when it does become such, both state and religion end up assimilating one another and, ultimately, destroying one another. Political Islam therefore constitutes a contradiction both for the state that, by only recognising divine sovereignty, renounces its own, and for religion, which in compromising itself with politics, in fact becomes secularized. Iran would be the archetype of this failure, as is demonstrated by the fact that the Islamic revolution has ended up generating the most secularized society in the Muslim world. But the cases of Egypt and Tunisia would also be emblematic: there, too, political Islam has failed and can only exist, politically speaking, in the role of the opposition.

 

 

Roy also goes back to his theses on Islam’s secularization and globalization, on jihadism and the logic of mobilization. The jihadist movements should be understood in the horizontal sense i.e. as the result of a cultural and generational crisis, and not in the vertical sense i.e. not by passing through the Qur’an, Ibn Taymiyya and Sayyid Qutb. Here, however, the analysis seems incomplete because it exclusively considers the phenomenon’s sociological aspect without taking account of the religious variable, something that appears difficult to disregard.

 

 

All in all, the interview gives much food for thought and is rich in entertaining anecdotes that make it an enjoyable and pleasing read. In addition, by taking the author’s intellectual and life journey as its starting point, it fosters a better understanding of Roy’s scientific output and the socio-anthropological approach that guides him.

 

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