In 1910, a French editor in the colonial ministry, Alain Quellien, published The Muslim Policy in West Africa. This work praised the religion of the Quran as "practical and indulgent," better adapted to indigenous peoples than Christianity, which is "too complicated, too abstract, too austere for the rudimentary and materialist mentality of the Negro." Seeing Islam as a civilizing force that facilitated European penetration, the author called for an end to the "Islamophobia" prevalent among colonial personnel. What is needed, he said, is to tolerate Islam and to treat it impartially.
Quellien was writing as an administrator, concerned with order. Why demonize a religion that keeps peace in the empire, whatever its abuses (which he considered minor) such as slavery and polygamy? Since Islam is the best ally of colonialism, he thought believers must be protected from the nefarious influence of modern ideas; their way of life must be respected.
The term "Islamophobia" probably existed before bureaucrats of the empire used it. Still, this language remained rare until the late 1980s, when the word was transformed, little by little, into a political tool, under pressure from British Muslims reacting to the fatwa that the Ayatollah Khomeini had pronounced against novelist Salman Rushdie following his publication of The Satanic Verses.
With its fluid meaning, the word Islamophobia amalgamates two very different concepts: the persecution of believers, which is a crime; and the critique of religion, which is a right. A newcomer in the semantic field of anti-racism, this term has the ambition of making Islam untouchable by placing it on the same level as anti-Semitism.
Race and Islamophobia
In Istanbul in October 2013, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, financed by dozens of Muslim countries that themselves shamelessly persecute Jews, Christians, Buddhists and Hindus, demanded that Western countries put an end to freedom of expression where Islam was concerned. They charged that the religion had been represented too negatively as a faith that oppresses women and proselytizes aggressively. The signatories' aimed to make criticism of the religion of the Quran an international crime.
This demand had already arisen at the United Nations World Conference Against Racism in Durban as early as 2001 and would be reaffirmed almost every year.
This was a double ultimatum. The first goal was to impose silence on Westerners, who were guilty of colonialism, secularism and seeking equality between men and women. The second, even more important aim was to forge a weapon of enforcement against liberal Muslims, who dared to criticize their faith and call for reform of family laws and for equality between the sexes, for the right to apostatize and to convert, and the right to no longer to believe in God.
Thus, questions about Islam move from the intellectual, individual or theological sphere to the penal, making any objection or reticence about the faith liable to sanction. The concept of Islamophobia masks this move, led by the Salafists, Wahhabis, and Muslim Brotherhood in Europe and North America, to re-Islamize Muslim communities, a prelude, they hope, to Islamizing the entire Western world.
There remains the mystery of the transubstantiation of religion into race. A great universal religion like Islam includes a vast number of peoples and cannot be assimilated to a particular ethnic group. The term "Islamophobia," however, invites confusion between a system of specific beliefs and the faithful who adhere to those beliefs.
To contest a form of obedience, to reject dogmas that one considers absurd or false is the very basis of intellectual life, but belief in the existence of Islamophobia renders such contestation impossible. Should we speak, then, of anticapitalist, antiliberal, or anti-Marxist "racism" or phobia?
Islam benefits from a special protection. At the very time when Christian minorities in Islamic lands are persecuted, the word "Christianophobia," despite U.N. officials proposing it, has not caught on, and it never will. We have difficulty seeing Christianity as anything but a religion of conquest and intolerance, even though today, at least from the Near East to Pakistan, it is a religion of martyrdom.
In France, with its anticlerical tradition, we can make fun of Moses, Jesus and the pope, and picture them in every posture, even the most obscene. But we must never laugh at Islam; if we do, we invite the wrath of the courts.
Why this double standard? The Parisian daily Le Monde notes that the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo had devoted only 4 percent of its covers to representations of the Prophet Mohammed, whereas it has been mocking Jesus, Moses, the Dalai Lama, and the pope for 40 years. But this 4 percent earned it a collective assassination by Islamist killers on January 7, 2015. I found myself dragged before a tribunal and charged with defamation. I won the trial — fortunately, since what I was saying was the simple truth.
And here is where the strangest factor in the whole Islamophobia controversy emerges: the enlistment of a part of the American and European left in the defense of the most radical form of Islam. The left clings to this illusion: Islam, rebaptized as the religion of the poor, becomes the last utopia, replacing those of Communism and decolonization for disenchanted militants. The Muslim takes the place of the proletarian.
This political attitude is manifest in progressives' scrupulous idolatry of Muslim practices and rites, especially the Islamic veil: "modest fashion" is praised to the skies. The irony of this neocolonial solicitude for bearded men and veiled women — and for everything that suggests an oriental bazaar — is that Morocco itself, whose king is the "Commander of the Faithful," recently forbade the wearing, sale and manufacture of the burka. Shall we call the Cherifian monarchy "Islamophobic?"
Islamaphobia and anti-Semitism
In his 1978 book Orientalism, Edward Said observed that, after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, cartoons in the Western press sometimes depicted Arabs with hook noses and standing next to gas pumps — clearly Semites, he observed.
In 1994, in Grenoble, France, young Muslims, marching to protest the government ban of the Islamic headscarf wore armbands with yellow Islamic crescents, an allusion to the yellow star that French Jews were made to wear during the occupation in World War II, with the line: "When will it be our turn?" And when Islamist militants, suspected of sympathy for the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front, were held in barracks in northern France that same year, they displayed a banner: "Concentration Camp."
In Switzerland in 2011, the Islamic Central Council printed yellow stickers that associated Islamophobia with the Holocaust: a yellow star bearing the inscription "Muslim." And the fundamentalist preacher Tarik Ramadan, for a time an adviser to British prime minister Tony Blair, explained that the situation of Muslims in Europe was like that of Jews in the 1930s. The implication is clear: to criticize Islam is to head down a path toward a new Holocaust.
Why this Islamic desire to be considered Jewish? The answer is clear: to achieve pariah status. But the analogy is doubly false. First, anti-Semitism was never about the Jewish religion as such, but rather the existence of Jews as a people. Even an unbelieving Jew was detested by anti-Semites, due to his family name and his group identity. And second, at the end of the 1940s, there were no groups of extremist Jews slitting the throats of priests in churches, as happened at Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray in France in July 2016, the deed of two young jihadists; there were no Jews throwing bombs in train stations, shopping malls, or airports, or driving trucks into crowds.
How should we react to this semantic racket? By affirming that we must not misunderstand our debts. Europe has an obligation where Judaism is concerned, since it has been part of Europe's history from its origins. Islam is part of the contemporary French and European landscape, yes, and thus has the right to our sympathy, to freedom of worship, to police protection, to appropriate places for prayer, and to respect.
But it must in turn respect republican and secular rules, not claim an extraterritorial status with special rights, such as exemption from swimming and gymnastics for girls, prayer places within businesses, separate instruction, and various favors and privileges in hospitals. Believers must be protected, but so must unbelievers, apostates and skeptics. The point is not to make Europe Islamic but to make Islam European, so that it is one religion among others and might, someday, help spread tolerance and a renewal of critical thought to the rest of the umma.
This conception of a secular society that encompasses a large Muslim community — 5 million to 6 million individuals — distinguishes France from the Anglo-Saxon world, which tends to believe that it can protect itself from Islamist terrorist attacks through respect for cultural differences and noninterference in the internal affairs of communities. Yet this principle of noninterference didn't prevent the terror attack in London that killed five in March 2017 or the Manchester massacre of May 2017 that killed 22.
France is attacked not because it oppresses Muslims but because it liberates them from the hold of religion. It offers them a perspective that terrifies the devout, that of spiritual indifference, the right to believe or not, as Jews and Christians are able to do.
The notion of Islamophobia is meant to give the religion of the Prophet a status of exemption denied to other spiritual systems. To regularize the presence of Islam in free societies means giving the faith exactly the same status as other confessions: neither moronic demonizing nor blind idealizing. We must beware when fanaticism borrows the language of human rights and dresses up as a victim in order to impose its grip on power. There is an old saying: the devil also likes to quote scripture.
Walk through the streets of any big European or American city, and you will pass Baptist, Catholic, Lutheran, and evangelical churches, Hindu temples, synagogues, mosques, pagodas, and on and on. This peaceful cohabitation of diverse expressions of the divine is a wonder of the West. The best that we can wish for Islam is not "phobia" or "philia" but a benevolent indifference in a spiritual marketplace, open to all beliefs. But it is precisely this indifference that the fundamentalists want to eradicate. It cannot be the equal of other faiths, since it believes itself superior to them all. This is the core of the problem.
This piece orginally appeared in The Dallas Morning News
Pascal Bruckner is a French writer and philosopher. His article was translated by Alexis Cornel and adapted from City Journal, published by the Manhattan Institute.