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Mon 11 December 2017

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Rashid Benaissa - Sociologist and Islamic thinker

For almost forty years Rashid Benaissa has been an inspirational and challenging force in the world of ideas, combating French orientalists and Marxists, autocrats in Muslim lands and parochialist tendencies within Islamic movements. He is a much-loved figure in Islamic circles all over the world, whose conference interventions are legendry for their wit, oratory and outspokenness, challenging conventional and settled ideas. He is a link to great events of twentieth century Muslim history, foremost being the Islamic revolution of Iran. His circle of teachers and friends have included Malek Bennabi (d. 1973), Maulana Maudoodi (d. 1979) and Professor Mohammed Hamidullah (d. 2003).

Of Berber origin - his ancestral home is Ait Daoud in the Kabylie - and his family were the 'sayyids' or qadis of the village. Rashid is fluent in Arabic, French, English and Farsi and can communicate in Bosnian, Russian, Hebrew and German. His current interests are in philology and what he terms the 'archeology of language'.

In visits to London in August 2006 and May 2008 Salaam was able to record his memories and views on a variety of topics. These unique encounters begin with Rashid describing an incident during the Algerian war of liberation when his grandmother stood up to the French soldiers attacking their home in the Kabylie in 1956. The soldiers were burning his father's books while she was trying to save them.

My grandmother and other memories Stream  Download
On the need for critical study of Muslim history Stream  Download
On naive anti-Americanism Stream  Download
On experiences in UNESCO Stream  Download
On the over-politicisation of Islam Stream  Download

Rashid Benaissa belongs to the generation of Algerians who were at the forefront of their country's struggle against the French, but also wrestled with left-wing influences in the newly independent Algeria (1962). He stood at the cross-roads of an epic intellectual battle, facing down the Marxists, but also earning the ire of Muslim circles for commending Marxist analytical concepts. He was the founding member of a weekly study circle run by Malek Bennabi (1905-1973), in which he participated regularly for ten years. He studied sociology and comparative literature at the University of Algiers, where he subsequently lectured from 1966-71. He was at the forefront of Islamic activities at the University, establishing the first prayer room in the Faculty of Letters in 1965 and editing 'Que sais-je de l'Islam' (What do I know of Islam) to 1971. He also served for a brief period in the Ministry of Fundamental Education, but the entrenchment of a socialist, totalitarian system in Algeria in 1973 prompted him to continue further studies in France, where he completed a BA in Political Science in 1974 at the University of Paris-Sorbonne. He obtained a first class in the French 'Agregation' competitive exams in 1976 for his work on Muslim historiography with particular reference to Maudoodi's 'Khilafat wa malukiyat'. He was a member of the faculty of the University of Paris, lecturing in Sociology, leaving to join the UNESCO's head office based in Paris in 1978.

Rashid initiated the annual 'Pensee Islamique' seminars organised in Algeria during the 1980s. He took an active role in helping Bosnians during the genocide they faced in the early 1990s, visiting the front lines and also helping displaced families. He retired from UNESCO after 25 years service and now divides his time between homes in Paris and Vienna, also lecturing to Muslim audiences all over the world and working on humanitarian projects where there is need. He was, and remains, a close observer of developments in Iran, where he has travelled, studied and lectured extensively.

Rashid Benaissa is a courageous voice for Muslims causes in France and the world over. Addressing a public rally in Paris in 2004 that had assembled to protest against the law banning the head scarf, he declared: "My message is to the Republic…I have not known a school other than a French school, where I had to study four hours of Latin a week. I learned Latin even before Arabic. When the Republic seeks to impose, it goes ahead and does it. So our problem is not with Laicite - it is with discrimination...Muslims want no more than their rights....we are the most genuine community of all the communities, because a community comes to life when it is galvanized, when it is able to crystallise a collective conscience. You have here the Catholic paper 'La Croix' and also radio stations and magazines - none of these are forbidden. One is saying to the Muslims that you are prevented the basic means for expressing yourself. 'Le Monde Education' this week has published the news that it takes only one year for a Jewish school to obtain state funding. What about the Muslims who are presented with a series of obstacles each time they wish to open their own school? In educational funding, the state funds dozens of Jewish and Catholic schools. When Mitterand, 20 years ago, wished to stop this funding, one million Catholics marched to Versailles and he was obliged to abandon his project…..We have no means, no media, we are invisible, marginalized, excluded - but we are offered words and we always speak about Muslims absent from the debate. What has to be brought to an end is the contempt [for Muslims]".

Visiting the Salaam offices in 2008, Rashid observed that he believes in the necessity for Muslim communities to overcome the historical Shia-Sunni divide "through the desacralisation of history, because the sacralisation of the history of early Islam is not needed to protect one's faith".

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