Islamophobia and Defaced Secularism

Barbara Spinelli
Journalist, writer, former MEP

In the beginning, the French called them Arabs, a name that assumed pejorative connotations at the end of the 1970s, producing insults such as bicot or bougnoule. Then the Arabs became Islamic, or worse, Islamic-fascist, if they did not take the necessary public distance from the terrorist acts carried out in the name of Allah. After September 11, the second epithet spread. The journalist Thomas Deltombe criticized the “Islamization of looks” in the early 1980s. These were the years in which banning the veil worn by Muslim women in public spaces was discussed. Some interpret the prohibition as the prohibition of hiding one’s face everywhere, while the law applies only in public institutions: “The citizen has the right to believe or not believe, and can manifest this belief or non-belief externally, in the respect for public order”, writes Nicolas Cadène, a member of the Observatory of Laity, in an excellent manual published in October 2020 with a preface by Jean-Louis Bianco, president of the government institute: En finir avec les idées fausses sur la laïcité [Do away with false ideas about secularism]. Many immediately called for the expulsion of the two authors from the Observatory. Fortunately, President Macron did not give up. In the Regard magazine, Aude Lorriaux has recalled the definition of Judaism that Sartre gave in 1944: “It is the anti-Semite who creates the Jew”. A reductive and rightly controversial definition, which however was adapted to Islam by the writer Karim Miské in 2004: “It is the Islamophobe who creates the Muslim” (this variation is also debatable: actually, the Islamophobe “creates” the radical Islam). This is roughly the story that precedes the attacks of recent months, and the disputes over Islam and laicity that have begun again in France. Even more than in the past, Islamophobic arguments emerge from the territories of the extreme right and become language that is not always explicit but dominant. Macron avoids drifts, but it is still he who denounced the “separatism” that afflicts the vast Muslim community (4.7 million). In Nice, he promises support to the martyred Christians, but not to the Muslims who have nothing to do with terrorism. The Minister of Education Jean-Michel Blanquer accuses of complicity with terrorism anyone who defends in academies “intersectionality”, a term coined by the American jurist Kimberlé Crenshaw to describe the superimposition (or “intersection”) of different social or religious identities. The Minister of Internal Affairs Darmanin orders the closure of the Pantin mosque near Paris (it had released a video on the Paty affair) and of two associations fighting against Islamophobia. Meanwhile, he declares himself “chocked by the halal or kosher departments in supermarkets”.

The Minister is taking aim at the “Islamic-leftist” (islamo-gauchhistes) deputies of Mélenchon’s France Insoumise party. French laicity is disfigured, transformed into an instrument of war rather than of coexistence with communities jealous of their own autonomy, in the respect of public order.

With some exceptions, even in Italy the sight is Islamized, and secularism is presented as a supreme value, impervious to compromise (“Every compromise means giving in”, tweets Darmanin, in contrast to Cadène who states in his manual that laicity “is not at all a value but a method”). Authors like Gad Lerner write that religions are “categories of the past”. Christianity and Islam are mentioned (not Judaism, protected by beneficial taboos). The Jewish exception makes the designation of Christianity and Islam as “categories” even more offensive. Who gives us the right to set the expiration date of religions, as if they were labelable canned food?

A post by Carlo Rovelli, a philosopher of science, lights the fuse in Italy two days after the ferocious beheading of the teacher Samuel Paty in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine. To explain what freedom of expression is, Paty had shown in his classroom a cartoon by Charlie Hebdo - the ugliest one, the one showing the Prophet naked, kneeling and with his bottom uncovered. It is not yet clear what he said to his Muslim pupils: whether he really invited them to turn their heads away or leave, if they felt offended. If this is the case, Paty is still the victim of pure brutality, but his lesson of civil education was not well done.

This is what Rovelli states, reasoning like this: “I don’t think there should be laws that prohibit publishing this or that. But I think that offending, and then – after realizing that offending hurts people –, continuing to offend is not a behavior neither appreciable nor reasonable. We have to live together on this planet. Can’t we do it respecting each other? It costs nothing to avoid offending Muslims by posting offensive images of Mohammed. And let’s face it: have you seen them? They are indeed offensive. Do we think we are more democratic, better champions of freedom, if we offend each other? By offending each other, we only feed violence, divide us into conflicting groups, show a hard snout “I don’t let you scare me even if you kill me!; I’m tougher than you”. We don’t just feed violence. We are feeding what Macron wants to avoid: the separatism of entire communities. And this in times of lockdowns, when the population is called to unite against any Covid-denying secessionism. When it is advisable to facilitate compromises with all the religious communities, even the fundamentalist ones, if not prone to violent acts.

The more or less latent Islamophobia declares itself in favor of a false laicity, that implies mitigated, subdued religions, and minimizes the virtues of compromise. Sociologist François Héran, one of the leading migration-experts in the Collège de France, aptly recalls how compromise and giving in are never synonymous. He quotes the philosopher Paul Ricoeur: “Compromise is not a weak idea, but on the contrary an extremely strong one. In a compromise everyone remains in his place, and no one is deprived of his own principle of justification”. French secularism is a great achievement, but it risks failure when it is used for a bad purpose. If freedom of expression were discussed in schools without repeatedly showing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, and what it means were explained with words – evoking, for example, the history of political-religious caricatures in France, as suggested by Héran -, we would have made an important step forward towards compromises that do not divide nations beyond measure.

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