When a terrorist made a death threat against Gilles Kepel,
France’s most famous scholar of Islam, it deepened his embroilment
in a national debate over Muslim assimilation and extremism.
Gilles Kepel, a French political scientist, was at home in Paris brushing his teeth one morning last June when his cellphone rattled on the sink. It was a text from a journalist he knew: “I’m sorry to tell you this, but you’re on the death list.” Kepel turned toward his TV, which was already on, and the top story eliminated any confusion. A French-born jihadi named Larossi Abballa had murdered a police officer and his wife in a town west of Paris and then delivered a macabre speech on Facebook Live — with the couple’s 3-year-old child cowering nearby — in which he called for the killing of seven public figures. The French media omitted the details, but an Interior Ministry official soon called with confirmation: Kepel’s name was near the top of the list. His initial feeling, he later told me, was “as if the subject I’ve been studying for 35 years had turned around to strike at me.” Within hours, he had a government security team assigned to guard him 24 hours a day. A similar death warrant was issued against him later that summer, elevating the sense of danger.
The threats came at an unusual turn in Kepel’s career. He has long been a prominent figure in the French intellectual world, a scholar whose face — a distinctive, narrow-eyed mask of polished sobriety — is often seen on TV news shows. But recently he has assumed a far more combative stance. Kepel has argued that much of France’s left-leaning intelligentsia fails to understand the nature of the threat the country faces — not just from foreign terrorists but also from the Islamist provocateurs in its exurban ghettos, the banlieues. Unlike the Islam-bashing polemicists who haunt French opinion pages, Kepel brings a lifetime of scholarship to this argument. He has always been careful to distinguish mainstream Islam from the hard-line Islamist ideologues of the banlieues, who have no real equivalent in the United States. He has long been a man of the left; his wife’s family is from North Africa, and he has no sympathy for the xenophobia of the right-wing National Front. But he believes that radical Islamists are trying to shred France’s social fabric and foster a civil war, and that many leftists are unwittingly playing into their hands. This view has made him a target for almost everyone.