In the fall of 1978 Michel Foucault, France’s cutting-edge intellectual capo, was busy celebrating the political event of his time that excited him like nothing else: the Iranian revolution. Looking around the streets of Tehran, he saw history on the move, and it made him ecstatic. With the ascent of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s brand of Islam, Foucault gushed, a new “spiritual politics” was being born. Fans of democratic rights need not worry, he added: Islam was a tolerant religion. “By Islamic government,” Foucault wrote, “nobody in Iran means a political regime in which the clergy would have a role of supervision or control.”
Foucault was not ignorant about the men who would make the Iranian Revolution, or what their vision was for their society. He had met personally with Khomeini in Paris. Yet, it seemed, he had somehow missed what the ayatollah wrote in his Little Green Book: “Cut off a thief’s hands; kill the murderer instead of putting him in prison; flog the adulterous woman or man.” The judge who inflicts such medieval penalties can “dispose of” up to 20 cases a day, Khomeini added, unlike Western courts where justice might take years. A few months after Foucault penned his utopian fantasy, the ayatollah’s enforcers were in the streets whipping offenders.
Foucault established a precedent, the noted French essayist and social critic Pascal Bruckner argues in his brave and necessary new book An Imaginary Racism: Islamophobia and Guilt. In recent years left intellectuals have been waxing rhapsodic about Islam, which they see as a de facto part of the left. Burqas, terror armies and honor killings offer exciting alternatives to the racist colonialism of the tired old West. Meanwhile, the fight against Islamist radicalism gets tarred as “Islamophobia,” a term that, as Salman Rushdie commented, “was created to help the blind remain blind.” Islamophobia, we are told, is a form of racism, even though Muslims are not a race.
The large problem with Islamophobia, Bruckner argues, is that the term blurs what should be a hard and fast line between criticizing theological doctrine, which must remain a basic right in every liberal society, and persecuting believers, which is a crime. Under the Islamophobia umbrella, a disagreement over principles gets miscast as oppressing the people you disagree with. And what principles are more foundational to the liberal order in the West than freedom from theological censorship, women’s rights, and a fair system of justice? As Bruckner reminds us, Voltaire and Diderot were also charged with gravely insulting the Christians of Europe. Perhaps they were Christianophobes—but their skepticism gave a jolt of life to a hidebound Christianity, which was forced to respond to iconoclasts and critics. Islam, Bruckner writes, needs more, not less, criticism in order to flourish, and to move into a future it can share with other faiths.
Bruckner also condemns, and rightly so, the persecution of believers, or preventing them from practicing their faith (phenomena that are far more common in the Muslim world than the Western one). Damaging a mosque, yelling insults at a veiled woman, calling a law-abiding Muslim a terrorist are barbarisms that must be stamped out. But every religion, Islam included, must be able to handle satire and blasphemy without reaching for a bomb or a gun. In Europe and America you can mock Jesus, Moses, the pope, and the Buddha, but not Muhammad—if you do you have to fear for your life. Only Islam among the major religions threatens apostates and blasphemers with death: Where are the Western protests against this archaic brutality? While most Muslims are on the side of tolerance, Western writers and politicians reflexively take the side of the wildly sexist, intolerant, homophobic, anti-democratic Islamic authorities that rule over them with ever-increasing strictness.
Bruckner takes aim at those on the left who are “certain that they have found in Islam the last oppressed subject of History.” The Muslim world is the victim; the West, especially Israel, is the oppressor. Bruckner gives us a depressing chapter on the fashionable idea that Muslims are the new Jews, the victims of history par excellence. Years ago a colleague with roots in the Middle East informed me, in all seriousness, that Israel dominated that region the way Britain ran its empire. Nowadays, the favored comparison is between Israel and the Nazi regime. Jeremy Corbyn led a British Parliamentary motion in 2011 to replace Holocaust Day with an all-inclusive Genocide Day. Sir Iqbal Sacranie, who had proposed the change, explained that “Muslims feel hurt and excluded that their lives are not equally valuable to those lives lost in the Holocaust time.”
Everyone is bored with anti-Semitism, and with the Jews who won’t shut up about it. Persecution of Muslims is the new hot cause, and it must replace anti-Semitism. Last Yom Kippur I heard in the synagogue an earnest 20-something exhorting us Jews to think about the oppression of Palestinian Americans, presumably the Muslim rather than the Christian ones. How, I wondered, is this prosperous, educated, and well-integrated group afflicted?
Bruckner explains these weird phenomena in a clever and depressing way, cannily pointing out that the Shoah has paradoxically strengthened anti-Semitism, since the Jewish catastrophe now seems to be a “usurped privilege.” The Holocaust happened, certainly—but it happened to more worthy people than the Jews. Where Jews have become white, i.e., evil, Muslims are virtuous people of color. Therefore, Palestinians in Gaza, led by Hamas, must be the new Jews, and a Syrian girl must be the new Anne Frank.
The Muslims-are-Jews trend began in the 1970s, Bruckner argues, with Edward Said’s unscholarly, hugely trendy Orientalism, in which Said claimed that cartoons of hook-nosed Arabs during the Oil Crisis meant that anti-Semitic imagery had shifted its target from Jews to Arabs. Years later Said himself claimed that he was a “Palestinian Jew.” This was the same Said who argued against the late Bernard Lewis that religion was becoming less and less important in the Arab world—a pathetic case of self-delusion.
Now Jews are arch-persecutors (Western, white), and not victims, and Muslims are the real oppressed. Jewish self-determination is racist and colonialist, unlike Muslim nationalism. No matter how patriarchal and repressive it is in practice, Islam is on the side of virtue: These ideas echo from the halls of academe to the head of the U.K. Labour Party. Some Muslims, Bruckner reports, have taken to wearing armbands with yellow crescents on them, or yellow stars with the word “Muslim,” and chanting “When will it be our turn?” In a grimly hilarious irony, the obscene idea that Muslims are now enduring something like what Jews went through during the Holocaust is often accompanied, in the Muslim world, by denying or minimizing the Shoah. Bruckner’s maxim is true: “The Jewification of the Muslims automatically leads to the Nazification of the Israelis,” and by extension, the Nazification of all Jews who support Israel.
Such ideas are not confined to academic loonies. Hamas’ close friend Corbyn might soon be the head of Britain’s government. Perhaps even more disturbingly, Pope Francis excused the Charlie Hebdo murders because, he said eloquently, “If a great friend of mine speaks badly about my mother, he can expect a punch. It’s to be expected.” It’s no surprise that addled members of PEN like Francine Prose and Teju Cole preferred the terrorists to their journalist victims—but the pope? One wonders what Jesus would have said about Francis’ line, which sounds more like the words of a Mafioso than a Christian humanist.
For the Islamophobia theorists, it’s the murderers who are the true victims. The sociologist Geoffroy de Lagasnerie explained away the November 2015 attacks in Paris that left 130 dead: “Sidewalk cafés are one of the most intimidating places for young people from ethnic minorities. … One of the most traumatizing places.” “An interesting reversal,” Bruckner comments: “The killers in the cafés were traumatized people, and the customers who died under their fire were privileged people.”
While Mohammed VI of Morocco, along with some other Muslim rulers, has spoken out against Islamism, most Westerners have not followed suit. In his 2009 Cairo speech, President Barack Obama did forcefully criticize Islamic terrorism, but he also supported wearing the veil—as he did a few years later when he praised an African-American Muslim fencer for competing in the Olympics while veiled. He ignored the troubling fact that in many Muslim communities women are hounded or stigmatized if they do not agree to veil themselves. Obama might instead have defended the work of Ni Putes Ni Soumises (“Neither Whores nor Doormats”), the French Muslim women who demand for themselves what other French women have: equality of rights.
The capitulation to radical Islam has gone on at the highest levels, Bruckner points out, and the media has largely ignored or even abetted the danger, since, the idea goes, it would be right wing to think that Sharia law poses a threat. Except the threat is real, and affects the lives of real people—most of them Muslims. In 2003 it looked like Sharia law might be imposed on Muslims in Ontario and Quebec, and that women would lose custody of their children or forfeit their inheritance as a result. Homa Arjomand, who led the protests against Sharia law in Canada, had fled Iran in 1989: She knew what Islamic law meant for the lives of women.
During New Year’s 2015/2016, 600 women were assaulted in Cologne by more than a thousand men, mostly recent immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East. The assaults were covered up, and after the news leaked out Cologne’s mayor, Henriette Reker, promptly blamed the women, suggesting that they ought to have kept a “certain distance of more than an arm’s length” (from organized mobs of rapists in a seething crowd). The Algerian dissident Kamel Daoud was more to the point: He denounced the Arab world’s “sick relationship with women.”
Daoud pointed out that in Algeria “brigades of Salafists and local youths … go out to monitor female bodies,” hounding women and couples, and that such puritanical inquisitions are linked, by a drearily familiar patriarchal paradox, to the rapes in German cities and, earlier, in Egypt’s Tahrir Square.
Daoud was promptly told to shut up by a group of academics who wrote a petition to Le Monde. The professors called him, with a contemptuous sneer, a “self-proclaimed humanist” who recycled orientalist clichés and who was really just fueling anti-Muslim racism. Daoud responded that he had been subjected to a “Stalinist trial”: “They don’t live in my skin, or my country … they’re convicting me of Islamophobia from the security and comfort of the Western capitals, from their cafés.”
“Their hearts waver between the women raped and the rapists,” Bruckner writes about those who condemned Daoud. In a previous era professors thrilled to Third World violence, brought to a boil by Frantz Fanon’s prose. Now they excuse rape and mass murder as understandable reactions to Europe’s colonialist past.
Which is rather a long stretch, as Bruckner points out. Why should the terrorists hate Germany or Sweden, which did not have colonies in the Muslim world? Moreover, Bruckner remarks, most Muslim terrorism is directed against other Muslims: Is that, too, the fault of the West?
Islamists despise the West, Bruckner comments, not for its history of slavery and imperialism but for the freedom it provides. This freedom haunts the radical killers, so much so that they need to wipe out their attraction to it via mass murder. In a grim irony, their techniques are borrowed from Hollywood: Consider the jihadist promo film with its heartbeat-paced montage, or the Tarantino-like video showing victims being beheaded or burned alive.
The usual response to Cologne, and not just from hard leftists, was, Bruckner writes, “to drown the events … in the deep waters of equivalence”: We were supposed to remember that violence against women occurs everywhere, and that non-Muslims do it too. Bruckner reminds us that this kind of argument stems from the Cold War era: If you pointed out the lack of freedom in the Eastern Bloc, you were frequently told how much the countries of Latin America suffered from U.S. imperialism.
Ironically, the self-described anti-colonialist tends to reproduce the colonialist’s hoary double standard. The natives are not like us; they have their culture, and we can’t impose our values on them. Here multicultural permissiveness is at bottom an insulting condescension. We must not peddle the “threadbare colonialist cliché,” as Bruckner puts it, that a French woman of North African origin doesn’t have the rights of other French women, but instead must remain a prisoner of her home culture.
Here is the real reason that the champions of the term call Islamophobia racism: Race is something you can’t escape, and according to the Islamo-leftists, neither should Muslims be able to escape the strictness of religious practices that they would never want to submit to themselves. Progressive Muslims are called “media turncoats,” Uncle Toms or abettors of racism, even as they are threatened with murder by reactionary political fanatics who terrorize Muslims and Muslim communities.
Bruckner, like his ally, Tablet’s own Paul Berman, has long been a crucial voice in the fight against the new false pieties that are abetting reactionary forces within Islam. We need to attend to his warning, and his promise: “It is impossible to escape the challenge of the century now beginning: In collaboration with the enlightened or moderate Muslims who are its main victims, we must defeat the fanaticism of the Islamists.” This is an “immense task,” Bruckner concludes, but nothing is more necessary if we want democracy to survive, let alone thrive, in the 21st century.