It’s always the French, isn’t it? Not content with having given the modern world existentialism, structuralism, deconstructionism (with some help from the Belgians) and Marxist psychoanalytic, they have also, it seems, produced something called Islamo-gauchisme — allegedly an unholy alliance between some on the left and Islamists.
And a lot of people are very cross about this. Or rather, cross with President Macron and his ministers for daring to suggest first that Islamo-gauchisme is actually a thing, then that it might represent a threat to the cohesion of the Fifth Republic — indeed the western liberal order as a whole — and that it, therefore, needs to be resisted.
It’s not just French leftists and their intellectual fellow travellers who are up in arms. Lots of right-thinking US, Canadian and British academics are also very indignant. Islamists and their sympathisers think that Macron is trying to weaponise republican laïcité against Muslims. And those self-appointed curators of elite opinion in the Anglosphere, the New York Times and the Washington Post have accused the French President — and at times the French in general — of being racist, Islamophobic and authoritarian.
So what’s going on? Is Macron right that we are witnessing a conspiracy of Islamists and leftists against the liberal order and need to do something about it? Or are his critics right when they say that there is either nothing to see or that, if there were, then it would probably represent an entirely justified response to brutal white supremacism masquerading as repressive liberal tolerance?
As I explore in a new Policy Exchange paper, it is undoubtedly true that Islamists and the western left have made common cause over the last 30 to 40 years. There may well have been an element of calculation at the beginning, with leftists thinking that Islamists could be useful auxiliaries in the revolutionary struggle, to be discarded when the time was ripe. But something seems to have changed at the turn of the millennium, with the emergence of the Stop the War Coalition and other forms of Popular Front cross-mobilisation. This seems to have accelerated an existing trend towards the adoption of a shared cultural and political discourse, encompassing elements drawn widely from critical theory and post-colonial critiques of western modernity.
In this world, Hamas and Hezbollah are not simply to be understood as ‘social movements that are progressive, that are on the left, that are part of the global left’, in the notorious formulation of the American queer theorist, Judith Butler. They are also — in the equally notorious formulation of Jeremy Corbyn — ‘friends’ of progressives everywhere.
Given that Hamas, Hezbollah and most other Islamist movements are constitutively anti-Semitic, misogynist, homophobic, supercessionist, totalitarian, supremacist and generally illiberal, this is an astonishing claim. It is even more astonishing when you consider the different ways in which Islamists and the left understand the world. The latter think absolute truth does not exist: the former think God has given them unique access to it.
The fact that none of this seems to matter is instructive. There is nothing that speaks to the narcissism of the postmodern western left as someone else’s command of their pet theories. And while the left has entirely failed to comprehend Islamism, Islamists have come to comprehend the left very well. This is not simply the result of the tactical alliances of recent years. It can actually be traced back to the way in which critics of the European enlightenment and its alleged deification of instrumental reason — from Fichte and Schlegel to Heidegger, Adorno, Sartre and Fanon — shaped and continues to shape contemporary anti-capitalist, anti-universalist, anti-Eurocentric and anti-liberal theory and discourse in Europe and the Islamic world. There are complex historical reasons for these linkages. But they are clear. They can be traced in the thought of influential 19th century Muslim reformists, the key ideological influencers of the Muslim Brotherhood and other foundational 20th century Islamist movements — like Sayyid Qutb, Abul A’la al Mawdudi, Jalal Al-e-Ahmad and Ali Shariati. And they come together most explosively with the Khomeinist revolution in Iran in 1979, in which the French philosopher and patron saint of critical theory Michel Foucault claimed to detect the emergence of a new form of ‘political spirituality’, destined to restore to a disenchanted world the authenticity western rationalism had destroyed.
This way of thinking about the world has come to dominate the social sciences and increasingly the humanities in the western academy. It contests the moral and political foundations of the contemporary western state and has been adapted by Islamists for their own purposes. This has led to an epistemic alliance against the liberal order. The result is a closing down of debate and resistance to a wide range of principles and government policies — from counter-extremism and policing to education, social deprivation and disadvantage and individual equality before the law. It reflects both the identitarian obsession of Islamists and the left and their essentialist characterisation of the western state as enduringly and purposefully oppressive. This discourse — most notoriously in the form of what has become known as critical race theory — has in the past few years become more widespread in the progressive press, business, the voluntary and cultural sectors, sport and even parts of government. Those who adopt it as protective camouflage will often not fully understand what they are endorsing. There is substantial popular resistance to it.
Even on the left there are some who reject its implications, and not simply because they understand they will be the first targets of an Islamist revolution. It is dangerous — and a constant distraction from more urgent tasks. Because it contains no theory of change, simply a range of essentialist positions, granting different privileges to different groups on the basis of an unexaminable taxonomy of victimhood, it is resistant to practical remedies. And most important of all, it corrodes social cohesion, free communication and mutual trust, the underpinnings of any political community. Any government faced with such a challenge to the fundamental principles of the social and political order it represents would need to make a stand.
This is not a matter of sanctions or legal coercion. People must be free to make claims of the sort described, even if we believe them to be absurd and wrong. But it is equally important that, when they do so, they are required to produce credible evidence which is subject to open debate, rigorous scrutiny and honest challenge. We should ensure — as the government has already undertaken to do — that those who seek to rebut the claims of others are protected from the intimidation, bullying and often career-ending actions that some have already experienced.
And perhaps the British government could do worse than emulate France and commission its own enquiry into the matter. Such an enquiry might be tasked among other things with recommending more robust ways of ensuring a greater range of thought within the country’s institutions; enabling and safeguarding reasonable criticism; and further strengthening the obligations of university and other relevant authorities to protect freedom and — as importantly — diversity of both thought and speech.
It is very much in our collective interest that President Macron succeeds in his attempts to resist this sort of assault on the liberal and secular order in France. The first step is to understand the challenge and confront it with fortitude. This is what the French government is trying to do. We should follow suit.
So perhaps, on this occasion at least, thank God for the French.<//>
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