‘Islamophobia’ - what's behind a word
There is actually nothing either self-evident or specially illuminating in the distinction between what you are and what you choose to be, or in the fact that it would be worse to kill you on one ground rather than on the other. Much to the contrary, the whole theory of human rights rests precisely on the rejection of such a distinction Europe, the previously liberal, open, progressive Europe, the continent that opened its arms to refugees and victims of human rights violations, Europe that prided itself for its humanist credentials, is fast sinking into a most depressing and ever stronger anti-immigrant frenzy. Late November, small, cosy, chocolatey Switzerland once again made headlines by voting yet another discriminatory measure for immigrants: foreigners who have been condemned by a court of law will automatically be expelled from the country after serving their time in jail - a double punishment (imprisonment then expulsion), which flies in the face of all non-discrimination principles as well as common sense. Needless to say, the campaign reeked with overt prejudices and xenophobic statements, because, of course, Swiss citizens can never ever commit a crime, how could you even think that! As is a well-established scientific fact, only foreigners are criminals - wherever you are. Furthermore, as many observers as well as thousands of visitors have noted, anti-immigrant speeches are now commonplace in France, Denmark, Spain, Italy, as well as Germany. In the latest spitting outburst of the nauseating Front National in France, the daughter of the perennial leader, Marine Le Pen, compared last Friday's Muslim street prayers to the Nazi occupation of France during the Second World War - which is insane historically, politically, morally. But it goes to show that incomprehensibly, it has become okay to be racist in Europe.
The new element, however, is not so much the antiimmigrant disease that is catching on like cholera in Haiti; it is in the production of a pseudo-rational legitimising discourse. France, with its long tradition of cigarette-dangling, long-haired, open-shirt, deep-eyed intellectuals, is at the forefront of this movement. A couple of weeks ago, a relatively well-known and famously reactionary intellectual, Pascal Bruckner, published an unsavoury chronicle on 'The invention of Islamophobia'. The column has triggered a wide debate on the internet. Bruckner's article starts out consensually enough: Islam, like any religion, is not above criticism. "Until further notice," he says, "we have the right, in a democratic regime, to find some religions mendacious and retrograde, and not to like them." Indeed we do. Human rights pertain to individuals, not to ideas, and hence we have an absolute right to criticise, dislike, evaluate, judge, mock or publicly condemn any set of ideas or beliefs, including (perhaps above all) religions. Blasphemy as a crime is simply nonsensical. (Incidentally, we did not really need high-brow pedantic Bruckner to tell us, either.)
So far, so good. More troublesome is the next step, where he moves onto the very slippery slope of attempting to demonstrate that Islamophobia does not exist. According to him, it is but the endeavour by Muslim fundamentalists to prevent the rational and critical appraisal of their religion. Let us not dwell on the fact that Bruckner does not once acknowledge the reality of anti-Muslim hostility in Europe - to do so would evidently weaken his stance. More interestingly, philosophically speaking, is the gist of the demonstration, which revolves around the idea that Islamophobia is not akin to racism, and certainly cannot be compared to the anti-Semitism of yore: whereas racism and anti-Semitism attack you for being what you are (black, white, Arab, Jewish), Islamophobia condemns you for what you have freely chosen to be (Muslim). This argument circulates since the legal invention of the crime against humanity in the Statutes of Nuremberg after the Second World War, and the Convention on Genocide adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948, which saw as the essential element of genocide (or of a crime against humanity), the "intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group". This definition is very interesting - but very troubling too. The deliberate decision to eliminate other types of groups, e.g. political or social groups (which means that the massive massacres committed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia are not, technically speaking, genocide) rested on the idea that killing people because of what they are, independently of their own free will, is a worse crime than to kill them for what they have freely chosen to become (as is the case with social or political groups). In other words, it is worse to kill someone because he is black, or Jewish, or Tutsi (as was the case in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide) than to kill a political dissident or a 'bourgeois', say. This raises very challenging questions, actually. First of all, it is noteworthy that 'religious groups' are considered on par with national, ethnic or racial groups - as if religions were as independent of the will as ethnicity or race; this is obviously untenable, since conversions are always possible. Let us also note that 'race', incidentally, is not a scientific term and cannot be defined in any remotely rigorous way, and does not allow any precise delineation of any group.