[Book Review] Edwy Plenel. For the Muslims: Islamophobia in France. (Verso, 2016). 112 pp, £7.99 (pbk), ISBN 9781784784867.
Edwy Plenel. This name may not ring a bell to you, yet in France he is a famous writer, a political journalist and the founder of the online newspaper Médiapart. Highly committed to independent journalism, he revealed several major political scandals and he is frequently invited as a left-wing pundit on TV. In November 2017, he was personally involved in a scandal when Charlie Hebdo published on its front page his caricature, denouncing his leniency and proximity to Tariq Ramadan, who had been charged with several accounts of rape and sexual assault.
He argued that the controversy was merely an excuse for the media “to return to their obsession: war on Muslims, and the demonization of everything concerning Islam and Muslims”[ii]. Edwy Plenel analyzed this obsession in considerable detail in his book Pour les musulmans, released in 2014 in France and in 2016 translated to English as For the Muslims: Islamophobia in France. This short book offers three major ideas: the portrayal of Islamophobia by the media and politicians as a legitimate form of racism, the reactivation of the colonial figure of “the enemy from within” and its consequence in legal terms, and the establishment of a state of emergency in the name of the War on Terror.
“This short book offers three major ideas: the portrayal of Islamophobia by the media and politicians as a legitimate form of racism, the reactivation of the colonial figure of ‘the enemy from within’ and its consequence in legal terms, and the establishment of a state of emergency in the name of the War on Terror.”
Islamophobia : A Respectable Racism ?
While in the English-speaking world it is now accepted that the term “Islamophobia” specifically refers to discriminations and stereotypes against Muslims, in France the use of this term is still very controversial. According to Edwy Plenel, this reluctance indicates a denial of the very existence of the phenomenon, at a time when mentioning state racism can get you sued. This refusal to use the term aims at “minimizing the discrimination that this denotes” (36), a process in which media and political figures play a key role.
Islamophobic discourse has been gradually normalized (9). First upheld only by the extreme right-wing, it was soon taken up by the whole political class. Mainstream political parties now claim “issue ownership” (Petrocik, 1996) of the themes raised by France’s main far-right party: the Front National. The concept of “issue ownership” refers to the fact that certain topics are typically associated with a specific political party, thus becoming its exclusive ideological domain. The ruling parties brought to the mainstream issues which, until then, had been exclusive property of the far-right, arguing that they would offer more acceptable answers. In doing so, the mainstream parties sowed the seeds of racist rhetoric, and the Front National harvested the fruit: its campaign themes were now seen as legitimate issues. It no longer needed to win elections, as it had already won the ideological battle; its agenda had been widely spread and normalized.
Plenel explains that to gain respectability, the Front National gave up anti-Semitic discourse, at least publicly, and replaced it with Islamophobic discourse, seen as more acceptable (10). Furthermore, extreme-right politicians have been using the concept of “laïcité”, the French version of secularism, which is originally related to the left-wing ideological framework, as legal ammunition to counter Islamic visibility in public space.
“Plenel explains that to gain respectability, the Front National gave up anti-Semitic discourse, at least publicly, and replaced it with Islamophobic discourse, seen as more acceptable (10).”
Thus, public debates about Islam contribute to shifting the ideological markers within the political spectrum (moving increasingly towards the right and conservative fringes) and gradually transforming the understanding of terms such as “laïcité”. More and more, political and intellectual figures refer to “laïcité” as “a rigidified secularism unfaithful to its original meaning” (73) according to Edwy Plenel.
Indeed, laïcité was initially established by the 1905 “law of separation of Church and State” which guarantees the collective right to worship in public and the individual freedom to believe or not to believe (58). However, nowadays “laicité” is understood as an obligation to be neutral, to be discreet, and to hide religious beliefs and practices in public. Simultaneously, this new definition of secularism is contrasted with multiculturalism, which has a negative connotation because in France, public opinion tends to conflate multiculturalism with sectarianism (73).
In this context, the Muslim minority is perceived and presented as the new enemy from within (35), a nation within the nation, which refuses to adhere to the fundamental values of the French Republic. Several public figures and politicians have suggested there is an “incompatibility between the Republic, its ideals and its principles, and the demand to be recognized, respected and accepted as a Muslim” (50). In other words, being French, for a Muslim, implies favoring one’s attachment to France over one’s Islamic faith. Muslims are the only religious group that is expected to demonstrate allegiance to France and loyalty as citizens by erasing all forms of religiosity.
Paradoxically, Muslims are pigeonholed into ethnic, cultural and religious assignations, but are not allowed to claim those identities for themselves: “This is precisely what our Muslim compatriots experience, having for so long been simultaneously consigned to their origin and prevented from claiming it. Ethnicized and stigmatized at once” (71). Muslims are constantly essentialized from the outside by the media and public opinion, but any attempt by Muslims themselves to “reverse the stigma” (see Goffman Erving’s Stigma) by claiming their religious beliefs or their Arabness, is understood as an offense to the French Republic’s model of integration: assimilation.
From Colonialism to the Removal of Nationality
According to Edwy Plenel, expecting Muslims to assimilate to the French nation, amounts to silencing and invisibilizing them (44) in public space (45). In other words, “we want Muslims to be transparent” (45), “to erase themselves and dissolve, in short, to whiten themselves. The requirement, in other words, is to disappear in order to be accepted” (72). The countless controversies about “mosques, prayers, dress or food” show the growing intolerance surrounding Muslim practices. Those practices are perceived as an attempt to occupy public space, to spread the Muslim faith and its rituals and traditions as a starting point to conquer the country. In this perspective, Muslims are seen as enemies both from within and from outside: “Islam is used here to manufacture a global enemy. On the one hand, they threaten to invade us (immigration); on the other, they take advantage of our laws (family settlements); in both cases, they endanger our democracy” (35).
“According to Edwy Plenel, expecting Muslims to assimilate to the French nation, amounts to silencing and invisibilizing them (44) in public space (45)”
This idea that Muslims are not fully French was bolstered by the controversy around the “revocation of citizenship” bill submitted by François Hollande’s government, the former French President [v]. The bill started to be discussed right after the Paris attacks in November 2015 but was eventually abandoned in March 2016.
The deprivation of citizenship conveyed the “idea that there are some French people who are more so than others, and conversely, some who are French only under condition, on credit, in suspense? The vision, at the moment at least still symbolic, is of one France that could deprive another, exclude it, cancel it, suppress it?” (39). Making a hierarchy among French citizens “on the ground of foreign origins” (41) is equivalent to conflating citizenship and ethnic origins. For the author, this racist hierarchy resonates with the colonial period during which the “civilising mission” carried on outside the borders was coupled with the process of creating races, their classification and finally, the extermination of the so-called “inferior races” within the territory (30).
This terrible colonial machine made numerous victims, that is why Edwy Plenel shows empathy “with Muslims, with Arabs, with Jews, with blacks, with Roma and Gypsies. With all of those who, successively or at the same time, fall victim to the barbaric ideology of self-proclaimed higher civilizations versus those accursed peoples who once more prowl among us” (78).
The author drew a long parallel between the situation of Jews before the World War II and those of Muslims nowadays. For instance, the title of his book “For the Muslims” echoes the article entitled “For the Jews” written by the famous French author Emile Zola in 1896. In the latter, Emile Zola denounced how Jewish citizens were assimilated as enemies from within (22). According to him, these stereotypes may lead to violations of basic human rights and to the jeopardization of democracy. We know by now that his fears came true in the genocide perpetrated against Jews and Gypsies in Europe only a few decades after.
“…Edwy Plenel reminds us that at the beginning of the twentieth century, Jews were suspected to be Bolsheviks. It was a strategy to merge two threats: communism and Jewishness (17). Nowadays in France the expression ‘Islamo-leftism’, a neologism applied to an alleged political alliance between leftists and Islamists (17), is used to disqualify left-wing members who stand for Muslims.”
To support his thesis, Edwy Plenel reminds us that at the beginning of the twentieth century, Jews were suspected to be Bolsheviks. It was a strategy to merge two threats: communism and Jewishness (17). Nowadays in France the expression “Islamo-leftism”, a neologism applied to an alleged political alliance between leftists and Islamists (17), is used to disqualify left-wing members who stand for Muslims. Edwy Plenel is frequently referred to as an “Islamo-leftist” by those who call him out for his alleged indulgence towards Islamism (Preface xi).
Terrorism & State of Emergency: Towards a Crisis of Democracy?
The wish to remove nationality from individuals suspected to be involved – or willing to be so – in terrorist attacks (39, 41), demonstrates how terrorists are depicted as coming from outside and considered aliens, as if they don’t belong to France. According to Edwy Plenel, it is a mistake regarding the fact that “the three terrorists in the ill-fated month of January 2015 were children of our own society, our nation, our Republic,” in other words: “these murderers are our people” (86).
Denying Frenchness to some people underlies the idea that it isn’t a right, it is a favor (82) granted by and depending on the majority. Lassana Bathily “the young man who rescued the hostages in the kosher supermarket; Malian by origin, Muslim by belief, an immigrant worker” was “threatened with expulsion,” when the attacks occurred. He became “a citizen with full rights” (82) right after. The same happened with the so-called “French Spiderman”[vi], the undocumented Malian who climbed a parisian facade building to save a four year old child hung-up on a balcony. He was naturalized a few days after he prevented the tragedy. When you act heroically you are or will soon become French; when you misbehave, you are an alien in your own country. Thus, a certain population is on probation and has to prove that they deserve to be a part of French nation.
The “War on Terror” aimed to set up an exceptional state in which personal liberties are frequently called into question “which reduces politics to the police” (39) and eventually may lead to dictatorship.
To the author, Western countries are sowing the seeds of authoritarian regimes not only in their own country, but also in the territories they invaded on behalf of the War on Terror. “Today we are paying the price for the dramatically misguided reactions of the United States after 11 September 2001: not only with the emblematic moral discredit of a democracy that undermined its own basic freedoms and human rights to the point of justifying torture, but above all after the strategic mistake of the invasion of Iraq fertilized fresh ground for totalitarian ideologies, of which the Islamic State is now the standard-bearer as it proceeds to the deadly destruction of that country and its institutions” (84).
This book isn’t meant as an academic book. It has to be understood as a political essay, a platform through which Edwy Plenel warns his readers about the risks of scapegoating a minority and therefore, asks them, as a moral and social duty, to stand for Muslims. The way minorities are treated is a critical political and social question because it “speaks of a society’s moral state” and “concerns all of us.” He calls on French citizens to fulfill their responsibility by acknowledging that “Islam belongs to France” because more than ever, “this truth needs to be spoken aloud” (83) regarding how wide-spread and banalized racist discourse has become. Most importantly, according to him we shouldn’t “abandon our future and our society to those who govern us” (92) nor give up on our freedom for a fake feeling of security (93).
Fatima Khemilat is a PhD Fellow at the Political Science Institute of Aix-en-Provence. Previously, she was a Lecturer at the University of East-Paris (UPEC) for undergraduate and graduate students. Her doctoral dissertation deals with the representation and organization of Muslim minorities in France. Khemilat spent 2016 as a Visiting Scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, Center for Race and Gender to complete her training in intersectional studies. She also holds a bachelor’s degree in law, a degree in Arabic, a MA in religious studies and a master’s degree in political science from La Sorbonne University. From an interdisciplinary perspective, her research focuses on public policy and political narratives concerning sexual, racial and religious minorities and on how these minorities claim, blame or ignore these public measures in return. In addition to her academic work, she has been consulted by a wide range of media organizations (Radio Canada, BCC radio, Arte Channel, Le Monde, The Conversation, The Huffington Post, The Human Magazine, etc.) and leading policymakers on Muslim minorities, feminisms and racial issues.