The Algerian publicist Mohamed Sifaoui is considered an expert in radical Islamist networks and ideologies. His television documentary 'Undercover in al-Qaida' turned him into a target for fundamentalists, forcing him to go into hiding for a while. Margit Hillmann met the journalist in Paris
In a small office belonging to a television production company in the 17th arrondissement of Paris, Mohamed Sifaoui has made himself at home on a black leather sofa and is making a telephone call. It was no easy job finding the 43-year-old journalist, who is well known to many people in France and is considered an expert in the Islamist scene.
No direct e-mail address is given on his website. The only way to come by his telephone number - if you are lucky enough to come by it at all - is to get it from a third party. His address is a tightly guarded secret.
A target for fundamentalists
In view of the fact that radical Muslims have threatened to kill Mohamed Sifaoui, the secrecy is a matter of safety. The French Ministry of the Interior is taking these death threats seriously: he never goes anywhere without plain-clothes police officers. Sifaoui is aware of the danger he is in:
"The threats, intimidation attempts, and attacks by the Islamists target me as a democratic, lay Muslim. There are fundamentalist Muslims in France today who do not want to allow any Muslims to criticise their dogmas and Islamist ideology."
But Sifaoui refuses to be intimidated by the Islamists. He says that as a journalist, he has an obligation to tell the public about this extremist movement. The courageous Algerian explains that the leaders of this movement are using religion as a cover to spread "fascist" ideas. This is why he considers it his job to uncover these hidden ideas.
"Islamists never openly identify themselves as such. Their speeches have to be decoded and the ideology behind them revealed", says Sifaoui.
"For a long time, western societies did not want to acknowledge the true face of Islamism. People here tended to mistake Islamism for Islam and believed that these people represent Muslims and Islam."
The true face of the Islamists
Mohamed Sifaoui is more familiar with the "true face" of the Islamists than he would like. As a journalist in Algeria, he experienced the rise of the Algerian Islamists and the terror they spread in the 1990s. He narrowly escaped death when a bomb planted by Islamists exploded in the office of the publication where he was working. A short time later he fled to France.
Nevertheless, Sifaoui never tires of explaining that his journalistic work on the Islamists is not a personal vendetta born of the attack that nearly took his life. This is his reaction to criticism voiced by some French colleagues who described him as a paranoid "self-styled Islamist hunter". His critics accuse him of making people afraid of Islam. The journalist reacts sensitively to such accusations.
For his part, Sifaoui attacks the political correctness that is preventing a debate about European Islamism, a misunderstood tolerance that he claims is shamelessly being abused by Islamists.
The case of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo
The dispute about the Mohammed cartoons is a perfect example of this. In France, the matter ended up in court. Muslim organisations sued the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo for "publicly insulting a group of people on the basis of its religion" because the magazine not only published the controversial Danish cartoons, but also added some caricatures of its own.
Although the editor-in-chief of the magazine was acquitted in court, Sifaoui sees the episode as a blatant attempt by Muslim fundamentalists to restrict the freedom of the press in France.
He is convinced that "if they could, they would forbid and punish any criticism of Islam. These people have extremist opinions that are not compatible with a modern democracy, just look at their stance on women's rights or the rights of homosexuals. The West quite rightly fights right-wing extremists; why then are we so lenient towards Muslim extremists?!"
This is why Sifaoui, as an adult, journalist, and Muslim, feels obliged to fight a version of Islam that is being abused politically, and that seeks to systematically undermine universal human rights and prevent the integration of Muslims in France.
© Deutsche Welle/Qantara.de 2008
Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan