Who Is Still Liberal? Islamophobia and Anti-Racism in Authoritarian Times

Hamza Esmili, KU Leuven

 

Such is time: everything passes, it alone remains; everything remains, it alone passes. And how swiftly and noiselessly it passes. Only yesterday you were sure of yourself, strong and cheerful, a son of the time. But now another time has come—and you don’t even know it.

– Vassili Grossman, Life and Fate (2006: 35)

 

France is sinking further into illiberal and authoritarian politics that explicitly break with liberal principles such as individual rights and legal equality. The effects of these contemporary developments are not only felt by Muslims. In Sainte-Soline, where environmental activists were disputing a mega-basin project in 2023, the French state answered with military-like violence before announcing the dissolution of one of the leading environmental organizations. Yet, most illiberal and authoritarian measures taken by the French state target Muslims. For instance, the recent ban on abayas and long dresses in schools was applied by professors and school administrations through informed guesses on the alleged religion and origin of students. A white student, not suspected of being Muslim, can wear long dresses and baggy clothes because these items cannot be linked to their religious beliefs, whereas a student of Maghrebi or West African descent can be forbidden from wearing the same outfit since they might do so for religious reasons.

After years of formation, the “Muslim problem” (Hajjat and Mohammed 2023) has fully materialized. The Muslim problem goes beyond colonial racism, in the sense that its associated representations and ideological developments can be synthesized as a contemporary counter movement to the phenomenon of religious reaffiliation among immigrants and their children. As such, the Muslim problem appears to be a total social fact, that is to say, something that “sets in motion (…) the totality of society and its institutions” (Mauss 2007 [1925]: 234).

It is no coincidence that the most violent controversies regarding Muslims in France take place in schools and universities, where children of immigrants are more and more present and often successful. Hence, through a political reaction that ranges from discriminatory laws to the rise of far-right political movements in contemporary France, the Muslim problem is an idea connected to both the upward social mobility of Muslims—an understudied phenomenon—and the persistence of Muslim-majority poor neighborhoods, in other terms, both “entrism” and separatism.[1]

My paper draws on relational sociology, inspired by Karl Mannheim, where the variety of ideological characterizations of the Muslim problem correspond to social and moral currents that clash within global society (Mannheim 2006 [1929]: 239). By insisting on the socio-historical production of ideals, I intend to demonstrate that the successive definitions of the Muslim problem are connected to modes of knowledge and politics. These are far from being confined to Orientalist stereotypes and other racist prejudices against Muslims, as they constitute a social epistemology and are coupled with a more or less explicitly normative dimension regarding the forms of participation in global society. As such, the main polarity that structures the controversy around Islam and its followers in France is the one that opposes the proponents of the liberal motive—for example, a strictly individualistic perspective that does not consider the historical links constituted within the social group that Muslims form—to those of the conservative motive, which postulates the existence of a coordinated conspiracy of Muslims over and above the variety of positions they occupy within global society.

While Islamophobic politics are now openly illiberal and conservative, their critique still adopts a moral and political frame that is essentially liberal. This discrepancy is foundational to the impasse in which socialist, anti-racist, and emancipatory politics are now engulfed in France.

Liberal Ambivalence in Violent Times

The years following the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, claimed by the Islamic State group, were crucial to the ideological completion of the Muslim problem. While most of its features were already embedded in the public debate, as shown by Abdellali Hajjat and Marwan Mohammed in their 2013 book, the Muslim problem started to be one of the most important –if not the main—focal point of contemporary French politics after 2015 (Esmili 2023).

The first response of the French state to a type of mass violence that claimed to be of religious inspiration took shape as the fight against “radicalization” (Bounaga and Esmili 2021). In partial continuity with public policies already experimented with elsewhere in Europe (Fadil, de Koning, Ragazzi 2019) and the United States (Kundnani 2014), the fight against radicalization was established in France both by the imperative of spotting the “weak signals” (signaux faibles) believed to reveal the imminence of violent outbreaks and by the explicit issuance of a norm of religious moderation.

The anti-radicalization apparatus was said to operate on the level of individuals deemed likely to become radicals, although this has hardly prevented the use of collective punishment, such as the increasingly frequent administrative closure of mosques. Academic attempts to define radicalization identified a variety of potential markers of radicalization, such as “breaking with family, old friends, distance from one’s loved ones; dropping school; new behaviors in the following areas: food, clothing, language, finance; changes in identity-related behaviors: asocial remarks, rejection of authority, rejection of life in a community” (Ministère de l’Intérieur 2019). Yet, while the fight against radicalization has resulted in more than 72,000 reports between 2014 and 2019 (most unrelated to any violent incident) it has not led to an explicit denunciation of the Muslim community in France as a whole.

The liberal paradox of a policy that is both widespread and discursively only tackling individuals is apparent. As shown by the potentially unlimited extension of its definition, radicalization can concern virtually everyone without seeming to target a whole community, which would require a kind of sociological or historical thinking that is not compatible with the liberal ethos at the core of the anti-radicalization ideology. Therefore, while highly efficient, practically speaking, the conceptual extension of the scope of radicalization contributes to the dilution of its meaning. The practical efficiency of repressive measures is achieved at the expense of the intellectual and political diagnosis of the Muslim problem.

As such, the fight against radicalization is directly linked to the famous command “pas d’amalgame” (no generalization) that was issued as a powerful collective mantra following the 2015 attacks in France. The pas d’amalgame expresses the liberal paradox of anti-radicalization at its peak, as its measures are repressive in the most Freudian sense. It is a matter of methodically denying an “undesirable guest” (Freud 2019 [1915]: 138) by suppressing it. The pas d’amalgame functions as a powerful reiteration of the liberal understanding of the Muslim problem—that it is not a problem of a whole community, despite the potential incrimination of all its members. The diagnosis established through the radicalization thesis hardly requires the qualification of the nature of the Muslim community, the links that bind its members, and their participation in global society. Radicalism is only thought of as “infra-political” or “supra-political” (Khosrokhavar 2014: 30), meaning non-political in both cases. Hence, the pas d’amalgame is a rather liberal name for the serious lack of sociological reflexivity that persists throughout the fight against radicalization (Esmili and Giry 2023). While the notion of an internal enemy is widely discussed and emphasized, for instance in the words of Prime Minister Manuel Valls, its actual nature remains elusive, characterized by a somewhat vague and insufficiently defined teleological concept that is central to the historical narrative. Furthermore, its prevalence in repressive mechanisms, considering both historical and psychoanalytical dimensions, has led to a significant numbing of political discourse.

Islamist Separatism, or the Conservative Shift of the Muslim Problem

Despite its practical effectiveness, the fight against radicalization surprisingly underwent an abrupt shift at the beginning of 2020. The notion of radicalization came to be abandoned and the new concept, “Islamist separatism,” replaced it as the main categorization of the Muslim problem. At odds with the notion of radicalization, the conservative notion of Islamic separatism is primarily of an intellectual nature and is purportedly based on rigorous sociological research. Upon its formulation, the notion’s underlying purpose appears evident: by decisively dismantling the idea of pas d’amalgame, the separatism paradigm wishes to give a complete account of all Muslim life within global society.

Against the liberal paradox lying at the core of the notion of radicalization, Bernard Rougier’s book Les territoires conquis de l’islamisme is one of the most important attempts at (pseudo-)sociologically grounding the notion of separatism. Each chapter corresponds to an “Islamist ecosystem,” the reality of which corresponds in every respect to the general thesis stated by Rougier, namely that “militant networks have transformed the ‘urban ghettos’ of the major French conurbations into militant enclaves with an Islamist tone” (2020: 17). This thesis reverses the coordinates of the Muslim problem. The cités are no longer hotbeds of potential radicalization due to issues of poverty and exclusion, they are the bridgeheads of an ideological invasion coming from “south of the Mediterranean” and endorsed by “postmodern epistemology” (25). In this context, the pas d’amalgame is definitively dismissed. As Rougier states in the introduction to his book,

Privileging the psychological and intra-familial dimension to the detriment of sociological and ideological analysis, on the laudable grounds of not providing the extreme right with additional arguments in the public debate against populations of foreign origin, prevented us from observing recent developments in French society with the necessary hindsight and from making an objective and empirical diagnosis of the most worrying local situations in terms of national cohesion. (19)

The distinctiveness of the separatism thesis lies in its claim to be a comprehensive insight into all facets of the Muslim problem. Such a dramatic turn from the radicalization paradigm is achieved through the insistence on the dual nature of the Muslim presence in France. The theory posits that, first, separation takes place in a series of “conquered territories,” such as the urban projects where immigrant communities and their descendants reside, and then, in what is deemed to be a coordinated conspiracy, Muslims disseminate into all social spheres. Consequently, the concept of territorial secession is underpinned by the notion of infiltration into the various social institutions, including schools, universities, hospitals, and businesses. This forms the core premise of the separatism paradigm: acknowledging both the historical condition of the Muslim community and the social upward mobility that runs through it.

The separatism thesis takes shape in numerous pseudo-reflexive unveilings, enabling the acceleration of government measures such as mosque closures and administrative dissolution of entities like BarakaCity, the Collectif contre l’Islamophobie en France, MHS school, and Nawa publishing house. Although these entities differ significantly, their commonality lies in their association with the Muslim community, which is sufficient to categorize them as participants in the same plot.

The Muslim separatism paradigm therefore counters liberal “denial” with a pseudo-sociological characterization of reality, encompassing both the comprehensive consideration of social phenomena and their presentation as political realities that transcend—and potentially corrupt—the ordinary functioning of French society. It categorizes the link of post-colonial and working-class immigrant communities to urban projects as territorial secession, while the integration process is portrayed as entryism. The highly adaptable nature of the Islamist conspiracy, as highlighted by Rougier, who underscores its “remarkable tactical flexibility” (25), is a central focus of the conservative reaction. This conspiracy is believed to possess both social and political dimensions. On the social front, it is perceived as the advancement of Muslims within the nation, while on the political front, it is said to be aiming at seizing power.[2]

Gradually, the conservative reaction evolved towards what can be described as the Schmittian moment of the Muslim problem. This transformation manifests in two significant ways: First, it entails a stark friend-enemy distinction applied to global society as a whole, encompassing both Muslims and non-Muslims. This broad categorization enables an almost boundless expansion of efforts to identify those associated with the conspiracy, as exemplified by the government’s emphasis on the concept of “Islamo-leftism.” Second, it acknowledges that effective anti-separatist policies transcend mere legal norms, as shown by the ban on abayas and long dresses based on origin and alleged religion of the students who wear it.

However, beyond its pseudo-sociological veneer, the conservative perspective also encountered a critical challenge: what to do when Muslims continue to identify as Muslims despite the various constraints placed upon them? It is precisely at this weak point that a polemicist emerged as a presidential candidate, willing to resurrect a historical action unburdened by the formal constraints of the liberal state. Faced with impasse, where even the dissolution of most Muslim organizations failed to erase the community as such, this candidate extended the anti-separatist policy’s inherent implications. Advocating “remigration,” which entails the systematic expulsion from France of those who wish to remain Muslim, 2022 presidential candidate Éric Zemmour embodies the ultimate consequence of the problem to which others have provided its main features.

Zemmour, who has successfully amplified the contemporary zeitgeist, openly embraces all aspects of the struggle against Muslim separatism, much like his conservative supporters. Both Zemmour and the conservative reaction in power share a form of genuinely pseudo-sociological reflexivity. Their indictment extends not only to the cités where immigrants and their children usually live but also to the less well-known upward social mobility within the Muslim community. The latter is seen as inherently threatening due to its perceived success, ultimately attributing it to the conspiracy orchestrated by actors aiming to destabilize the essence of the nation. Regardless of its grotesque incarnation by Zemmour, it is important to note that the shift from the conservative reaction to the Schmittian moment of the Muslim issue does not signify a break. The political scope of the separatism paradigm encompasses the potential emergence of a polemicist-candidate wielding both promises and threats. Thus, even when Zemmour faces crushing electoral defeat, it does not signal the end of the Muslim problem.

Conclusion: The Impossible Fight against Islamophobia?

The Muslim problem intensifies the question of enduring collective experiences within modern societies. Built on epistemological individualism, the liberal perspective on the Muslim problem only sees a sum of individual deviancies, although they can virtually encompass all Muslims.

The conservative reaction firmly rejects the liberal interpretation of the Muslim problem. As it has taken over political power in France, this shift reshapes the framing of the Muslim problem by embracing a more comprehensive understanding of its collective nature. As such, the anti-separatism paradigm defines the Muslim community as coordinated and self-reliant actors, even when they are evidently distinct from one another. This conspiratorial approach underpins the paradigm of Muslim separatism, representing a rare contemporary perspective that distorts sociological analysis into a hunt for perceived threats within the nation. The eruption of violence in the name of Islam underscores the magnitude of this perspective, offering insight into the entire historical process and its inevitable consequences.

How about Muslims themselves? As mentioned earlier, upward social mobility is effectively taking shape in the Muslim community, which entails the appearance of social and political phenomena such as individualization, politics of recognition, and claims to equal rights. It is therefore no surprise that Marwan Muhammad—who served as the spokesperson and executive director of the Collectif contre l’Islamophobie en France—entitled his 2017 book Nous sommes (aussi) la nation. Muhammad, himself a son of the Paris outskirts who achieved great success in his education and work, wrote plainly what is felt by many Muslims: that as French citizens, they deserve recognition and equal rights (Dazey 2023). Such a claim is rooted in political liberalism and leaves entirely open the question of how to counter Islamophobia in illiberal times. Indeed, most anti-racist claims are based on the idea of a common moral platform where the demonstration of the racist nature of representations, policies, or conduct is sufficient in itself to put a stop to them. As such, the conservative perspective offers a sharp rebuttal to such a liberal understanding of politics as it explicitly suggests that a religious minority is by itself a problem to the nation. This discrepancy between Muslims’ liberalism and society’s increasing conservatism is the space between two times, a dead end where political critique increasingly finds itself engulfed.

 

 

References

 Bounaga, A. and H. Esmili. (2020) “War by Other Means. Fighting Radicalization in France (2014–2019).” Islamophobia Studies Journal 5 (2): 199–209.

Dazey, M. (2023) “’On est devenus des experts de la laïcité.’ Le légitimisme républicain inaudible de représentants musulmans.” Cultures & Conflits 127/128: 19–38. https://doi.org/10.4000/conflits.24259

Esmili, H. (2023) “La possibilité d’un complot.” Contemporary French and Francophone Studies 27 (2): 226–239. DOI: 10.1080/17409292.2023.2185418

Esmili, H., and J. Giry. (2023) “Le problème et la question: L’équation politique moderne ressaisie par la réaffiliation religieuse parmi les immigrés et leurs enfants.” Raisons politiques 89: 119–141. https://doi.org/10.3917/rai.23.0119

Fadil, N., M. de Koning and F. Ragazzi, eds. (2019) Radicalization in Belgium and the Netherlands. London: IB Tauris.

Freud, S. (2019 [1915]) Métapsychologie. Paris: Flammarion.

Hajjat, A., and M. Mohammed. (2023) “Islamophobia in France: The Construction of the ‘Muslim Problem.’” Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Khosrokhavar, F. (2014) Radicalisation. Paris: Éditions de la Maison des sciences de l’Homme.

Kundnani, A. (2014) The Muslims are Coming! Islamophobia, Extremism and the Domestic War on Terror. London: Verso.

Mannheim, K. (1954 [1929]) Ideology and Utopia. An Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge. London: Routledge.

Mauss, Marcel. (2007 [1925]) Essai sur le don. Forme et raison de l’échange dans les sociétés archaïques. Paris: Presses universitaires de France.

Ministère de l’Intérieur, Assistance aux familles et prévention de la radicalisation violente, November 2019.

Rougier, B. (2020) Les territoires conquis de l’islamisme. Paris: PUF.

[1] See for instance the preamble of the anti-separatist law: “An insidious but powerful communitarian entryism is slowly corroding the foundations of our society in certain territories. This entryism is primarily of Islamist inspiration. It is the manifestation of a conscious, theorized, politico-religious political project, whose ambition is to assert religious norms over the common law that we have freely given ourselves [sic]. It initiates a separatist dynamic aimed at division. This undermining work concerns multiple spheres: neighborhoods, public services, especially schools, community organizations, and religious practice structures.” LOI n° 2021–1109 du 24 août 2021 confortant le respect des principes de la République.

https://www.legifrance.gouv.fr/dossierlegislatif/JORFDOLE000042635616/?detailType=EXPOSE_MOTIFS&detailId.

[2] See for instance Michel Houellebecq’s Soumission, where the far-right novelist imagines France as taken over by Muslims.