Huda Mohamed Shareef
‘Islamo-leftism’ is the latest islamophobic accusation to be levelled at French universities by the French Minister for Higher Education, Frédérique Vidal:
“Islamo-leftism is plaguing the entire society. I am going to call for an investigation into all the currents of research on these subjects in the universities, so we can distinguish proper academic research from activism and opinion.”
Despite its recent appearance, it is already poised to become the new slur in France’s mainstream media. Defined as the fusion of the far-left and religious extremism, the common ground and mutual cooperation between leftist scholars and some Muslim activists is increasingly painted in Europe as the new threat amid rising far-right populism.
This article is not an explanation on the relationship between the much-discussed uniqueness of the French republican value of laïcité, and the attacks against Muslims by the French far-right intellectuals and the political class. Doing so would actually entertain the idea that such legislation is necessary in some way to protect France’s national security or values. Instead, this new terminology presents an opportunity for us to explore how language has been, and is still being used, to otherise Muslims in the West and across the world.
The use of deceptive vocabulary can be seen widely in European history. The deliberate and repetitive use of misleading terms have, indeed, yielded fruit in the past, allowing colonialists and American imperialists to control minds in their favour. As early as 1798, upon arriving on Egyptian shores, Napoleon declared that he had come to give people their rights and liberate them, beginning the brutal and barbaric colonisation of Arab-Muslim lands. Fast forward to the 21st century, the rhetoric used in the War on Terror is the most enduring thus far. The all-time favourite liberal jargon, including ‘freedom’ and ‘liberation’, was frequently used prior to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Similarly, despite a lack of consensus on the definition of terrorism, the liberal world almost unequivocally labels aggression by non-state actors as an act of terror, and has legitimised the use of force to attack identified terrorists. It was the use of deceptive vocabulary that aided the liberal statesman in creating favourable public conscience. Terrorism is not simply attributed to any entity that terrorises people; rather, it is illegitimate violence that is conducted by other than the state. Despite the rhetoric, modern history has shown that it is the nation-state that uses unparalleled use of force on its civilians and adversaries.
Fighting ‘Islamist terrorism’ and what France calls ‘Islamist separatism’ is often the argument given for increasingly islamophobic policies. However, when one scrutinises French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent actions — from shutting down Muslim organisations and banning hijab for mothers in schools — it is evident he is not fighting against the ill-defined ‘Islamist separatism’, but against Islam and Muslims themselves. What we are in fact seeing is a last-ditch effort by liberal politicians trying to salvage the crumbling system of liberalism by wrongly accusing Islam of being the cause of their own problems.
From Freedom to Liberal Oppression
The liberal world order established by the West after their brutal colonisation is under threat and in imminent decline. This is unlike the challenges it has faced in past decades, from the Soviet Union, or from anti-colonial and independence movements across the colonised world. Today, not only has the West failed in transposing liberal democracy across the world, but the system is also failing in their own backyards. Liberal apologists speak of the rise of illiberal democracies in Europe, but this is simply liberalism itself being enforced through oppressive means and by politicians across the spectrum.
It is necessary to understand this progression of the liberal project to grasp the circumstances and reasons for the emergence of bogus terms like Islamo-leftism. Since Western Europe’s embrace of liberal nationalism, they have tolerated minorities with the expectation that other religions would follow the same fate as Christianity, and eventually decline in influence of politics and society. Yet, this did not happen and instead, Islam as a religion with its own God-centred political philosophy and system proved it is resilient against any European ideals.
Liberalism was also based on an assumption that human conscience is sufficient to envision an ideal system of life for us. However, this has resulted in a core dilemma: the goal of classical liberalism of a completely liberal society could not be achieved without a state implementing muscular liberalism on society and uprooting our personal beliefs. It is in this context that statesmen have resorted to lies and conspiracies against the minority Muslim community, abetted by prevailing islamophobia, to distract from this contradiction.
Modernity begins, as philosopher John Gray argues, not with the recognition of difference, but with a demand for uniformity. Consequently, modern states are trying to discipline the behaviour of their Muslims citizens. What we see today is liberal states trying to violently contain Islam and homogenize their societies according to liberal values, even if that contradicts those same values. It is a cobweb of confusion: liberal states have become illiberal.
After nearly 75 years, the tolerance Europeans successfully transposed on their society is shattering. Prior to World War II, it was the Jews who were vilified in Europe. The world knows the history of European and Russian Jewry, not to mention Nazi Germany. In order to cover this guilt and shame, they later redefined European civilization as one based on Judeo-Christian values. Ironically, today this is often invoked by French politicians in defending their oppressive policies against Muslims, even as the same intolerant streak rears its head.
Attack on Universities
In order to curtail the questioning of state narratives, politicians in France attack centres of knowledge by falsely accusing them of promoting anti-state propaganda. In the case of universities, this is clearly to control knowledge and independent research. We must remember that this is not the first time universities in Europe in particular were accused of spreading conspiracies against the state. French political scientist Philippe Marlière rightly highlights how in the 1940s, there was a panic over the alleged Judeo-Masonic grip on universities — today, it is Islamo-leftism. This speaks volumes regarding the different faces of European intolerance and a perceived threat from religious minorities.
Modern universities are ultimately a product of the Enlightenment and embody strands of liberalism or its new variants. Educational institutions since the late 19th century have witnessed the secularisation of education and upheld discourses of nation-building on behalf of the state. Today, these very states fear they are losing their grip over an institution set up as part of the liberal nation-building process. Despite claiming to champion free speech (which itself is a farce), today, intellectuals and academicians are accepted in doing free research only if it is aligned with liberal values and thoughts.
States are also attacking academicians and researchers critical of governmental policies towards Muslims and those engaging in anti-colonial research, especially in France and Austria. European statesmen see an institution, which in the past played pivotal role in defending colonialism and racism, as now generating more research on the violent past of these states. The fields of decolonial studies and critical race theory are a threat to the existence of their state structures. They seek to counter such an intellectual awakening emerging beyond the limits of liberalism and clutches of state power. If that was not enough, with liberal ideology facing a dead end, some academicians are widening their research horizons by engaging Islam in their work, directly challenging the Islamophobia of the state and its citizens.
This critique, however, falls flat. The absurdity of Islamo-leftism is that liberalism is still the political ideology of leftists, and many are divided in their stance against Islamophobia. There are left-leaning Islamophobes. In France and Austria, the secular-left, right and centre have all equally argued for aggressive state intervention against Islam’s role in public life — all in the name of defending Enlightenment values. There is, consequently, no real nexus between these two ideologies or their proponents beyond, perhaps, an alliance of convenience.
What this slur hides is that what is considered outside the realm of free speech is truth. Those few scholars who dare speak truth to power and who question the state are considered dangerous, because the knowledge they are uncovering has the potential to challenge the structures that govern the modern world.
Countering Islamophobia with Faith
Islamophobia remains a real threat to Muslims all over the world, and it appears in different terminology in different places. In China, Uighur Muslim genocidal camps are legitimised as ‘re-education centres’ to combat extremism. India weaponises ‘love Jihad’ as an excuse to crackdown on Muslims. Islamo-leftism is nothing but the latest term in a time-tested strategy of using vocabulary to demonise communities. The more such bogus ideas are repeated, the easier it is to defend violence.
Muslims across the world should be vigilant against any false, islamophobic rhetoric and vehemently expose it. We should also internalise the value of a complete system our Creator has revealed in truth. Allah ﷻ says in the Quran:
The word of your lord is perfect in truthfulness and justice.Quran 6:115
These two important virtues are what we lack in dominant systems today, be they political, economic or legal. We should find strength and solace in teachings of the Qur’an, rather than pondering over how to merge Islam with the latest ideological fad. As the Qur’an — and our own experiences — continually teach us, we can hardly find a consistent ally among those on the traditional political spectrum. Even as many proclaimed their support of the Palestinians amid recent bombardment of Gaza, in the same breath many denied the Uighur genocide or the massacres of the Syrian regime. We cannot wait for public validation; instead, we should focus on charting our own path to expose and combat islamophobic rhetoric while holding true to our values.
Huda Mohamed Shareef is a research scholar at the Centre for West Asian Studies Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India. You can follow her on Twitter here.