In the Summer/Fall 2015 issue of Inroads, we introduced three secular Muslim writers from the Maghreb, each of whom had written essays on the danger of Islamism in the wake of the January 2015 assassination of the editorial board of Charlie Hebdo. Among them was the Algerian journalist and novelist Kamel Daoud. I also reviewed Daoud’s prize-winning novel The Meursault Investigation, comparing him to Albert Camus.
Not surprisingly, the wave of refugees entering Europe from Syria and other conflict-torn Islamic countries and the Islamist attack in Paris in November 2015 have prompted intense debate among the French. Far more than in Canada, the question of Islam’s problematic relation to modernity has become a subject of public anxiety. The sexual assaults on women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve prompted Daoud to write a sharply critical essay in Le Monde. While the problem of Islamism is more complex than Daoud’s essay implies, his is an important voice on the major political conflict of our times.
His essay prompted a collective response in Le Monde by 19 academics and journalists. I personally find the response unconvincing in its refusal to acknowledge the ideological threat posed by Salafist currents in Islam. We here publish both in translation.
— John Richards, co-publisher
Cologne, source of many fantasies
by Kamel Daoud
Originally published in French as “Kamel Daoud : « Cologne, lieu de fantasmes »,” Le Monde, January 31, 2016, retrieved here.
What took place in Cologne on New Year’s Eve? Reading eyewitness accounts it is impossible to know exactly, but we can guess what took place in the heads of the aggressors, and we know with more certainty what took place among those in the West who read about the incident: conflicting fantasies. The events correspond to Western stereotypes of the refugee/immigrant as “the other”: as both angelic victim and terrorist.
The events rekindle the fear of ancient barbarian invasions: the immigrants we welcome are barbarians who will attack, harass and rape “our” women. These are ideas of the right and extreme right, fantasies that support arguments against accepting refugees. All refugees are seen as sharing the attitudes of those who harassed women in Cologne, even if we are not sure in individual cases. Are long-settled immigrants guilty of such crimes? Or only recent refugees? Or criminal organizations? Or are the aggressors simply hooligans? The “facts” surrounding Cologne have reactivated the debate among Europeans: should they welcome immigrants or close the borders against the misery of the world?
Relations with women
And angélisme? Yes, it too is an element in Western fantasies. Europeans who welcome those seeking asylum from the Islamic State often suffer from a surfeit of naiveté. They see the refugee’s status, but not his culture. They perceive him as a victim on whom to project their own Western culture, or as someone who prompts their sense of humanitarian obligation or guilt. Europeans see the refugee and forget that he comes from a cultural trap best described in terms of its ideas about God and women.
In the West, a refugee or immigrant will be able to change his physical condition and save his life, but he will not so easily change his culture. We forget this at our peril. His culture is what remains to him in the throes of being uprooted and transplanted. The role of women in Western culture, fundamental to the idea of modernity, will for many years remain incomprehensible for him.
The immigrant or refugee will negotiate the terms of his life in a new country on the basis of his fears, compromise or the will to keep his culture. Changing his culture will proceed very, very slowly. It will take little – an affirmation of group instinct or an emotional rebuff – for his traditional cultural ideas to emerge. The European welcome to Middle Eastern immigrants is naive in being limited to the bureaucratic requirements of settlement.
So, is the refugee a “savage”? No, just different. It is not sufficient to welcome him with the appropriate papers and a place to live. Welcoming requires not only providing him with physical asylum but also convincing him to change his soul. He comes from the vast painful and terrible universe of sexual misery in the Arab Muslim world, the sickness of his relationship with women, the body and desire. Welcoming him does not cure him of that sickness.
Men’s relationship with women is the Gordian knot in the world of Allah. Women are denied, refused, killed, veiled, hidden or possessed. It is a world that implies a denial of the desire to live, to create, to be free. Women are the symbol of what one should not acknowledge. Women are the incarnation of desire and are guilty of a serious crime: life.
This conviction is widely shared, but especially prevalent among Islamists. Islamists do not value life. For them, life is wasting time while waiting for eternity – a temptation, something useless, something that distances man from God and from heaven and from a rendez-vous with eternity. Life is the product of disobedience, and disobedience is the product of a woman.
The Islamist resents women who create life, distance men from paradise with their unhealthy temptations and embody the distance between humanity and God. Since women are givers of life, and life is a waste of time, women cause men to lose their souls. The Islamist is anguished by women, because they remind him of the importance of the body – his body and theirs.
Freedom: The refugee wants it but does not accept its consequences
A woman’s body is in the public cultural domain: it belongs to all, not to the woman herself. Here is my conclusion, written some years ago, about a woman’s role in the Arab world:
To whom does a woman’s body belong? To the nation, her family, her husband, her oldest brother, her neighbourhood, the children of her neighbourhood, her father, the state, the street, her ancestors, her national culture. To everyone except herself. Her body is where she loses her identity … A woman’s body is the burden that she carries on her back. She must define what is legitimate for everyone, except herself. She is responsible for everyone’s honour, except her own. Honour prevents her from being naked because that implies making the other naked by viewing her.
A woman is a woman for everyone, except herself. Her body is an unclaimed object for everyone else to use and for her to endure. She cannot touch it without unveiling herself, or love it except by way of all the others in her world, or share it without parcelling it out among ten thousand laws. When she uncovers it, she exposes the rest of the world and finds herself attacked because it is the world and not her breast that she has bared. She is the prize in a game in which she is not a player; a sacred object, but with no respect for her person; a point of honour, but not hers; an object of desire, but with no desire of her own. A place where everyone comes together, but she is excluded. Life is lived through her, but she is forbidden from having her own life.
The refugee or immigrant wants freedom but does not understand its implications. The West is seen via women’s bodies. Female freedom is perceived through religious categories of licence or “virtue.” A woman’s body is not an indication of freedom, an essential value in the West, but something decadent: it should be constrained by possession, as a crime to be covered up.
Women’s freedom in the West is not seen as a reason for the West’s supremacy but as a whim of its cult of freedom. In Cologne, all Westerners of good faith reacted because the incidents challenged the “essence” of modernity – whereas the aggressors saw only a diversion, a night of excess fuelled by the holiday and perhaps alcohol.
Hence, Cologne is a source of fantasies: fantasies of the extreme right that fears barbarian invaders and fantasies of the aggressors who want women’s bodies naked because they are “public” property that belongs to no one. For those who fear barbarian invasions, identifying and arresting the guilty is less important than advancing the fantasy of conservative clichés. For the aggressors, there is no understanding that asylum means not only acquiring the required papers but also accepting the social contract underlying modernity.
The problem of values
Sex is the greatest cause of misery in the “world of Allah.” It has given birth to a form of porno-Islamism employed by Islamist imams to recruit the “faithful.” The paradise they describe is more a brothel than a reward for the pious. They describe fantasies of virgins for suicide bombers, chasing women in public spaces, puritan dictatorships, veils and burkas.
Islamism is an attack on desire. And the desires of Islamists sometimes explode in the West. In Islamic lands, what counts is the final judgement and life after death. Life as lived is an interlude in which the living person becomes a zombie, or a kamikaze who dreams of merging death with orgasm, or a sexually frustrated coward who goes to Europe to escape the moral constraints of Islam. These men want sex with women but refuse to let their sisters experience love with a man.
To return to the fundamental question: is Cologne a warning that the West should close its doors and close its eyes? It should do neither. To close doors will lead, sooner or later, to a closing of windows – which would be a crime against humanity. But helping refugees implies that those who welcome them work on themselves and on the refugees. Those in the West who close their eyes and ignore this arduous exercise are guilty of angélisme, which in turn can enable future acts of terrorism. Refugees and immigrants cannot be reduced to the delinquents in Cologne, but the events in Cologne pose the problem of Western values, values that must be shared, imposed and defended, and that refugees must understand. After refugees are welcomed, there is a responsibility that needs to be assumed.
Kamel Daoud is recycling the most outdated Orientalist clichés
Originally published in French as “Nuit de Cologne : « Kamel Daoud recycle les clichés orientalistes les plus éculés », Le Monde, February 11, 2016, retrieved from http://www.lemonde.fr/idees/article/2016/02/11/les-fantasmes-de-kamel-daoud_4863096_3232.html#Q6XtvqQH1tH1JxBS.99
While claiming to deconstruct the caricatures promoted by “the right and extreme right,” the author recycles outdated Orientalist clichés: Islam a religion of death as Ernest Renan (1823–1892) insisted, the psychology of Arab mobs as seen by Gustave Le Bon (1841–1931). Far from opening the calm, thoughtful debate that the severity of the situation requires, Daoud, on the pretext of rejecting angélisme, merely feeds the Islamophobic fantasies of a growing number of Europeans.
Daoud’s article relies on three sets of arguments.
First, his text rests on a culturalist approach, which has been subject to numerous critiques by researchers over the last 40 years. It is a dangerous line to pursue. Daoud reduces more than a billion people in a territory extending over several thousand kilometres to a homogeneous entity, defined solely by its religion, “the world of Allah.” All men are supposedly prisoners of God and their behaviour is determined by sexual pathology. The “world of Allah” is a world of pain and frustration.
Obviously marked by his experience during the Algerian civil war (1992–1999), Daoud ignores nuance and accuses all Islamists of being promoters of the logic of death. The mirror image of his vision, in which he ignores sociological reality and creates a nonexistent space out of whole cloth, is the West as as the home of a happy, emancipated modernity. Of course, the multiple forms of inequality and violence against women in Europe and North America are not discussed. His radical essentialism produces a fantastical geography that opposes a world of submission and alienation to a world of liberation and education.
In addition, Daoud offers a diagnosis of the supposed psychological state of the Muslim population. He imputes responsibility for sexual violence to sexual deviants to whom he denies any autonomy, attributing their behaviour entirely to their religion.
Muslims are portrayed as prisoners of Islamist doctrines, reduced to a state of suicidal passivity (as “zombies” and “kamikazes”). According to Daoud, upon arriving in Europe refugees respond to their being uprooted by segregating themselves in cultural ghettos. And inevitably, there arises a “reaffirmation of group instincts” against women, who are simultaneously objects of desire and hatred – especially women who present themselves as liberated.
Daoud’s use of psychology to explain sexual violence is doubly problematic. First, it eliminates consideration of the social, economic and political conditions that predispose people to commit such acts (for example, the housing conditions of refugees or the disproportionate number of immigrants who are young men). Second, his analysis contributes to the image of a flood of potential sexual predators, all suffering from the same psychological ailment. PEGIDA could not hope for a better advocate of its policies.
Is the refugee a savage? asks Daoud. He replies in the negative, but to pose such a question reinforces the idea of an unbridgeable otherness. The potential for savagery is a burden borne by all asylum-seekers, who become associated with an exogenous mass of sexually frustrated living dead. Having allegedly nothing to offer to Western society, in Western perception asylum-seekers lose their individuality – which, in fact, may well be diverse and rich.
Culturally ill-adapted and psychologically deviant, refugees must be reeducated. Not contenting himself with a diagnosis, Daoud proposes a familiar recipe: offer asylum but persuade the immigrant to change his soul. He is proposing an exercise in social engineering, with cultural and psychological dimensions. Western values, starting with respect for women, must be imposed on this collection of mentally ill people.
This project is scandalous, and not only because it invokes the indefensible mission civilisatrice and the superiority of Western values. Over and above this colonial paternalism, the project affirms (against “angélisme that can enable acts of terrorism”) that the deviant culture of Muslims is a danger for Europe. It amounts to a conditional welcome to victims fleeing war and devastation. As such, it is an antihumanist project, no matter what Daoud claims.
What does Daoud represent?
Like other Algerian writers such as Rachid Boudjedra or Boualem Sansal, Daoud engages in public affairs as one of the small number of secular intellectuals of his country. He is in daily combat in Algeria with a religious puritanism that is at times violent. In the European context, however, he embraces an Islamophobia that has assumed majority status.
Going beyond his writing, we are alarmed at the tendency in European society to racialize sexual violence. We are alarmed by the masking of racist writing in humanist clothes that fit poorly. We are alarmed that an admittedly grave random event should serve as the rationale for Daoud’s grim projects. Faced with the potential for violence, we must rely on facts, as Daoud insists. But we must do so without recourse to ancient Islamophobic clichés. In such grave times, this is something we cannot afford.
Noureddine Amara (historian), Joel Beinin (historian), Houda Ben Hamouda (historian), Benoît Challand (sociologist), Jocelyne Dakhlia (historian), Sonia Dayan-Herzbrun (sociologist), Muriam Haleh Davis (historian), Giulia Fabbiano (anthropologist), Darcie Fontaine (historian), David Theo Goldberg (philosopher), Ghassan Hage (anthropologist), Laleh Khalili (anthropologist), Tristan Leperlier (sociologist), Nadia Marzouki (political scientist), Pascal Ménoret (anthropologist), Stéphanie Pouessel (anthropologist), Elizabeth Shakman Hurd (political scientist), Thomas Serres (political scientist), Seif Soudani (journalist).