From the preliminary exchange of emails, Steven Duarte had warned: by responding to La Croix, whose values he “shares”, he would make an exception. Because this 41-year-old academic tends to decline requests from journalists. He is however “the first to regret” that Islamologists are not more present in the public debate, when political scientists and sociologists are numerous to express themselves on Islam.
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But still a “suitable framework” is needed. So when he is asked to appear on a television program on a subject outside his field of expertise – the structuring of Islam in France, for example – he prefers to say no. Moreover, the television, which this cinephile turns on willingly to watch “very beautiful films”, always remains off at home when there are polemicists and chroniclers. A fortiori when Islam is on the program.
Will Steven Duarte find in the conference which opens at Unesco this Wednesday, February 16, a “suitable framework” to address his favorite subject? Certainly. After a first edition in 2019, this event organized by the association “Islam in the 21st century” gives the floor, for two days, to around twenty researchers and activists “carriers of a liberal Islam”.
Liberal Islam, or Islamic reformism: there it is, the heart of his area of expertise. When, still studying Arabic, he began to take an interest in this subject, around 2005, it was “not yet fashionable”. “I wanted to work on thinkers who critically reinterpret Islamic heritage. In fact, it was meeting conservative Muslim circles in France that steered me towards reformism. I felt a real need to deconstruct the widespread discourse among the Muslim Brotherhood, which was then more present than the Salafists. »
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Almost twenty years have passed. In the meantime, Steven Duarte came major in the Arabic aggregation in 2010, before defending a thesis in 2014 on “the idea of religious reform in Islam since independence”. Since 2016, he has been a lecturer at the Sorbonne Paris Nord University. It is there, on the campus of Villetaneuse (Seine-Saint-Denis), that we find him on a Tuesday in February. On the door of his office, an unexpected sign: “Spanish”. The teacher has long pushed for the creation of an Arabic department in his university. But, for lack of means, he was unsuccessful.
“Friend of the Arabs”
The French university may be what it is, Steven Duarte seems at ease there. His vocation as a teacher-researcher appeared to him, on the benches of the Sorbonne, at the age of 20, in a Latin quarter which contrasted “almost violently” with his background. He, the son of a craftsman from Portugal and a mother of Norman and Italian origins, suddenly found himself far from the Essonne of his adolescence.
It was in Vigneux-sur-Seine that he had discovered the Arabic language, through the mouths of high school friends. Seduced, he began to study it. “I gradually became intimate with the Arab world, its culture… and who says culture says religion. For his family of Catholic tradition, attached to manual labor and sensitive to far-right discourse, Steven became “the friend of the Arabs”, animated by an inexplicable “exoticism”. In Egypt or Syria, where he travels to improve his command of the language, he is taken at best for an imam, at worst for an “orientalist” wishing to “distort Islam”.
On his personal convictions, the academic wants to remain discreet, especially out of respect for his students. But he insists: “I am not here to strengthen their faith, nor to destroy it. My role is to transmit knowledge that emancipates. Many of his students are practicing Muslims, but that does not prevent him from addressing “taboo” subjects in front of them, from the historicity of the Koran to homosexuality. “As long as they feel respected, there is no problem. »
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As for the reformist current, it is “very much in the minority” today, believes this specialist, the Salafists having “won the cultural war”, according to him. Nevertheless, he perceives the signs of a possible evolution in the coming decades. Among others, the recent change in Saudi Arabia’s discourse on Islam: although very political, it cannot be without consequences for the rest of the world.
At Unesco, Thursday, February 17, Steven Duarte will speak on the theme entitled “Liberal Islam and its Jewish otherness: an ambitious bet”. A parallel with the trajectory of liberal Judaism, born in 19th century Europe, long marginalized in Jewish Orthodox circles, but today in the majority in the United States.
His inspiration – “Abdallah Cheikh-Moussa, this professor at the Sorbonne who taught me to keep a distance”
“Abdallah Cheikh-Moussa, who taught me medieval Arabic literature at the Sorbonne, marked me for life. Even if these courses went very far in criticism, he deeply respected his students: it didn’t matter to him that they were atheists or that some wore the jilbab! He himself was anti-religious, but never showed it. It was a great lesson. Having become a teacher, I try to hold this line. Going on a 21st century version of a crusade is even more offensive to conservative Muslims. Conversely, giving in to Islamophilia and identification with one’s object of study would be dangerous. I try to put things at a distance, which does not prevent empathy. »