"An Imaginary Racism: Islamophobia and Guilt"

Deeply ignorant – Pascal Bruckner's hateful verbal crusade

In his controversial book published in 2020, French author Pascal Bruckner describes anti-Muslim sentiment as a fiction, claiming that the term "Islamophobia" is being used to silence criticism of the religion. Alexandra Senfft responds by highlighting the contradictions in a popular view of Islam and Muslims that leaves little room for nuance

To teach his students freedom of expression, the French teacher Samuel Paty chose, of all things, the "Muhammad cartoons" that in 2015 led to the murder of twelve members of the editorial staff at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris. He evidently told his students that they should feel free to leave the room or look away if they found the cartoons offensive. After all, many Muslims regard the "sexualised malice" evoked by the cartoons (Charlotte Wiedemann in the taz) as an affront to their religious beliefs. Paty knew of these sensitivities, or he would not have given his students the choice of whether or not to examine the material. His decision to tackle the subject of the cartoons in class can be described as courageous, but in view of the circumstances also as risky or perhaps naive.

The trial of the Islamist assassins of the Charlie Hebdo editors had just begun and the satirical magazine had taken it as an opportunity to publish the cartoons once again. It was only to be expected that this would incite further tensions in a dispute that has been raging for years. Furthermore, despite the suppression of the terrorist militia Islamic State by an international alliance that included the French, Islamism had not simply vanished from the face of the earth.

On the contrary, narcissistic visions of a jihadist Islam, complete with fantasies of spectacular violence, continue to smoulder, especially among the young and impressionable. Paty was stabbed and beheaded near his home on 16 October 2020. The murder signified that warfare had broken out in a European capital, spreading terrorism and barbarism right in our midst.

Non-European dead count for less

All the while, Islamist attacks are constantly taking place all over the world, primarily with Muslim victims and without the general European public even being aware of what is going on. Not to mention the many anonymous civilians that have fallen victim to Western military interventions. "How much weight is accorded to a human life continues to be measured by colonial standards, meaning that non-European deaths count for less," says Charlotte Wiedemann.

Paty's Chechen killer was still just a teenager. He grew up in a kind of in-between world, detached from the native country of his immigrant parents and not yet anchored in his new homeland. How divorced from his own feelings must an 18 year-old be to be capable of assuming the role of judge and executioner and beheading a fellow human being? In the end, both the teacher and his executioner ended up dead. Murder is murder, and the French justice system takes care of dealing with the instigators and accomplices, guided and driven by the rule of law.

Mourning in France after the Islamist attack in Nice (photo: DW)
Terrorism in God's name: "In France, 250 people have died in recent years as a result of Islamist terrorism. There is no excuse, certainly no religious vindication, for such abhorrent acts. And yet, the depths of these transgressions still demand an attempt at explanations and a cool analysis of the context," writes Alexandra Senfft in her essay

Simple explanations for an archaic act of violence

In France, 250 people have died in recent years as a result of Islamist terrorism. There is no excuse, certainly no religious vindication, for such abhorrent acts. And yet, the depths of these transgressions still demand an attempt at explanations and a cool analysis of the context.

The interdisciplinary mix of politics, history, economics, religion, and social and individual psychology that is called upon in these cases does not always provide clear answers. The complexity of the various efforts at explanation is even harder to sustain in the face of such an archaic act of brutality, and the urge to resort to a logic of violence is strong. In Germany, too, opinion-makers were quick to speak of the missionary zeal, hunger for conquest and oppressive nature supposedly inherent to Islam, thus reducing the religion to veiling and terrorism. Such crude generalisations accord all Muslims a share of the responsibility. This attests not only to helplessness and fear, but often also to ignorance and casual racism, intentional or otherwise.

At the memorial service for Samuel Paty, Emmanuel Macron called the teacher "the face of the Republic" and stressed that France's freedom and secularism must be defended. Paty, he said, had been the victim of hatred – "a hatred of who we really are deep down". The president thus painted the picture of a divided society, of an "us" and a "them". This sounds eerily like the "clash of civilisations" predicted by the controversial American political scientist Samuel Huntington in 1996. The truth is, though, that the majority of French Muslims live neither isolated from society nor in opposition to it.

Macron and his five-point plan: Us versus all of you

Early last October, Macron presented his five-point plan against "Islamist separatism". He proposes therein a broad catalogue of measures geared toward fighting extremism and transforming it into a "French Islam". The secular state therefore wants to decide in future how a certain population group should practice their religion. Many French Muslims fear that this state-induced division will only fuel widespread anti-Muslim sentiment even further.

Charlie Hebdo has for its part made it clear that the Republic will not forgo the publication of disparaging cartoons in the future. The magazine immediately and defiantly put a cartoon of Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan on its cover. He is shown lifting a woman's veil, revealing her ample bare bottom underneath – a motif that is vulgar and not even funny. Erdogan had shortly before accused Macron of Islamophobia and called for a boycott of French goods. The French tragedy was instantly co-opted by world politics, one provocation answering the next, one image of the enemy facing off against another.

In a disconcerting form of self-mortification, even German leftists from Kevin Kuhnert to Sascha Lobo to Dietmar Bartsch now believe they are guilty of ignoring the threat of Islamism – but without adequately substantiating this guilt. They were probably thinking that leftists ought not to remain silent now, lest they be compared to those who refused to acknowledge for far too long the terrorism coming from the right.

Demonstration against right-wing violence and racism after the attack in Hanau in February 2020 (photo: Reuters/K. Pfaffenbach)
The problem with Islamophobia: according to European experts, Germany needs to take decisive action against hatred and Islamophobia on the Internet. "The constant Islamophobic and xenophobic rhetoric of the extreme right in Germany has had an impact on political discourse," the Council of Europe's anti-racism commission complained. In its report published in March 2020, the expert body identified ongoing deficits in the recording of hate speech on the Internet as well as in everyday life

Is it okay to call Charlie Hebdo "racist" and "Islamophobic"?  

Meanwhile, on the daily French TV show "28 Minutes" on Arte, the intellectual Pascal Bruckner accused the journalist, feminist and anti-racism activist Rokhaya Diallo of ideological complicity with the killers of the Charlie Hebdo editors.

Diallo had signed a text in 2011 – four years before the attack – calling the editorial board "racist" and "Islamophobic". Bruckner in all seriousness now accused the activist of arming the killers and demanded that she take responsibility for it. "Your status as a black Muslim woman puts you in a privileged position," Bruckner added unabashedly, going on to charge that she had abused that privilege to incite hatred toward white men.

The 71-year-old essayist and novelist Bruckner is part of the French Nouvelle Philosophie group, whose representatives have repeatedly drawn attention to themselves through provocations. In 2013 he signed the "Bastard Manifesto", in which 343 men demanded "Hands off my whore" and spoke out against legal action against johns. The manifesto was a response to a feminist campaign for legalised abortion launched by 343 women in 1971. Against this backdrop, Bruckner's aggressive TV appearance facing off against the feminist Diallo attests to a divergence of views that is almost obscene.

In 2014, Bruckner published the book "Un bon Fils" (A Good Son) about his father, Rene Bruckner, a fanatical anti-Semite who abused his wife and son. At some point, said the author, he began to identify with those his father hated so much: the Jews. The French intellectual, who initially rose to fame with his 1979 book "The New Love Disorder", co-written with Alain Finkielkraut, is himself often perceived as a Jew.

"Nothing but hyperbolic accusations and clichés"

Last year, Bruckner published a new book, "An Imaginary Racism", in which he examines a series of articles and lectures for themes of "Islamophobia and guilt". The field of tension between victims and perpetrators is also his focus here. Disappointingly, however, Bruckner delivers nothing but hyperbolic accusations and cliches. He attributes the dire situation in France entirely to the narrow-mindedness of "the left", although it is not clear exactly whom he means by this.

As evidence, he cites predominantly non-influential splinter groups, or he rails against proponents of anti-racism. Bruckner claims that, after the fall of communism, the left wing discovered a substitute ideology in Islamism, thereby trivialising Islamist terrorism and over-identifying with Islam as the religion of the oppressed. Leftists tend to idealise Muslims as victims, he contends, instead of holding them accountable for their actions, which in effect makes them the real racists.

According to Bruckner, anti-Muslim sentiment is merely "imaginary racism" – because, for him, racism directed against Muslims simply does not exist. This is intellectually dishonest. The left, he says, act as "language police", censuring anything that looks like racism and thus sacrificing freedom of speech on behalf of a dictatorial Muslim minority. The essayist claims that leftists then treat liberal Muslims who criticise their own religion like traitors. He is referring here to those "critics of Islam" who put forth crude arguments and make sweeping judgments, while ignoring other reformers who do not provide easy answers.

He misses the mark when he then declares Islam a failure per se and asserts that Muslims are incapable of dealing with freedom. At the same time, he conflates Islam and Islamism because he probably sees no difference between the two. "Everything that was admirable in Islamic civilisation ... has been swept away and undone over the past thirty years by the excesses of God's professional killers," writes Bruckner, insinuating that all Muslims should be lumped together with the Islamist perpetrators. Islam seems to him to be "a religion of graveyard silence".

Alexandra Senfft is an Islamic scholar, publicist and author (photo: Frank Dabba Smith)
Lacking nuance: "Bruckner's book is a potpourri proffered by an evidently disillusioned product of the late-sixties freedom movements who doesn't want to let emancipated Muslimas and veiled women make him feel bad about his lust for miniskirts and prostitutes. His paean to French freedom, to secularity, is an expression of a Eurocentric, postcolonial attitude. What France, Europe and the rest of the world need now is constructive thinking and criticism – and Bruckner's hateful verbal crusade has nothing to offer on that front," writes Alexander Senfft

Prejudice instead of differentiation

Bruckner accuses the renowned expert on radical Islam Olivier Roy of a lack of scholarship, but then presents his own arguments in an unscientific and one-sided manner. He populistically picks out only those aspects that support his own prejudices, while suppressing facts that would be useful for putting together a more complex picture with finer nuances. It's all about provocation.

He then goes into abusive mode with his superficial and blasphemous observations on veils, burkas and burkinis – for him, the veil is tantamount to a "shroud". And it is chauvinistic of him to accuse feminists of trivialising the sexual assaults on New Year's Eve 2015 in Cologne and abandoning the women who were attacked, charging them with a supposedly anti-racist state of delusion.

The feminists had demanded only that an over-emphasis on the origin of the aggressors should not allow the "crimes to be exploited" as a way to distract from the fact that women all over the world are the victims of macho violence.

What's more, does it have anything to do with reality when Bruckner praises Israel as a "haven of peace and wealth, in the midst of an Orient ravaged by anarchy"? This dictum testifies to an idealisation and over-identification with a state that he apparently considers to be the epitome of everything Jewish, indeed of Judaism par excellence.

On sober reflection, Israel is in fact deeply divided socially, fractured by unresolved conflicts, and ruled by the right wing and the ultra-Orthodox faction. Bruckner contrasts his vision of peace with a postulated anarchy in the "devastated Orient" while failing to mention the background and the dynamics in which the "Occident" has had no small role, from colonialism to the present day.

In certain passages, Bruckner resorts to martial rhetoric, his thoughts mixed up with the central Christian ideas of original sin and reconciliation. He thus contributes to the hypocritical discourse that is being advanced in Germany by conservatives under the label "Christian-Jewish dominant culture". A murder like that of Samuel Paty is grist to the mill for those who divide the world into an enlightened, free West (with Israel as the defender of Western values in the Middle East) and a backward, oppressive "Orient" intent on conquest.

Bruckner's book is a potpourri proffered by an evidently disillusioned product of the late-sixties freedom movements who doesn't want to let emancipated Muslimas and veiled women make him feel bad about his lust for miniskirts and prostitutes. His paean to French freedom, to secularity, is an expression of a Eurocentric, postcolonial attitude. What France, Europe and the rest of the world needs now is constructive thinking and criticism – and Bruckner's hateful verbal crusade has nothing to offer on that front.

Alexandra Senfft

© Qantara.de 2021

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

Alexandra Senfft is an Islamic scholar, publicist and author. Her works include "Fremder Feind so nah. Begegnungen mit Palästinensern und Israelis".

https://www.alexandra-senfft.de

 

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