Gilles Kepel

©Basso Cannarsa/Agence Opale/Alamy

Navigate to Arts & Letters section

An Optimist Who Won’t Be Fooled

Gilles Kepel, France’s greatest expert on Islamist politics, sees French scholarly values and savoir faire as a bulwark against the mediocrity of Judith Butler and the antisemitic replacement theology of the global south

Armin Rosen
June 04, 2024
Gilles Kepel

©Basso Cannarsa/Agence Opale/Alamy

This article is part of Tablet in Paris.
See the full collection →︎

Gilles Kepel’s distinguished career as France’s leading scholar of Islamism is “quasi-finished,” he warns me, due to the recent success of his academic enemies at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, an institution that he warns is in severe decline. Located a half-dozen marble-lined blocks away from the Pantheon’s awesome neoclassical portico, France’s most prestigious grand ecole is built to resemble a medieval cloister. Luminaries from the harder and softer sciences face off across a lush garden courtyard, perched atop the kind of pedestals that the saints had occupied in less enlightened times. Kepel, one of the most controversial of France’s serious public intellectuals, is not beyond imagining himself among them. The Pantheon, the soon-to-be 69-year-old professor quipped, is “where I will be buried—depending on your article in Tablet magazine.”

Kepel has a round face, calm eyes, and stately waves of gray hair. He wore a sharp navy blazer with no tie. Across 50 years of field work in the Middle East, Kepel has met jihadists and presidents, thugs and thwarted dreamers. I imagine he’s faced a half-century of these intense characters in a similar state of dapper tie-lessness as during our meeting, and with the same mood of sly analytic detachment, livened with a characteristically French interplay of absurdity and mortal seriousness. He had of course tangled with potential antagonists far more daunting than myself, and he knew that I have no ability to ensure or deny him an eternity alongside Rousseau and Voltaire. He is also the kind of thinker whose self-aggrandizing yet self-deprecating appeals to eternity glance toward things that lie beyond mere ego.

“If you’re a little bit romantic in life, it’s very difficult to hate Gilles,” was the assessment of one Parisian observer. “And he has balls.”

Kepel has no equivalent in the United States. He wrote two agenda-setting books exploring the historic and religious undercurrents of the gradually more violent sense of alienation among French Muslims, Les Banlieues de l’Islam in 1987 and Terror in France in 2017, as well as the 2002 book Jihad: the Trail of Political Islam, which made the counterintuitive argument that the 9/11 attacks were an extreme symptom of the failure of Islamist movements across the Middle East and Europe in the 1990s. He is respected enough as a media commentator, and harsh enough on his opponents, that successive French presidential administrations have found it necessary to develop their own policies toward him, which usually involve keeping Kepel as simultaneously close and as far away as possible. During the 2017 presidential election, political watchers perceived Kepel as being Emmanuel Macron’s top adviser on terrorism, to the point that he became the target of frequent rhetorical attacks from the eventual president’s rivals in Marine Le Pen’s right-wing National Rally. But Kepel did not end up working in government, and he is not a hardcore Macroniste.

The romantic grandeur of Kepel’s feuds, including the darker ones, is also particularly French. When Kepel, lecturing about Islam at a Parisian prison, proved to have better knowledge of classical Arabic than a French Moroccan jihadist in the audience, the humiliated convict used a contraband phone to call an ISIS contact in Raqqa and requested a hit on the professor. ISIS’ French foot soldiers were aware of the caliphate’s subsequent death sentence against Kepel. In 2017, the ISIS-inspired Larossi Aballa stabbed a French police officer and his wife to death, then broadcast his final stand against the cops on Facebook Live. In his final moments, the killer took care to mention that Kepel’s name was at the top of his hit list.

“‘Well, my brothers, I’m going to be killed by the police. I’m going to die as a martyr. You have to die as martyrs: Kill all journalists!” Kepel recalled of the terrorist’s last instructions to the world, adding, “I would like to be martyred as an academic, not as a journalist.” That’s fair, I replied. “And then he said, ‘Well first and foremost here’s who has to go: Gilles Kepel.’ So the guy was killed, and then I was under police protection for 17 months.”

Kepel has carried on a long, public, and often bitter debate with Olivier Roy, a prominent scholar and sometimes government adviser who argues that there is no real Islamic content to jihadist radicalism—in contrast to Kepel, a deeper scholar and also, like Roy, a sometime government adviser, who argues that the religious and ideological content of jihadism is in fact vital to understanding the phenomenon. As part of French President Emmanuel Macron’s official delegation to Algeria in 2022, a senior intelligence officer of the National Liberation Front-led regime made the now-familiar accusation that Kepel is a Jew. To which the professor replied: “I’m not going to convert to Judaism to please the Islamists.” In reality, Kepel told me, “I’m from more or less a Catholic and communist upbringing—which, I’m neither anymore.”

Kepel’s current situation at the ecole lacks the glamor and excitement of past showdowns with terror groups, rival thinkers, and spies. The ecole, Kepel explained, has a mandatory retirement age that Kepel was either approaching or had already exceeded. Professors who wish to continue teaching usually receive a pro forma institutional waiver. Kepel charged that the philosopher Frederic Worms, director of the ecole, made sure he didn’t get one. Worms co-wrote a book with Judith Butler, “a 90-page pamphlet, which is the apex of his contribution to mankind,” alleged Kepel. “Was it on care or something? The concept of care— about caring for care.” (For the nonspecialist, it is unclear based on the publisher’s blurb, exactly what “The Livable and Unlivable” is actually about). Worms is “the commander in chief of the Butler division here,” Kepel told me, “the Butler ideological army.”

When reached for comment, Worms said Kepel was retiring voluntarily, and sent me a French-language press release from this past April claiming Kepel had already received multiple past retirement waivers and was in general being treated no differently than any other publicly employed French professor. Worms noted that he and Judith Butler are in very different philosophical camps, meaning that he is not the leader of the French Butlerites. He said their shared book is a transcript of a public dialogue in which they largely disagreed on the very nature of reality. “I have a philosophical controversy on life with her,” Worms explained. “I’m not a constructivist—I do think that things are vital and not socially constructed.”

Whatever the strict truth of Kepel’s claims, the Butlerite encroachment into the French intellectual space is a documentable phenomenon that clearly bothers him. A scholar of Kepel’s sensibilities is liable to see her rising stature as a potent though unfortunate expression of American culture revenge. The Berkeley obscurantist achieved academic stardom through a feminist-flavored rehash of French critical theory, crammed through the interpretive sieve of American campus liberalism and its decidedly un-French belief in the transcendent sanctity of identity and the moral superiority of the oppressed. Butler, Kepel said, has “penetrated the system” in France, as evidenced through a March 3 lecture in Paris, prelude to a then-scuttled residency at the Pompidou Center, in which she declared that the Oct. 7 attack had not been an antisemitic act of terror but justified “resistance.”

“She speaks in English, of course … she’s incapable of uttering a word in French,” Kepel noted of Butler’s Paris appearance. “Because now, all those movements speak English—I mean, even at Sciences Po,” the Paris institution where Kepel taught until 2010, when he left amid a fractious debate over the future of its Middle East program that closely resembles Kepel’s current situation at the ecole. When the anti-Israel tent campers at Sciences Po, sedulously imitating the example of their age cohort across the Atlantic, won a hearing from university administrators, the French media referred to the resulting event as a “Town Hall”—in English, naturally. The Ecole Normale Supérieure is lately obsessed with the study of the suds globale, or “global souths,” Kepel claimed, the study of which is yet another concept “imported from America.”

Kepel’s soon-to-be vacated office has a frilly marble fireplace, a map of the Roman Empire that once hung in a French middle school, and a framed front page from La Depeche, a newspaper from the southeast of France, announcing the 1905 passage of the Law on the Separation of Churches and the State. This law is the legal bedrock of laïcité, the French system of official secularism and shared civic identity. The best explanation of laïcité that I’ve ever heard came from a leading Paris Chabad rabbi: As far as local self-conception goes, “It is not Juif de France,” the idea of being French-Jewish or a Jew from France that prevails, but “L’France Juif,” the sense of being a French person who is Jewish, explained Haim Nissenbaum. France is, in its idealized view of itself, a society of the unhyphenated. Speaking of Chabad, a shelf in Kepel’s office displays a framed dollar given to him by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the final Lubavitcher Rebbe—who, Kepel noted, once lived on the nearby Rue Boulard, and who in “heavily accented shtetl French” proceeded “to bless all your works and your field of expertise” when Kepel met him.

This being Europe, the professor’s emptied-out quarters also have an instant espresso machine. Toward the middle of the interview, Kepel insisted I consume a second cup, given the likely fate of his office and its more ephemeral contents. “Whatever you don’t drink, it will be drunk by a pro-woke,” he said. “Or a deconstructionist.”

In the course of inspiring scorn and ambivalence among Islamists, politicians, and his fellow scholars, Kepel has become a microcosm of battles that are much larger than himself.

In the 1980s, Kepel presciently identified the biggest issue France would face in the coming decades—his book Les Banlieues de l’Islam was one of the first ground-level diagnoses of the country’s failures to integrate its Muslim immigrants. He came to believe that laïcité was actually one of the factors that prevented the problem from getting even worse. Without it, he argued, politics would be conducted on a community-by-community basis rather than a national one, extremists would gain an official status and meaningful vectors into the political system, and society would rapidly balkanize. In the early 2000s, Kepel served on the government commission that recommended a ban on religious headwear in French public schools.

France’s leading scholar of Islamism now represents the French awareness, accepted across the political mainstream, that there are serious overlapping threats to the country’s existing republican order that must be fought. He also tends toward the ever-fraying idea that the answer exists within that order itself, and not through leftist, rightist, Islamist, Catholic, multiculturalist, or American-inflected alternatives.

Indeed, the post-Oct. 7 period has offered at least some limited vindication for defenders of the French system. Ever since the Hamas assault, France’s rigid official secularism and state-promoted insistence on a national monoculture has delivered better results than looser, softer, less Bonapartist visions of liberal order. In the post-Oct. 7 period, there have been no riots in France—Islamist and radical leftist groups generally have not shut down college campuses or highways, as they have in the U.S., or led mass protests in support of Hamas, like in the U.K. In May, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin warned that France was in a “race against time” with “Islamist separatism” and the Muslim Brotherhood—a statement
that would be unthinkable in America, where invocations of religious authority are common across most of the spectrum of political discourse, and Islamist control over key communal institutions isn’t really discussed, debated, or even widely acknowledged.

In Kepel’s view, Oct. 7 was a chance for the emerging forces of revision to press their case against an incumbent order that was already under strain.

In former times, Kepel told me, “whenever I set foot on the other side of the Channel, I was systematically lambasted as the representative of a secularist country which was anathema to both Jews and Muslims, meaning that the country was fiercely antisemitic and passionately Islamophobe.” A recent visit to the U.K. “was the first time in my career when people asked me: What is it about laïcité which makes it that Jews feel much safer in France than they feel in Britain?”

For a casual American Jewish visitor, the differences really are impossible to miss. Paris has a remarkable absence of kaffiyehs and Palestinian flags, statements of social disdain that are far more common in New York and London. This is in part because the jihadist slaughter at the Nova festival on Oct. 7 reminds many French people of the mass murder of concertgoers at the Bataclan in 2015, an association that Americans and Brits wouldn’t necessarily draw.

The absence of reflexive Jew-hatred among French elites and ordinary people alike might also reflect that the same people who want to kill Jews also want to kill them. Last summer France experienced its worst riots in over a decade, with the enraged children of immigrants setting fire to major downtowns and marching on schools, police stations, and other symbols of the French state, in what was putatively a demonstration of their anger at alleged police brutality. A system that treats religious coercion and social separatism as its chief enemies has produced a generation of Muslims who are more religious and more separatist than their parents were—along with leading political parties, like the far left La France Insoumise and the far-right Rassemblement National, whose attachment to mainline republicanism is strained at best. Many believe laïcité is directly responsible for France’s problems, and there is at least widespread uncertainty over whether the current order has the vision or the moral authority to confront the country’s sources of social discord.

Kepel sees the past few months as decisive to larger battles over France’s future, even as Paris remains calmer than other Western capitals. “What is very worrying for some, including myself, is this sort of clash, the global south versus north clash, which is being imported into the French social fabric,” he said.

The connection between Oct. 7 and the ultimate direction of the Western societies is a major theme of Kepel’s new book, Holocausts: Israel, Gaza, and the War Against the West, a short polemic he published in March. Critics have accused Kepel of drawing an equivalency between the jihadist attack and Israel’s military response to the assault, though Kepel insisted to me he has been misinterpreted. Of course, Kepel is likely the type of thinker who craves the controversy that misinterpretation usually produces, along with the accompanying frisson of intellectual difficulty. In actuality, the title refers to the ambition of the “global south” to swap out the Nazi Holocaust for an alleged Israeli-perpetrated holocaust against Palestinians as a basis for the international system.

In Kepel’s view, Oct. 7 was a chance for the emerging forces of revision to press their case against an incumbent order that was already under strain. In Western countries, a fight that appears to be over Israel and Palestine is in fact about matters much closer to home: “Antagonisms are developing between those who aspire to the integration of populations from southern and eastern immigration through adherence to the civic values of the host countries, and those who—in the name of a principle of breaking with the abhorred North—advocate separatism in fact and in forms, and the carving up of territories into enclaves as a prelude to subversive ethnic identification,” Kepel writes, words that seem to specifically refer to France. “This inverted ‘clash of civilizations’ involves the substitution of ideology for knowledge.”

As Kepel told me in Paris, Oct. 7 and its aftermath “was a means to replace the moral foundations of the world order of 1945, which were based on the ‘never again’ of the Shoah, and which were sanctioned by both the Soviets and the American. ... Today, when South Africa goes to the International Court of Justice, they say, ‘Hey, this is old hat. It took place, what, a hundred years ago? Last century? It’s something between whites and Europeans, which are a tiny, shrinking part of the world now. What is the real evil in the modern history of mankind? It’s not this thing. It is the slave trade. It is colonialism. And in order to make colonial crime the supreme crime, you have to push aside the Shoah, and have a new Holocaust over the old Holocaust.”

Oct. 7 is therefore more significant than 9/11, “because 9/11 did not fracture the West,” Kepel said, whereas the Hamas atrocities have “introduced a sort of a wedge inside Western societies, pitching one against the other, the exponents of the global south against the people who pay attention to the suffering of the Jews on Oct. 7th.”

For Kepel, the post-Oct. 7 Israeli-Palestinian conflict in France is a proxy for the battle between proponents of sectarian politics and believers in the survival of the republican system. Kepel does not think this clash is likely to have a happy outcome, even if the forces of revision eventually lose. Oct. 7 will lead to a more polarized continent and a more divided world, he predicts: “We might end with a European Union which is far more to the right and which feels far more entrenched in the battle against the so-called global south.”

Like seemingly everyone else in France who has a living memory of the ’60s and ’70s, Kepel was a communist at some now-distant-seeming point in life, in an era when this was the hip, romantic thing to be. In 1974, after failing the admissions exam for the Ecole Normale Supérieure, Kepel and a friend “boarded a Soviet cruise ship that was bringing French and Italian communists to Crimea,” beginning the cross-Mediterranean adventure that convinced him to become a scholar of the Middle East. During the voyage Kepel ate at the table of the Soviet consul general in Milan, “who came to dinner wearing a cowboy suit.”

The left in France, and the rest of the world, is a much different beast these days, with none of the prior hopefulness or fashion sense. Today, La France Insoumise, France’s party of the left, led by Jean-Luc Melanchon, is broadly viewed as an identitarian entity rather than a strictly republican one. Melanchon, Kepel noted, “belonged to a different Trotskyite sect to the one I belonged to when I was a teenager, which hated the other. Had one of the sects won, they would have hanged all the others the very night of the revolution before we could make a deal with the bourgeoisie.”

In the mid-2010s, jihadists who were born and educated in France pulled off a series of spectacular attacks, including the coordinated assault on the Batalcan rock venue, cafes in central Paris, and the Stade de France in November of 2015. Many of the participants in the mid–2010s French jihad were young men who were “helped by the stupid Francois Hollande,” Kepel alleged, who believed France could solve two problems at once by encouraging its own extremists to fight the Assad regime in Syria. If al-Qaida led a Leninist jihad, a hierarchical network that could be activated on command, ISIS, Kepel said, waged a “Deleuzian revolution,” a decentralized revolt from below among jihadists who had received guidance and training in the Middle East but who could activate themselves back in Europe. In fact, Kepel added, “one of the ideologues for ISIS was a Francophone Syrian called Abu Musab al-Suri, who studied in Paris at one of the leftist universities, Jussieu, at the time when Gilles Deleuze was its star professor, in the late 1980s.”

After enduring the Leninist and Deleuzian jihads, France now is experiencing “the negation of the negation”—what Kepel has termed jihad d’atmosphere, in which individual extremists, like the Chechen refugee who beheaded the school teacher Samuel Paty in 2021, pull off consequential acts of telegenic violence with no connection to any terrorist network whatsoever.

French society, politics, foreign policy, and intellectual life have created the conditions for a slow-rolling decadeslong native religious war, punctuated with the occasional large riot. But the next riot hasn’t happened yet, and there is at least still a place for figures like Kepel, public voices who take meaningful risks and work through the occasional death threat. Kepel can also make the French model seem fragile: ISIS may have failed to kill him, but in his own telling, the alleged Butlerites have now gained the temporary upper hand, careerwise.

Kepel has a post-ecole plan. He explained that the original Gilles was a saint who came to Marseille from Greece in the seventh century. Saint Gilles was canonized after the reconquista—Muslim Spain actually extended into modern-day France, ending in the Rhone Valley near Nimes. Kepel plans to walk a pilgrimage trail from Compostela in Spain to Saint-Gilles in France, along the medieval border of Christendom and Islam, to better understand his namesake, his country, and the nearly millennium-old French relationship with the Muslim world. The resulting book should be finished in two years, Kepel said. It could appear in a France whose post-Oct. 7 calm looks like either a history-shifting accomplishment, or else a brief prelude to greater chaos.

When I asked Kepel if he remained optimistic about the future of France, he replied: “Always—but I’m an optimist who won’t be fooled.”

This article is part of Tablet in Paris.
See the full collection →︎

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.