Read the open letter to Kamel Daoud, signed by 19 academics, responding to Daoud’s recent writings in Le Monde and The New York Times, and the correspondence between Daoud and Adam Shatz that followed those articles.
By Muriam Haleh Davis
A new controversy has stoked the volatile embers of the terrorist attacks in Paris this past November. President of France François Hollande has introduced a state of emergency whose exceptional powers have been accused of targeting minorities. Moreover, politicians and journalists are debating a proposal to strip those who hold dual nationality of their French citizenship if convicted of terrorism. Both of these developments have prompted unflattering comparisons with two dark chapters in France’s contemporary history: the Vichy regime and the Algerian war of independence.
In Europe the picture is hardly any more rosy. The arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees, and the alleged participation of dozens of foreigners in acts of sexual violence on New Year’s Eve in Cologne, Germany, have given ideological fodder to the far right. Enter Kamel Daoud, an Algerian author who received wide acclaim for his recent novel, a retelling of Albert Camus’ The Stranger from a native perspective. He is also a prize-winning journalist who writes for Le Monde, La Repubblica, and The New York Times in addition to his column in Le Quotidien d’Oran.
Given the current climate in Europe, such an interlocutor would seem especially welcome. Yet after the publication of two articles in which Daoud discussed the pathological sexual culture of Muslims, a collective of scholars (including myself) published a criticism of this analysis in Le Monde. The journalist Adam Shatz also wrote Daoud an open letter, which raised reservations about Daoud’s analysis. In addition, Shatz claimed that our article displayed a “left-soviet-puritan” (gauche-soviétique-puritain) style and affirmed that, according to his personal sources, many young people in Cairo are bisexual and having wonderful intercourse. The sexual habits of Arabs continue to fascinate, but Daoud subsequently announced his intention to quit journalism. The aftermath has been nothing short of a media frenzy in which even the French Prime Minister Manuel Valls expressed his support for Daoud on Facebook.
Why did a group of academics publish a strongly worded criticism of Daoud? And why is the mainstream French media characterizing this article as a “new form of terrorism”?
The answer reflects a political climate in which the meaning of free speech and the role of informed commentary seem to be at loggerheads. In the United States, a discussion about “safe spaces” that would protect students from “traumatic” realities dovetails with support for Donald Trump, whose xenophobia is vaunted as a distinctly American form of heroism. In France, an invocation of the violent history of colonialism, or the existence of Islamophobic discourses, can be interpreted as support for radical Islamism. Indeed, given the January 2015 attacks on the offices of the satirical paper Charlie Hebdo in Paris, questions of free speech and censorship have been particularly sensitive.
The coverage of Cologne was rather unexceptional in content. Daoud argued that “with the latest influx of migrants from the Middle East and Africa, the pathological relationship that some Arab countries have with women is bursting onto the scene in Europe.” This is an old refrain that has been heard at various points in the 20th century. Each time there has been a wave of colonial immigration, commentators have expressed concern about “foreign” morals and “Western” women. What shocked me more was the mainstream platform given to such politically dangerous statements. Indeed, there is a worrying media trend in Europe that shows a fascination with the sexual threat associated with “brown bodies”—as recent controversies over the covers of the Polish newspaper W Sieci (The Network) or the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung have highlighted.
Our dismay at the hegemonic circulation of these views at such a sensitive political moment—and not a personal vendetta—prompted us to publish the collective article in Le Monde on Feb. 11. We subsequently received a flood of hate mail accusing us of being Stalinists, Islamists, and many things in between. These insults were mirrored by editorials in the French press and radio. Those who labeled our article a “media fatwa” drew a chilling parallel with the actual fatwa issued against Daoud by an Algerian Salafist in 2014, as well as with the Algerian civil war of the 1990s, which saw the assassination of many writers and journalists.
The real objection to our letter was not merely that we disagreed with Daoud’s characterization of the events at Cologne. The controversy was largely sparked by our use of a word that has become the signpost of ideological disaccord in France: Islamophobia. Prominent political scientist Gilles Kepel, in an interview with France Culture on Feb. 24, admitted that Daoud’s writings may be objectionable. Yet he implied that calling him “Islamophobic” was proof of our racism and a tool used to automatically silence any criticism of, or critical scholarship on, the Muslim world.
These concerns have taken on a specific coloring in France, but they also pose timely questions regarding the media coverage of Islam more generally. First, are Muslims necessarily immune from Islamophobia? As a parallel example, is someone a feminist merely because she is biologically female (Sarah Palin comes to mind)? I can only respond in the negative: while I appreciate his individual trajectory, I respect Daoud too much to reduce his writing to an “Arab” voice. I expect that he would offer me the same courtesy.
Secondly, do we have the right—in the United States or in France—to speak of Islamophobia? Or, should we create a “safe space” around the term? A recent story claimed that the American Air Force Research Laboratory postulated that “sexual deprivation” led to militant Islamic activity and that the headscarf was a form of “passive terrorism.” For all of our misunderstandings, a transatlantic consensus seems to have emerged regarding the nexus between sex and terror. And yet, despite the statistical evidence we have at our disposal in both countries (regarding support for Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims, or on discrimination and police harassment in France), some would like us to stop using the word Islamophobia. The word describes a contemporary reality: discrimination against Muslims. It is rightfully the object of debate, but banning the term would hardly change the problem at hand.
Despite my disagreement, I regret that Daoud has chosen not to continue journalism. But let us be clear about one thing: a critique is not an attack. One is not “under threat” because informed opinions published in the media challenge a common political consensus, or because professors insist on raising issues in the classroom that students deem unpleasant. The world we live in requires such moments of discomfort. An analysis of the structures that undermine equality and justice is not an attempt at censorship. Rather, it is the very exercise of free speech.
Muriam Haleh Davis is a Max Weber fellow at the European University Institute.
[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]