When Charles de Gaulle heard about the arrest and detention of the philosopher and intellectual Jean-Paul Sartre for civil disobedience in a suburb police state in Paris, he famously ordered for his release, saying ‘you don’t arrest Voltaire.’ This incident between Sartre and de Gaulle is often cited to demonstrate the unique position held by intellectuals within French society. One of the arguments for this privileged position is the claim that the French intellectuals speak in the universal with the aim of providing guidance on social and political mattersto the world. This trend, they further argue,can be traced back to Voltaire’s condemnation of religious authority in his Lettres philosophiques (1734), Victor Hugo’s polemic against Napoleon in Napoléon le Petit (1852), Emile Zola’s defence of justice in ‘J’accuse’ (1898) during the Dreyfus Affair and Simone de Beauvoir’s trailblazing defiance of women’s emancipation in The Second Sex (1949). The average reader on French history will no doubt be right in questioning such reified accounts of French intellectual history. After all, the contradictory nature of French intellectuals is highlighted by Sudhir Hazerrsingh, in his widely reviewed and much discussed book, How the French Think. For Hazerrsingh the French are ‘serious and frivolous, charming and infuriating, rational and mystical.’ The darker side of French intellectuals, especially with the legacy of French colonial history has been widely documented. More recently, the works of political journalist Edwy Plenel have exposed the intellectual poverty around muscular liberalism and its obsession with Islamophobia within French society. 

Despite the paucity surrounding French academics on the study of Islam in the contemporary world, some scholars do continue to influence public discourses surrounding the Muslim question in the West. One of the many intellectuals that have shaped the conversations around political Islam in recent years is the French political scientist, sociologist, and traveller, Olivier Roy. His ideas on securitisation, political violence, globalisation, and global Islam have had a significant influence on French, British, and American political debates over the past forty years. Roy is a prominent French academic who has spent most of his life researching key political events within the Muslim majority countries and Muslims living within the diaspora. Most of his books are translated from the original French, whilst his most popular works have appeared in English, including articles for the Guardian and the New York Times. In doing so he has influenced both the academe and the corridors of power, especially through his role as a consultant for the French ministry, the United Nations, and the Organisation for the Security and Cooperation in Europe. This proximity to power has led some to question his scholarly motives, whilst raising other wider questions about the role of power and academic knowledge in shaping state policy. 

In Search for the Lost Orient is a book length interview in which Roy recounts his life and adventures, explains his ideas, and critiques essentialised notions of Islam. The book follows a question-and-answer format, with Roy in conversation with journalist Jean-Louis Schlegel of the French magazine Esprit

Olivier Roy and Jean-Louis Schlegel, In Search of the Lost Orient: An Interview, Columbia University Press, 2017

Roy is the product of the 1960s,  a time when most young men of his age either embarked upon long spiritual retreats to India in search of Hindu mysticism and self-discovery or to North Africa in pursuit of Islamic Sufism. Instead, Roy with a good proficiency in the Persian language and the symbolic power vested in the French passport packed his backpack and travelled extensively by bus, hitchhiking, and on foot throughout the lengths and breadths of Afghanistan, Turkey, and the Middle East following the well-trodden paths of many hippies, colonial adventurers, and anthropologists in finding the lost orient. These early travels would have a profound impact on him. As Roy notes ‘hospitality in the Middle East is something extraordinary. I think it’s one of the reasons why those who have had this experience can never, ever, despite crises, adopt the hateful discourse that is developing today in the West.’ Roy’s motivation to travel was not predicated upon any mystical ideas, rather his interests stem from his early and formative influence of Marxism. In fact, some of the explanations of Roy’s intellectual position is located within his own biography. Roy was an active member of the Gauche Proletarienne (Proletarian Left), whose original name was the Marxist-Leninist Communist Youth Union. This formative experience was to latter help him understand the logic of the young people joining ‘radical Islam’. Whilst steeped in Maoist political activism, he spent his early years reading and attending lectures of leading thinkers of the left, including Louis Althusser, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and Michelle Foucault. In addition to his strong grounding in political literacy, Roy is also fluent in the classical languages, including the study of Latin and Greek – he is able to translate passages of Plato’s Meno and other Latin texts without the aid of a dictionary. This training in the classical languages would prepare him to learn Persian and to study Chinese. His doctoral thesis was on Leibniz’s writing on China. 

Regardless of one’s position on Roy’s scholarship, it would be difficult to deny the significant position he occupies as an important analyst of political Islam in the western world. Most, if not all, who are familiar with the literature of political Islam, would no doubt have come across or indeed have read some of his main texts, including Islam and Resistance in Afghanistan, Failure of Political Islam, Globalised Islam: Search for a New Ummah and Jihad and Death: The Global Appeal of Islamic State. 

When Russia invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, Roy was adamant in writing the book on Afghanistan, after receiving sabbatical cover from his teaching duties in France (teaching Philosophy). Roy continued his travels through Afghanistan dressed as a native (the front cover of this book has an image of Roy in Afghan clothes). On several occasions Roy was suspected as a Soviet spy; only to use his knowledge of local customs and languages to give the people the impression that he was a local. In Islam and Resistance in Afghanistan (1986), one of his early works which is informed through his travels, Roy rejects the claim that Afghan resistance was a solely reactionary response to Soviet invasion with a desire to return to backward looking tribal politics. Considering this view, he argues that ‘tribalism is seen as [a] survival from the folk past, hence sub-political: fundamentalism is defined as fanaticism, and thus as politically retrograde.’ Instead, he shows that the war in Afghanistan was crucial to understanding popular Muslim uprising and the role of political Islam in the Muslim majority countries. To understand the shifting political dynamics, Roy draws upon the French intellectual structuralist tradition by focusing not on events but rather structures of society to explain the transition to ‘political society.’ This book quickly became a popular text amongst academics and the informed public – it was translated into English by the CIA and Russian by the KGB and used for training with their military officials. 

In Failure of Political Islam (1992), Roy turned his attention to the growing rise of political Islam throughout the Muslim world. Contrary to the popular belief, that ‘Islamic radicalism’ stems from textual justification, Roy argues that ‘political Islamists were anti-clerical intellectuals’ intent in navigating the modern world. He sees Islamism akin to populist politics of Third-Worldism of the 1960’s, with those flying the ‘green flag of Islam’ like those flying the ‘red flags’ of yesterday – what unites both groups are their inability to put forward any reasonable plan to navigate the complexities of modern nation states. Political Islam fails either because religion destroys the state, or the state destroys the religion. 

In Globalised Islam: Search for a New Ummah (2004) Roy shifts his attention to the growing Muslim diasporic communities within the West – with over one-third of the world’s Muslims living as minorities. What happens to Islam and Muslim communities when they are disconnected and dislocated from traditional or Muslim majority context? For Roy, this leads to a rejection of integration and assimilation in Western host societies. Instead, it induces a movement toward a politics of imagining a global Muslim ummah which transcends geographical and cultural boundaries. This dislocation of culture from religion has profound implications for Muslim communities. For example, most traditional readings of Jihad were either restricted to personal struggle (Jihad of the nafs) or restricted to territorial defence which was mandated only by the ruler. In a globalised and highly individualised Islam, Jihad is enacted by individuals often without any objectives or political goals. In Jihad and Death: The Global Appeal of Islamic State (2017), Roy seeks to understand the global appeal of Muslim communities joining Daesh. It is estimated that over 30,000 fighters from eighty-five countries joined Daesh, whilst majority of the recruits came from Muslim countries, significant number of fighters came from Western countries including Britain and France. For most commentators the explanation lies in the long trend of radicalisation of Islam amongst ‘Islamists (those that advocate political rule through Islam) or Fundamentalist (puritanical Salafis). To understand the global appeal to jihad, the conventional argument goes, one must focus on the linear hermeneutical relationship between the text on the reader, and that Muslim political action can be understood by looking at the text. But Roy suggets that explanation can be found not in the radicalisation of Islam thesis, but rather Islamisation of radicals. This is reflected in the growing database which profiles the lives of individuals who have died fighting for ISIS. Over half of the jihadis from the West have a history of low levels of religious observances (including a history of petty crime and a surprising number of arrests for drink driving), reduced external signs of religiosity (choosing to wear clothing which reflects US urban culture rather than the Salafi garb) and preoccupation with death and violence (culture of violence through online gaming and an enthusiasm for violent American movies, such as Brian de Palma’s 1983 classic Scarface). Furthermore, the contemporary association between Jihad and death is at the core of contemporary radicalisation, for Roy the nihilist dimension that is central to Jihadi politics attracts young people is ‘the pure revolt, not the construction of utopia. Violence is not a means. It is the end.’ To explain the nihilist violence, Roy rejects the linear explanation of looking at the connection between the Text (Quran and Hadith) and global Jihad. Instead, he looks to explain contemporary Islamic violence through the social and political terms, so violence and radicalism should be explained alongside previous movements with a preoccupation to generational revolt, anomie and self-destruction, an aesthetic to violence, and other doomsday cults. More recently, Roy has been sceptical about using Islam as a key determining factor in some of recent issues in Frence, including the 2005 three-week riots in the suburbs of Paris, Charlie Hebdo shootings, and the Paris attacks of 2015. 

While In Search of the Lost Orient does little to provide a detailed account of Roy’s ideas on the key questions that he has been grappling with –namely, the nature and failure of political Islam as a political construct, secularism and Islam, the role of culture and violence, and Islam and resistance – it does however give the reader a cogent intellectual biography of Roy. But it does not fall neatly within the conventional biographical genre. The questions and answers format works reasonably well: starting with Roy’s formative years as a student; the Afghan decade; the Central Asia decade through to his studies on culture, religion, and genealogy. The book is very accessible, requires no prior reading of any of Roy’s work, provides some insight into what it means to be an learned intellectual’ and the ‘expert’. The latter label, which Roy’s rejects, has become increasingly popular following the rise and influence of think-tanks, such as the Rand Corporation and the Brookings Institute. These changes he argues ‘contributed to a breakdown of university hierarchies and permitted young researchers to obtain money and sometimes notoriety by contracting with a power structure to which they felt sometimes mistakenly close, even to the point of imagining having an influence over that power’s decisions.’

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