The prime minister of France, Manuel Valls, has emerged over the past tumultuous week as one of the West’s most vocal foes of Islamism, though he’s actually been talking about the threat it poses for a long while. During the course of an interview conducted before the Charlie Hebdo attacks, he told me—he went out of his way to tell me, in fact—that he refuses to use the term 'Islamophobia' to describe the phenomenon of anti-Muslim prejudice, because, he says, the accusation of Islamophobia is often used as a weapon by Islamism's apologists to silence their critics.
Most of my conversation with Valls was focused on the fragile state of French Jewry—here is my post on his comments, which included the now-widely circulated statement that, “if 100,000 Jews leave, France will no longer be France”—and I didn’t realize the importance of his comment about Islamophobia until I re-read the transcript of our interview.
“It is very important to make clear to people that Islam has nothing to do with ISIS,” Valls told me. “There is a prejudice in society about this, but on the other hand, I refuse to use this term 'Islamophobia,' because those who use this word are trying to invalidate any criticism at all of Islamist ideology. The charge of 'Islamophobia' is used to silence people. ”
Valls was not denying the existence of anti-Muslim sentiment, which is strong across much of France. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack, miscreants have shot at Muslim community buildings, and various repulsive threats against individual Muslims have been cataloged. President Francois Hollande, who said Thursday that Muslims are the “first victims of fanaticism, fundamentalism, intolerance,” might be overstating the primacy of anti-Muslim prejudice in the current hierarchy of French bigotries—after all, Hollande just found it necessary to deploy his army to defend Jewish schools from Muslim terrorists, not Muslim schools from Jewish terrorists—but anti-Muslim bigotry is a salient and seemingly permanent feature of life in France. Or to contextualize it differently: Anti-Muslim feeling appears to be more widespread than anti-Jewish feeling across much of France, but anti-Jewish feeling has been expressed recently (and not-so-recently) with far more lethality, and mainly by Muslims.
It appears as if Valls came to his view on the illegitimacy of 'Islamophobia' after being influenced by a number of people, including and especially the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner and the writer (and fatwa target) Salman Rushdie. Rushdie, along with a group of mainly Muslim writers, attacked the use of the term 'Islamophobia' several years ago in an open letter: “We refuse to renounce our critical spirit out of fear of being accused of ‘Islamophobia’, a wretched concept that confuses criticism of Islam as a religion and stigmatization of those who believe in it.”
Bruckner argued that use of the word 'Islamophobia' was designed to deflect attention away from the goals of Islamists: “[I]t denies the reality of an Islamic offensive in Europe all the better to justify it; it attacks secularism by equating it with fundamentalism. Above all, however, it wants to silence all those Muslims who question the Koran, who demand equality of the sexes, who claim the right to renounce religion, and who want to practice their faith freely and without submitting to the dictates of the bearded and doctrinaire.”
It is difficult to construct a single term that captures the variegated expressions of a broad prejudice. 'Anti-Semitism,' of course, is a terribly flawed term to describe anti-Jewish thought or behavior, and not only because it was invented by an actual hater of Jews, Wilhelm Marr, to prettify the base hatred to which he subscribed.
The origins of the term 'Islamophobia' are somewhat murky. According to Bruckner, the term was first used in its current manner to excoriate the writer Kate Millett, who had called upon Iranian women living under a theocratic yoke to take off their chadors. The term seems to have come into widespread use after the U.K.-based Runnymede Trust issued a report in 1997 entitled “Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All,” and by 2001, the United Nations had recognized Islamophobia as a form of prejudice at its Durban conference on racism (this is the same conference from which the official U.S. delegation walked out, to protest the widespread trafficking in anti-Israel and anti-Jewish tropes). The Runnymede Trust defined Islamophobia as “unfounded hostility towards Muslims, and therefore fear or dislike of all or most Muslims.” This corresponds, in some ways, to my colleague Conor Friedersdorf’s definition of Islamophobia as the “irrational fear of mainstream Muslims.”
I don’t think that Valls would disagree with the notion that the fear of “mainstream Muslims” is grounded in anything but prejudice. But the question he is asking (and answering) is this: Can hostility to the various related ideologies of Islamism—ideologies rooted in a particular reading of Muslim texts, theology, and history—be properly defined as Islamophobic?
Michael Walzer, in the most recent issue of Dissent, provides one answer. He argues that it is quite rational to fear Islamism:
I live with a generalized fear of every form of religious militancy. I am afraid of Hindutva zealots in India, of messianic Zionists in Israel, and of rampaging Buddhist monks in Myanmar. But I admit that I am most afraid of Islamist zealots because the Islamic world at this moment in time (not always, not forever) is especially feverish and fervent. Indeed, the politically engaged Islamist zealots can best be understood as today’s crusaders.
Is this an anti-Muslim position, not a fear but a phobia—and a phobia that grows out of prejudice and hostility? Consider a rough analogy (all analogies are rough): if I say that Christianity in the eleventh century was a crusading religion and that it was dangerous to Jews and Muslims, who were rightly fearful (and some of them phobic)—would that make me anti-Christian? I know that crusading fervor isn’t essential to the Christian religion; it is historically contingent, and the crusading moment in Christian history came and, after two hundred years or so, went. Saladin helped bring it to an end, but it would have ended on its own. I know that many Christians opposed the Crusades; today we would call them Christian “moderates.” And, of course, most eleventh-century Christians weren’t interested in crusading warfare; they listened to sermons urging them to march to Jerusalem and they went home. Still, it is true without a doubt that in the eleventh century, much of the physical, material, and intellectual resources of Christendom were focused on the Crusades.
Walzer doesn’t understand how opposition to a misogynistic, homophobic, anti-Semitic, anti-free-speech theocratic strain of totalitarianism could make a person a “racist” (a particularly inapt term for prejudice against Muslims, who are found among all races) or “Islamophobic,” or anything but a secular-minded progressive who is interested in defending the rights of women and minorities.
“I frequently come across leftists who are more concerned with avoiding accusations of Islamophobia than they are with condemning Islamist zealotry,” Walzer wrote. “There are perfectly legitimate criticisms that can be made not only of Islamist zealots but also of Islam itself—as of any other religion.”
Hussein Ibish, writing in The National, offered a definition of Islamophobia that makes sense to me, and I would imagine, makes sense to Valls.
The key to a practicable definition of Islamophobia that can help identify truly objectionable speech, must be that it refers to living human beings and their fundamental rights. It cannot be about protecting people from being offended, or having their feelings hurt. Still less can it be about protecting abstract ideas, religious dogmas, or cultural norms from being questioned, critiqued or even lampooned.
The proper metric to identify genuinely bigoted speech is whether or not the expression in question is intended or likely to have the effect of promoting fear and hatred against broad categories of people based on their identity. Would such speech make it more difficult for communities to function effectively in their own society? In other words, does the speech attack the legitimate rights and interests of identity-based communities? Does it prevent them being seen as, and treated as equal by, and with regard to, other communities?
Ibish argues that Charlie Hebdo, against which accusations of Islamophobia continue to be leveled, does not meet his standard: While many of the images it printed over the years were offensive to Muslims and many others, and were intended to be so, did its track record really suggest that its presence on the French scene in any way compromised, challenged, or complicated the ability of the Arab and Muslim migrant communities in France to function properly in that society? Clearly, the answer is no.
Prejudice against Muslims is repulsive. Criticism of Islamist doctrine, and the lampooning of religious beliefs, is not.
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