November 16, 2020


Muslims are not the problem, and critics are not the enemy: How aggressive secularism is dividing France (Fethi Mansouri and Greg Barton, 16 Nov 2020, Religion & Ethics)

Taking decisive steps to confront individuals and groups involved in the incitement of hatred makes good sense, but dealing with hate speech in a way that avoids conflating it with genuine struggles for social justice and anti-racism is not so simple.

Indeed, when French political leaders, like interior minister Gerald Darmanin, threaten to ban Muslim civil society groups working to address Islamophobia -- such as the Collectif contre l'islamophobie en France (CCIF), an organisation that works against social marginalisation and for social integration -- these bans end up alienating key partners in the effort to countering the appeal of violent, extremist ideologies.

Likewise, by accusing anti-racist and de-colonial activists and academics not only of having suspect loyalty but of supporting violent extremism, the French government threatens to make enemies of the very groups, and communities, that it needs to be working with. This risks the perverse outcome of having racism against minorities protected as "free speech", while anti-racist activism and critical scholarship are presented as violating freedom and protecting terrorist groups.

It is in this context that a recent manifesto, signed by 100 leading French academics and intellectuals, and published in Le Monde on 2 November 2020, signals uncritical and deeply problematic support for minister of education Jean-Michel Blanquer's politically charged statement that "'indigenist, racialist and, and 'decolonial' ideologies" (Les idéologies indigéniste, racialiste et "décoloniale"), imported from North American universities, were responsible for "conditioning" the violent extremist who beheaded Samuel Paty on 16 October 2020. A few days later OpenDemocracy published a response, which claimed that Blanquer's charge was both disingenuous and profoundly dangerous, pointing to a spike in death threats targeting academics. The letter goes on to state:

The manifesto proposes nothing short of a McCarthyist process, to be led by the French Ministry for Higher Education, Research and Innovation to weed out "Islamist currents" within universities, to take a clear position on the "ideologies that underpin them", and to "engage universities in a struggle for secularism and the Republic" by establishing a body responsible for dealing with cases that oppose "Republican principles and academic freedom". The "Islamogauchiste" tag (which conflates the words 'Islam' and 'leftists') is now widely used by conservative members of the government, large sections of the media and hostile academics. It is reminiscent of the antisemitic accusations of "Judeo-Bolshevism" thrown around in the 1930s which blamed the spread of communism on Jews.

France needs to focus on building trust and social cohesion. Not only does it face a very real and immediate threat from extremist groups, it also needs to contend with the incitement to hatred and violence from the far-right. The government's push for a more muscular institutional authoritarianism targeting French Muslims, above all other groups, plays into the hands of the latter while unjustifiably alienating the former.

Posted by at November 16, 2020 12:00 AM