France. Islamophobia and culture wars, the Bergeaud-Blacker “case”

More than ever, France seems to be torn apart by identity-based fractures, which are not only maintained by the extreme right and patent racists. Over the past five years, the debate on islamophobia has become more acrimonious, less academic and more political. Based on her academic experience in the United States, Jocelyne Cesari analyzes the Florence Bergeaud-Blacker case. She highlights a French-style culture war, a significant factor in the polarization of the debate on Islamic studies.

Paris, on June 2, 2023. French anthropologist Florence Bergeaud-Blackler, researcher at the CNRS, leaves the Sorbonne university with a police escort following a conference.

At first glance, Le frérisme et ses réseaux: l’enquête (The Muslim Brotherhood and its Networks: an Investigation), published by Florence Bergeaud-Blackler in January 2023 was merely another addition to the long list of books discussing the influence of the Muslim Brothers in Europe. It is therefore somewhat surprising that it has triggered such a cascade of critiques, insults, censure and death threats aimed at Bergeaud-Blackler. I do not intend to discuss the academic relevance of the book as such (something that has been done), but to analyze the reactions to it, both pro and contra, to shed light on the alarming slippery slope of the Culture Wars à la Francaise.

In the period leading up to the 2022 presidential election, politicians and scholars from both sides of the political spectrum decried the ‘Americanization’ of the French political debate that focused too much on ethnic, religious, and sexual differences which undermine the unifying nature of the universal French identity. However, as astutely noted by Daniel Zamora, opposition to Americanization is not opposition to identity politics, as identity politics has in fact taken a strong hold of the French political scene.

Religious freedom vs neoliberalism

In the United States, the cultural/sexual/political revolution of the 1960s raised resistance from conservative Christian segments of the society. This tension, mostly within the white middle class turned into a culture war in the late 1990s, opposing the “neo-Victorians” to the “cosmopolitans”. The former warned against the excesses of the market by promoting discipline and restraint of sex, drugs, alcohol, work, etc. The latter praise the emancipatory power of neoliberalism’s transnational links and its egalitarian, pluralistic nature that goes with a more “liberated” sense of morality.

Some of the key issues in this culture war are abortion, same-sex marriage, and contraception, which are debated through the lens of religious liberty. Religious individuals claim their right to not violate God’s will in any way (e.g., by being forced, as a religious institution, to provide contraception in company healthcare plans). Conversely, others argue for their right to control their own sex life, body, and healthcare. Such a debate could never arise in France, because the free exercise of religion is mitigated by the capacity of the state to discriminate against religion for the sake of equality (e.g., by banning hijabs in schools).

The financial crisis of 2008 has driven a wedge between the upper and lower white middle class while the growth of higher education has expanded the culture war to mainstream politics. This expansion is illustrated by the highly contentious debates surrounding race (i.e., an issue that wasn’t a priority for the white middle class in the 1960s) from critical race theory to affirmative action in schools.

A French focus on Islam

In the French case, the polarization is not about religious morality as such but about the status of Islam in public space. The cleavage is not anymore between right and left ideologies concerning Islam and Muslims but between critiques of Islam who posit themselves as defenders of the Republican values and those who defend Islam against racism and discrimination This pro and anti Islam divide cuts across the left/right divide and even divides Muslims. Interior Minister from Algerian background, Gerald Darmanin has been a major supporter of Macron’s efforts to shut down mosques and Islamic associations suspected of extremism. Anissa Khedher, a member of La République en Marche who is of Tunisian origin and grew up in a banlieue, supported Macron’s anti-extremism bill, arguing that ‘this law is not against Islam or about Islam’ and instead that it focuses on promoting secularism. Similarly, Ghaleb Bencheikh, head of the Foundation for Islam of France, called the bill ‘unjust but necessary’ in order to fight extremism.

This polarity does not concern the status of immigration or the inclusiveness of citizenship as such: these topics still operate across along the right/left spectrum of the political landscape. For example, in the 1980s, the right-wing parties blamed socialism for the national loss of identity and endorsed a restrictive definition of citizenship that worked against the pluralism and immigration policies promoted by the Left. The Right’s narrative was enacted by President Sarkozy, who centered his campaign around the restoration of French identity threatened by globalization and Muslim immigration. Thus, he transferred the social insecurity of neoliberal reforms and deindustrialization into cultural insecurity from Muslim immigration.

Macron’s policy goes beyond the right/left divide: he created his own movement that does not fit into the traditional ideological split. His first government in 2017 included figures from a wide range of backgrounds and political parties, including the Gaullist-inspired party Les Républicains, the Socialist Party, and the centrist MoDem party.

Military worried about “civil war”

At the same time, Macron is deeply steeped in the Culture War. In 2021 he gave a speech commemorating the 200th anniversary of Napoleon Bonaparte’s death, and laid a wreath on his grave. In doing so, he sought to endorse Bonaparte’s divisive legacy as both a key figure in creating the modern French state and as a colonizer.

The 200th anniversary commemoration came in the wake of a letter from 20 retired generals (and signed by thousands of other soldiers) in April 2021, followed by another one a month later, both warning of the risk of a civil war in France. According to both letters, France is in a state of “disintegration” because of Islamism, immigrants, and the banlieues. The authors also argue that anti-racism groups in France are creating “hatred between communities” and going against French culture and values by tearing down statues of historical French figures.

Such declarations received the habitual support of the extreme right-wing politicians: Marine Le Pen called for the signatories to support her party in the presidential election, writing: “I invite you to join us in taking part in the coming battle, which is the battle of France.” But it is worth noticing that this position was shared beyond the right-wing parties: a poll revealed that 58% of respondents also agreed with the letter. Rachida Dati, mayor of the 7th arrondissement, explained the widespread public support for the letter in those terms: “What is written in this letter is a reality,” and “When you have a country plagued by urban guerrilla warfare, when you have a constant and high terrorist threat, when you have increasingly glaring and flagrant inequalities ... we cannot say that the country is doing well.”1

Surprisingly, the fact that the letter posits itself in reverse to the French Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, was neither noticed nor discussed. On one hand, the “anti-racists” protest against the police abuse of people of color. On the other hand, the signatories of the letters argue that immigrants and POCs monopolize victimhood, and tend to forget the French police have a history of brutality against all protesters independently of the skin color. A compelling example would be the gilet jaunes (Yellow Vest) protests, which were largely made up of white protesters and were met with strong repression from police. The demonization of the ‘other’ overrides any potential for unity that could come from the shared grievances of French protesters.

What Went Wrong?

First, it is important to highlight that the polarization on Islam has been in the making for several decades not only in France but throughout Europe. The rise of the “Islamic Problem” is due to the fact that Muslims stand at the core of three major social “problems”: immigration, economic integration, and multiculturalism. To contrast with the USA, Islam and immigration are seen as synonymous in Europe, while the prototypical immigrant in the United States is a low-skilled Mexican or Central American worker rather than a conservative Muslim2. Additionally, Muslims represent less than three percent of the immigrant population in the US, not to mention that they are not the most religiously conservative group either. Because of this cumulation of issues, European societies have gone through a process of culturalization of politics by emphasizing the ethnic and religious features of the people at the core of these three process. In other words, the terms Islam and Muslims have become proxy to discuss all kinds of concerns, from urban disfranchisement, to education, economic crises and immigration.

This amalgamation has been exacerbated by the rise of transnational radical Islamic groups and the fact that they have found connections with some segments of Muslim European youth. France has been particularly targeted; as of 2015, roughly 600 young French men were suspected to be in touch with ISIS, 85 of which had actually travelled to and from Syria or Iraq.

Another aggravating factor unique to the French perception of the “Islamic problem” is the specificity of laïcité. European secularisms from Great Britain to Germany or the Netherlands operate on a less strict divide between private and public than laïcité. The private/public divide assigns what aspects of religious practices, actions, organizations are legitimate in public space. Because of the historical struggle of the French Republic against the Catholic Church, laïcité encompasses the most extensive privatization of religion in Europe: religious creeds and practices are acceptable when they take place only at home or in the place of worship. As a result, the display of embodied religious practices in public spaces like dress code, gender separation etc. are more suspicious than in any other European countries. There is societal discrimination against women wearing the hijab across all Europe, but France has gone further by legislating against it3.

Bergeaud-Blackler’s book reveals the most recent aspect of the French culture war. She not only claims that the Muslim Brotherhood wants to make European societies “sharia compatible”, which is an old trope, but she also argues that they are working toward the “Islamization of knowledge” by infiltrating academic institutions. Such an argument is the outcome of the politicization of the Islamophobia debate from academia to society.

An Illegitimate Academic Topic

Compared to the English or German scholarship, there is an academic under-investment in studying this form of racism since no social science PhD dissertation contains the term Islamophobia in its title and very few of them deal with Islamophobia as a research subject. Worse still, conferences dealing with the issue of Islamophobia have been censored inside and outside the university. In 2017, a program at Paris-Est Créteil University on ‘Thinking about intersectionality in educational research’ was cancelled under pressure from far-right movements and academics because “the program dealt with the political uses of the principle of secularism in a logic of exclusion.”

More broadly, significant parts of French academia have engaged in a continuous disqualification of the term “Islamophobia”. One argument is that Islamophobia reduces a complex and multifaceted social phenomenon to an almost “medical” fear of an hegemonic and uniform Islam. In this vein, Mrázek (2017) considers that: “The problem of using such a term in academic vocabulary is that, due to its inherent reference to a “sick mind”. It is therefore more emotional than scientific and justifies the differential treatment of Islam and Muslims”.4 The sociologist Gérard Mauger similarly points out that ‘the suffix “phobia” conveys a medical image (psychoanalytical, behavioralist and neurobiological) and, with it, an implicit philosophy of the social” and that the unity of the noun “Islam” ignores the “multiple currents” that run through the faith and “the competition between the various ‘supplies of Islam’”.5 Mauger also argues that “Islamophobia” refers to too many things at once, from racism to rational critiques of Islam.

Taking a different position, the anthropologist Jeanne Favret-Saada has proposed using the term “differentialist” or “cultural” racism instead of “Islamophobia”, because it is the term that Islamists and their far-left supporters use when referring to criticisms of the political use of Islam and/or criticisms of Islam itself. Similarly, the sociologist Luc Boltanski has suggested to get rid of it” because it is used to conflate rejection of religious fanaticism and racism towards Muslim immigrants. Overall, a consensus emerges from these critiques that “Islamophobia” has become a tool to protect Islam from any critique under the guise of racism6

In the last five years, this academic debate has moved from the ivory towers to the political arena, hence turning ideologically nasty. Not only some media but also politicians like Frédérique Vidal, the French Minister of Research and Higher Education, and academics such as Gilles Kepel and and Pierre-André Taguieff have criticized the study of gender, race, and Islam under the argument that anti-racist academics are obstructing academic freedom and freedom of speech. From this perspective, universities are affected by “Islamo-leftism” and “leftist” academics try to silence anyone who criticizes Islam under the guise of protecting French Muslim minorities. Postcolonialism, intersectionality, race and gender studies are particularly targeted. With the exception of Kepel and Taguieff, the majority of the attacks against Islamo-leftism comes from scholars with no expertise in racism or inequalities or even worse, from pundits with no academic credentials. In sum, what started as a legitimate academic debate on the heuristic value of a concept, has become a topic of political contention, now entangled in the ongoing culture war about Islam.

Blindness and Deafness

The pro and contra attacks against Bergeaud-Blackler’s book are an alarming illustration of this new iteration of the culture war. On the pro side, conservative newspapers such as Le Figaro and Le Point, as well as the magazine Marianne, have given the book positive reviews. 800 scholars signed an open letter lending their support to Bergeaud-Blackler in the face of strong criticism from other sections of academia. By contrast, the pro-Islam and anti-Islamophobes have accused her of “demonizing political Islam” and criminalizing French Muslims and scholars who study Islam.

François Burgat, has led the criticisms, largely because Bergeaud-Blackler accuses him specifically of propagating the Muslim brotherhood within French academia. Burgat called the book “scientific racism” and said it operated within “the delusional paradigm of the“great replacement.” Bergeaud-Blackler has been the victim of numerous death threats and has been placed under police protection. This type of personal attacks are of course inacceptable and do not emanate from scholars. The issue is that in the current political climate, any attempt to differentiate between academic critique of the book and ad hominem attacks of the author fall on deaf ears.

The result is a negative impact on academia as a whole, and academic freedom in particular. The Sorbonne had planned to hold a conference on Bergeaud-Blackler’s book in May 2023, but cancelled it for security reasons before rescheduling. The author accused the university of “islamo-gauchism” and complacency towards militant Islam. Such an argument denies the media and political balance of power in favor of the pro-Islamophobic position of the Bergeaud-Blackler camp, which in fact dominates the debate.

Regretfully, such a political polarization is a missed opportunity to discuss the ideologization of academic research. Take for example the following excerpt from the book in question :

The Brotherhood dreams of theocracy: Islam is a culture or a tradition but a system that meets all individual and collective needs... For Muslims to integrate, it is not up to Islam to assimilate itself in Europe, but to Europe to assimilate Islam. He seeks to make the world Sharia compatible, to make sure that the principle of separation of politics and religion will be relativized or abolished (...) Muslims put loyalty to their community above everything else: they justify the jihadist even if they do not support him, they justify anti-Semitism (which is no more than anti-Zionism) even if they are not anti-Semitic, and women justify the veiling of women even if they do not wear the hijab. If reading these lines, your immediate reaction is to look for other comparable examples outside Islam (among Jews, Christians, the Middle Ages or Syria, etc.) to reassure you that these characteristics exist elsewhere and that it is not so serious, you may also share a little of this brotherly mental space..."7

Such broad assertions blur the differences between the Muslim Brotherhood and jihadist ethos. They also carry culturalist, essentialist, and anti-sociological connotations, insofar as even comparative work which is here delegitimized, and even suspicious. In addition, rather than analyzing Islamism and Muslim Brotherhood in situ from accumulated and new field data, the author is studying it through the main prism of out-of-date normative positions that do not reflect the empirical realities of Muslims in Europe. These are important academic “shortcomings” to say the least, that deserve serious discussions.

What the reception of the Bergeaud-Blackler book reveals instead is the grave ontological crisis that affects all sides of the French political and cultural landscape. Islam has become the marker of values and norms that an increasing number of citizens but also academics see as antithetic to the core political and cultural French values of equality and secularism. In some ways, the current standstill echoes the Dreyfuss affair which from 1894 to 1906 divided France into pro-republican, anticlerical Dreyfusards and pro-Army, mostly Catholic “anti-Dreyfusards”. But in this older painful case, the outcome was ultimately the strengthening of the democratic forces in French society. Such a fringe benefit of the ongoing French Kulturkampf is not yet on the horizon.

The Tree is not the Forest

Jocelyne Cesari

In the light of the reactions to my article ‘France, Islamophobia and Culture Wars,’ it appears that some readers took the ‘tree for the forest’.

My goal was not to analyse or take a position on the’ FBB affair.’ It was to write on the French culture war and use her book as an example, because it shows (sadly) too well that this French culture war is centred on Islam.

Culture War and Islamophobia are not the same. For example, there is undoubtedly Islamophobia in the USA, but unlike the French situation, it is distinct from the culture war which across the Atlantic concerns primarily gender, sexuality, and religion as I briefly describe in my article. Culture war is a conflict between groups that see their ideals and beliefs as irreconcilable and fight for the domination of their values over the ones of the ‘other.’ From this perspective, French politics is increasingly defined by positions in favour or against Islam for reasons I address in the article. What is worrisome is the damage done by this culture war on the academic research on Islam.

The political and mediatic reception of FBB’s book is emblematic of the toxic influence of the French culture war on academia for two reasons.

First, FBB takes advantage of her academic status to present her book as an objective study, while a lot of scholars as I mentioned in my article, have criticised its broad assumptions that carry culturalist, essentialist, and anti-sociological connotations. Rather than analysing Islamism and Muslim Brotherhood in situ from accumulated and new field data, the author is studying it through the main prism of out-of-date normative positions that do not reflect the empirical realities of Muslims in Europe.’ In other words, this is ideology masquerading as research because of the authoritative status of the author as researcher. It is therefore worrisome but not surprising that it benefits from the French culture war on Islam and from the overwhelming dynamic of media and politics in favour of Islamophobia.

Second, the book goes beyond the long-standing suspicion toward the MB and enters a new domain: it is a deliberate attempt to undermine academic work on Islam as militant and anti Islamophobia.

To be clear academic work on topics such as Islam cannot stay clear from public debate. But it is one thing to publish research that becomes the object of ideological or militant fight. It is another entirely to write like an ideologue under the cover of scientific credibility.

It is therefore unfortunate that scholars who are critical of the book can be heard (but not really listened to) only when they enter the culture war while any rebuttals based on scientific argument are ignored or discarded. I mentioned the FBB versus FB situation because it is emblematic of this slippery slope. It is about two CNRS scholars clashing in the public space, while usually scholars of Islam like FB oppose Islamophobia from journalists (like Caroline Fourest), or pundits or politicians (like. Eric Zemmour). Because of the culture war on Islam, academic argumentation is replaced by ideological fight. My article was never intended to put the ‘two sides’ on the same footing: because they are obviously not equal either in terms of morality nor visibility or influence. It was to alert on the infringement of the culture war on the academic research on Islam.

Right of reply François Burgat

Like Hollywood productions that sent cowboys and Indians back to back or, more recently, Hamas rockets and Israeli army missiles, her article, which for the most part actually relies on the narrative of only one of the two ‘camps’ of what J. C. has called a ‘dogfight,’ is tainted both by a gross distortion of the reality of the balance of power between the two ‘camps’ and also of the nature of their respective agendas, namely anti-racism and … racism.

The article is in fact based on an analysis of the conflicting forces which affirms that the work of FBB would have triggered ‘a (…) cascade of criticism, insults, censorship and death threats against (its author)’. But this could not be more factually false. On the contrary, the book was praised by 85% of the print and audio-visual media (as well as, again contrary to what FBB wrote, by an overwhelming majority of social network posters) who literally unfolded a red carpet in front of her without the slightest critical distance. The critics – Souhail Chichah then Rafik Chekkat were for a long time the only ones with me – did not find (apart from the happy exception of Orient XXI and the site lundimatin, as courageous as they are marginal) the slightest media space to express disagreement. In that concert of praise, only four titles (Politis, Liberation, then La Croix and Le Monde) have, very belatedly, introduced a critical note. The reading of the affair by J. Césari nevertheless restores, without in the least verifying its veracity, the narrative of a ‘cascade of censorship’ which is in fact only based on the brief, and actually justified, postponement (it was exam season) of a conference at La Sorbonne, which was delivered a mere few weeks later. Not content with inventing a censorship that did not exist, J.C. ignores or dramatically underestimates, on the other hand, the very real, extensive, and durable censorship which has been hermetically imposed on others, myself included, for years already. Her erroneous assessment ignores in particular the total exclusion of all audio-visual media inflicted on the critics of FBB. In a program on France Culture, however, entirely dedicated it was to the ‘debate’ on the case (‘Le grand débat’), the host even specifically asked the participants (from one camp only, of course!) to ‘not mention nouns’. It was simply a question of preventing any possibility for the ‘accused’ to ask for the slightest right of reply! In her months of media presence and scores of appearances, this was the one and only contradictory debate, a brief one of about 30 minutes, FBB participated in.

The Orient XXI article also unilaterally and uncritically reproduces the dominant narrative of the ‘death threats’ allegedly received by FBB. On the other hand, this totally ignores the massive, cynical and systematic instrumentalisation, as unilateral as it has proved to be blinding, of this/these ‘death threat/s’ which caused me to be publicly, explicitly, and repeatedly accused ad nauseam of having – according to the formula used by Patrick Cohen on the high-profile talk show ‘C’est à vous’ on La 5, ‘painted a target on the back of her CNRS colleague’. Namely, I wanted her to get killed! The article also inexplicably evacuates the fact that I am myself the target of far more numerous and terrifying death (and other) threats, in particular that my fate as a ‘collaborator’ will soon be ‘settled.’

The article then endorses, without nuance, the essence of the crudely erroneous presentation of my attitude in this affair. My role and my arguments are thus exclusively reduced to a double ‘violence.’ The first is constituted by the use (in one of the two articles co-authored with Souhail Chichah) of the concept of ‘scientific racism,’ itself widely used in social sciences. The second is the reference made to the theory of the ‘Great Replacement’ of R. Camus to qualify the fact that FBB credits the Muslim Brothers with the desire to establish in Europe nothing less than an Islamic Caliphate. The most virulent supporter of FBB (Erwan Seznec, ex-collaborator of Marianne, now in Le Point) has, for his part, found in my social networks postings no other ‘insult,’ than the fact that I reproached to FBB ‘to knowingly not read the authors she slanders.’

To illustrate the support of Muslims for the law on separatism and therefore the fact that the question divides the French Muslim community, JC only manages to cite Anissa Kheder, who is in the presidential majority and Ghaleb Bencheikh close to Emmanuel Macron: the initiator of the said law and – should we cry or laugh – the minister himself, elevated to the rank of actor on the Muslim scene solely because of the Algerianness of one of his ancestors.

J. C. then examines at length (to criticise it but just as much to support it) the arguments of FBB, but of FBB only. It thus completely evacuates the content of my criticisms, and in particular the evocation – although published in an American website (Jadaliyya) – of the powerful geopolitical coalition and its interest in fuelling European Islamophobia.

Regarding the balance of power in the academic field, the paper reproduces two more serious distortions. First of all, very imprudently without the slightest verification, the thesis of the ‘support (to FBB) of 800 academics’ … of which 600 (Boualem Sansal in the lead) turned out to have no relationship whatsoever with the academic profession and research! It then unforgivably omits to recall the clear position adopted by the CNRS during the false debate initiated by Minister Frédérique Vidale on Islamo-leftism.

1Rachael Bunyan, “Macron Sent Another Chilling Warning from Serving Soldiers on Islamism,” Mail Online, May 10, 2021.

2See Jocelyne Cesari, Why the West Fears Islam (Palgrave, New York, 2014)

3It is important here to draw a difference between hijab and niqab: like France, other European countries have banned the niqab for security reasons, but none has a law equivalent to the 2004 prohibition of religious signs in public schools

4Miloš Mrázek, “The Word ‘Islamophobia’ as a Terminus Technicus of Social Sciences?,” Central European Journal for Contemporary Religion 2017, no. 2 (November 13, 2017): 19–28,

5Gérard Mauger, “Islamophobie,” Savoir/Agir 36, no. 2 (2016): 113.

6Abdellali Hajjat, « Islamophobia and French Academia », Current Sociology 69, no. 5. October 30, 2020.

7Florence Bergeaud-Blackler, Le Frérisme et Ses Réseaux, Odile Jacob, 2023, pp. 336-337.