France is a country that has touted a long history of free thought and expression, but recent moves by the current administration are uncovering limits to speech that are not readily found in other Western countries. Specifically, legislators are targeting speech by academics and activists that they consider to be a threat to national security, and in this case are categorizing it as a specific phenomenon: the so-called “spread of Islamo-leftism”, a term rapidly gaining traction among right-wing critics of a more visible Muslim citizenry continuing to strain against increasing legal limitations on the public practice of their faith and the academic class that makes the case for their rights.
For the past several years, French academia has been the subject of virulent attacks from the media as well as the French political class, coming not just from the right but also a part of the left. These attacks specifically target student unions, professors, and researchers who advocate for human rights, accusing them of disseminating “separatist theses” and of importing “a race war from the United States”. For example, last October Frédérique Vidal, the French minister of Higher Education and Research, assured that universities were not a place where radicalization occurs. Since then, her views have shifted as she joined her right-wing colleagues in warning about the spread of “Islamo-leftism” in French universities, identifying France’s 6-8 million Muslims in particular as a threat, and academics working on discrimination, identity, intersectionality, and post-colonial studies as their “Islamo-leftist” enablers. By using this loaded term, Vidal is insinuating that French academics are being sympathetic to terrorists and threaten national security, raising serious concerns about the abuse of legislative power in the defense of a vague notion of French values and culture.
For those unfamiliar with France’s unique approach to religious freedom and diversity, a short history may be in order. France’s Constitution is grounded on republican theories which emerged during the Century of Enlightenment and crystallized during the French revolution of 1789. Republicanism stresses a universalist French identity that supersedes individual cultural, social or religious belonging, as opposed to an American-style multiculturalism that seeks public respect of cultural diversity. It is the growing popularity of the latter among French citizens that has brought this issue to a head.
While France is a culturally and ethnically diverse society, in part due to the large population of immigrants from former French colonies, it does not constitutionally recognize itself as a pluralist society. Instead, French social policy has tended to focus on collective assimilation rather than recognizing that a unified society can in fact be made up of people of different cultures and practices. While in the US secularism and separation of church and state is seen as a way to protect religious groups from the power of the state, in France laïcité (France’s form of secularism) is framed the other way around – to protect the state from religious groups. French citizens are guaranteed freedom of conscience as well as freedom of religion, as long as public order is not troubled. It is the vague definition of the concept of “public order” that has opened the door for legislators seeking to contain both Muslims and their supporters in academia to curtail their rights with this justification. In the last few decades, laïcité has been weaponized by a fear of an ‘Islamization of Europe’, and because France is home to one of the largest Muslim population in Western Europe, it is the epicenter of this movement.
But where did the term “Islamo-leftism” come from? The philosopher Pierre-André Taguieff in his 2002 book La Nouvelle Judéophobie described a supposed alliance between Marxists and Islamists in France and in the UK, particularly to fight capitalism. This theory gained traction in secularist intellectual circles, from where it made its way to the political class, who are finding the theory useful in stoking votes in the 2022 presidential election. Combined with a strong anti-American sentiment, legislators are targeting government critics who focus on racism, minority rights, addressing France’s colonial past (still a sore subject with many).
The last few years have seen an increasing boldness in anchoring repressive discourse and proclamations to the “Islamo-leftist” label. In 2015, Manuel Valls, then Minister of the Interior, accused academics of “excusing” terrorism by trying to explain the conditions which cause it. Last October, Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer accused American academics and universities who studied intersectionality and critical race theory of being responsible for the rise of Islamism in France and the fragmentation of French society, citing the spread of so-called “Islamo-leftist” ideology. His remarks were well received by far-right politician Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, niece of former presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, who proudly boasted she had been working diligently on calling out “Islamo-leftism” and the “dangers of intersectionality”. Gérald Darmanin, Interior Minister, also subscribed to these conspiracy theories when he declared that “universities, public services, and associations are affected by Islamism, sometimes with the help of leftists”. While President Emmanuel Macron disowned Vidal’s statements, he did not disavow similar statements by his Education and Interior Ministers.
Many observers have long tried to warn of the drift of traditional French political parties towards the demonization of Muslims from both the right and left, as well as the continuing erosion of civil liberties. This can be seen in the repetitive use of state of emergency laws, as well as the introduction of the Bill Strengthening Republican Principles and the Bill on Global Security, both of which severely curtail civil liberties such as freedom of association, freedom of the press, and religious freedom. In each of these cases, the spectre of “Islamo-leftism” made its way into arguments supporting these restrictions.
This very short history shows the inherent contradictions behind such (proposed) notion. First, this term references an alignment of two groups of people – Muslims and academics – on one issue of human rights. This does not constitute a movement or philosophy, particularly one that encompasses a philosophical intent or legal definition upon which a body of laws can be built. Also, by any reasonable measure, the term does not describe an existential threat as its proponents claim. Second, when we consider the primary proponents of this term and the history of their relations with Muslim populations, we cannot escape the conclusion that this term is being used as a shield behind which people hide their overtly anti-Muslim sentiments, and one that uses fear to distract from a growing movement to curtail human rights.
The fact that there is even a discussion about this emotional, hastily-conceived term in intellectual circles is an indictment of our collective inability to see human rights violations for what they are, as well as how pervasive anti-Muslim sentiment continues to be in the West.
Rim-Sarah Alouane is a French legal academic and commentator. As a Ph.D. candidate in comparative law at the University Toulouse-Capitole in France, her research focuses on religious freedom, civil liberties, constitutional law, and human rights in France, Europe, and North America. Her work has been published by leading law and social sciences global journals including Foreign Policy, Brookings and the Berkley Center.
Cover Photo: Islamicus / Flickr.
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