The False Quarrel over Islamophobia

Excerpt from The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism, by Pascal Bruckner (Princeton University Press, 2012). Reprinted with permission from the author.

From Chapter 2: The Pathologies of Debt

The False Quarrel over Islamophobia

To avoid incurring any blame, in the 1970s fundamentalism invented the term “Islamophobia,” which was supposed to parallel xenophobia: this semantic buckler was first used against the American feminist Kate Millet, who was said to be guilty of calling upon Iranian women to take off their chadors, and then in the 1990s against the Anglo-Indian writer Salman Rushdie when he published The Satanic Verses.[16] This was a clever invention because it amounts to making Islam a subject that one cannot touch without being accused of racism. Taught for half a century to respect difference, we are asked to avoid evaluating a foreign religion in terms of our occidental criteria. Cultural relativism commands us to see what we call our values as simple prejudices, the beliefs of a particular tribe called the West. The religion of the Prophet is thus draped in the mantle of the outcast in order to spare it the slightest attack. Islam seems to have forgotten the incredible violence of the anticlerical struggle in France and Europe, which often led to barbarity: churches, temples, and convents burned and razed, priests and bishops hanged or guillotined, nuns raped. The savagery of these reactions reflected that violence carried out by the churches for so many centuries on the people over whom they ruled. It was a battle waged by extreme sectarianism on both sides, but one that freed us from the tutelage of the clergy and forced Rome and the various Protestant denominations to drastically revise their plans to direct the social order and administer consciences and souls. In France, a country with an anticlerical tradition, one can make fun of Judeo-Christianity, mock the pope or the Dalai Lama, and represent Jesus and the prophets in all sorts of postures, including the most obscene, but one must never laugh at Islam, on pain of being accused of discrimination. Why does one religion and one only escape the climate of raillery and irony that is normal for the others? Let us add that Jewish and Christian fundamentalism are no less grotesque, and that seeing the Republicans in the United States court the most obscurantist and well-organized religious Right is a matter of concern. But apart from the fact that they are not setting off bombs all over the planet, these fundamentalists remain in the minority within their own denominations, where they are restrained by liberals and traditionalists.

To speak of Islamophobia is to maintain the crudest confusion between a religion, a specific system of belief, and the faithful who adhere to it. To attack Islam would thus be to accuse Muslims, and to attack Christianity would be to accuse Christians. But contesting a form of obedience, rejecting ideas one considers false or dangerous, is the very foundation of intellectual life. Must we then speak of anticapitalist, antiliberal, antisocialist, and anti-Marxist racism? Must we refer to some kind of “Christianophobia”? We have a perfect right to do so, to reject all religions, to consider them mendacious, retrograde, mindless. Or must we then re-establish the crime of blasphemy, as the organization of the Islamic Conference demanded during the winter of 2006, introducing at the United Nations a motion that would prohibit defaming prophets and imposing strict limits on freedom of expression in the domain of religious symbols? (Today, because of Islamic censors, Voltaire’s play Muhammad the Prophet, a ferocious attack on hypocrisy and fanaticism written in 1741, can no longer be staged in France except under police protection.)

The invention of Islamophobia fulfills several functions: to deny the reality of an Islamist offensive in Europe the better to legitimate it, but especially to silence Muslims who dare to criticize their faith, denounce fundamentalism, or call for reform of family law, the equality of the sexes, and the right to apostasy.[17] Thus it is necessary to stigmatize the young women who want to free themselves from the veil and go out in public without shame, their heads uncovered; to blast the French, Germans, and British with family backgrounds in the Maghreb, Turkey, or Africa who claim first of all the right not to care about religion, the right not to believe in God, and who do not automatically feel themselves to be Muslims because they are of Moroccan, Algerian, Malian, or Pakistani descent. To block any hope of a change in the land of Islam, these renegades, these traitors, have to be exposed to the public condemnation of their coreligionists, pointed out, silenced, told that they are imbued with colonial ideology,[18] and this process has to be anointed by “specialists” duly accredited by the media and public authorities.[19] We are seeing the fabrication on a global scale of a new crime of opinion analogous to the crime that used to be committed by “enemies of the people” in the Soviet Union. It is a question of tracking down a local reformer who wants to “secularize” the judicial system and education, and also of shutting up contradictors, of shifting the question from the intellectual or theological level to the penal level, every objection, mockery, or reticence being subject to prosecution. In short, anti-Muslim racism—attacking a place of worship, for example, which is a matter for the courts—is confused with a free examination of doctrine. Just as there is discrimination against people guilty of being what they are—blacks, Arabs, Jews, yellow, white—so the discussion bears on articles of faith, revealed truths, and disputed points that are still open to exegesis and transformation because they themselves are products of a specific history. Islam, especially since the Kemalist revolution in Turkey, is a house divided against itself, wounded by the memory of its lost grandeur, filled with sadness but also with hatred and resentment. The fundamentalists want to close this wound as quickly as possible by attributing it to the Crusaders, to infidels, or to Zionists, whereas the reformers want to open it up further, to recognize it in order to provoke a vital shock.[20]

What is pompously called “Arab Muslim humiliation” is perhaps nothing other than an allergy to diversity, the despairing observation that a large part of the world does not follow the Prophet’s teaching, cares nothing for it, and must therefore be punished. We can understand the awkward position of religious Muslims (or Christians) in an environment that is not religious, their malaise when confronted by billboards that offend their sense of modesty, customs that contradict their prejudices, a freedom of tone, of style, and discussion that is very far from the dogmas of the one and only Book. For those who believe themselves to be the sole depository of Truth, these customs and credos are an insult to God. However, it would be better to internalize Truth and insult God than to massacre people or indoctrinate them by force. We can consider the West’s way of life contrary to decency, criticize it, mock it, turn away from it. However, as it exists, in its imperfection, it is not negotiable and seems preferable to what used to be done. We are not going to confine women to the home, cover their heads, lengthen their skirts, or beat up gay people, prohibit alcohol, censure film, theater, and literature, and codify tolerance in order to respect the overly sensitive whims of a few sanctimonious persons. Never was Voltaire’s motto Écrasons l’infâme (Crush fanaticism and superstition) more to the point. Islam is part of the French and European landscape, and as such it has a right to freedom of religion, proper places of worship, and respect—on the condition that it itself respects republican, secular rules and does not claim an extraterritorial status, special rights, exemption from swimming pools and gymnastics for women, separate education, and various favors and privileges. The best one can hope for it, and in the interest of all, is neither “phobia” nor “philia,” but benevolent indifference in a religious market open to all faiths. Happy are the skeptics and unbelievers, if they cool the murderous ardor of religious faith!

They Warned Us!

In 2005–2006 the controversy surrounding caricatures of Muhammad first published in a Danish newspaper resembled a gigantic lapsus. In cities from Jakarta to Beirut, angry crowds paraded through the streets, reminding us of the giant crowds in Nuremberg. They burned down the embassies of Denmark and Norway, attacked French embassies, and killed Christians in Nigeria and Turkey, managing with unconscious malice to see the drawings concerned not as satires in poor taste but as portraits of a redoubtable accuracy. In London, the demonstrators, probably thinking they were showing leniency, carried signs that said “Freedom in Hell,” “Get Ready for the Real Holocaust,” “Exterminate People Who Mock Islam,” and “Europe, Your September 11 Will Come.” In Bangkok, an imam interviewed by CNN called for the offending artist to be put to death, or at least to have his sinful hand cut off as a condition for a possible pardon. In Pakistan, a religious leader offered anyone who killed one of the accused artists a million dollars … and a car. In Jakarta, demonstrators shouted: “Allah is great, let’s hang all the Danes.” Were these just expressions of people who had been stirred up by agitators and were acting under the influence of emotion? What all this really meant was revealed by the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad himself: repeated calls for the destruction of Israel, numerous claims that the Shoah was a myth, and finally a threat to wage total war against the West, against “Global Arrogance.” Radical Islam constantly speaks two languages: that of the victim, spoken by “respectable” theologians who are sent to Europe and the United States to make us feel guilty, and that of the executioner, who wants to terrorize us and predicts that a terrible vengeance will be taken on us, the annihilation of the impious, of the “Crusaders.” We ought to take warning from the adoption of National Socialist rhetoric by extremists in the Near and Middle East. There is no need to accuse Islamo-Fascism of hypocrisy, to find an obscure Mein Kampf in some madrasa: everything is said openly. If we don’t understand it, that is because we are deaf and blind!

Excerpted from The Tyranny of Guilt by Pascal Bruckner. Copyright © Princeton University Press, 2012. All rights reserved.


[16] On this subject, see two very enlightening books: Caroline Fourest and Fiammetta Venner, Tirs croisés: la laïcité à l’épreuve des intégrismes juif, chrétien, et musulman (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 2003), and Caroline Fourest, La Tentation obscurantiste (Paris: Grasset, 2005).

[17] An Afghan citizen, M. Abdul Rahman, who converted to Christianity after a short stay in Germany, was denounced by his family as an apostate and condemned to death. Under international pressure, the Afghan court acquitted him on the ground that he was mad (March 27, 2006) and expelled him from his country.

[18] That is what a French professor, Vincent Geisser, sought to do in La Nouvelle Islamophobie (Paris: La Découverte, 2003), which provides a veritable list of the proscribed and traitors to the cause of Islam, journalists, imams, politicians—almost all of them from the Maghreb. There we have a work worthy of a political commissar from the Stalinist period!

[19] Oliver Roy tells us that in public opinion, Islamophobia includes a “rejection of immigration.” As for the affair of the caricatures of Muhammad, it has to do with nothing less than “discrimination” on the part of a country, Denmark, where the extreme Right in power “refuses to see Muslims as citizens” [sic]. Olivier Roy, Esprit (March–April 2006), pp. 323, 327. We know that since the Cold War there has been a syndrome of the specialist who falls in love with the subject he is studying and defends it tooth and nail, even in the worst cases. He cannot allow a single flaw to spoil the splendid object of his passion. The profundity of his knowledge cannot fully conceal certain blind spots in his analysis. We might reflect on the fact that for the past fifteen years the “failure of political Islam” (Olivier Roy, Seuil, 1992) has been announced, at the very time that Islamists have been experiencing immensely increased popularity everywhere, in the Maghreb as well as in Machrek. Driven out by force of arms, they have returned through the ballot box. We know, for example, this sophism cherished in this little milieu: every bomb that explodes is the paradoxical proof of the extinction of the Islamist threat.

[20] In Bali, at the summit meeting for a more prosperous Muslim world, which opened on May 13, 2006, the Indonesian president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, after having reminded his audience that Muslims had been the first globalizers, noted with sorrow that among the nations adhering in various degrees to Islam, “there is not one that can be classed as developed according to any criterion whatever. All of them lag behind in terms of knowledge, finances, and technology…. The world associates Islam with backwardness. This makes us angry, but the fact remains that we are backward. We are dependent on others for everything connected with our vital needs…. Nothing in our religion says that we cannot be developed.” On the war within the heart of Islam and the battle for its evolution in Europe, see the very convincing book by Gilles Kepel, Fitna: guerre au coeur de l’Islam (Paris: Gallimard, 2004).

Pascal Bruckner is a French writer and intellectual and a leading critic of cultural trends in Europe. He is one of France’s most creative and original minds and the author of over 20 books. Critic Clive James has called him “one of the indispensable philosophers of our time”. Historian Richard Wolin said Bruckner “might well be the most distinguished essay writer in France today. … Whether one agrees or disagrees with him, he does the life of the mind an invaluable service.”

The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism
By Pascal Bruckner
Princeton University Press; Tra edition (April 1, 2012)
ISBN-10: 0691154309
ISBN-13: 978-0691154305
$19.93

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