Islamophobia,part I: The worldview

This post belongs to a serie of three that discusses the problem of Islamophobia in France (and Europe by extension)

Being from Paris has few advantages. One is the amusing and touching slight change in people’s stare when you answer the question “where are you from?” Other cities hardly evoke images of romance and “grandeur” in people’s mind like Paris does. Setting expectations so high, Paris is bound to disappoint. The second benefit of Parisian origin is the ease to measure the pulse of the whole country. Rare are nations where so much is concentrated in the capital city. To be someone, one needs to monter a Paris (travel up to Paris). To matter, one must etre connu a Paris (to be known in Paris). To understand France, one should savoir ce qui se dit a Paris (learn what is being talked about in Paris). Is there anything comparable? London, maybe. But discussions are held behind the closed doors of private clubs, where any word is whispered. A form of conversation adapted to business deals, not to political debate. In France, people meet at dinner in the privacy of their homes. And the free flow of conversations (and wine) inevitably lead to politics.

It was during an event organised by my father that I got the opportunity to have an overview of the situation of France. In these days, this means principally elite perspectives on the relations between Muslims and non-Muslims. I had been warned by a colleague of mine that the Parisian intellectual environment was rather hostile. This colleague had attended a wedding of a groom with a good old French name, say Pierre Louis, and a bride with a foreign sounding name, say Maria Carla. At the wedding, the best man stood up and made a speech, as tradition requires. He started recalling the first time Pierre mentioned to his group of close friends a certain Maria Carla in his life. The best man recalled the astonishment of the clique: “Maria Carla — they wondered looking at each other – could she be Portuguese? At least – they said in chorus – with a name like this, she is not a Muslim.”

But let’s go back to our event in Paris. I had got some warnings, I said, but the event still shocked me. I saw intellectuals with impeccable resume, who have denounced the Soviet threat (at the risk of their career back then), appropriating the language of the far right (with more evolved vocabulary). I heard one old “freedom fighter” asserting that Muslim women should remove their veil in the public place since she was forced to wear a hijab when she visited Syria and Egypt. I witnessed another, originating from Albania, calmly asserting that she is proud of defining herself as racist when it comes to Muslims. A third was warning us all of the perils of multiculturalism for the pacific coexistence in democratic societies. Others were simply claiming that Muslims do not have the right culture to integrate into French society. All were unanimously saying that France had to be protected from a barbarian invader.

A call to arms or, at least, to a national (re)awakening, is the core program of a 674-page book aptly titled Histoire de l’Islamisation Francaise 1979-2019 and written by an anonymous collection of authors. The main argument is that slyly Muslims are taking over the French society with the complicity of the left-wing elites, the Islamo-gauchiste (Islamo-leftist) and the immigrationists. Each year, and its corresponding chapter, a piece of France is taken away, and the authors are left to lament the lack of political will to deal with the Muslim question.

This book is an act of propaganda. And, as such, the authors engage in selective presentation of evidence. Worse, this large volume is replete with internal contradictions. One example. In the chapter 1988, the authors complain that immigrants do not acquire the French nationality, just to complain a few pages later (chapter 1992) that they do so as to bring in their wives from Africa. But does it really matter? After all, the authors assert that even if French by nationality, a Muslim is still to be perceived as an immigrant (page 255 : “the proportion of immigrants (French and foreigners) is getting close to 10% (9.7%) and the growth continues”). Another contradiction, more dramatic this time. The authors (almost) justify colonialism on the ground that colonisation has been driven (in part) to abolish slavery in the conquered regions (chapter 2001, page 397). A few pages later, we learn that the French coloniser, in practice, suppressed slavery in 1932-33, more than 50 years after the beginning of colonial expansion, and only as a punishment for a revolt by colonised groups. So much for a priority. Even the title of the book is dishonest, the authors promise us an analysis of islamisation from 1979 to 2019, but chapters run only up to 2018. We are starved of the last year, though this may be a blessing for the reader.

For all its misdeeds, and there are many (the authors are anonymous not because they are writing a subversive piece, as they perhaps believe, but because they are spreading hatred, as they perhaps know), this book has one redeeming quality. It offers a peek into the mind-set of the Frenchs’ (and, by extension, Europeans’) fear of the untrustworthy Muslims. This worldview contains old leitmotivs. It builds on the concept of closed society and its corollary of fixed identity. This is mixed with a democratic/Condorcian belief of the People as beholder of the truth.

The authors long for a lost Ideal France. We are never told when this France ever existed, but we can without much risk guess that it pre-dates 1979. Was it when Algeria was still a French department (see the chapter 1982)? The authors do not tell us when the Ideal France existed, but they do describe some of its distinctive features. This France has blond hairs. The authors quote approvingly the General de Gaulle who lamented immigration from Mediterranean countries and thought to boost immigration from Nordic countries (“Sur le plan ethnique, il convient de limiter l’afflux des Mediterraneens et des Orientaux qui ont, depuis un demi-siecle, profondement modifier la composition francaise. (…) il est preferable que la priorite soit accordee au naturalisation nordique” chapter 1982 p.92). This France has good Christian names. The authors deplore a law allowing parents to choose their kids’ names outside the Christian Saints’ calendar (chapter 1991, pp. 224-5). This France allows others to be successful, allows some immigrants to be popular (“La France [sic] en avait peut-etre assez de s’entendre dire depuis quelaue temps qu’elle devait tout a ces immigres qu’elle avait genereusement accueuillis depuis des decennies en leur donnant leur chance et en placant en tete de ses celebrites preferees ceux qui avaient reussi dans le monde le la culture, de la science ou du sport” chapter 2007, page 507). And what does this France expect in return? Not much. Obedience and discretion, like Zinedine Zidane who does not express his opinion (chapter 1998, page 356. See also “Les immigres sont les hotes de la France et a ce titre ont un double devoir: jouer le jeu de l’entreprise et celui de la nation” said the socialist minister of Labor Jean Auroux, quoted approvingly, chapter 1983, page 100-1)

This France should have remained frozen in its perfection. And any movements away from the Ideal was, is, and will be, corruption. Fixed are its people. Fixed is its art (chapter 2005 on the Louvre of the French People). Fixed is its History (the figure of Charles Martel, saviour of France and Europe, is not to be revisited). Fixed are its elites. Twice the authors lament the intrusion of new faces into the public sphere. On page 472, they are furious that the left-wing newspaper, Liberation, published a two-page article of Paul Pasquali, a completely unknown sociologist (“un sociologue totalement inconnu”). On page 645, the authors lament that Patrick Boucheron, an historian, is offered a position at the prestigious College de France without being a media figure. One cannot receive media attention without being a well-known academic, and one cannot become a well-known academic without receiving media attention. No one then comes to challenge the established narratives. Just like Plato who banned poets who could perturb the Republic myth, the authors outcast any novel figures who could contest the French roman national (and, a badly intentioned reader may think, also challenger their acquired privileges).

But alas, this Ideal France has been in danger for so many years. It is in danger because of the cunning Muslims. These Muslims who hide their true preferences (when 45% of Muslims join the majority of French people in opposing the veil in school, it may only be by politeness, the authors warn us on page 139). And are permitted to lie by the Coran: The infamous taqiyya that allows Muslim to hide their belief if they risk being persecuted, is repeatedly stressed in the book. This principle of prudence, also preached by Hobbes, is now used against Muslims to demarcate them from others. And how do they (the Muslims) are planning to take over? Via the great replacement obviously! The demographic substitution of the blond hair French with good Christian names by polygamous sexist Muslims. This elucubration, connected with the far-right, used as argument by right-wing terrorists, appears three times in the book. In quoting Tayyip Erdogan on page 454, who tells “do not have two children, have five”. When discussing the Louvre of the People on page 477 (“the change of people now has been officialised in a museum”). When discussing demography on page 673. Three times in a book of almost 700 pages this seems little. But more than the number of occurrences, it is the location that is striking.

The great replacement concludes the book. And it is demonstrated with statistics so it becomes science: From 2020, between 40 to 73% of the demographic growth will be due to immigration so that France in 2050 will be just like Seine Saint-Denis in 2016 (a suburb of Paris) with two thirds of new born having one foreign parent. QED (on page 673). Well, not exactly. The authors confuse the proportion of a flux (the demographic growth, so on top of replacement fertility) with the proportion of a stock (the total number of births). Statistics are not as malleable as history…

But let us not be distracted by these trivial mathematical mistakes. Let’s rejoice rather that the situation is not lost. The Ideal France has still some ammunitions. Some members of the civil society, school teachers, headmasters, even actors are perfect in their analysis (“impeccables dans son analyse” chapter 1985, page 123). And most of all, we have the People. The People who see things for what they are (“il aura fallu quinze ans au pape de la sociologie francaise [Alain Touraine] pour comprendre ce que le people avait tout de suite senti” chapter 1985 page 139). We can see the road travelled since Plato. In Plato, the people—the bronze class—is perverting the Republic. In Marx, the proletarians are the instrument of history. Now, in the world of mass democracy, the People takes an even more active role and becomes the guarantors of the Ideal. The problem with this newly found role for the People, fitting for our time, is that the People (if such notion even exists, see Rosavallon’s Le Peuple Introuvable) is unstable. It rarely does what is expected of it: staying put. An example among many. In 1975, 42% of respondents agreed that homosexuality is a disease to be cured, against 8% in 2019. Only 24% thought it was a way to live one’s sexuality in 1975 against 85% last year (here). Which People do the authors refer to? Could it be that the France of 1975 was no so idyllic after all?

One may think that this book is an outlier. That I read too much in the writings of extremists. That I forced a coherent whole on disparate thoughts. But we find similar themes in a more moderate book Islamophobie: Intoxication ideologique by Philippe d’Iribarne, published with a more mainstream editor (Albin Michel). The society is being corrupted by allowing different cultures (e.g., page 82). Muslims are untrustworthy and their assertions are not to be believed at face value (e.g., page 159). The People immediately understands what the elites fail to comprehend (e.g., page 168). And I have little doubt that the same trilogy can be found in other texts (sometimes, but not always, with a pinch of great replacement theses).

Overall, the worldview feeding Islamophobia has very little to teach us. Consciously or not, it repeats the tropes of its xenophobic predecessors. And this is almost disappointing. After all, all these authors are motivated by the novel problem of the integration of Muslims into Western civilization. As such, the authors fail in their enterprise. They do not raise to the challenge we face. Is there such challenge? No one doubts it. I don’t either. But I will make the claim that Muslims are the ones facing it. And I will develop these thoughts in a follow up post.

Situation de la France by Pierre Manent (in French)

Situation de la France is a book written in reaction to the January 2015 terrorist attacks in France. Its stated aim is to tell the truth about the integration of Muslim in France. It starts from a diagnosis that France is in a position of weakness. Having lost a sense of direction, France is apathetic. On the other hand, Islam comes in in a position of force with a strong political and cultural will. The only way forward according to Pierre Manent is to accept the Muslims as they are, to welcome them in the national community as they come; that is, with their own mores, culture, and evidently, religious practices. Even if it means going against the French myth of laicite (a special form of secularism). So far, the book seems to promote a tolerant and open society towards others. However, the attentive reader notices that the central players in Manent’s narrative are all entities, never individuals with their own incentives and experience.

Thus, it comes as a little surprise that the second part of the book moves far way from tolerance. For Manent, the solution to French problems of integrating Muslims as they are can only come from a return to the Nation. But not a Nation, the historical Nation with its Christian roots. Only the Nation can give again a sense of purpose to France to counter the imperialism of Islam (an imperialism by default). Only the Nation can provide a framework where Muslims can enter into the French society as an equal community with its own specificity. Why not a renewed Nation rather than the historical Christian Nation? Because only Catholicism can serve as mediator for the different parts within the Nation—via the Church—and for the different Nations within Europe—via the Doctrine.

The book, which started as an essay on integration, ends as an apology of the old nations, with the Muslims somehow an afterthought. This is done via a series of implicit assumption and more explicit omissions. First, for Manent, individuals are incomplete if they are not stakeholders in the Res Publica (he reserves his most disparaging comments for today’s individuals and their endless quest of new “human” rights). As far as I can tell, we are far away from Tocqueville, an early source of inspiration for Manent. For Tocqueville, the risk is that the comfort of private life yields the greatest public tyranny. Paying attention to the public realm is a necessary evil to protect individual private life. In his book, Pierre Manent stands close to Hannah Arendt. The full realization of human beings requires them to be first and foremost involved, if not defined by, politics. My goal, here, is not to discuss the advantage of one position over the other—-though one can easily imagine that political thinkers too easily see involvement into politics as the human activity per excellence. My aim is to point out that Manent’s view of individuals is an implicit assumption that informs all his book. And especially, as I explain below, his view of Muslims and their integration.

But let’s grant, for the sake of argument, that humans are incomplete absent a properly functioning and demanding Res Publica. Why the Nation then? For Manent, it is only via the Nation that Europe reached its heights. But what are these heights? As far as I can tell, they are left undefined.  The horrors of Nations are slightly clearer as Pierre Manent recognises. Indeed, he spends some time on the Holocaust, the ultimate crime. But, there, he seems to find some arguments in favour of his narrative rather than against it. After all, the Holocaust was committed by a country with dual confession. It was done by Nation not moderated by Catholicism. Other crimes deserve barely a sentence. It is, however, strange that a reader of Celine would not mention World War I. In Journey to the End of the Night, the hero in the first chapter is bewitched by a national parade. But the national appeal does not fulfil his quest of meaning, does not solve his boredom. It is, instead, the beginning of a quest into the darkness of the soul. Maybe, here lies the splendour of Nation. Their greatest achievements are choses publiques (arts maybe, conquests, development, science, technology), the suffering, the tragedies that accompany them are choses privees, and so of less significance.

A similar duality—privee/private versus publique/common—is at play when it comes to Muslim integration. Pierre Manent recognized without pain that most Muslims came to France (and Europe) not in view of propagating Islam, but to improve their material condition. Migrants share many common values with European private individuals. They are Homo Economicus. But this is not enough. Even if few care about imposing Islam, all are defined by their religion because it is their political condition. For Pierre Manent, the main issue is this political division, an involuntary one maybe, but a division nonetheless, that we—as French, European, Westerners—have to mend. Alas, as I (here) and, even more so, others (here and here) have shown, focusing on divisions, attributing a Muslim identity to these citizens, only create further divisions, this time in the economic realm. Political divisions, if they exist, are not contained by invoking them, they rather become contagious to other domains. Hence, only seeing a Muslim when we see a compatriot harms what we all have in commons—our individual quest for better private life.

It seems to me that there lies the lesson of Manent’s reactionary book (in the sense of only taking element from what was, mythically or factually). Proposals that center around the Res Publica risk triggering further wedges. Solving private problems (such as labour market discrimination), in turn, may provide for a more efficient solution. A better life for all not be the good life, but it may be good enough for now.