The Guardian • Issue #1957

“Islamo-Leftism” From conspiracy to policy

“Islamo-Leftism,” or Islamo-Gauchisme (in French), is the latest term in French political discourse to demonise the Islamic community and French universities. What otherwise would have remained an obscure academic term has now risen to the highest levels of the French government and contributed to the ideological landscape that allowed the French Senate to add and pass two amendments to President Emmanuel Macron’s “anti-separatism” law.

A brief explanation of the Senate’s recently passed law is warranted before examining the concept of “Islamo-Leftism” and its emergence. The proposed amendments to the bill that were passed are for the “prohibition in the public space of any conspicuous religious sign by minors and of any dress or clothing which would signify inferiority of women over men.” This baffling justification only lends itself to further questions because of its deliberately obscure language: would wearing a cross in public be banned? Which articles of clothing actually do “signify inferiority of women over men” and who gets to decide that? The police? The reality is that it’s just another dog whistle to target the Muslim population.

These amendments aim to ban the hijab, a headscarf worn by many Muslim women as sign of their faith, for women under the age of 18 as well as banning parents from wearing one to accompany their children on school trips. This move is part of France’s push for a so-called “anti-separatism” bill supposedly designed to bolster the country’s commitment to secularisation. However, once again, these amendments are definitively and divisively targeted at France’s minority Muslim population.

At time of writing, the ban is not yet law, the National Assembly (France’s Lower House) must sign off on the change before it can take effect. However, it is extremely unlikely the ban will make it past the National assembly, which has already expressed its opposition to it. The amendments barely made it through the Senate, with a margin of 177 to 141. Senators from both the Socialist Party and Communist party alongside a majority of Macron’s own Republic On the Move party voted against it.

Despite how unlikely it will be that these amendments will be turned into law, this is another instance of France’s long history of targeting Muslim communities, and particularly women, in the name of secularisation. From being the first European country to impose a ban on full-face veils in public areas in 2011 to attempting to ban Burkinis from beaches, France has consistently acted to disenfranchise its Muslim population.

So how does “Islamo-Leftism” fit in with this story? The basic idea behind “Islamo-Leftism,” in its current and popular form, is that because universities are teaching students about “critical theory,” “decolonialisation theory,” etc., students, and society more generally, are becoming too accepting and tolerant of minorities, particularly Muslim communities. Because these theories are generally associated with left-wing politics and activism, proponents of this conspiracy have tacked Leftism onto the end to glue some faux-fur onto this paper tiger.

This term is reminiscent of the “Cultural Marxism” conspiracy theory, originally coined by the Nazi party as Cultural-Bolshevism, which sought to discredit Jewish academics and Communist theorists/activists. Cultural Marxism is still being peddled by right-wing “thinkers” obsessed with the idea that universities are indoctrinating students by turning them into Marxist activists. If only that were the case!

The origins of the term and how it has been disseminated is a bit unclear. Interestingly, the earliest use of the term came out of England with Chris Harman from the self-proclaimed Trotskyite organisation, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). His theory was that political Islam could have progressive objectives that would line up with the SWP. In France, the philosopher and sociologist Pierre-André Taguieff from the French National Centre for Scientific Research (FNCSR) uses the term in his 2002 book New Judeophobia. He uses it to describe what he sees as an “Islamo-fascism,” which he holds is popular among “the new third-worldist, neo-communist and neo-leftist configuration, better known as the ‘anti-globalisation movement.’ ” As we can see from this jumble of words, Taguieff doesn’t seem to have a particularly firm grasp on the concepts he’s referring to. The linguistically vague nature of the term means it can be employed in whatever way the user sees fit.

However, rather than remaining an obscure, jargonistic academic term, it has recently entered into mainstream political discourse, not only amongst the French right-wing but also within the centrist government. Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front party, uses it “to describe what she considers an unhealthy alliance between ‘Islamist fanatics’ and the ‘French Left.’ ” The Minister for National Education Jean-Michel Blanquer used the term in a radio interview on Europe 1. He said:

“What is called Islamo-Leftism wreaks havoc in the university, it wreaks havoc when the UNEF [the National Union of Students of France] gives in to this type of thing, it wreaks havoc when in the ranks of La France Insoumise [the Democratic Socialist party of France] […] I will be very firm in the face of all those who, today, believing themselves to be progressives, are in reality enabling a form of tolerance to radicalism”

In June 2020, President Emmanuel Macron repeated a similar sentiment to journalists:

“The academic world has its share of blame. It has encouraged the ethnicisation of the social question […] But the result can only be secessionism. This means splitting the Republic in two.”

Strange words from a President trying to introduce a clearly sectarian law. “Islamo-Leftism” has also been used by Gérald Darmanin, the Minister of the Interior, who is in charge of the country’s national security.

Frédérique Vidal, the Minister for Higher Education, has come out most forcefully on the subject, stating that “Islamo-Leftism is the gangrenous blight of society and the university.” When asked about this statement during a television interview on CNews by host Jean-Pierre Elkabbach, Vidal doubled down and explained that “Islamo-leftism is in fact infecting the whole society.” A particularly bizarre moment of the interview occurred when Elkabbach claimed there was “an alliance between Mao Zedong and Ayatollah Khomeini [the former Supreme Leader of Iran]”, which Vidal wholeheartedly agreed with, enthusiastically exclaiming “You’re right!”

These two figures (Mao Zedong and Ayatollah Khomeini) have absolutely nothing to do with one another outside of the bourgeois charge of building a “cult of personality” around themselves. One shudders to think that a person with this degree of historical illiteracy is the Minister for Higher Education. On the 16th of February, before the National Assembly, Vidal asked that the FNCSR, the very institution that inaugurated this conspiracy in France, launch a probe into the prevalence of Islamo-Leftism in French universities. Her stated intent was to identify “what falls under academic research and what falls under activism and opinion.”

Universities, student unions, and Muslim communities across the country have responded fiercely. Perhaps most ironic of all was the FNSCR’s media release which explained how the term “Islamo-leftism” has “no scientific basis whatsoever.” It seems like the rest of the FNCSR doesn’t agree with their colleague Taguieff. Jean Chambaz, the head of Sorbonne University, also responded saying that “it is easy to blame an undefined ideological movement for social issues in the country,” further adding that the government was “trying to appeal to quite nauseating segments of public opinion.” The catchcry amongst the Muslim community has been “Hands off my hijab.” Najwa Zebian, a Lebanese-Canadian activist, in a show of international solidarity perhaps best expressed the general sentiment in France and internationally, tweeting that, “Forcing a woman to wear a hijab is wrong. Just like forcing her to take it off is wrong.”

While the proposed ban is unlikely to become a law, taken in conjunction with Macron’s ministers openly repeating the conspiracy of “Islamo-Leftism,” it shifts the political discourse to allow Macron’s centrist government to pander to the conservative and xenophobic elements of France in light of the upcoming 2022 election in hopes of picking up right-wing voters.

It is a fruitful exercise to stay abreast not only of the intellectual tendencies within universities, but also of charges laid against them. Intellectual trends and conspiracies from abroad tend to make their way to Australia in some form or another. In Australia, we arguably already have our own version of “Islamo-Leftism” that one could tentatively name “Sino-Leftism.” Australian universities frequently come under fire for having Chinese government funded institutions on campus such as the Confucius Institute. For a more detailed account of how anti-minority attitudes can lead to violence see Guardian “Anti-Asian massacre linked to anti-China hysteria” #1955.

Universities, as a bourgeois institution, ultimately only serve to produce and reproduce the next generation of the ruling class, whether they be politicians, lawyers, policy advisors, businesspeople, etc. Even the seemingly innocuous and apolitical STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) contribute to the contracts universities have with the Australian military. Universities often preach, for better or worse, their right to academic freedom, so it becomes imperative for the ruling class to ensure the university continues to function in their interests, to shut down the few intellectual trends allowed on campus that even question the foundations of the existing social and economic order. Terms such as “Islamo-Leftism” serve a dual function: not only does it attack trends in leftist thought and activism but also, more concretely, it serves as an arm to vilify Muslim communities.

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