An Imaginary Racism: Islamophobia and Guilt—A Review

An Imaginary Racism: Islamophobia and Guilt—A Review

Nick Cohen
Nick Cohen
9 min read

A review of An Imaginary Racism: Islamophobia and Guilt by Pascal Bruckner. Polity (November 2018), 204 pages.

It is embarrassingly easy to write about the collapse of the Left in the twenty-first century. The explosion in identity politics that has led to the automatic use of “white” as an ethnic insult in condemnations such as “white privilege” and “white, straight men” has made race as defining a factor in left-wing politics as it is in extreme right-wing politics. Meanwhile, the willingness to excuse antisemitsm, misogyny, tyranny, and obscurantism, as long as the antisemitic, misogynistic, tyrannical obscurantists are anti-Western, has called into question whether leftists—or at least the noisiest voices on the Left—have lost all connection to their better values.

I have said as much many times, and in his new book the French political theorist Pascal Bruckner says it again. Bruckner once struck me as the best the French intelligentsia had to offer. In 2007, he provoked an intellectual scandal with the “Racism of the Anti-Racists”, an essay for Sign and Sight, in which he excoriated liberals who denied Ayaan Hirsi Ali and other Muslim dissidents the rights they took for granted. Meanwhile, I admired his Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism enough to call it “a brilliant defence of liberalism and a deservedly contemptuous assault on all those intellectuals who have betrayed its best values.”

The title of Bruckner’s new polemic ought to have warned me that betrayal is not an exclusively left-wing vice. Far from being a principled defence of liberal and secular values, An Imaginary Racism: Islamophobia and Guilt is an unconscious illustration of how easily those who profess to hold enlightened ideals can slip into the ethnic favouritism and intellectual double-standards of the counter-Enlightenment.

Most liberal Muslims and ex-Muslims recoil from the word “Islamophobia.” TellMama, the main monitoring centre for violence and abuse against British Muslims, fought a doomed campaign to enshrine the use of “anti-Muslim hatred” instead. Hard won experience had taught its activists that “Islamophobia” was a weapon in the arsenal of the Islamist Right. Opposing bigotry with the language of bigots, who sought to re-define criticism of religion as racism, struck them as self-defeating to put it mildly.

TellMama keeps its office address secret. Its workers receive threats, not only from white racists, but also from Islamists. (They have taken advice from Jews who monitor antisemitic violence in Britain, and gay rights campaigners who monitor homophobia, and are thus damned in the eyes of the fanatical.) If all Bruckner wanted to do was to criticise the use of the term “Islamophobia” to incite violence against freethinkers and feminists who challenge clerical power, he would be performing a useful service—albeit one that has been performed many times before. But his book is representative of our debased times because it’s far from clear that Bruckner can extend his opposition to Islamism to cover the purveyors of anti-Muslim bigotry.

To be sure, he says that to insult a veiled woman in the street or to set fire to a mosque is to “spit in the face of the [French] Republic.” But it is hard to shake the suspicion that these noble words are little more than back covering. Once they are out of the way, Bruckner can move on to his main purpose, which is to describe Islam as a civilisational threat to the West and European Muslims as a potential fifth column. The veil, the burqa, and the burkini are not just symbols of a patriarchal culture against which liberals should argue, but crimes that threaten the existence of the state itself. They are “tools for taking control of the public space, they are tracts calling for sedition.” Foreigners controlling the parks and boulevards of Paris like troops from an occupying power? Clothes turning into acts of sedition? This is the language of demagogues and civil war, not of a writer willing to accept the duty of building alliances with likeminded Muslims in the essential struggle against religious reaction.

Casual readers may wonder whether he believes such solidarity is even possible. Bruckner asks, “Is the difference between Islam and Islamism real?”  The simple answer is “Of course it is.” Muslims are not a monolithic bloc but hundreds of millions of extraordinarily diverse and divided people. Islamism is a minority political project to impose a theocratic state, whose supporters persecute and murder Muslims and non-Muslims alike. But Bruckner cannot say anything so straightforward. He “would like to believe,” those who say you should not conflate terrorists with ordinary believers, he tells us with the air of a sly sales rep. But, “if by some misfortune sectarian Islam were to become majority Islam, the distinction would be difficult to maintain.” The reader may be left to assume that Muslims already in the West therefore merit suspicion, for who knows when, “by some misfortune,” they might turn into Islamists? We must certainly not let the fear of an “imaginary racism” weaken our defences.

This work is as fantastical as it is dark. Bruckner imagines Europe, the US, and Russia establishing a cordon sanitaire around Muslim-majority countries. Only, Putin has announced himself as Europe’s enemy, as even French intellectuals must have noticed, and no such alliance is possible. An iron curtain around Iran would imprison liberals who urgently need our help as they seek sanctuary from the Khomeinist regime. As for the violence against Muslims in the West that TellMama and so many others report, he advises that “practising blind vengeance, making gratuitous insults and organising pogroms plays into our enemies hands.” It is as if opposition to sectarian hatred were a tactic not a principle.

Pascal Bruckner

I could go on. But what Bruckner does not say is of the most interest, for his is a silence shared by so many who think of themselves as contrarians fighting a hegemonic PC culture. At no point would the uninformed reader guess that Law and Justice controls Poland, Fidesz controls Hungary, the Northern League is in power in Italy, and Donald Trump is president of the United States. Meanwhile, if Bruckner shows his concern about Marine le Pen making it to the final round of the French presidential election I must have missed the reference. A book about Islamophobia might have been the place to reflect on the fact that le Pen and those like her use anti-Muslim bigotry as a way of mobilizing the identity politics of the Right. Fear of a foreign menace is a cover for epic corruption, in the case of the Hungarian elite, and attacks on freedom of the press and the independence of the judiciary in the cases of Poland as well as Hungary. Trump has, at the very least, hinted that he would be happy to use it to undermine America’s liberal freedoms if he thought he could get away with it.

The connection between the exploitation of prejudice and the corruption of politics by autocratic movements is in front of our eyes. “Soldier-aged men” are arriving in Europe, said Viktor Orban recently, at the invitation of pro-migration forces who purposefully did not defend the continent’s borders. They are “slowly but surely pushing European native residents into a minority.” The soldiers are Muslim refugees. The pro-migration forces are symbolised for Orban, Putin, Trump, and the increasingly violent American far-Right, by George Soros—a Jew they credit with a familiarly satanic desire to destroy the white Christian world with migrants and poison the old Europe’s morality with liberal notions of human rights.

You do not have to be much of a political theorist to want to take a hard look at how illiberalism advances with the help of anti-Muslim and antisemitic prejudice. Instead, Bruckner gushes that conservatives are “the civilising base on which modernity has been built.” That may have been true in the post-war West but it must be the most ludicrous description of right-wing politics in the 2010s to appear in print. He and so many writers like him do not have the intellectual honesty to face the world as it is because, I suspect, they know at some level the justifiable criticisms they have levelled at the Left could be as well applied to the Right.

Left-wing identity politics dumps hundreds of millions of people into a bloc labelled “whites,” and instructs its adherents to scorn them as if they were villains in a cartoon conflict. No phrase marks the Left’s break from the working class it was founded to represent more than “white privilege.” There is something remarkably repellent about the Oxbridge or Ivy League graduates who utter it. They display a conscious failure to imagine or find out about the lives of white men and women who are anything but privileged. It’s not just class politics that is disappearing from left-wing thought, but also an interest in the individual circumstances of the damned “whites.” And when concern for individual circumstances goes, concern for individual rights soon follows.

The new Right and its fellow travellers display the same failure of imaginative sympathy. “Muslims” are as much as a bloc for the Right as “whites” are for the Left. Their circumstances, opinions, and individuality are crushed into the same false uniformity by the urge to sloganeer and besmirch. Bruckner writes as if populism never happened. He appears intellectually unable to face it. Jonathan Haidt, Bill Maher, and more avowedly right-wing and contrarian figures have filled the gap with a suspiciously convenient explanation. If they had tried the same trick with radical Islam, Pascal Bruckner would have been the first to expose them. But as it is he has stayed silent.

Jordan Peterson gave the worst example of their special pleading when he opined, on the basis of no evidence I can see, that “if men are pushed too hard to feminize, they will become more and more interested in harsh, fascist political ideology.” Sam Harris and other secular liberals (myself included) predicted years ago that, if the liberal Left did not develop a political and moral case against Islamism, the Western Right would, and the result would be ugly. The notion that the “root cause” of the far-Right is the Left, however—that politically correct bullying, language policing, and obsession with minute faults and micro-aggressions, pushes voters into its arms—is a self-serving cop out unless laden with caveats.

It may be true in individual cases. I look with despair at the American Left, and ask why they insist on punishing tiny deviations from PC orthodoxy with such ferocity. Do they not consider how their behaviour could drive away potential converts to the anti-Trump cause? Equally, it may be true that Western foreign policy might inspire an individual Islamist to massacre diners in a Parisian restaurant. But as a general explanation for the rise of the Islamism and white nationalism, root causery fails because it ignores the appeal of belonging to a tribe that allows you to hate and punish outsiders. Why we need to learn that lesson again is beyond me. The promise that the caliphate or the kingdom of god or the proletarian paradise or the 1000-year Reich has been motivation enough for terror for centuries.

In better days, Bruckner himself made the argument that Westerners do not understand the seductive power of Islamist utopianism, and he did so with great brio. The post-Christian notion that the “eternally guilty West” is the world’s original sin has left it unable “to judge or combat other systems, other states, other religions,” he wrote in The Tyranny of Guilt. When faced with the existential question, “Who is to blame?” many intellectuals’ standard spontaneous response is: “We are.”  There is “no monstrosity in Africa, Asia or the Near East” for which, when you get down to, the West is not responsible.

Bruckner emphasised the narcissism of Western guilt: despite the loss of Empire, our crimes ensure that we are still the centre of the world’s attention. It is as important to notice its fatuity. As an explanation of why a majority of Islamists embrace radicalism, it makes no sense. Surely, the notion that liberalism is responsible for Trump, Orban, and le Pen deserves the same searching analysis. At a bare minimum, one must be willing to accept that a portion of the followers of the white Right are not pushed into the arms of demagogues by the sins of liberals but are there because of their own appreciation of racism and authoritarianism.

I would like nothing more than to devote the bulk of my time to challenging the faults of the Left. I come from the Left and I can see how far it has strayed from its better instincts. Encouraging even a few leftists to return to them, strikes me as a worthwhile task. But critics need the capacity for self-criticism. To condemn the identity politics of the Left, while accepting the identity politics of the Right—or to replace the slogan that “the West is the root cause of all evil” with “the Left is the root cause of all evil”—is worse than intellectually dishonest: it is a threat to very values “enlightened” thinkers purport to defend.

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Nick Cohen

Nick Cohen is a writer for the Observer, the Spectator, and Standpoint, and the author of What’s Left? and You Can’t Read This Book.