Matthew Campbell, in The Times, 28 May 2017, where the title is “Islamists vow to murder academic who know Koran better than them”
Gilles Kepel is waiting for a taxi on a London street corner. The roads are gridlocked, the cab is late and France’s foremost expert on Islam is starting to look nervous. He has every reason to be. Isis has placed this polished, polyglot professor on a death list, calling on its followers to kill him without delay. In France he has round-the-clock police protection. Yet here he is, alone and unprotected in the British capital – “Londonistan” was the term he coined for it years ago – barely two days after a suicide bomber killed 22 people at a Manchester concert.I have just interviewed him and he has ordered a cab to get to another meeting. But it is nowhere to be seen. Ushering him into the Underground, I ask him what it feels like to be threatened by a group that specialises in beheading its victims in front of a camera.
“It’s not very pleasant, but you get used to it,” he says, buying a ticket to Oxford Circus. As we go down the stairs, he continues: “It feels as if the subject I have spent 35 years studying has turned round to strike at me.”
He was at home in Paris brushing his teeth last summer when his mobile phone lit up. It was a journalist friend contacting him to say that he had been put on the hitlist.
A jihadist who had murdered a police officer and his wife in front of their three-year-old son in a town west of Paris had delivered a rambling speech on Facebook calling for the deaths of seven public figures. Kepel, 61, was at the top.
Kepel was in London last week to promote his latest book, Terror in France. He has become an increasingly controversial figure in his native land and has lent his considerable scholarship to the argument that France, the victim of a succession of attacks over the past two years in which 239 people have been killed, is too indulgent with Muslims.
A man of the left, Kepel accuses the French intelligentsia of falling under the spell of “Islamo-leftist” apologists, who have failed to understand the nature of the threat posed not only by the terrorists but also by Islamist provocateurs. They use false claims of Islamophobia to stoke hatred of Christians and Jews so as to create conditions for a civil war in the soft belly of the West – Europe.
Britain, he tells me, has fallen into a similar trap with its “communalism”, a legacy, he claims, of the Indian Raj.
“You thought you could buy social peace with your communalism,” he says, “allowing sharia councils to generally manage Muslim affairs in some parts of the UK. The Westminster and Manchester attacks are the death knell for that illusion.”
The French, by contrast, with their “civilising mission” abroad, had “always believed that the best thing anyone could do in the world was to become French”. But their attempt to impose cultural conformity on an increasingly diverse population under the principle of secularism, which excludes religion from public life, has inflamed the debate about Islam, and some of Kepel’s fellow academics are in sympathy with the complaints that it discriminates against Muslims.
Kepel, whose wife’s family is from north Africa, was a member of the commission that brought about a ban on the wearing of headscarves in state schools. The erosion of secularism, he warns, would lead to a “Balkanisation” of Europe along religious and ethnic lines, with the emergence of Muslim schools and voting blocs.
He is the son of an immigrant Czech playwright and teaches at Sciences Po (the Paris Institute of Political Studies), one of the Parisian grandes ecoles that educate the French elite. He has lectured at some of the finest universities in the world, including the London School of Economics. But unlike some colleagues he often ventures into the field. He has spent long periods in the banlieues, the bleak suburbs that ring most of the big French cities, to study the “rejectionist” identity stirring within the Muslim youth.
So steeped is he in Muslim culture that on a visit last year to a prison outside Paris, where he delivered a talk to the inmates, he deftly knocked down jihadist arguments by quoting directly from the Koran – in fluent Arabic. He also speaks impeccable English, Italian and several other languages.
“I think that I introduced a significant amount of doubt among the inmates as to whether the jihadists were really the ones who were knowledgable about Islam – and that made them furious, from what I heard,” he tells me.
Eavesdropping on phone conversations, the prison authorities heard jihadists describe Kepel as “a dangerous guy” who should be eliminated. He believes this led to him being put on the death list.
The Manchester bomber, he suspects, like so many of the attackers in France, belonged to what he calls the third generation of jihadists – the first being the 1990s groups of north Africa and the second the extremists of al-Qaeda. Far from being “lone wolf” terrorists, they belong, he believes, to a wider network of extremists, many of them criminals radicalised in prison.
How should we deal with the problem? His response is not reassuring. “I just provide the diagnosis,” he replies.
All is not lost, however. Kepel is a friend of Emmanuel Macron and claims to have fed the newly elected French president one of the best lines in his conclusive televised debate against Marine Le Pen, the far-right candidate who had pandered to public fears about terror. Citing “Monsieur Kepel, a renowned university professor”, Macron told her that “the greatest wish of the terrorists is that Madame Le Pen takes power in France . . . because they are looking for the radicalisation, the division, the civil war that you bring to this country”.
Kepel believes Macron has a vision: “He will reform the labour market, the education system, so that the have-nots will be reintegrated.” Will it stop the terror? “I don’t know,” he says.
When we emerge from the Underground, he phones his publicist so she can collect him for his next meeting. “I am outside the lingerie shop,” he tells her, peering at the window. “Of all places.”