by Pascal Bruckner · September 6, 2017
In 1910, a French editor in the colonial ministry, Alain Quellien, published The Muslim Policy in West Africa. This work, addressed to specialists, is one of measured praise for the religion of the Koran, a “practical and indulgent” religion, better adapted to indigenous peoples, while Christianity is “too complicated, too abstract, too austere for the rudimentary and materialist mentality of the Negro.” Seeing Islam as a civilizing force that “removes peoples from fetishism and its degrading practices” and thus facilitates European penetration, the author calls for an end to prejudices that equate this confession with barbarism and fanaticism, castigating the “Islamophobia” prevalent among colonial personnel. What is needed, on the contrary, is to tolerate Islam and to treat it impartially. Quellien was writing as an administrator, concerned with order. Why demonize a religion that keeps peace in the empire, whatever may be the abuses, which he considers minor, of which it is guilty—that is, slavery and polygamy? Since Islam is the best ally of colonialism, believers must be protected from the nefarious influence of modern ideas; their way of life must be respected.
Maurice Delafosse, a colonial administrator living in Dakar, writes at about the same time: “Whatever may say those for whom Islamophobia is a principle of indigenous administration, France has nothing more to fear from Muslims in West Africa than from non-Muslims.” He adds: “Islamophobia therefore serves no purpose in West Africa.”
The term “Islamophobia” probably existed before these bureaucrats of the empire used it. Still, this language remained rare until the late 1980s, when the word was transformed little by little into a political tool, under the pressure of British Muslims reacting to the fatwa that the Ayatollah Khomeini had pronounced against novelist Salman Rushdie, following his publication of The Satanic Verses. With its fluid meaning, the word “Islamophobia” amalgamates two very different concepts: the persecution of believers, which is a crime; and the critique of religion, which is a right. A newcomer in the semantic field of antiracism, this term has the ambition of making Islam untouchable by placing it on the same level as anti-Semitism.
In Istanbul, in October 2013, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, financed by dozens of Muslim countries that themselves shamelessly persecute Jews, Christians, Buddhists, and Hindus, demanded that Western countries put an end to freedom of expression where Islam was concerned, charging that the religion had been represented too negatively as a faith that oppresses women and that proselytizes aggressively. The signatories’ intention was to make criticism of the religion of the Koran an international crime.
This demand arose at the United Nations World Conference Against Racism in Durban as early as 2001 and would be reaffirmed almost every year. UN special rapporteur for racism Doudou Diene, in a 2007 report to the organization’s Human Rights Council, decries Islamophobia as one of the “most serious forms of the defamation of religions.” In March of that year, the Human Rights Council had equated this type of defamation to racism, pure and simple, and demanded that all mockery of Islam and its religious symbols be banned. This was a double ultimatum. The first goal was to impose silence on Westerners, who were guilty of colonialism, secularism, and seeking equality between men and women. The second, even more important, aim was to forge a weapon of enforcement against liberal Muslims, who dared to criticize their faith and who called for reform of family laws and for equality between the sexes, for a right to apostatize and to convert, and for a right no longer to believe in God and not to observe Ramadan and other rites. Such renegades must face public condemnation, in this imperative, so as to block all hope of change.
The new thought crime seeks to stigmatize young women who wish to be free of the veil and to walk without shame, bareheaded in the street, and to marry whom they love and not who is imposed on them, as well as to strike down those citizens of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom of Turkish, Pakistani, or African origin who dare claim the right to religious indifference. Questions about Islam move from the intellectual, individual, or theological sphere to the penal, making any objection or reticence about the faith liable to sanction. The concept of Islamophobia masks the reality of the offensive, led by the Salafists, Wahhabis, and Muslim Brotherhood in Europe and North America, to re-Islamize Muslim communities—a prelude, they hope, to Islamizing the entire Western world. Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, a refugee in Qatar sought by Interpol for inciting murder and promoting terrorism, often deplored the fact that Islam failed twice in its conquest of Europe: in 732, when Charles Martel stopped the Saracens at Poitiers; and in 1689, with the aborted attempt of the Ottomans to take Vienna. Now the idea is to convert Europe to the true faith in part by transforming the law and the culture.
There remains the mystery of the transubstantiation of religion into race. The racialization of the world has to be the most unexpected result of the antidiscrimination battle of the last half-century; it has ensured that the battle continuously re-creates the curse from which it is trying to break free. A great universal religion like Islam includes a vast number of peoples and cannot be assimilated to a particular ethnic group. The term “Islamophobia,” however, invites confusion between a system of specific beliefs and the faithful who adhere to those beliefs. To contest a form of obedience, to reject dogmas that one considers absurd or false is the very basis of intellectual life, but belief in the existence of Islamophobia renders such contestation impossible. Should we speak, then, of anticapitalist, antiliberal, or anti-Marxist “racism” or phobia?
A universal religion like Islam includes a vast number of peoples and cannot be assimilated to a particular ethnic group.
But Islam benefits from a special protection. At the very time when Christian minorities in Islamic lands are persecuted, killed, and forced into exile—they are now threatened with extinction by the middle of this century—the word “Christianophobia,” despite UN officials proposing it, has not caught on, and it never will. We have difficulty seeing Christianity otherwise than as a religion of conquest and intolerance, even though today, at least from the Near East to Pakistan, it is a religion of martyrdom. In France, with its anticlerical tradition, we can make fun of Moses, Jesus, and the pope, and picture them in every posture, even the most obscene. But we must never laugh at Islam; if we do, we invite the wrath of the courts. Why this double standard? The Parisian daily Le Monde notes that the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo had devoted only 4 percent of its covers to representations of the Prophet Mohammed, whereas it has been mocking Jesus, Moses, the Dalai Lama, and the pope for 40 years—but this 4 percent earned it a collective assassination by Islamist killers on January 7, 2015. And for criticizing two French Islamist groups with ideological complicity with the Charlie Hebdo murderers, I found myself dragged before a tribunal and charged with defamation. I won the trial—fortunately, since what I was saying was the simple truth.
And here is where the strangest factor in the whole Islamophobia controversy emerges: the enlistment of a part of the American and European Left in the defense of the most radical form of Islam—what one might call the neo-Bolshevik bigotry of the lost believers of Marxism. Having lost everything—the working class, the Third World—the Left clings to this illusion: Islam, rebaptized as the religion of the poor, becomes the last utopia, replacing those of Communism and decolonization for disenchanted militants. The Muslim takes the place of the proletarian.
The baton seems to have been passed at about the time of the fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979, with the resulting rise to power of Islamist revolutionaries, which was the occasion for enthusiastic commentary by Michel Foucault, among others on the left. God’s return on history’s stage had finally rendered Marxist and anticolonialist programs obsolete. The faith moved the masses better than the socialist hope. Now, it was the believer in the Koran who embodied the global hope for justice, who refused to conform to the order of things, who transcended borders and created a new international order, under the aegis of the Prophet: a green Comintern. Too bad for feminism, women’s equality, salvific doubt, the critical spirit; in short, too bad for everything traditionally associated with a progressive position.
This political attitude is manifest in progressives’ scrupulous idolatry of Muslim practices and rites, especially the Islamic veil: “modest fashion” is praised to the skies, so much so that, for certain leftist commentators, an unveiled Muslim woman who claims this right can only be a traitor, a turncoat, a woman for sale. The irony of this neocolonial solicitude for bearded men and veiled women—and for everything that suggests an oriental bazaar—is that Morocco itself, whose king is the “Commander of the Faithful,” recently forbade the wearing, sale, and manufacture of the burka in his country. Shall we call the Cherifian monarchy “Islamophobic”? Shall we be more royalist than the king?
It’s worth considering this Islamo-leftism more closely, this hope nourished by a revolutionary fringe that Islam might spearhead a new uprising, a “holy war” against global capitalism, exactly as in Baku in 1920, when Bolshevik leaders, including Zinoviev, published a joint appeal with the pan-Islamists to unleash jihad against Western imperialism. It was an English Trotskyite, Chris Harman, leader of the Socialist Workers Party, who, in 1994, provided a theory for this alliance between militant revolutionaries and radical Muslim associations, arguing for their unity, in certain circumstances, against the common enemy of capitalism and the bourgeoisie. Generations of leftists saw the working class as the messianic leaven of a radiant humanity; now, willing to flirt with the most obscurantist bigotry and to betray their own principles, they transferred their hopes to the Islamists.
In his 1978 book Orientalism, Edward Said observed that, after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, cartoons in the Western press sometimes depicted Arabs with hook noses and standing next to gas pumps—clearly Semites, he observed. Thus, Said maintained, the target of anti-Semitism passed from the Jew to the Arab. Did not Said call himself, in an interview in Haaretz in 2000, the last “Jew of the Middle East, a Palestinian Jew”? In short, for him, the Western Christian world’s hostility toward Islam represented the equivalent of anti-Semitism and flowed from the same source. The philosopher Enzo Traverso similarly contends that “Islamophobia plays the role for the new racism that was once played by anti-Semitism”: the rejection of the immigrant, perceived, since the colonial era, as the Other, the invader, the unassimilable foreign body in the national community; thus the specter of terrorism replaces that of Judeo-Bolshevism.
Already in 1994, in Grenoble, young Muslims, marching to protest the government ban of the Islamic headscarf, wore armbands featuring a yellow Islamic crescent—an allusion to the yellow star that French Jews were made to wear during the Occupation—against a black background and the line: “When will it be our turn?” And when Islamist militants, suspected of sympathy for the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front, were held in barracks in northern France that same year, they immediately displayed a banner: “Concentration Camp.” In Switzerland in 2011, the Islamic Central Council printed yellow stickers that associated Islamophobia with the Holocaust—a yellow star bearing the inscription “Muslim.” And it was the fundamentalist preacher Tarik Ramadan, for a time an advisor to British prime minister Tony Blair, who explained that the situation of Muslims in Europe was like that of Jews in the 1930s. The implication is clear: to criticize Islam is to prepare nothing less than a new Holocaust.
Why this Islamic desire to be considered Jewish? The answer is clear: to achieve pariah status. But the analogy is doubly false. First, anti-Semitism was never about the Jewish religion as such but rather the existence of Jews as a people. Even an unbelieving Jew was detested by anti-Semites, due to his family name and his group identity. And second, at the end of the 1940s, there were no groups of extremist Jews slitting the throats of priests in churches, as happened at Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray in France in July 2016, the deed of two young jihadists; there were no Jews throwing bombs in train stations, shopping malls, or airports, or driving trucks into crowds. There is thus a third anti-Semitism that, since 1945, must be added to the classic forms, Christian and nationalist: the envy of the Jew as victim, the paragon of the disaster of the Shoah. This Jew thus becomes both model and obstacle for the Islamist; he is seen as usurping a position that by right belongs to Africans, Palestinians, and Muslims. To make oneself the object of a new Holocaust, however imaginary, is to grab hold of the maximal misfortune and to put oneself in the most desirable place—that of the victim who escapes all criticism.
It is well known how much of the Nazi legacy has passed, since the creation of Israel, to the Arab Middle East, where a classic of anti-Jewish propaganda like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, forged by the czarist regime at the end of the nineteenth century, has been a best-seller for years. Was it not the late king of Morocco, Hassan II, who said: “Hatred of Israel is the most powerful aphrodisiac of the Arab world”?
For further evidence of this corrosive envy, consider the Muslim committees in Great Britain that, in 2005, urged then–prime minister Tony Blair to replace Holocaust Memorial Day (dedicated to the Shoah) with Genocide Day. “The very name Holocaust Memorial Day sounds too exclusive to many young Muslims,” one committee member argued. “It sends out the wrong signals: that the lives of [some] people are to be remembered more than others. It is a grievance that extremists are able to exploit.” Sir Iqbal Sacranie, general secretary of the Muslim Council of Great Britain until 2006, added: “The message of the Holocaust was ‘never again’ and for that message to have practical effect on the world community it has to be inclusive. We can never have double standards in terms of human life. Muslims feel hurt and excluded that their lives are not equally valuable to those lives lost in the Holocaust time.”
On the view of Islamic fundamentalists and many progressives, the Muslim should replace the Jew for another reason: the Jew has dishonored his status and become in turn a colonizer, with the creation of the State of Israel. The idealization of the Jew after the war prepared the subsequent smear campaign; in other words, the Judaizing of the Muslims entailed the Nazification of the Israelis. There is the good Jew of yesterday, eternally persecuted, and the bad Israeli who has taken hold in the Middle East, imperious and racist. Traverso makes the formulation candidly: in the past, he argues, Jews and blacks fought together as antifascists and anticolonialists; then the Jews broke through the color line and became “white”—that is, oppressors. Today’s true Jew wears the headdress and speaks Arabic; the other is an imposter and usurper. To quote one statement among thousands, here’s former French diplomat Stéphane Hessel, speaking to the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper in 2011: “If we compare the German occupation with the present occupation of Palestine by the Israelis, then it was relatively inoffensive, apart from exceptional elements such as incarcerations, executions, internments, and the theft of works of art.”
Once the equivalence between Judeophobia and Islamophobia is established, the next step is to put in place the principle of elimination—a subtle but effective process of symbolic expropriation. It is our turn, say the Islamic fundamentalists. In this way, Islam is able to present itself as the creditor of humanity as a whole: we are in its debt because of the wrongs inflicted since the Crusades, the wound of colonization, and the occupation of Palestine by the Zionists—and finally because of the bad image from which the religion of the Prophet suffers.
How should we react to this semantic racket? By affirming that we must not misunderstand our debts. Europe has an obligation where Judaism is concerned, since it has been part of Europe’s history from its origins. Islam is part of the contemporary French and European landscape, yes, and thus has the right to our sympathy, to freedom of worship, to police protection, to appropriate places for prayer, and to respect. But it must in turn respect republican and secular rules, not claim an extraterritorial status with special rights, such as exemption from swimming and gymnastics for girls, prayer places within businesses, separate instruction, and various favors and privileges in hospitals. Believers must be protected, but so must unbelievers, apostates, and skeptics. I proposed as early as 2006 the creation of a vast support system for dissidents from Islam, just as we helped Soviet dissidents. We must advocate freedom of doctrinal criticism, too, just as we do for Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism. The point is not to make Europe Islamic but to make Islam European, so that it is one religion among others and might, someday, help spread tolerance and a renewal of critical thought to the rest of the umma.
This conception of a secular society that encompasses a large Muslim community—5 to 6 million individuals—distinguishes France from the Anglo-Saxon world, which tends to believe that it can protect itself from Islamist terrorist attacks through respect for cultural differences and noninterference in the internal affairs of communities. Yet this principle of noninterference didn’t prevent the terror attack in London that killed five in March 2017 or the Manchester massacre of May 2017 that killed 22. And British cities such as Bradford (where hundreds of copies of Rushdie’s Satanic Verses were burned in 1989, just as the Nazis burned “degenerate” books in Nuremberg in 1933) and Birmingham, ever more dominated by Muslim fundamentalists, have transformed into little emirates, stifling to friends of freedom. As for the United States, despite President Obama’s outreach to Islam in Cairo in 2009, the Muslim world still detests it, whatever it does, owing to the simple fact of its existence.
France is attacked not because it oppresses Muslims but because it liberates them from the hold of religion. It offers them a perspective that terrifies the devout—that of spiritual indifference, the right to believe or not to believe, as Jews and Christians are able to do. If France were this prison that some describe, how can one explain the fact that so many people from North Africa and the Middle East come to live there, day after day, as much for economic opportunities as for the freedoms they can enjoy, including the freedom finally to leave behind bigotry, rites, and the power of mosques and of imams? Let’s not forget that, for two centuries, since Bonaparte’s expedition to Egypt in 1798, France has maintained close ties with the Arab-Muslim world and has at least the potential to become the leader of an Islamic Enlightenment, as the great orientalist Jacques Berque has suggested.
The notion of Islamophobia is meant to give the religion of the Prophet a status of exemption denied to other spiritual systems. Thus, we have the reprehensible law enacted by the Canadian Parliament this March that prohibits criticism of Islam, while other confessions still can be denigrated without any problem. Such a law is a poisoned gift that risks producing the opposite of what it intends, since it can incite anger and resentment against the believers of the crescent. To regularize the presence of Islam in free societies means giving the faith exactly the same status as other confessions: neither moronic demonizing nor blind idealizing. Muslims in free societies must accept what Jews and Christians have accepted: that it is not a superior religion that should benefit from advantages refused to other confessions. We must beware when fanaticism borrows the language of human rights and dresses up as a victim in order better to impose its grip on power. There is an old saying: the devil also likes to quote scripture.
Walk through the streets of any big European or American city, and you will pass innumerable Baptist, Catholic, Lutheran, and evangelical churches, Hindu temples, synagogues, mosques, pagodas, and on and on. This peaceful cohabitation of diverse expressions of the divine is a wonder of the West. “When there is only one religion, tyranny rules; when there are two, religious war reigns; when there are many, liberty comes,” Voltaire observed. The best that we can wish for Islam is not “phobia” or “philia” but a benevolent indifference in a spiritual marketplace, open to all beliefs. But it is precisely this indifference that the fundamentalists want to eradicate. It cannot be the equal of other faiths, since it believes itself superior to them all. This is the core of the problem.
Pascal Bruckner is a French writer and philosopher. His article was translated by Alexis Cornel.