Tunisia’s diplomatic circle recently invited former French Defense Jean Pierre Chevènement to a conference under the title, “Modernity and Authenticity: Challenges facing the Muslim World from One Century to Another” at the Central University’s auditorium (Business School).
Chevènement headed several ministries including Education, Interior and Defense under former French President Francois Mitterrand. He was known for his anti-capitalist leanings and was one of the founders of the French Socialist Party. He drafted the electoral left-wing program that led Franco Mitterrand to power in 1981.
Former president Francois Holland nominated Chevènement in 2016 to head the Foundation for the Islam in France which was first established in 2005 to improve relations between the state and the Muslim community and intensify integration efforts. Chevènement supported the ban on Muslim women wearing the burkini on the country’s beaches.
Q-Is it possible to combine Islam and modernity?
I think so, provided that we understand Islamic ideology because Islam is a widespread religion and ideology. There are more than one billion Muslims in the world, and the borders of Islamic countries stretch from Asia to the African coast. Islam, like other religions, has gone through several periods and experienced resistance. However, during the Renaissance period, when Europe was open to the freedom of free thought and industrial development, Islamic countries experienced a long period of isolation. Just like any crisis, such as periods of struggle for decolonization, independence or the Cold War, these countries will witness the rise of Arab nationalism.
Q - During the Gulf War and September 11 attacks, we saw the rise of radical Islam. Is it possible that we will see a renaissance in Muslim countries?
In my opinion, yes we will, and many signs prove this. There is an emergence of new Islamic forces and they are developing and catching up with the emerging countries. There is nothing preventing Islamic countries from joining the procession of these countries.
It is certainly a difficult path, but that’s one more reason to take it. It could be done by separating religion from politics because secularism is often presented as a distorted concept. It is not a question of moving away from religion, but it is about believing in a common area of citizenship. Therefore, we must update the Islamic curriculum in schools. Islamic countries must also integrate in co-development because we must not neglect the fact that we live in an era of multipolarity between United States, China and the rest of Asian countries. I believe that multipolarity is an opportunity for co-development.
Q - Many countries are concerned about jihadists in conflict areas. Do you support the return of these fighters to their homelands?
I think they should be tried for all the crimes they have committed and in the countries where they committed these crimes (Such as Syria, Iraq, Libya or any other country). However, we must find a solution for the innocent women and children. They should not be punished for crimes they haven’t committed. I think those who have committed crimes to should be tried in countries where they have committed crimes whether in Syria, Iraq, Libya or elsewhere.
Q - Even if these countries don’t have a good judicial system?
It is regrettable, but justice must be served. If this is not possible, that does not justify letting these individuals off. Our duty is to ensure the fair trial of these individuals, with special provision for women and children. It is up to each country to assume its responsibility.
Q - You were against the war in Iraq. Did history prove you right?
Unfortunately, yes it did. When Dick Cheney asked for my opinion before invading Iraq, I told him that the United States would be making two mistakes. I told him I understand you want to weaken Iraq, but you must not forget that this country stands up to Iran and radical Shiite Islam is expanding in the region. On the other hand, I told him you would provoke a Sunni revolt against Westerners, and that even the fighters you trained in Afghanistan will turn against you.
This is exactly what happened with al-Qaeda, which was formed right after. Yes, this war was a mistake because it gave a strong boost to extremism as Iran emerged as the biggest winner.
Unfortunately, the Gulf War, followed by 12 years of blockade and the second war with the dissolution of the state and the army, all had dire consequences. Today, Iraq and other countries have become hotbeds for Iran and its militias which have disrupted the Middle East. Thus, we must find a way to achieve lasting peace in the region.
Q - Do you think sending French troops to Africa might also be a mistake?
I always prefer studying each case separately. Unfortunately, it seems that jihadists from Ansar al-Din and ISIS were heading from Mali towards Bamako. Upon the request of the legitimate authorities in Mali, France intervened to stop the progress of heavily armed four-wheel drive vehicles. No one can dispute that. There are big problems occurring in the Sahel region and France's long term presence there is important. We have no material interest that drives us to send the 5,000-strong French force within Operation Barkhane. It is not a large army, but without it the local army could collapse. We must, therefore, encourage Nigerians and Chadians to show patriotism and rebuild Mali's sovereign powers.
Q - What are your views on of the return of debate on anti-Semitism in France?
No one can deny Israel’s right to exist. We just have to find a solution to the issue, so that Palestinians and Israelis can live beside one another.