The Debate About Debating Islam

PARIS – The argument began when the Algerian novelist and journalist Kamel Daoud wrote an article for the Italian newspaper La Repubblica about a spate of sexual assaults in Cologne, Germany, on New Year’s Eve, 2015. The attacks were widely reported to have been carried out by groups of immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East, which Daoud explained by saying that many Muslims from the region suffer from extreme sexual deprivation, which, he wrote, generates an “unhealthy relationship with women, their body, and desire.”

Daoud seems not to have expected the reaction his article received, especially in France, where it was republished by Le Monde. After withering criticism accusing him of Islamophobia, Daoud announced that he would cease his journalistic work and focus on writing novels. But putting Islam off limits to criticism not only deprives a voice to authors like Daoud; it perfunctorily halts a much-needed discussion.

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There can be no doubt that Daoud’s decision to write the article took extraordinary courage. In 2014, shortly after the publication of his first novel, The Meursault Investigation, which retells Albert Camus’ The Stranger from the perspective of the murdered Arab’s brother, a Salafist imam declared a fatwa calling for Daoud’s death for apostasy and heresy. But that didn’t stop him from tackling a controversial subject.

In the Muslim world, Daoud wrote, “Women are negated, rejected, killed, veiled, locked in, or owned,” their bodies denied the right to pleasure. In the preaching of Islamists seeking recruits, he notes, are “descriptions of a paradise more similar to a bordello than the reward for pious individuals, fantasies of virgins for suicide bombers, morality police chasing down women showing too much skin, the puritanism of dictatorship, veils, and burqas.”

In the Islamist view, the liberation of Western women is not an expression of freedom, but a sign of the West’s moral decay. Daoud concludes, “Islam is an outrage against desire. And that desire is bound to explode from time to time in Western territory, where freedom is so naked.”

The response was quick and vicious. On February 12, a “collective” of anthropologists, sociologists, and historians published a virulent attack in Le Monde. Entitled “Kamel Daoud’s Fantasies,” it accused him of “recycling much worn-out Orientalist clichés” and “feeding the Islamophobic fantasies of a growing segment of the European public.”

To be sure, it is understandable that academics might question Daoud’s approach; his argument was based on a strain of “essentialism,” in which individual actions are reduced to cultural and religious forces, with no attention to the social, political, and economic conditions that might be at work. And the critics were right to point out that Daoud omitted mentioning the many acts of violence with no connection to Islam that are carried out against women in Europe, Asia, and North America.

But Daoud’s critics overstepped the boundaries of legitimate discussion of ideas, accusing him of “trivializing” racist criticism and dressing it up in “humanistic thought.” Indeed, they questioned his right to wish for a much-needed change in the way the Muslim world treats women and a reexamination of its sexual taboos. “I still find it quite unethical,” Daoud responded, “that I was pushed into the role of sacrificial lamb to be brought on the altar of local hate, condemned for Islamophobia by today’s Inquisition.”

The episode created such a commotion in France that several authors – as well as many Franco-Algerian bloggers – came to Daoud’s defense, criticizing the attacks against him by Salafists and academics intent on bullying him into silence. Even French Prime Minister Manuel Valls weighed in, saluting Daoud’s “original hard thinking” and denouncing his critics. Referring to France’s national motto, Valls defended “liberty, that is, freedom to write and to think, equality among men and women, and fraternity and secularism, from which is derived our social unity.” As he put it, “Leaving this writer to fend for himself would be like giving up on who we are.”

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Sadly, Daoud’s travails are just one example of legitimate intellectual inquiry degenerating into political bickering over whether it is acceptable to criticize Islam. This has dangerous implications for free thought, as well as for the future of Islam itself.

It is not uncommon today for political analysts to contort their arguments in order to avoid being denounced as Islamophobic. As a result, rather than examining the systemic role that Islam plays in radicalization, for example, they describe radicals as having somehow fallen haphazardly into Islam. For the sake of free thought alone, it is time to stop branding as a bigot anyone who dares discuss the religion critically. Until we do, an honest debate about Islam in Europe will be impossible.