Middle East specialist Antoine Sfeir dies at 70

He was a public face in France, known for his deep knowledge and informative analysis of the Arab and Muslim world. Franco-Lebanese journalist and Middle East specialist Antoine Sfeir, who was described by French politicians as the link between East and West, died September 30 in Paris. He had just turned 70.

A former consultant for Europe 1 and founder and editor of Cahiers de l’Orient, Sfeir was regularly invited by French radio and television channels to discuss Arab and Islamic issues.

A student of religion, he was an expert in both Christianity and Islam. For many in French and European media, he was the ultimate pundit when it came to examining Islamism and extremism in North Africa and the Middle East. Sfeir was also an expert in Maghrebi issues. He was the author of “Tunisia: Land of Paradoxes.” He was also an occasional contributor to The Arab Weekly.

Francois Bayrou, president of the Democratic Movement and former French presidential candidate, saluting a “great friend,” wrote: “Antoine bridged two worlds. He had a deep and warm knowledge of Islam, in its multiple facets and history… His instructive pedagogic deciphering of the complexities of Islam and the Arab world was always welcome…  It is with great sadness that we hear of his passing.”

Sfeir was born in Beirut in a family of Christian Maronites. A student of the Jesuits, he was studying medicine when he sent writings to the local French-language newspaper L’Orient-Le Jour, for which he wrote the weekly “Le Jour des Jeunes” column before he was permanently hired. That led Sfeir to a rich journey into media and book publishing.

While reporting on Mideast events for L’Orient Le Jour, which he joined in 1968, Sfeir was kidnapped and tortured in June 1976 by a Palestine Liberation Front-affiliated militia, which held him prisoner for many days.

“This event strengthened my rejection of emotionalism in the profession. I also learned one thing later, it was that I wanted to transmit ideas and that never stopped. I was determined and had the opportunity to re-engage very quickly in journalism. A profession of which one never tires and where we learn something every day. It is an activity where we are both a student and a transmitter,” Sfeir told Paroles de Corses website.

The ordeal left him with physical scars and led him to leave for France, where he arrived in September 1976. He worked for several French publications, including La Croix, Le Point and Le Figaro. He published essays on Middle Eastern issues including “Les Reseaux d’Allah” (“God’s Networks”) in 1977, “L’Islam contre L’Islam” (“Islam Versus Islam”) and “L’Interminable Guerre des Chiites et des Sunnites” (“The Unending War of Shias and Sunnis”) in 2012 and “Chretiens d’Orient: S’ils disparaissaient?” (“Christians of the Orient: What if They Disappeared?”)

A highly respected figure in political and academic circles, Sfeir had been the president of the Paris-based school of international relations, L’ileri, since 2014. He presided over a research centre on the Middle East, the CERPO, and taught international relations at CELSA-Paris IV. He was awarded the Legion d’Honneur in recognition of his contributions in increasing knowledge and understanding of the Arab Muslim world.

His attachment to Lebanon was unparalleled. Sfeir was quoted as telling Paroles de Corses: “Lebanon is ‘the will to live together’ in respect of the other… I had the chance to seduce (girls) at the mosque on Friday, at the synagogue on Saturday and at the church on Sunday… That’s what made me open up to those different religions and learn to know them.”

Suffering for years from various ailments, Sfeir had moved away from the media world in recent months. He continued to attend conferences, however.

While L’Orient Le Jour paid tribute to its “old colleague,” Michel Barnier, a French politician and the European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator posted on Twitter: “Yes, we will miss Antoine Sfeir and his illuminating analysis.”

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