By Matthias Retel, ENORB
A term coined by the far right and normalised by the parliamentary left in France
Originating in right-wing circles, it was Pierre-André Taguieff who endorsed the use of the word in his book La Nouvelle Judéophobie (The New Judeophobia). Although not claiming to be far-right himself, the author and political scientist is known for his anti-immigration stance, but also for his rejection of Islamophobia as a concept. In his book, Taguieff uses Islamo-leftism to discuss an alleged alliance between Muslim organisations and figures, and a part of the far left. He describes a rapprochement between the left, third-worldists and ‘Islamism’ on pro-Palestinian causes. The reality is that Taguieff has turned alliances of circumstance into a political concept. While there is some agreement on political objectives shared by some left-wing groups and ‘Muslim figures’, the only so-called ‘alliance’ that has been formed is one of conjecture. Furthermore, the expression ‘Muslim figures’ does not have any meaning. Muslims are present in all sectors of society and do not therefore all have the same ideology. Reducing intellectuals solely to their affiliation with Islam is a problem in itself.
Among the arguments that allegedly support the idea that the left is colluding with a supposed ‘Islamist’ movement in Europe is the European Social Forum in Saint-Denis in 2003. It was attended by several anti-globalisation and communist organisations, as well as religious ones, particularly Muslim ones. The presence of Jewish and Christian organisations obviously did not attract the same attention, as the media spotlight remained well and truly focused on Muslim organisations and on Tariq Ramadan, who attended that day. Another example cited is the work of Chris Harman (The Prophet and the Proletariat), leader of the SWP (Socialist Workers Party, a Trotskyite movement in the UK) who, according to Pascal Bruckner, calls for a coalition between ‘leftists’ and ‘Islamists’. In addition to being taken out of context, it is dishonest to say that Harman is calling for the left to form an alliance with ‘Islamists’. As Corinne Torrekens explains, Harman acknowledges nuance by explaining that Muslim populations in Europe are oppressed and therefore deserve the support of the left. On the other hand, he argues that many Muslim organisations adopt different political positions to his on several matters – positions which the left must continue to be critical about. He adds that the left must remain independent in all circumstances. Once again, equating circumstantial alliances with a common cause is to distort the message. It is worth adding that using Harman’s essay as an example of Islamo-leftism shows both that it does not exist and just how determined its believers are to find proof to back-up their paranoia.
Use of the word has gained ground in France, particularly in 2004 during debates on wearing religious symbols at school, where opponents of the bill who were in favour of more inclusive secularism were already being referred to as Islamo-leftists. However, it was after the November 2015 attacks in France and the state of emergency that followed that the term gained momentum. Islamo-leftism was re-appropriated by some leftists, particularly Manuel Valls, the then Prime Minister and therefore representative of the executive. The term is also used by the Printemps Républicain (Republican Spring), a movement founded in 2016, bringing together a large part of the left and some of the right, whose main aim was to fight against ‘the far right as well as political Islam’. On the one hand, placing the far right and ‘political Islam’ (which lacks a definition) on the same level implies that Islam and consequently Muslims, are, like the far right, a danger to society. On the other hand, using the term ‘Islamo-leftism‘ as part of a movement contributes to the normalisation of the language of the far right and its ideologies. Using Islamo-leftism blurs the ideological boundaries between the far right and other parties, clearly normalising far-right concepts. This normalisation is even more dangerous, as for decades, EU Members have signed up to discriminatory legislative treatment of Muslims (laws governing the wearing of religious symbols, particularly security laws). The fact that this normalisation is exercised via left-wing parties and representatives is even more harmful as it is more effective.
“Not a scientific reality”
This is what the French National Centre for Scientific Research stated in a publication in February 2021, when Frédérique Vidal, France’s Higher Education Minister, called for an investigation into Islamo-leftism in universities. The neologism, is an amalgamation of Islamism and leftism and uses the suffix ‘-ism’ to form coherence around the ambiguity of association of the two terms. It therefore transforms ‘circumstantial alliances into a cohesive whole, a political concept even, by using a suffix used in all European languages: -ism’.
In public debate, Islamo-leftism is yet to be defined, as are ‘Islamism’, ‘political Islam’ and ‘Islamists’. The term is part of editorial lexicon and appears to make sense to all the participants in the discussions and public policies that follow, even though the individuals referred to by the term are rarely invited to give their opinion on the meaning (or lack thereof). It should be noted that the difference between Islam and Islamism is unclear and this equates Islam with Islamism. This amounts to dog whistle politics. Dog whistle politics is expressing a political message using coded language, which appears to mean one thing for the general population, while simultaneously having another, different or more specific meaning for a target sub-group.
The term is now banded around all the time to describe public figures who sometimes disagree with each other and do not know each other, journalists, organisations fighting discrimination, researchers and academics, etc. It is used more and more often by the ruling power in France. The word appears to have a witch-hunting effect.
Today, the phrase is also used to accuse anyone even slightly linked to ‘decolonial’ movements or research on the concept of race, which is relevant to the study of the mechanisms of racism. In their press release in February 2021, CNRS condemned the exploitation of science.
It is precisely because Islamo-leftism is a vague concept that it can target a large part of the political class and the population, first and foremost Muslims. In fact, due to the ambiguity and vague definition of Islamism, the term Islamo-leftism stigmatises Muslims living in Europe, under the pretext of seeking to counter ‘political Islam’, whose secret plan is to ‘overthrow Western values’. It creates a narrative of a malicious minority aiming to put an end to Europe, the ‘great replacement’. The term Islamism therefore acts as tokenism, i.e., Muslim groups are put into political categories; good Muslims and bad Muslims. As a result, Islamo-leftism contributes to stifling legitimate voices within minority groups and spreading the wrong message – that those who defend their fundamental rights are subversive members of these groups.
The accusation of promoting ‘political Islam’ is dangerous because any public stance or visibility, including in the practice and exercise of religious freedoms (wearing symbols, prayers, cultural gatherings, for example) by a Muslim organisation or person is perceived as undermining public order, or even worse, as laying the groundwork for terrorist attacks. Therefore, being visible and demanding equal rights and treatment are also interpreted as an attack on a body of power where the dominated are expected to know their place and remain invisible and submissive. Otherwise, they will be accused of creating a breeding ground for terrorism. The line between legitimate participation in democratic life and colluding in acts of violence has also become more and more blurred. The only way of not being accused is to remain silent.
The term also stigmatises all those who are fighting against Islamophobia, including many organisations facing accusations which are unsubstantiated, but enough to have consequences, as we saw with the dissolution of the Collective Against Islamophobia in France last winter. Islamo-leftism has also resulted in political disqualification by making organisations appear toxic, even dangerous, to society.
Islamo-leftism silences any constructive criticism of state policies and legislative initiatives. It creates a climate of conflict, disqualifying whoever raises their voice in opposition. It also aims to create internal enemies to fight against, who will ultimately be anyone who criticises or opposes. As a result, holding healthy discussions that would benefit society is made impossible by the ruling powers, who refuse to be challenged. It also makes it possible to discredit all political, community and intellectual actors who, on the basis of common values (equal rights, criticism of power, etc.), are subject to illegitimate and baseless accusations of collusion. They are portrayed as enemies to be defeated for the good of the nation and public order.
As Samuel Hayat says in his column in the Novel Obs, “Talking about Islamo-leftism at university allows you to kill three birds with one stone”. Firstly, the term exploits the Islamophobic climate to stir up reluctance, even opposition, to the left and to some strands of social science. Secondly, it provides the right with the tools to attack left-wing movements, accusing them of complacency towards ‘Islamist’ movements (which actually means Islam, as Islamism is yet to be defined). Finally, by the same token, it provides leverage to people against social sciences, arguing that they support Islamism and leftism.
Islamo-leftism also serves as a distraction technique from the real problems facing society. Last February, France’s Higher Education Minister made combating Islamo-leftism in universities her priority, even though the level of uncertainty surrounding students was at its highest last winter due to Covid-19. One in six students stopped studying and youth unemployment rose by 16% in one year.
Finally, this term and ideology will continue to serve as a reference point for extreme right-wing reactionary groups and theories, including Eric Zemmour or even Michel Onfray who use the word as propaganda to fuel social conflict. Using the term contributes towards normalising the ideas of the far right, but also grants them the means with which to pursue their political ambitions.
As with Islamo-leftism, the term ‘Judeo-Bolshevism’ has allowed the far right to link the hatred of an ethnic and/or religious minority, opposition to the left and anti-intellectualism at the beginning of the 20th century. The word Judeo-Bolshevism was coined in Russia by anti-revolutionary Tsarist movements who exploited the prevailing antisemitism of the time to spread anti-communist ideas. It therefore stigmatises Jewish populations who are members of communist parties. The term also means that anti-communism and antisemitism have become interchangeable, meaning antisemitism could become anti-communism and vice-versa. The term spread within Europe in the 1920s-30s to fuel other far-right antisemitic and anti-communist movements, such as Nazism and fascism. Islamo-leftism uses the same strategy to bring together the anti-religious left, individuals fighting against social sciences and the far right.
The far right is once again using the same strategy of attributing all of society’s problems to a religious minority, this time to Muslims, without breaking with antisemitism of course. Ironically, this strategy is also about pitting one religious minority against another. It is important to remember that the real danger remains the far right and their deadly ideologies, as well as the re-appropriation of its ideas and rhetoric in the rest of the political arena. While, contrary to France, French-speaking Belgium has been able to maintain its cordon sanitaire (rule to keep the far right out of Parliament), using their concepts beyond this cordon makes it more acceptable. In the long term, it normalises the actors previously excluded from public debate.
In these times of heated tensions, it is important that concepts such as Islamo-leftism, which influence the media narrative, are scrutinised for what they are; divisive, stigmatising and false.
We recommend the following to media professionals:
- Question language that has never been defined (such as ‘political Islam’, ‘Islamism’, etc.) but also cultural prejudices and over-simplistic narratives emanating from a poor understanding of the situation. These only serve to reinforce stereotypes.
- When reporting, look beyond the sterile and hysterical debates and do not participate in divisive strategies, particularly when it comes to the healthcare, social, economic and climate crises.
- Raise awareness of potential stereotyping (racist or other) and demonstrate that prejudices and misconceptions are not always hidden where we think they are.
- Highlight the dangers that minorities face and give the floor to people and organisations affected by these issues. This would improve the quality of public debate.
Get the Trolls Out! – a project led by Media Diversity Institute – publishes various resources relevant to the campaign to combat diverse forms of hate speech, including antisemitism, Islamophobia, anti-Christian sentiment, and attempts to turn public opinion against migrants and asylum-seekers. For more see this link.
Resources on: Conspiracy Theories
Resources on: Islamophobia
Resources on: Antisemitism
“Islamo-leftism”: An Analysis of the Strawman Rhetoric Feeding France’s Culture Wars by Zorro Mapplestone
Debating Hatred: Islamophobia or Anti-Muslim Hate? by Anmol Irfan
Photo Credits: GERARD BOTTINO / Shutterstock