France is experiencing at the moment a discursive shift that puts academic freedom in danger. Using the notion of islamo-gauchisme, right-wing actors as well as members of the government connect Islamism with critical academic disciplines such as decolonialism, postcolonial studies or intersectional feminism. The goal of this concerted action is to delegitimize critique and discredit academics as a threat to the values of the République.
In the Afterword to the 1995 edition of Orientalism Edward Said reacted sharply to his critics, who claimed that his argument is one of Anti-Westernism . He took exception to the view of critics, who contend that the idea of Orientalism is meant as a reproach to the entire West and its colonial violence against Eastern and Islamic countries. Islamic Fundamentalists, however, use his analysis of Orientalism “as a pretext for arguing the exact opposite, namely, that Islam is perfect, that it is the only way (…)”. Thus both for the Fundamentalists and those opposed to the book’s alleged Anti-Westernism “(t)o criticize Orientalism (…) is in effect to be a supporter of Islamism or Muslim fundamentalism” .
The same sort of logical fallacy continues into the present. French scholars of postcolonial or decolonial studies and of critical race studies are confronted today with the critique that they explicitly, or implicitly, support Islamism – as if critiquing a concept inevitably entails supporting its opposite. False equivalences such as these prevail not only in academic but also in political and media discourses in France. In the wake of the latest series of terrorist attacks in October 2020, they now affect law and policies that many deem to be an attack on academic freedom.
Islamophobia and islamo-gauchisme
Abdellali Hajjat points out in a recent paper that the current controversy around Islamophobia is taking place at the margins of French academia. Major peer-reviewed sociological journals only mention the term a few times . Rather, the debate is predominantly in critical left-wing or conservative journals, or in “academic books in which the scientific approach is secondary,” and in the national press . Scholars well regarded in academia have largely ignored the existing literature on Islamophobia. Thus in Hajjat’s view their arguments, which are primarily influenced by public debates, lead to an ill-informed debate within academia as well as the media.
Neglect of the research on the topic has had a negative influence on the political discourse. In a speech given on February 3, 2021 in the French Assemblée nationale, Annie Genevard (Vice-President of the Parliament and member of Les Républicains) claimed: “The University is today traversed by powerful and destructive movements. They are called decolonialism, racialism, indigenism and intersectionality.” She invited her audience to read an open letter “Appel de l’Observatoire du décolonialisme et des ideologies identitaires;” published in Le Point on 13 January, in which 76 signatories oppose what they consider to be militant, dogmatic and intolerant strands of thought within academia. Paradoxically, those being accused of intolerance and destructive identitarian ideologies here are researchers in the fields of decolonial studies, intersectionality or advocates of a gender-neutral language.
Genevard is far from alone in her opinion. Political discourse against emancipatory and critical academic writing has gained salience in France over the past years. In January 2016, after the terrorist attacks on a kosher super-market, Prime Minister Manuel Valls condemned every “cultural or sociological explanation” for the attacks because “to explain is already wanting to excuse” .
After the assassination of the school teacher Samuel Paty in October 2020, the national minister of education Jean-Michel Blanquer claimed in an interview with Europe1 that French universities were being destroyed by what he called “islamo-gauchisme” (islamo-leftism). Intellectuals, members of the left-wing party La France Insoumise, the student union UNEF, members of all these groups are culpable of intellectual complicity with terrorists in Blanquer’s eyes. To paraphrase Edward Said: Criticising Islamophobia is being equated with supporting Islamist ideology or Muslim fundamentalism.
Critics of the recent turn to illiberalism in Poland and Hungary have shown how concepts like ‘gender ideology’ can be transformed into a derogatory shorthand for all kinds of ideas that do not confirm to the government’s agenda. Such a move is key in “enabling right-wing actors to articulate and entrench their counter-hegemonic project” ; it functions as the symbolic glue which allows all illiberal actors to unite against a common enemy.
Islamo-gauchisme should be understood as the successful attempt to transfer the threat of Islamism onto leftist academics
In France, the so-called ‘gender ideology’ is part of the discourse that constitutes the new enemy figure of the islamo-gauchiste. This discursive formation has been centred around Republican values like universalism and laïcité, which are interpreted as egalitarian and anti-discriminatory by definition. The result of this rhetoric is a paradoxical situation: defining and opposing structural racism, islamophobia and discrimination against women or minorities is either ignored or, worse, seen as a re-essentialisation of racial, gendered and religious identities. NGOs or activists, who formulate such a critique are considered communitarian and separatist by large parts of the public and by state representatives.
Islamo-gauchisme should be understood as the successful attempt to transfer the threat of Islamism onto leftist academics – and to unite conservative and extreme-right actors against one common enemy. By creating this single hyphenated term, djihadism and academic critique are inextricably intertwined in this discursive field. As such, islamo-gauchisme can be seen as the culmination of a far-right counter-hegemonic project that has long been in the making and which has been normalized over time. Following the terrorist attacks in October 2020, it has now made its way into official government rhetoric. And, of course, this main-streaming has not gone unnoticed by the far-right whose members congratulate themselves on twitter for the successful normalisation of their anti-intellectual propaganda.
Effects on legislation and civil society
This intensification of the vilification of intellectuals is not without political consequences. Just days after the terrorist attacks in October 2020, the Collectif contre l’Islamophobie en France (CCIF) was banned, only to be dissolved a few months later. The non-profit organization had been active since 2003, fighting against Islamophobia and racist discrimination.
In addition to the effects on civil society mobilization and organization, these attacks also have direct legislative implications. In a hasty process, the long-planned loi de programmation pluriannuelle de la recherche (LPPR) was amended by an article which regulates that “Academic freedoms are exercised with respect for the values of the Republic”.
The LPPR had already sparked massive protest within academia even before the recent amendments, as many considered it to be the latest step in the mounting neoliberal attacks on academic freedom, which was also meant to introduce a ‘social Darwinist’ logic into the competition for research funds. With this new amendment, the portal Academia fears that “for the first time in the history of the French university, academic liberties are subordinated to political values formulated in very vague terms”.This opens the doors to exert political influence on critical research.
France is witnessing today a systematic and concerted attack on academic freedom. Despite – or rather because of – the current anti-intellectual climate, a critique of systemic racism, islamophobia and all forms of discrimination must continue to be upheld. Giving in to neoconservative, reactionary or alt-right attacks would send a fatal signal at this critical juncture. For, as Didier Fassin remarks, Edward Said “did not disown his critique because he considered it to be misunderstood or misappropriated. He explicated it again and reaffirmed it. Critique needs openness, but it also requires consistency” .
|↑1||Fassin, Didier (2017) The endurance of critique. Anthropological Theory 17 (1): 4–29.|
|↑2||Said, Edward (1995 ). Orientalism. London: Penguin|
|↑3||Hajjat, Abellali (2020) Islamophobia and French academia. Current Sociology. October 2020|
|↑5||Legrand, Stépahne & Éleonore Parchlinikak (2016) . 9 janvier 2016 – Manuel Valls condamne les explications. Laurent de Sutter éd., Le livre des trahisons. Paris cedex 14, Presses Universitaires de France. P. 279–288.|
|↑6||Grzebalska, Weronika & Andrea Pető. 2018. The gendered modus operandi of the illiberal transformation in Hungary and Poland. Women’s Studies International Forum, Volume 68, Pages 164–172.|
|↑7||Fassin 2017, 5|