Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1372, (7 - 13 December 2017)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1372, (7 - 13 December 2017)

Ahram Weekly

French debates and Political Islam

All sides in the debates on Islam in France have expressed legitimate concerns, and some are proposing genuine projects for the country’s future, writes Tewfick Aclimandos

It is better to be fair. Like in most debates, I intend to side with those arguing against the extreme left in France that supports Political Islam. But I prefer to start by presenting some of the topics on which this left-wing has a point or is right.

It is impossible to deny that there are many kinds of rampant discrimination in France (and elsewhere, of course). For instance, try to rent a flat if you have an Arab name. Or send your CV with two different names, one French and the other Arab. It could be the same CV, and only the name will be different. The French one will receive a reply, the Arab one will not. And so on. 

Mocking religion is a national sport in France, and many Muslims, or Arab Christians, are shocked and feel humiliated by it. I am not sure life is easy for veiled women either. This list is not exhaustive, and the claim that Muslims suffer from discrimination in France is not a preposterous one. You may add that many, perhaps most, French Muslims are of Algerian descent, and relations are thus further complicated by memories of the past.

More generally, liberal formulas do not solve the problems of minorities, as was pointed out by the late commentator Leo Strauss. Liberalism guarantees equal political rights to all and access to the public sphere, and it defines a private sphere where everyone is free. As a result, it is very difficult, and probably impossible, to fight discrimination in the private sphere. Of course, you can say that any minority practices its own kind of discrimination, but it is clear that the majority’s behaviour is the most important.

I cannot claim to be able to assess the French state’s record on fighting discrimination. It is probably unsatisfactory. Nevertheless, I am sure that the claim that the state itself is racist in France is, to put it mildly, absurd. At most, we could say that “past racism” has left marks and scars that have not been erased or cured. I’ll return to this in a following article. In addition, of course, the state in France does not “persecute” Muslims.

That said, we should pay attention to the majority’s grudges. The media and the cultural elites in France have a lot of nice things to say about different cultures, apart from the Western one, which is considered to be criminal, colonialist, aggressive, and so on. Many French people feel the figure of the “heterosexual white male” has become a convenient scapegoat to explain why so many things have gone wrong as a result. Many mainstream parties in France have tried to build “coalitions of minorities”, thereby neglecting average “whites”. 

Many in the majority in France have felt, rightly or wrongly, that minorities have more influence than they should. Some of their behaviour irritates the majority: Muslim teenagers refusing to study French literature, for example, or Muslim women refusing to be examined by male doctors. There have also been cases of young Muslims attacking other Muslims who do not fast in Ramadan, and of course there has been the relentless pressure by Islamist groups to “change the rules of the game” and the social contract in France. The poisonous debates on the burkini that took place last year are just one example, and there are many others.

Of course, in many cases coexistence is peaceful and things are going well. For instance, marriages between people from different communities are frequent in France. Most people do not have a problem with “the rules of the game”. However, the French media and many sociologists are not fond of success stories, and they prefer problematic ones. I do not know whether these success stories are based on a scrupulous respect for laïcité (secularism), or on creative accommodations with it. A mix of both is a plausible answer.

We must keep in mind this background and the terrorist attacks that have taken place in France if we want to understand why the French public keenly follows debates on Islam, Islam and Europe, and Political Islam. I met with a Canadian colleague of Egyptian origin last week who keeps an eye on French debates. He told me that he considered all the debaters to have a point to “some extent”. But they were mistaken because they failed to recognise their own stance’s limitations and the good arguments of others.

I cannot agree with this formulation. I prefer to say that all sides in the debates have expressed legitimate grievances and concerns, and some are proposing projects for France’s future. None of these projects is perfect, and some are really nasty. On a more personal note, I should add that I cannot bear the tactics used by the extreme left in France of demonisation, intimidation, and insults. 

“Islamophobia”, for instance, is a very convenient argument used against anyone having problems with Political Islam. There are of course segments of the population that cannot bear the growing Muslim presence in Europe and who use the struggle against Political Islam as a pretext. But in the camp of intellectuals attacking Political Islam, such people are not in a majority, far from it. 

Moreover, in the extreme left there are also some awful opinions. On both sides there are people who are unable to draw a distinction between Islam, a religion, and Political Islam, an ideology. For some, this confusion contributes to demonising Islam, while for others it provides Political Islam with a kind of immunity.

There is another interesting example. One colleague, an influential defender of the jihadists, has at least twice said in a public debate that the “white guys” often think they have a duty to liberate “poor Muslim women” and to save them from “bad Muslim guys”. He mocked this fantasy, which probably does exist and is a silly, though powerful, motive. The only liberation that matters is the one you achieve by yourself. 

Nevertheless, denouncing this fantasy is also a convenient way of avoiding the discussion of rational arguments. Nobody says any more that the extreme left has a deep hatred for its own society, is permanently longing for a permanent revolution, or has fantasies of a lost paradise that never existed.

In the next article, I’ll look at the more recent debates in France. Here, I want to briefly look again at the one that opposed French commentators Gilles Kepel and Olivier Roy after the 13 November massacres in Paris two years ago. Kepel said the problem was the encounter between “imported ideologies” such as those of the Salafis, Wahabis, and Muslim Brothers, and the youth of France’s poor and alienated suburbs. 

Roy said that this view implied that Islam was becoming radical and was therefore inaccurate. In his view, it would be better to say that radicalism has become Islamist. Western societies were unable to provide their young people with values, meanings, and prospects, he said. As a result, they were becoming nihilistic. Many had converted to Islam and jihadism. 

These two scholars both had powerful arguments. But the French public understood, rightly or wrongly, that the former had said that “we have a problem with contemporary interpretations of Islam and with many young Muslims” and that the latter was saying that “there is absolutely no problem with Islam or Muslims. The problem is with our society and its failures.”

The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.

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