A Censured Debate

Paris, November 10, 2019. Protest march against Islamophobia
Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt/AFP

On 29 October 2020, a journalist from Politico got in touch with me to ask me to do an article on secularism and the debate around it in English. The next day I sent her an article respecting the limited number of words she had set for me. On October 31, she let me know that the article had appeared, and she sent the link to where I could find it on the Web.

A few days later, a friend told me that the article had vanished. Soon afterwards Politico put a message on its site, without having let me know, in which it said that the article was not up to their standards and for that reason had been suppressed. The whole procedure having been conducted with utter contempt for the author who was never informed, who was placed before the fait accompli in a way which is tantamount to censorship. I got in touch with the journalist who had commissioned the piece, but she never answered. Her silence was deafening.

On November 1st, I received an e-mail from a scholar at the University of Leiden shedding light, in a critical article, on the reasons why my article had been withdrawn from Politico, under pressure from French intellectuals who claim the right to freedom of expression in respect to blaspheme, particularly concerning the egregious cartoons of Muhammad. The same people apparently have no qualms about prohibiting other people’s freedom of speech; no qualms about applying a double standard in their appreciation of freedom. As for Politico, the editor was their active accomplice, since it was he who gave the green light in defiance of the rights of an author whom his magazine had agreed to publish. There is the whole lamentable story, which might have ended differently: those people could have pushed back by putting forth their own arguments, but they did not.

Laicism vs. “laïcité”

Let me speak clearly: it is my contention that “laïcité” (secularism), in its recent development (and which I call “neo-laic” or “neo-laicism”) has taken a “religious” turn, it has become a “civil religion,” whereas in the past it was not any such thing. Its sharpest point is aimed at Muslims, and favours, among other things, their radicalisation. It is not the only factor, far from it. As I have attempted to demonstrate elsewhere and more in depth1, urban structures like city suburbs, poor, isolated neighbourhoods —what has been called the“urban jihad-producing tissue”—people’s socio-economic situation (social exclusion and stigmatisation), family structure (the crisis of the family, the anomia of the middle classes and a few other features like France’s and Europe’s foreign policy, have greatly contributed to creating this state of affairs. Laïcité is not the only cause (there is a plurality of causes) but in its new laicist configuration it is an aggravating factor.

A few statistics in this area can help us understand. In France, since 2001 and until 2017 (the year when the Islamic State Organisation in Syria and Iraq was defeated) the number of jihadist attacks has been far higher than in any other European country. Let us take the case of attacks which could not be prevented by the security forces (those who were nipped in the bud would make France’s deficit even higher): from 2001 to 2017, there were 23 “successful” jihadist attacks in France as against 10 in Germany, 5 in England, 2 in Spain, and 7 in Belgium. Similarly, there were 247 killed in France as against 93 in England, 15 in Germany, 36 in Belgium and 208 in Spain2.

It is not the size of the Muslim population in France—around 5 million, Germany has at least as many—which is responsible for that difference. Nor is it the incapacity of the French police: I believe that the French police are as efficient as that of any other European country. The only plausible explanation is this frontally “laicist” culture which quite literally aggresses many Muslims, even those who are most secularised, in the name of multiple restrictions placed on the head-scarf worn by women, on their religious practices and other forms of constraint which many experience as a form of neo-colonial humiliation. A great deal of research that I have carried out in prisons and in the suburbs bear this out, and the disproportion between the figures is eloquent. From 2017 to 2020, the difference was maintained between the number of terrorist attacks and the number of their victims in France as against the rest of Europe. In 2020 alone, there have been four attacks in France, one of which was neutralised, and one other in Saudi Arabia. The recent attacks in Austria do not change the situation: they are the first in that country. If we group them all together, we see the enormous gap that exists between France and the rest of Europe.

Why are there so many attacks and so many killed in France, many more than in similar European countries? Is it simply bad luck? A sinister fatality which has descended upon the land of Victor Hugo? Or is it because there exists in France forces determined to humiliate Muslims and which are stronger than in the rest of Europe? The short article I wrote for Politico was aimed at answering that question. My answer—which anyone is free to contest, but not in humiliating or insulting terms: it is the new turn taken by secularism in this country which is partly the cause of the abnormally high death rate in France in the terrorist attacks of the last decades. Moreover, this mindset alienates the whole Muslim world, produces the impression that France is virulently anti-Islamic and arrogant.

The more laicism has been exacerbated, the more the jihadi and fundamentalist camp has been strengthened. The results are here. To interrupt this vicious circle, we must return to the secularism of the founding fathers, i.e. a principle of neutrality in the State’s management of religious affairs wherein everybody respects everybody else’s religion without trying to impose norms, for example by anathematising the headscarf, the burkini, the djellaba or other religious signs.

The forgotten role of Saudi Arabia

In order to achieve the moderate Islam to which France aspires would require an equally restrained secularism which does not impose an exclusivist vision likely to be experienced by Muslims as a return of the ancient colonial vision, haughty and contemptuous. We have to be done with a laicism which is appearing more and like a sacred cult of intolerance and go back to a common-sense secularism, so precious for the preservation of citizens’ dignity.

We must be done with the nostalgia for the holy wars of yesteryear and not provide added pretexts to radical Islamism, which is also as many scholars, among them François Burgat3 has shown, the consequence of the policies of the West, particularly towards Saudi Arabia (of the 19 terrorists responsible for 9/11, 15 were from Saudi Arabia). We must fight this scourge more effectively by bringing about the active collaboration of the immense majority of Muslims who have no stake in any of that, those “ordinary” Muslims whom Nilüfer Göle4 has written about and who feels molested in their daily life by a logic of suspicion and stigmatisation, irresponsible blasphemy and endless profanation. Their active cooperation can only be guaranteed if we stop harassing them in the name of this new sacred laicism. This is the only way in the long term that we will break the momentum of radical Islamism.

1Le nouveau jihad en Occident, Robert Laffont, 2018.

2The Madrid train attack alone in 2004 caused 191 deaths.

3Comprendre l’Islam politique : une trajectoire de recherche sur l’altérité islamiste, 1973-2016, La Découverte, 2016.

4Musulmans au quotidien. Une enquête européenne sur les controverses autour de l’islam, La Découverte, 2015.