In No Name in the Street, James Baldwin describes how, not long after he settled in France in 1948, he ‘had watched the police, one sunny afternoon, beat an old, one-armed Arab peanut vendor senseless in the streets, and I had watched the unconcerned faces of the French on the café terraces, and the congested faces of the Arabs.’ With a ‘generous smile’, Baldwin's friends reassured him that he was different from the Arabs: ‘Le noir américain est très évolué, voyons!’ He found the response perplexing, given what he knew of French views about the United States, so he asked a ‘very cunning question’:

If so crude a nation as the United States could produce so gloriously civilised a creature as myself, how was it that the French, armed with centuries of civilised grace, had been unable to civilise the Arab?

The response was breathtakingly simple: ‘The Arabs did not wish to be civilised.’ They, the Arabs, had their own traditions, and ‘the Arab was always hiding something; you couldn’t guess what he was thinking and couldn’t trust what he was saying. And they had a different attitude toward women, they were very brutal with them, in a word they were rapists, and they stole, and they carried knives.’

Aside from ageing veterans of the French-Algerian war, no one in France talks about ‘the Arabs’ any longer. Instead they speak of ‘the Muslims’. But France’s Muslims are the descendants of that Arab peanut vendor – and, all too often, targets of the same racist intolerance. Like the racism Baldwin encountered among his Parisian friends, it often wears an ennobling mask: anti-terrorist, secular, feminist.

Charlie Hebdo’s recent editorial ‘How did we end up here?’ is a case in point. The terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels ‘are merely the visible part of a very large iceberg indeed,’ the cartoonist Laurent Sourisseau (‘Riss’) writes. The less visible parts of the ‘iceberg’ include the Swiss Muslim thinker Tariq Ramadan, who has been accused of speaking a ‘double language’, pretending to be a moderate but secretly lobbying for the imposition of sharia in Europe. To be sure, Riss jokes, he ‘is never going to grab a Kalashnikov with which to shoot journalists at an editorial meeting’, or ‘cook up a bomb to be used in an airport concourse. Others will be doing all that kind of stuff.’ And we shouldn't forget the ‘veiled woman’ on the street, or the local baker who no longer makes sandwiches with ham or bacon. No terrorist attack ‘can really happen without everyone's contribution’. Like the Arab in Baldwin’s time – or the Jew in an earlier era – the Muslim of today is ‘always hiding something’, either a terrorist plot or a plot to Islamicise France, or both. He preys on the bien pensant ‘dread of being treated as an Islamophobe or being called racist’.

The notion that the road to an Islamic France is being paved by tolerance and cultural relativism is an old argument, going back to the early days of Algérie Française. Its most articulate contemporary proponent is the philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, who was recently elected to the Académie française. Anti-racism, Finkielkraut says, is a dangerous ideology that ‘will be to the 21st century what communism was to the 20th’, and the most pernicious form of anti-racism is opposition to Islamophobia. Islam is such a threat to France, Finkielkraut believes, that, along with Nicolas Sarkozy, he added his signature to a petition in a far-right magazine protesting against the conversion of unused churches into mosques: the defence of laïcité now depends on the preservation of churches.

Such views are hardly surprising on the right. But Finkielkraut's claims have also been echoed by a number of prominent figures on the Socialist left, including the prime minister, Manuel Valls, who, in 2013, described Islamophobia as ‘the Trojan Horse of the Salafists’. More recently, the feminist philosopher Elisabeth Badinter, who once compared allowing the hijab in French schools to the Munich Agreement, has called for a boycott of fashion brands that manufacture headscarves and other Islamic clothing, and denounced the ‘Islamo-left’ for its indulgent attitude toward the hijab. The accusation of Islamophobia, Badinter said recently in Le Monde, is a ‘weapon that the Islamo-leftists have offered to extremists’. To attack Islam is not only not racist, on this view: it is a defence of French values, above all laïcité and the protection of women’s rights. It is an expression not of oppression, but of emancipation: the liberation of all French citizens, not least Muslim women who suffer under the tyranny of their fathers, brothers and neighbours in the banlieues.

There is a certain logic to this argument. The term ‘Islamophobia’ is imprecise, and can make it difficult to distinguish between criticisms of the religion – as expressed, for example, by Arab intellectuals including Adonis and Kamel Daoud – and a more general slur against the people who practise it or were born into families of Muslim origin. Defenders of traditionalist Islam have an interest in blurring the distinction. So does Islamic State, which seeks recruits among young European Muslims who feel lost or rejected.

But a robust contribution to this amalgame, or conflation, between Islam and citizens of Muslim faith or origin, is also being made by people who claim to be merely criticising Islam, but go out of their way to insult Muslims. They deploy a tactical ambiguity, not unlike those who deplored the influence of Judaism in French life in the late 19th century, and accused anyone who denounced anti-Semitism of suppressing free speech. (Edouard Drumont's anti-Semitic magazine, founded in 1892, was called La Libre Parole.) Very few of them express old-fashioned ‘biological’ racism; instead, their ‘cultural racism’ portrays Muslims as an irremediable, jihadist fifth column. Their fear of Islam has less to do with the religion than with the people who practise it.

Badinter’s case is more complicated. She couches her positions in the outwardly progressive language of secular feminism. In her classically Jacobin conviction that all citizens are potential French republicans like herself, not natural-born cultural pariahs, she is an anti-racist. Faced with a Muslim woman in a hijab, she does not see a potential soldier in an Islamic invasion. Yet she can’t fathom that a woman might choose to wear the hijab; she can see only a subjugated woman who must be forced to be free, like those ‘nègres’ supporters of American slavery invoked, for similar reasons, by Laurence Rossignol, the French minister for families, children and women’s rights. (Badinter defended Rossignol: ‘The minister chose an unfortunate word … but she was perfectly right at the core.’) The desire to liberate Muslim women fits into a long history of ‘white men saving brown women from brown men’ (as Gayatri Spivak put it): a colonial project that is now being reimagined, in France, as a defence of secular values in the ‘lost territories of the Republic’.

It isn’t clear whether France's values are being upheld or perverted by such a far-reaching defence. As Arun Kapil put it to me, ‘the laïcards are the new fundamentalists.’ The 1905 law on the separation of churches and the state, which established laïcité, was based on the neutrality of the state towards religious institutions; it not only stripped the Catholic Church of its powers, it also freed Jews and Protestants to practise their faith more freely. Today's defenders of laïcité, on both the right and the centre left, have abandoned any pretence of neutrality. It’s no wonder that, for many Muslims in France, including the silent majority who seldom if ever set foot in a mosque – Charlie’s ‘very large iceberg’ – it seems like a code word for keeping them in their place.

Read more in the London Review of Books

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