Sunday, January 18, 2015

French Prime Minister: 'I Refuse to Use This Term Islamophobia', by Jeffrey Goldberg

Manuel Valls argues that the charge of 'Islamophobia' is often used to silence critics of Islamism.

The prime minister of France, Manuel Valls, has emerged over the past tumultuous week as one of the West’s most vocal foes of Islamism, though he’s actually been talking about the threat it poses for a long while. 

During the course of an interview conducted before the Charlie Hebdo attacks, he told me—he went out of his way to tell me, in fact—that he refuses to use the term 'Islamophobia' to describe the phenomenon of anti-Muslim prejudice, because, he says, the accusation of Islamophobia is often used as a weapon by Islamism's apologists to silence their critics.

Most of my conversation with Valls was focused on the fragile state of French Jewry—here is my post on his comments, which included the now-widely circulated statement that, “if 100,000 Jews leave, France will no longer be France”—and I didn’t realize the importance of his comment about Islamophobia until I re-read the transcript of our interview.

“It is very important to make clear to people that Islam has nothing to do with ISIS,” Valls told me. “There is a prejudice in society about this, but on the other hand, I refuse to use this term 'Islamophobia,' because those who use this word are trying to invalidate any criticism at all of Islamist ideology. The charge of 'Islamophobia' is used to silence people. ”

Valls was not denying the existence of anti-Muslim sentiment, which is strong across much of France. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack, miscreants have shot at Muslim community buildings, and various repulsive threats against individual Muslims have been cataloged. President Francois Hollande, who said Thursday that Muslims are the “first victims of fanaticism, fundamentalism, intolerance,” might be overstating the primacy of anti-Muslim prejudice in the current hierarchy of French bigotries—after all, Hollande just found it necessary to deploy his army to defend Jewish schools from Muslim terrorists, not Muslim schools from Jewish terrorists—but anti-Muslim bigotry is a salient and seemingly permanent feature of life in France. Or to contextualize it differently: Anti-Muslim feeling appears to be more widespread than anti-Jewish feeling across much of France, but anti-Jewish feeling has been expressed recently (and not-so-recently) with far more lethality, and mainly by Muslims.

It appears as if Valls came to his view on the illegitimacy of 'Islamophobia' after being influenced by a number of people, including and especially the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner and the writer (and fatwa target) Salman Rushdie. Rushdie, along with a group of mainly Muslim writers, attacked the use of the term 'Islamophobia' several years ago in an open letter: “We refuse to renounce our critical spirit out of fear of being accused of ‘Islamophobia’, a wretched concept that confuses criticism of Islam as a religion and stigmatization of those who believe in it.”

Bruckner argued that use of the word 'Islamophobia' was designed to deflect attention away from the goals of Islamists: “[I]t denies the reality of an Islamic offensive in Europe all the better to justify it; it attacks secularism by equating it with fundamentalism. Above all, however, it wants to silence all those Muslims who question the Koran, who demand equality of the sexes, who claim the right to renounce religion, and who want to practice their faith freely and without submitting to the dictates of the bearded and doctrinaire.”