Islamo-gauchisme is an epithet hurled by the French Right at the far Left and elements of the Centre-Left. It provides a handy label for the sort of relentless political sycophancy towards Islam in France, typified by apologists such as Jack Lang and Edwy Plenel. Lang was former President Mitterrand’s Minister of Culture, and is now President of the Institute of the Arab World, in Paris. Plenel is a prominent French journalist.
Laurent Bouvet is Professor of Political Science at the University of Versailles-Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines. He published Cultural Insecurity (Fayard) in 2015. In this interview, he breaks the code behind the use of the term, islamo-gauchisme.
Laurent Bouvet interviewed by Alexis Feertchak for Le Figaro
Laurent Bouvet : Islamism, the Left, and the colonial complex
FIGAROVOX/MAJOR INTERVIEW. In an extensive interview, Laurent Bouvet unravels the origins and workings of islamo-gauchisme. In the search for a new proletariat, this dazzled Left sees in the islamists the damned of the earth: to be defended.
FIGAROVOX: How do you explain the difficulty experienced by some Leftist intellectuals in thinking about Islamism, or even just pronouncing its name? Has the muslim community become the new proletariat for a part of the Left?
Without doubt, there are several possible explanations for what is amongst certain intellectuals, journalists, and researchers, a blindness, more or less voluntary, and amongst others, few in fact, a determined political, even ideological choice. As a structural explanation, I favour here what could be called the ‘colonial complex’.
European colonization generally, but especially French colonization, particularly affected muslim populations. After decolonization and the end of the grand narratives of nationalist emancipation, a certain way of thinking has developed, along with the now essential “studies” that go with it, in the post-colonial academic world. It is founded on a simple idea: the white man – European, occidental, Christian, but also Jewish – remains fundamentally a colonizer by reason of certain inherent traits: racist, imperialist, hegemonic etc. As a consequence, the formerly colonized populations have remained subjugated, victims of this same white, European, occidental, Judeo-Christian man.
From the 1970s, which saw the beginnings of the economic crisis and the take-off of immigration from former colonies, this post-colonial mind-set swallowed up, so to speak, the classical project of workers’ emancipation and the class struggle that had been developed since the Industrial Revolution, and was embodied notably in socialism. The figure of the “damned of the earth” came therefore to be reduced little by little to the formerly colonised, the immigrant: that’s to say, to the one who is different, the one who is now the “Other”, no longer principally because of his position in the economic production process or his social stratum, rather because of his country of origin, the colour of his skin, his ethnic group; then, more recently, because of his religion. And this, at the very moment when radical new interpretations of Islam are becoming weapons in the hands of those who contest the established regimes of the muslim Arab world.
A large part of the Left – political, organized, syndicalist, intellectual…, orphaned by the grand socialist and communist narrative, will find its raison d’être in this struggle for the new damned of the earth when it converts to various forms of liberalism: political liberalism, as in Human Rights and liberal democracy versus the left-overs of communist totalitarianism; economic liberalism, as in the rule of the market and capital against statism and Keynesianism; cultural liberalism, as in emancipation based on individual identity rather than that of the collective. In France, the species of anti-racism that developed in the 1980s when the Left was in power, testifies persuasively to this evolution.
“It is often the same people who will deny the islamist character of a terrorist act, who then go on to forbid any association between the author of the act and the generality of muslims”.
From there, we can easily roll out the history of the last 30 to 40 years to arrive at the present situation. Being on the side of the victims and the oppressed allows one to adopt a moral bearing, even a political goal, when one has renounced, in substance if not in so many words, all notion of group-emancipation, or the transformation of society other than through the attribution of individual rights to those same victims and oppressed. From the moment these victims and oppressed are sublimated into the mystical figure of the “Other”, they cannot in any way be wrong, and anything they do, say, or claim etc., is part of their identity and victimhood. Within such a frame of reference, the white man, European, occidental, Judeo-Christian … can therefore never, by definition, be right in anything he says or does. He is always culpable and dominating a priori.
For a large part of the Left, especially amongst the intellectuals, all this has become a rigid system of belief. All questioning, all challenge, any critique, being immediately considered at once a tragic misunderstanding of society, of history, and of the high stakes now in play, as though it were a blasphemous assault on the Good, on the only correct morality, and as the sign of an attitude profoundly reactionary, racist, “islamophobic” etc. For this reason, it seems to me that in today’s intellectual and public debates, we have returned to the sort of violence that was largely forgotten after the Cold War. All disagreement, all nuance, all questioning, are immediately disqualified.
This system of belief, this doxa, has it been shaken at all by the return of the “tragic” in history that we’ve seen since the attacks of 2001 in the United States?
The advent about fifteen years ago in the West (and its intensification in France particularly, these last few years) of an islamist terrorism that extends the jihad already taking place in the Arab countries in particular, has had no practical effect on the orthodoxy. In this case, the terrorist is seen, first and foremost, as a victim himself, even if in itself his act is condemned. Victim of the social conditions in which immigrant populations find themselves (urban ghettoes, mass unemployment…); victim of the manner in which he is treated as a believer; victim of “islamophobia”, of French secularism, and of “institutional racism”; a victim even, as we’ve seen after the attack in Nice, of an occidental society that perverts the individual (bisexuality, divorce, alcoholism, depression…). In this kind of context, the islamist is never responsible for what he believes or the way in which he practises Islam, as the terrorist is never fully responsible for his acts. It is Western society that is first and foremost to blame, it is “we” who are truly responsible for whatever happens. One could observe in this regard, that it is a little strange, not to say comical, that it is often the same people who will deny the islamist character of a terrorist act, who then go on to forbid, above all, any association between the author of the act and the generality of muslims.
Difficult, then, to debate calmly and above all effectively, the attitude to adopt towards islamist terrorism, the policies to implement, and the necessary changes to our laws, as to our behaviour. When faced with this kind of denial of reality as practised by a part of the Left, it’s no surprise to see a reaction that goes so far as to reject even the existence of muslims on French soil, basing itself on the recognition of an identity (French, European, white, occidental, Christian…) claimed as “unique and true”: a drift that one recognizes today in sections of the Right and the extreme Right. One can hardly be satisfied with a debate, as is sadly all too often the case nowadays, between a Left in denial and a rejectionist Right. Not only because it is poisoned intellectually, but because it can only lead to the worst outcome.
How do you explain the historical dislocation of a Left that remains largely anticlerical in relation to the Church, but is extremely sensitive when it comes to applying the secular framework to Islam?
In addition to the reasons that I’ll come to, it’s because a part of this Left, already secularized for decades, had found a substitute for religion in ideological belief, notably communist – one recalls, by the way, that ideology and religion work in the same way: according to Marx, as inverse representations of reality. The collapse of the great ideological narratives of the 20th century has plunged this Left into confusion. No longer being able to set the Truth against the Real became in some respects unbearable. Hence the rapid transformation of post-colonial thinking, between 1990 and 2010, into an ideological form, both autonomous and determinist (whereas previously it could still be included in the global communist narrative).
The relationship of this section of the Left to the Church has remained the same as in the preceding period, combining a sort of visceral anti-clericalism with a condemnation of the retrograde character of the Church, particularly on questions of lifestyle – we’ve seen this during the “marriage for all” debate. Secularism is here neither discussed nor discussable, to some extent. Even if on other issues the Church is considered rather as an ally of the Left. This is the case when it comes to the reception of migrants, for example.
“The collapse of the great ideological narratives of the 20th century has plunged the Left into confusion. No longer being able to set the Truth against the Real, was unbearable”.
On the other hand, the relationship of the Left with Islam is something new, historically. This religion, including its most radical variants, is first and foremost not considered quite as a religion, as a possible “opiate of the people”, but as one of the specific badges of identity of the victims and oppressed of the post-colonial world. This leads to some strange philosophical quirks, like the defence of the Islamic veil in the name of individual liberty on the part of officials or political militants, which smack of Marxism. One thinks here, for example, of the episode of the young candidate for the NPA [New Anticapitalist Party] wearing the veil during the regional elections in 2010 in the PACA region [Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur], whose action was defended, notably by Olivier Besancenot [spokesman for the far-Left NPA].
What we’re seeing, largely in the bosom of the Left, is all the political families mixed up and sharing this astonishing double-standard on secularism. As though there was a variable geometry, according to the religion concerned. Here’s another example: a number of elected officials from the Left are quick to wish muslims a happy festive season publicly, at the end of Ramadan, without doing the same for other religions. To me, it’s puzzling that they adapt their attitude in this way, according to this or that religion. It’s difficult for me to accept an end-of-fast ceremony in a Town Hall, when Christmas tableaux are forbidden, to take another example. Secularism ought simply to enjoin public officials not to get mixed up with religion when carrying out their functions.
What do you think of the numerous references to the Second World War and the Vichy regime, when talking about the state of emergency or parallels between the muslims and the Jews?
I’m always very circumspect about drawing historical comparisons of this sort, with reference to today’s situation. Especially as they’ve served well, these last few years of exploding social media use, to hobble adversaries. It’s the famous ‘Godwin point’, which states that at any moment in a controversy conducted on social media, you can be denounced as a Nazi.
Concerning the state of emergency, there’s no need to evoke Vichy. It suffices simply to compare a state of emergency in a great democratic country based on an old and solid body of law, such as France, with whatever is decreed here and there by Erdoğan in Turkey. The incautious evocation of Vichy in French political debate these last weeks, regarding the state of emergency or the use of [Article] 49.3 by the government, is quite simply ridiculous. It testifies at a deeper level, I think, to the disarray of a reduced and extreme part of the Left that has to resort to that sort of thing in trying to make itself heard, because its political weight is so reduced that it is quite simply inaudible. It has the same logic as the symbolic and sometimes physical violence that breaks out readily on the extreme Left, on social media, in demonstrations….
As for parallels between Jews and muslims as scapegoats, there again – watch out. Beyond the pointless historical comparison, which consists in equating today’s muslims with Jews in the Nazi era, the situation is not at all comparable. Nobody is exterminating muslims en masse, or has taken the decision to do so. And muslim deaths today across the world as a result of war or terrorism, are primarily at the hands of other muslims. I’m not sure that such a comparison really serves the purposes of those who risk using it.
In France nowadays, if indeed forms of anti-muslim racism are aired, and sometimes acts committed that are reprehensible and indeed suppressed – I’m thinking here of the legal remedies available to DILCRA [Interministerial Delegation for the struggle against racism and anti-Semitism] during the last four years – no muslims have been assassinated by reason of their religion; with the exception of members of the military killed by [Mohamed] Merah in 2012 and the police officer cut down in the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir by the Kouachi brothers in January, 2015. Yet, they were killed without doubt more for the uniforms they wore than for their supposed religion. And in any case, they were not crimes of “islamophobia”. All of the muslims killed in the Nice attack, for example, had not been targeted as such. In the case of anti-Semitism, and standing out from the general flow of words and deeds, Merah’s victims in the Jewish school in 2012 or those of Coulibaly at the Kosher Supermarket in 2015, were targeted precisely because they were Jews.
Does the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or the echoes of the Algerian War, actually nourish this islamo-gauchisme? Has competition between victim groups become its driving force?
There is incontestably, at the heart of this extreme Left that we’ve mentioned earlier, the temptation to replay without end former colonial conflicts, or to import external conflicts into France, like that between Israel and the Palestinians. You see it in demonstrations like those of the summer of 2014 in support of Gaza, or again in the boycott of Israeli goods. Happily, it’s limited. And it would have no echo at all, were it not for the credit or support given to the actions of the Left by figures in the media, politics, and the trades-union.
“Market dynamics apply also to competition between different types of victimhood”.
Let’s say, just to be clear, that a sort of cultural Leftism exists, that far exceeds the limits of political Leftism. It would be no more annoying than that, if the folklore to which it leads hadn’t uncorked today, when the historical circumstances are so grave, a lowering of public debate and an often odious verbal and symbolic violence, quite out of proportion to objective reality. We must therefore be attentive to it, and not let it look after itself; not always easy to do, especially on social media.
The competition between victims refers to what I said earlier in relation to post-colonial ideology. In this view of the world, where the Other is seen only as one’s victim, there can only be competition amongst victims for media access, public acknowledgement, partisan rights, financial support, etc. Liberalism doesn’t stop at post-colonialism. Market dynamics apply also to competition between different types of victimhood. This is what clearly escapes the attention of this [islamo-] Left, which professes to be strongly anti-liberal when it contests economic globalization or the deregulation of work, but which is very liberal when it comes to matters of identity and culture.
Faced with the question of islamism, but also of muslim immigration, is Islam’s cultural dimension just being brushed aside?
It’s a fundamental question, but one that I can’t answer because I don’t have the necessary knowledge. I can only give you a hypothesis. For me, from what I know of it and from what I can understand, Islam as a religion (in the sense therefore of a confession and a culture) is not incompatible a priori with what we can call western modernity, as developed over five centuries on the foundation of the Judeo-Christian society of Europe. That’s to say, with individual liberty (including the liberty not to believe), equality of rights – particularly as between men and women, democracy, the rule of law, etc. There is therefore no sense of fatality and no “clash of civilizations”, as such.
Obviously today, in a sizeable part of Islam, western modernity is condemned and attacked for the message it contains about values, and for its role as a model for society. It seems to me, then, that the game being played today is not between Islam and the West, but between Islamism and the rejection of Islamism, as much amongst muslim as non-muslim populations, whether in the West or in the muslim Arab world.
In your book Cultural Insecurity, you defend the notion of national shared values, the “in common”. Putting it in concrete terms, is not a modicum of cultural congruence necessary to such a community of values?
Yes, for us to have anything in common, there must be cultural proximity, and not just in principle or institutionally. That’s obvious. The question is how you load the term “cultural”. A culture is not something rigid, it is not an essence. It’s a collection of references, values, customs, etc., fluid and cumulative. It’s a link between those who subscribe to its essentials, but it’s also an arena for debate or confrontation in the sense in which I use it. Right now, we talk about Islam. Because what characterizes it, beyond the fact that it is a religion, a link between believers in the same god, is its extraordinary cultural diversity across the world. Which is, by the way, precisely what the islamists wish to eradicate by imposing their uniform vision of Islam.
Again, beyond that, for me, a culture, the culture, consists in change and heterogeneity, the precise opposite of fixity and essence. This, by the way, is what our own European history has taught us since the beginning. The possibility of disagreement, of a life in common despite disagreement, then of its transition into a new cultural form that digests those former disagreements: that’s the history of our western culture.
“To have anything in common, there must be cultural proximity, and not just in principle or institutionally”.
The “in common” specifically permits the coexistence of differences, because the collective framework within which they can be expressed, is accepted. It’s at once the result of an effort, of a will, I daren’t say a general will, – equally of a long historical process of conflict and confrontation. We must have the will to do it, to do what’s necessary, and at the same time avoid imagining it as something rigid and fixed once and for all. That’s why, by the way, in France, the Republic is the most accomplished historical expression of this “in common”, at once including and transcending the long history of France that preceded it. To quote from the title of one of Péguy’s journals: “The Republic, one and indivisible, our kingdom of France”.