France will head to the polls at the end of April to elect a new president. With the country still shaken by recent terrorist attacks, and the rise of a far-right candidate who has campaigned on fear of Muslims and immigrants, public discourse has been dominated by a concern with Islam and radicalization.
The often acrimonious discussion has widened a rift among many public intellectuals and scholars, including those you might expect to be allies. The argument: whether the more serious threat to liberal values in France is the alleged Islamization of the country or the discrimination that many Muslims there face.
Georges Bensoussan, a historian and chief editor of the Shoah History Review, is a divisive figure in the debate. In October 2015, Bensoussan said during a radio show that "today we are in the presence of another people within the French nation, who are making a certain number of our democratic values regress. … There will be no integration until we rid ourselves of this atavistic anti-Semitism that is kept quiet as a secret. A courageous Algerian sociologist, Smaïn Laacher has said … that it’s shameful to maintain this taboo, which is that in Arab families in France, one suckles anti-Semitism like mother’s milk."
Laacher, who is French of Algerian origin, teaches at the University of Strasbourg. He has said he was misquoted. Bensoussan’s remarks triggered a lawsuit by the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) and other human-rights associations for "incitement to racism." He was acquitted in March, but the plaintiffs have filed an appeal.
France has some of the strongest laws in the European Union against defamation and hate speech — making it a crime to incite racism and discrimination or to deny crimes against humanity. Artists, celebrities, and politicians across the political spectrum are sued quite frequently on those grounds. The penalty in such cases is usually a monetary fine.
"There is no such thing as Muslim, black, Arab anti-Semitism, just as there is not Jewish Islamophobia," says Marwan Muhammad, executive director of the CCIF. It is racist to label "a group of people for being anti-Semitic on the basis of their ethnicity and religion."
Bensoussan has defended himself vigorously. In an email, he described the case against him as part of "a climate of intellectual terrorism," saying he is being attacked for breaking "a major taboo for the media and cultural establishment: Arab anti-Semitism." France is "a country where intellectuals who do not conform to popular opinion are kept on the margins and reduced to silence," he said.
That is one of the arguments of a book published this year for which Bensoussan was the lead editor: Une France Soumise, Les Voix du Refus (A Vanquished France, the Voices of Refusal). A collection of essays and interviews with public employees and officials, the book paints a dire picture of France turning into "a foreign land," its culture, identity, and rule of law threatened by the advance of Islamism. France faces a choice, a passage in the books warns, between civil war or "Houellebecquian" submission to Islam (a reference to the best-selling 2015 satire by Michel Houellebecq, Submission, in which the country elects a Muslim president and adopts Shariah law).
As evidence of creeping Islamization, the book cites demands for prayer rooms and halal meals; husbands who will not allow their wives to receive medical care from male doctors; reports of Muslim high-school students’ refusing to observe the moment of silence after terrorist attacks or expounding conspiracy theories. Many of the interviews are anonymous or do not specify when and where particular incidents took place. Bensoussan admits that it "is not an exhaustive investigation and does not have scientific pretensions." Yet he insists that it exposes a reality that France’s elites refuse to acknowledge.
It is illegal in France to collect ethnic or religious information, but the country’s Muslim population is estimated at around 8 percent. It is widely acknowledged, including by Bensoussan, that French citizens of immigrant origins face discrimination in housing, employment, and in the frequency with which they are stopped and questioned by police.
In recent years a number of French youth — the children of North African immigrants, or converts to Islam — have become radicalized online, in prison, or by traveling to the Middle East. Such homegrown terrorists were responsible for the coordinated November 2015 attacks in Paris that killed 130 people, as well as for the shootings at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket.
Many scholars have focused as much on the social, political, and economic context of extremism as on its religious basis. In his 2016 book, Terror in France: The Rise of Jihad in the West (out in English next month from Princeton University Press), the political scientist and Arab-world specialist Gilles Kepel, of Sciences Po, traces the emergence of a "third generation" of jihadism in France and argues that the French political system and security apparatus have largely failed to respond to the marginalization of immigrant communities and to new modes of radicalization.
"It’s obvious there is discrimination [against Muslims in France], and those who engage in it should be pursued by the law," says Kepel. Nevertheless, he rejects the term "Islamophobia," which he says is used not just to condemn discrimination against individual Muslims but also to forbid critical reflection on Islam. "It is a weapon with which Islamists take Muslims hostage, control them, and turn them into a community of victims," he says.
Kepel — who was placed under the protection of French security forces last year after being included on a jihadi kill list — says he is himself being sued for libel by two scholars, Marwan Mohammed (no relation to the director of the CCIF) and Abdellali Hajjat, whose book Islamophobie: Comment les élites françaises fabriquent le "problème musulman" (Islamophobia: How the French Elites Invent the "Muslim Problem") led Kepel to call them "pseudosociologists."
Despite the flurry of litigation, the idea that French intellectuals are being intimidated into not criticizing Islam is "a joke," says Thierry Fabre, a political scientist at the University of Aix-Marseilles.
"These are people who sell millions of book copies, who are on TV platforms every night, on the front page of newspapers," says Fabre. "It’s an imaginary censorship."
The true censorship is of Muslim views, says Muhammad of the CCIF. Muslims are still most often "talked about in the third person," he says. "There is a constant discussion of Islam and Islamophobia, but with no Muslim men or women around the table."
Meanwhile, prominent intellectuals and scholars are accused of being either laïcards — of turning France’s principle of a secular state (laïcité) into an intolerance of all religious expression — or Islamo-gauchistes, lefties who are soft on Islam. Each side blames the other for empowering the far right, either with willful blindness (Bensoussan’s argument) or by giving intellectual cover to bigotry (his opponents’).
Marine Le Pen, head of the far-right party Front Nationale, has said that she is in favor of banning women from wearing the Muslim headscarf in public (it is currently banned in public schools), and has compared Muslims praying in the street outside of a mosque to the Nazi occupation.
She is not the only one to invoke the Second World War. According to Fabre, France is witnessing "an obsession with identity that is focused on Islam, just as in the 1930s it was on Jews." Bensoussan’s book at several points compares France’s inability to face an Islamist threat to its inability to stand up to Nazi Germany. Each historical epoch is distinct, Bensoussan says, but what the 1930s and today have in common is "the refusal to see, this mixture of cowardice, spirit of collaboration, and sometimes simple stupidity."
Olivier Roy, a prominent sociologist at the European University Institute who writes on Islam and radicalization, dismisses works such as Une France Soumise as part of "a paranoid delirium."
"I’m not saying there’s nothing true in it," says Roy. "But it’s impossible to verify. There are no facts."
In the epilogue of their book, Bensoussan and his co-editors blame the French "media/university establishment" for collaborating in the country’s undoing. "These intellectuals will persist in lending a helping hand to those who support an anti-democratic, religious, totalitarian project," they write.
Scholars like Roy are presumably the kind of figure they have in mind. In his most recent book, Le djihad et la mort (Jihad and Death), a rumination on the narcissistic and nihilistic tendencies of today’s terrorists, Roy argues that France’s obsession with Islamic radicalism has blinded it to the "the mass of integrated, upwardly mobile Muslims."
"Never has cultural essentialism been applied to this degree to Islam," he writes. "Everything negative (from sexual harassment to murderous folly) that a nominal Muslim does is attributed to Islam, whereas the behavior of non-Muslims is carefully individualized."
The strength of ISIS "is to play on our fears," Roy says. "And our fear is the fear of Islam."
Ursula Lindsey is a writer based in Rabat, Morocco.