‘I write in French to tell the French that I am not French,’ the Algerian writer Kateb Yacine once said. ‘The French language was and remains a trophy of war.’ In his novel Meursault, contre-enquête (a retelling of Camus’s L’Etranger), Kamel Daoud, one of Yacine’s most gifted heirs, slyly suggests that the coloniser's tongue is not so much ‘war booty’ as ‘biens vacants’ or ‘vacated property’ – something Algerians are free to inhabit however they wish, much as they did the homes abandoned by the French who fled in 1962.

The game of appropriation, however, goes both ways. To write on a topic as polarising as Islam and sexuality – as Daoud did in two columns earlier this year, one in Le Monde, the other in the New York Times – is to risk, if not invite, a counter-seizure of one's own words. But not even Daoud could have anticipated the scale of the ‘Affaire Daoud’, whose latest participant is Manuel Valls, France's prime minister and one of the most outspoken defenders of the state of emergency imposed after the 13 November attacks in Paris.

On 31 January, Daoud wrote a piece in Le Monde headlined ‘Cologne, the Scene of Fantasies’. The causes of the sexual attacks by a group of Arab men in Cologne on New Year’s Eve had not been established by the German police, but ‘fantasy did not wait for the facts’, and neither did Daoud. In his view, the horrors of Cologne – and of the anti-immigrant backlash it provoked – were the result of a collision of ‘fantasies’. One was the racist fantasy of the anti-Muslim European right, who saw men of Arab origin as barbarian predators, attacking ‘our’ women, and called for an immediate halt to Angela Merkel's policy of welcoming Syrian refugees. But Daoud soon turned his attention to two other ‘fantasies’: the ‘angélisme’ or naive optimism of the left, which, he said, refused to acknowledge the challenges of integrating refugees from the Arab world; and the place of women in the Muslim world:

The woman is denied, refused, killed, veiled, locked down or possessed … She is the incarnation of the necessary desire and is thus guilty of an awful crime: life … The woman's body is the culture's property: it belongs to everyone, not to her … A woman is a woman for everyone, except for herself.

Daoud said that while he supported the integration of Syrian refugees, its success depended on changing ‘souls’. To ‘welcome’ is ‘not to cure’.

Daoud’s column elicited a stern response from a ‘collective’ of 19 academics, most of them affiliated with Western universities. ‘The Fantasies of Kamel Daoud’ was published in Le Monde on 11 February. Daoud, it said, had recycled ‘the most well-worn Orientalist clichés’, thereby lending himself to the ‘Islamophobic fantasies of a growing proportion of the European (and American) public under the comfortable pretext of refusing to engage in a naive optimism.’ As for his argument that European governments would have to change immigrant souls, this was a recipe for ‘colonialist paternalism’.

On 12 February, Daoud published an editorial in the New York Times, headlined ‘The Sexual Misery of the Arab World’. Though he had written it much earlier, the timing made it seem as if Daoud were responding to – even baiting – his accusers. He entered the ring swinging: ‘After Tahrir came Cologne,’ he began, and went on to depict ‘Allah's lands’ as a virtually totalitarian space, where ‘Islamists have a de facto monopoly on talk about the body, sex and love,’ where pre-marital orgasms, pleasure, even love have been made impossible; where sex is taboo yet ‘determines everything that’s unspoken’. After Cologne, he concluded, people in the West are now ‘discovering, with anxiety and fear, that sex in the Muslim world is sick, and that the disease is spreading to their own lands.’

I think that Daoud, who is a friend of mine, was mistaken to link the Cologne attacks to the ‘fantasies’ of a ‘sick’ Muslim world. But I recoiled at the inquisitorial and censorious tone of the letter from the ‘collective’ to Le Monde. I also found it disturbing that Daoud could be dismissed as an ‘intellectual who is part of a secular minority in his country, where he struggles against a sometimes violent puritanism’. Daoud is not a typical secularist; he has read deeply in classical Islam, and is close to Algeria’s minister of religious affairs. What he rejects is the intrusion of Islamist doctrine into politics. A ‘sometimes violent puritanism’ is a mild, if not sanitising description of what Daoud has faced as the target of a radical Islamist cleric, Abdelfattah Hamadache, now on trial for calling for Daoud’s execution on Facebook. And though Daoud is hardly representative of the Algerian ‘masses’, he is no more in a ‘minority’ than the authors of the ‘collective’ are, and indeed much less so: he has a sizeable Algerian (and North African) audience, who delight in his audacity and wit, and even his rhetorical excesses. For them, he’s the classic impulsive rebel – Camus’s ‘homme révolté’ – who dares to say publicly what others will only think.

Rebels, however, are not known for their composure, or for their sense of perspective. Camus, a member of the Communist Party in his youth, became so obsessively and intemperately anti-Communist that he saw a Communist plot everywhere – including the stirrings of Algerian nationalism when the war against French rule broke out in November 1954. Daoud, who joined the Islamist movement as an adolescent only to repudiate it as an adult, sometimes writes as if the sinister hand of Islamism, even the ‘culture’ of Islam, were responsible for all of the sufferings in ‘Allah’s lands’, not to mention Cologne.

The exaggerations in Daoud’s New York Times piece about behaviour in the Arab world were too sweeping, the leaps of judgment too swift. He seemed to be breaking taboos about Muslim ‘sexual misery’ for their own sake, without realising that some of these taboos are clichés in the West, in racist circles where he would not be welcome except as an ‘Arabe de service’. Daoud has always refused to be muzzled by fears of the ways others might use his writings; if racists choose to exploit his criticisms of Islam, he can hardly be blamed for it. It is an admirable stance. But to write in blithe disregard of nuance and complexity – and of the battles waged by the Arab women in whose name he spoke – struck me as irresponsible, and unworthy of him. I wrote to him in the hope that he would climb down from this mountain of hyperbole, and instead explore the ambiguities of sex and power in his fiction. He replied that my letter had confirmed his decision to ‘return to literature’ and ‘leave journalism’.

When our correspondence was published in Le Monde in late February, his announcement that he would be quitting journalism set off an avalanche of polemics in both France and the Maghreb. Most were rallying cries in defence of Daoud; few of them were marked by any sense of measure. One of the most impassioned responses came from the French-Tunisian novelist Fawzia Zouari, who accused a cabal of left-wing Westerners of silencing Daoud with a ‘secular fatwa’. Writing in Libération, Zouari argued that Daoud's French critics were trying to make Muslim critics of Islam ‘hostages of a French context traumatised by fear of being accused of Islamophobia’. This ‘tendency’, she went on, ‘refuses the idea that there might be Arabs who think for themselves, Muslims who contest their own traditions and disobey the instructions of pious thinking’. She reserved special contempt for those, like me, who defended Daoud but regretted his lack of nuance. Daoud, she wrote, belonged to ‘another tradition of Islam, that of rebel poets and thinkers of doubt’ who have always maintained the ‘flame of Muslim civilisation’. ‘Kamel Daouds are born every day on the other side of the Mediterranean, and this is a sign of good health.’

Indeed it is. Daoud is not alone in the Arab-Islamic world. He has given vivid expression to frustrations – political, intellectual and sexual – that are more widely felt than his critics care to recognise. And Zouari’s exasperation with the prim, reproachful rhetoric of the Western left in the face of heterodox thinkers like Daoud is understandable. As Ghassan Salamé, a Lebanese scholar and former diplomat, put it to me:

People like Fawzia and Kamel are speaking above all of other Muslims and they fear that this bien pensant Orientalism might become a support for the status quo at the heart of Muslim societies … You're right to confront the Islamophobia in our societies, but why must you sacrifice the thirst for modernity on the part of Muslims who are increasingly victims of Islamism?

Still, there is something missing from Zouari’s celebration of Daoud and his progeny: namely, an awareness that this conversation about Islam is taking place on both sides of the Mediterranean, with strange and often disconcerting ricochet effects, against the backdrop of the Syrian war and refugee crisis, the spread of jihadism in Europe, and the growing success of far-right parties such as the Front National. To say that someone has the right to criticise Islam is true, but inadequate; the question is not whether but how. I once went to dinner with Daoud in Oran, where our host, a surgeon in his forties, told me he felt betrayed by Europe for ‘encouraging this nonsense about “Je Suis Charlie”’. The attacks were horrendous, he said, but Europeans were pouring oil on the fire, strengthening Islamic radicals and endangering the lives of secular Muslims like him. ‘If you look at that image of the Prophet in Charlie Hebdo, you can see that it’s a penis, with balls. Who ends up paying for this incitement? People like us.’

When a writer of Daoud's stature speaks, he is not merely addressing his fellow Algerians, or Muslims. His most recent columns have attracted some ‘defenders’ who represent the ‘liberal’ face of European reaction. One of them is the neoconservative philosopher Pascal Bruckner. Denouncing the ‘intelligentsia’s fatwa’ in Le Monde, Bruckner argued that the notion of ‘Islamophobia’ is a propaganda arm of the ‘mullahs of Tehran’ and other Islamist radicals, designed to shut down any honest discussion of the Muslim faith: an argument that has won favour among intellectuals who remain studiedly indifferent to, or in denial of, anti-Arab racism in France.

Perhaps the best known sceptic about ‘Islamophobia’ in France is the prime minister, Manuel Valls, who has presided over the rightward shift of the Hollande government since the Charlie Hebdo attacks. On 2 March, under the heading ‘Let Us Support Kamel Daoud’, Valls wrote that the attacks on Daoud should

make us indignant … Daoud shows us the path to follow … a path that France is following, in making it known to all those who have abandoned thought, that a Muslim will never be by essence a terrorist, anymore than a refugee will be by essence a rapist … To abandon this writer to his fate would be to abandon ourselves.

Valls’s defence of Daoud has a noble ring, but his commitment to intellectual freedom is highly selective. In late January, a week before Daoud’s editorial appeared in Le Monde, Valls denounced Jean-Louis Bianco, the president of the Observatoire de la laïcité, for signing a letter calling for French unity against terrorism after the November attacks. Among the other, more than 80 signatories was the Collective Against Islamophobia in France, an anti-racist group Valls accused of having links to the Muslim Brotherhood. ‘One can't sign appeals, including those that condemn terrorism, with organisations that I consider participants in a foul atmosphere,’ Valls said. In January, he declared at a conference organised by the Conseil Representatif des Institutions Juives en France – an umbrella organisation of Jewish groups that has been an unswerving ally of the Israeli government – that he would not permit a group of pro-Palestinian demonstrators to hold a protest in Paris when the Bat Sheva dance company performed at the Paris Opera. French Jewish supporters of Israel encountered no such obstacles when they came out onto the streets in defence of the Gaza war in the summer of 2014. This double standard has done little to improve the dismal state of Muslim-Jewish relations in France.

Valls has also been behind the increasingly punitive security measures in France, such as the extension of the emergency law – he told an interviewer on the BBC that it should remain in effect indefinitely, or until the Islamic State is completely liquidated – and the ‘décheance de la nationalité’, an amendment to the Constitution that would strip binational French citizens implicated in terrorism of their nationality. Not only does the décheance create two categories of citizenship – something not seen in France since Vichy – but it implies that the blame for French jihadism, which is very much homegrown, a product of the banlieues and provincial towns, can be shifted onto countries that France once ruled on the other side of the Mediterranean. Valls, it seems, would like to exonerate France of responsibility for ‘its’ Muslims, while adopting the cause of North African critics of Islamism like Kamel Daoud, as if the Mediterranean separating France and Algeria were ‘like the Seine running through Paris’, in the words of an old colonial slogan.

Valls's embrace is hardly fatal. Daoud is a brave and resilient man who writes for no one but himself. But it is a sobering reminder that language is not simply ‘vacated property’. It is also ‘war booty’, as Yacine wrote, in a borderless clash over words, fantasies and interests – over the meanings of Islam, freedom and security. As Valls sang Daoud’s praises, I thought of the book that Ferhat Abbas, an Algerian nationalist leader, wrote about the betrayal of his country’s revolution: A Confiscated Independence. Once again, Kamel Daoud will have to fight for his.

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