The Moroccan poet, novelist, essayist, and journalist, Tahar Ben Jelloun, is one of France’s most celebrated writers. He has written extensively about Moroccan culture, the immigrant experience, human rights, and sexual identity. An author who intervenes in politics, On Terrorism: Conversations with My Daughter (translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins) is the third book in a series in which the previous titles are Racism and Islam explained. It takes the form of a semi-imagined dialogue between him and his daughter.
With the trial opening this week in Paris over the January 2015 attacks on the offices of the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, and a kosher supermarket that killed seventeen people, this book is a timely and essential read. Ben Jelloun originally wrote it as a response to the attacks, and with his cousin Leila Alaoui in mind. She was in Burkina Faso having a quiet dinner in an Italian restaurant in Ougadougou when she was killed, along with twenty-nine other people.
Ben Jelloun shows the roots of terrorism in France, the terrifying unpredictability of the attacks, and how everyone is gripped by fear. He looks at individual countries such as Tunisia, the Arab Spring, and the role of the Internet.
He shows that Islam cannot be reduced to a single idea. Far-right extremists in the West conflate Wahhabism – the Sunni fundamentalist form of Islam practised in Saudi Arabia – and mainstream Islam, thereby reinforcing Islamic extremism. But there are more moderate Islamic schools of thought that are compatible with democracy and human rights which could be debated in public by Western leaders, as an antidote to radicalism.
“You often hear people say that the spiritual side of life has been sidelined here in Europe. There’s a feeling that in the West, materialism counts for more than spiritual values. Young men may feel they’re without a voice; perhaps they’ve been imprisoned for minor offences and feel excluded from society. If you’re already deeply disillusioned, the idea of putting God above everything else can be very appealing. Life on Earth becomes nothing but a stage on the road towards life in heaven. People are happy to believe in an all-powerful God, a God who is the beginning and end of all things, to accept that our destiny is in God’s hands.”
He shows how there have been several decades of serious neglect in the banlieues, the immigrant suburbs, where young people grow up in a cultural vacuum and unemployment is often as much as 45%. Islam gives them an identity.
Added to which the police frequently go too far when carrying out searches. Certain areas have become lawless environments that the cops prefer to avoid. A coherent housing and social policy is urgently required. Yet successive governments make promises and end up doing nothing – to the detriment of French society as a whole.
“Whole generations of immigrants and the sons and daughters of immigrants have been abandoned, left to rot at the margins of society, in pernicious circumstances that offer no hope for the future.”
Ben Jelloun concludes by outlining the basic tenets of Islam and gives insights into his frequent (re)reading of the Qur’an. “You have to look for the ‘spirit’ behind the words and phrases [. . .] you must respect the five pillars of Islam.”
Concise and to the point, On Terrorism: Conversations with My Daughter is perfect not only for a politics reading list, but as an essential introduction to an issue that will likely worsen in the era of COVID-19. He puts forward a programme to successfully combat Islamist terrorism with a particular focus on education.
Ben Jelloun is a powerful voice for change. If only the various governments (never mind their political persuasion) joined together in a constructive, united forward movement. As it is, everyone takes sides, retrenches, nothing changes, and the misuse of religion continues to have catastrophic consequences.
On Terrorism: Conversations with My Daughter by Tahar Ben Jelloun | Translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins | Small Axes, an imprint of HopeRoad Publishing | 200 pages £8.99 ISBN-13: 978-1916467118
The BookBlast® Podcast
Tahar Ben Jelloun discusses On Terrorism with Georgia de Chamberet as part of the Bridging the Divide series for The BookBlast® Podcast. Interview in French, English voice-over by Issa Naseri.
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