Community Standards

The Right is trying to essentialize Muslims. The Left should not fall into the same trap.

The leaders of several European right-wing parties pose with signs in Antwerp, Belgium. Jorge Dirkx / AFP

Last year, Steven Salaita was fired — or, rather, “de-hired” — from a tenured job he’d been offered at the University of Illinois. Some bloggers and Jewish groups had publicized a series of angry tweets that Salaita, a Palestinian American, had written about Israel and Zionism in a moment of passion over the latest round of violence.

“You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing,” one of them said. “Zionists: transforming ‘anti-Semitism’ from something horrible into something honorable since 1948,” said another. Pro-Israel activists cried anti-Semitism and the board of trustees concluded that Salaita was beyond the pale. After all, Jewish students taking his classes might feel like they were in a “hostile environment.”

When Corey Robin launched a campaign to defend Salaita, I offered to help. To me, it was an obvious case. Those particular tweets seemed distasteful to me — though much less so, it turns out, when placed in context — and I’m generally allergic to intemperate rants. If I’d been Salaita’s department chair, I might have sent him an email urging him to tone it down. But firing him? A professor has the right to say what he wants.

Moreover, having written about Palestine myself for many years, I knew all too well what kinds of scurrilous accusations you’re liable to suffer when you question Zionist orthodoxies. I was skeptical that Salaita was any kind of anti-Semite, and as it turned out he’d frequently gone out of his way to condemn hatred of Jews. Some people will always call you an anti-Semite, no matter what you really say, and the goal is always the same: shutting down debate.

But oh, the tears they will shed. They’ll say you’re stigmatizing all Jews, not simply contesting those who defend the dispossession of Palestinians. The Anti-Defamation League, a group once positioned on the left of the political spectrum, is the champion of this kind of pseudo-tolerant rhetoric. (Its slogan: “Imagine a World Without Hate.”)

The ADL will call a Washington Post cartoon condemning Israel’s slaughter in Gaza “hideously anti-Semitic” and warn of a new and insidious “political anti-Semitism” on the rise in the US. And there is a certain logic to this argument. After all, American Jews overwhelmingly say that caring about Israel is “an important part of being Jewish.” A plurality even believe that God gave Israel to Jewish people. And Jews really are killed or persecuted in certain places in the world. If you say that Israel is stealing Palestinian land, isn’t that a painful denigration of the Jewish “community?” Can such a statement really be condoned?

As a Jewish dissident from Zionism, the fallacy of that logic has always been apparent to me. But since the Charlie Hebdo massacre, it’s become clear that it has also found a home on the Left.

To be fair, a lot of questionable reactions to the shootings in Paris stemmed at first from something entirely different: American ignorance of France and the French language, and therefore a massive degree of confusion about what Charlie Hebdo was and what its cartoons actually meant.

A drawing depicting France’s black justice minister as a monkey, widely condemned online as racist affront, was actually an explicit attack on the Front National — accompanied by an indignant editorial — for having made that comparison.

A cartoon that included a colonial-style caricature of an African “native” — which one left-wing writer thought was some kind of racist attack on a French-Arab politician — was actually part of a joint campaign with SOS Racisme against a proposed anti-immigration law.

The widely circulated image of pregnant Boko Haram “sex slaves” screaming “hands off our welfare!” was actually a satire of the Catholic right’s outcry against a proposed cut to child benefits for high-income families.

Allergic as I am to intemperate rants, I am equally allergic to insult humor, and that is why I don’t particularly enjoy or approve of cartoons of this genre. But many of the first reactions on the US left — seeing Charlie as a kind of French Der Stürmer — were based on a serious misreading of a paper whose now-dead editor was a passionate supporter of the Palestinian cause and a longtime illustrator for the anti-racist group MRAP. (Its slogan: “Everyone is not alike, Everyone is equal.”) A number of people ended up looking very foolish on the internet.

However: there was no mistaking Charlie’s attitude toward religion, and this is where the real issue lies. By now it’s well-known that Charlie was part of a long French satirical tradition of deliberately offensive blasphemy. Christianity and Judaism were venomously skewered in its pages. But Islam was obviously a prime — and in recent years, some might say compulsive — target.

This, I believe, was precisely a function of Charlie’s growing cultural irrelevance. An aging monument to a certain soixante-huitard libertarian left, the paper had been on its last legs, and on the edge of bankruptcy, for some time. In an era when blasphemy and vulgarity rarely shock anymore — cartoons like this one could pass almost without comment — it was only by provoking Islamic fundamentalists, who have no tolerance for blasphemy, that Charlie could maintain its insurgent edge.

That was the reason it focused so ostentatiously on Islam — certainly not, as some Americans seem to think, out of any sneaking agreement with the far right, which loathed the magazine, took it to court on dozens of occasions, and was without a doubt its most consistent target. (“I am not Charlie,” Jean-Marie Le Pen declared the other day. “These were enemies of the FN.”) That may be a puerile and self-serving reason on Charlie’s part, but this was, after all, a paper whose official slogan proudly proclaimed itself a “Journal Irresponable.”

It’s here that we arrive at the nub of the issue, and it’s here that I find myself disheartened by the reasoning of some of my comrades. Whatever one’s view of criticizing religion in general, they say, the case of Islamic religion is fundamentally different in the French context, because it represents a “community,” and one that is under attack. The satirist’s “contempt amuses when directed at the potent and impervious Pope,” Scott Long argued in a thoughtful essay that made the rounds, but “it turns dark and sour when defaming a weak and despised community.”

Muslims in France certainly are under attack, and never more so than at this supremely dangerous moment. The problem with this reasoning lies in the word “community.” Exactly which community do such writers have in mind?

At the time of the original controversy over the Mohammed caricatures in 2006, a French survey asked respondents whether they “understood” the “outrage among some Muslims.” Not even half of French Muslims (48%) said they “completely understood” the outrage. 24% said they “didn’t understand at all” — not that much different from French Catholics (35%). (By a lopsided margin, the French said they disapproved of mocking religion, and called the cartoons “useless provocation” rather than a blow for “free speech.”)

When the so-called “headscarf law” was proposed in 2004 (in reality, it prohibits all conspicuous religious symbols in public schools, including yarmulkes and large crosses), 20% of French Muslims were “completely in favor” — again, not all that different from the French as a whole (32%). Only 31% of Muslims were completely opposed.

When demonstrations against the law were organized — notably, by activists who later formed the Parti des Indigènes de la République — French Muslims’ views on the protests were all over the map: 23% said they opposed them; 28% said they were “indifferent”; 23% said they were “sympathetic”; and only 22% said they “support[ed]” them.

This should not be surprising, because most French of Muslim background are not all that religious. 75% generally do not go to mosque on Friday and 84% of Muslim women never wear a headscarf. Only 41% call themselves practicing Muslims, and 26% decline to call themselves believers at all — once again, about the same as for French Catholics.

That does not mean French Muslims are indistinguishable from the general population; two-thirds abstain from alcohol and non-halal food, for example. But it does mean that being “Muslim” in France does not automatically mean one agrees with the strident fundamentalists who tearfully insist that a bunch of obnoxious cartoons in an anti-religious magazine are an unbearable insult to every Muslim. Just as not all Jews accept Abe Foxman’s right to determine what is and is not permissible, not all French Muslims line up behind their self-appointed spokespeople.

The greatest danger now — as the alarming spate of violent anti-Muslim attacks shows —  is that French Muslims will be further essentialized by their enemies on the Right, who would like nothing more than to equate Arab with Muslim, Muslim with fundamentalist, and fundamentalist with terrorist.

But it is equally important that Muslims not be essentialized by their friends either. As Olivier Roy, perhaps the leading sociologist of French Islam, wrote in the wake of the attacks:

We talk continually about this famous Muslim community, on both the right and the left, either to denounce its refusal to truly integrate or to make it into a victim of Islamophobia. Both rhetorics are in fact based on the same fantasy of an imaginary Muslim community. There is no Muslim community, but rather a Muslim population. Accepting this simple observation would already be a good antidote to the hysteria of today, and that to come.

If you doubt that is the case, I would urge you to read a provocative essay by one member of the “French Muslim community” in particular: the religion editor of Charlie Hebdo. In this 2013 response to a widely circulated critique of Charlie by a former editor who had accused the paper of Islamophobia, Zineb el-Rhazoui takes aim at what she calls “the most sophisticated variety of racism that exists in France.”