Antoine Sfeir: French-Lebanese scholar and writer who critiqued political Islam - Koranmu English
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Antoine Sfeir: French-Lebanese scholar and writer who critiqued political Islam

Antoine Sfeir: French-Lebanese scholar and writer who critiqued political Islam

An intermediary between the east and west is a trite expression but one that perfectly encapsulates Antoine Sfeir, who has died aged 69.Sfeir​ was t…

Antoine Sfeir: French-Lebanese scholar and writer who critiqued political Islam

An intermediary between the east and west is a trite expression but one that perfectly encapsulates Antoine Sfeir, who has died aged 69.

Sfeir​ was the founder and editor of Les Cahiers de l’Orient (“Notebooks from the East”), a French quarterly devoted to the study and reflection of the Arab and Muslim world, from Morocco to Indonesia.

The French-Lebanese scholar, author and journalist was a sought-after commentator on Middle Eastern affairs in the French media.

Born in Beirut in 1948 to a Maronite Christian family, Sfeir began his career as a journalist in 1968 at Lebanon’s most widely read Francophone daily new spaper L’Orient-Le Jour, which was established in 1971 and “partisan to a liberal, Christian leaning line,” according the Arab Press Network.

Civil war broke out in Lebanon in 1975 and the following year a 27-year-old Sfeir was kidnapped and tortured by a militia affiliated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), reportedly on the orders of the Syrian regime who believed he was a spy of Israel. He was held by his captors for a week, and later recounted the ordeal, which left him with scars on his face in his book Le jour ou ma vie s’est arrêtée (“The day my life stopped”), published in 2012.

Sfeir decided to leave then-war-torn Lebanon for France where, during the mid-1980s, he worked at newspapers La Croix (The Cross) and then Le Pèlerin (The Pil grim). It was from Paris in 1985 that he founded Les Cahiers. He continued to publish essays and articles in many of France’s other esteemed press institutions and soon gained himself the stature of a recognised and respectable expert on the Middle East.

Sfeir’s views in the early 2000s warned against the dangers of Islamic radicalism, well before it became one of the media’s most ubiquitous and critical topics, as it is today. In 2004, he said fundamentalist foreign imams were finding an eager audience in France’s deprived suburbs of large immigrant populations. “The kids there already watch Arab stations on satellite TV, with their bloodthirsty slogans and anti-western propaganda,” he told The Guardian. “They’ve already been totally radicalised.”

One of his most notable intervention s was a 2002 article published in Lyon Mag, in which Sfeir took aim at the influential Oxford professor Tariq Ramadan, a leading advocate of political Islam and grandson of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna, as “a specialist in double-speak”. Sfeir claimed that Ramadan’s influence on impressionable Muslim youths was more dangerous than that of violent Islamists.

Ramadan tried unsuccessfully to sue him for defamation. Sfeir emboldened critics of the relatively moderate thinker on political Islam and bridge-builder between Islamic orthodoxy and secular democracy. They accuse him of being two-faced, adjusting his position according to his (religious or secular) audience, supporting the oppression of women and waging a clandestine jihad on the liberal West. (Ramadan is currently fighting rape charges in France.)

A further illustration of Sfeir’s disagreement with religious influences was his co-founding in 2005 of the Observatoire de la Laïcité, a study group aimed at strengthening the principle of secularism as an integral part of France’s republic and democracy​.​

Sfeir’s most controversial academic offering was perhaps his book Tunisie, terre de paradoxes published in 2006, for which he was accused of supporting the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the former president ousted during the Arab Spring (who in 2012, after fleeing to Saudi Arabia, was sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment on charges of theft, inciting violence and repression of protests).

In the book, Sfeir denies the existence of a police state in Tunisia, saying, “it is no more a police state than the United States, Gr eat Britain, or even France,” and was accused by many of colluding with Tunisia’s authoritarian regime. At the time, he replied that he always considered “the Tunisian people as an example for the whole region” in terms of education, modernisation and regional integration, as well as in the fight against religious fundamentalism. However, after the Tunisian revolution of 2011, Sfeir conceded to having been “heavily deceived” on Tunisia and the Ben Ali regime.

Sfeir was the director of the Centre for Study and Reflection on the Middle East, the president of the School of International Relations at Paris-Sorbonne University and a former professor of international relations at the Sorbonne’s communication and journalism school.

In 2009, Sfeir was made an Officer of the Legion of Honour. His latest book publis hed in 2012, L’islam contre l’Islam: l’interminable guerre des sunnites et des chiites (Islam vs. Islam: The Endless War of Sunnis and Shiites) lays out the origins of the historic Sunni and Shiite schism, arguing that this irreconcilable doctrinal divergence is integral to understanding the current geopolitical situation in the Middle East, earned him the French city of Nancy’s Book and Human Rights Prize in 2013.

Sfeir’s final blog post is dated 10 May 2018. It is titled Trump et le nucléaire iranien, ou comment se tirer une balle dans le pied (“Trump and the Iran nuclear deal, or how to shoot yourself in the foot”), and was dedicated and critical of the US president’s decision to withdraw from the historic agreement.

According to Bérénice Murgue-Khattar, former assistant and contr ibutor at Les Cahiers who knew him well, Sfeir had also been critical of France’s approach to foreign policy in the Middle East in recent years. “He considered that we must not ignore the lines of power in the Middle East, such as the confrontational relationship between Shiites and Sunnis, and he insisted that the Middle East is an ethnic and confessional mosaic,” she said.

Sfeir reportedly continued his daily rituals until the day he died, enjoying the pastries of his native Lebanon and his Gitanes. “From the beginning of his illness a few years ago, Antoine had accepted it with a lot of philosophy. As a believer, death, he said, is part of life,” Murgue-Khattar said.

He is survived by his wife and three daughters. His eldest daughter Marie-José is a contributor of Les Cahiers de l’Orient.

Antoine Sfeir, writer, born 25 November 1948, died 1 October

Source: Google News Muhammadiyah Network: Koranmu English

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