On the morning of January 7, the day the offices of French magazine Charlie Hebdo were attacked, I was watching an interview of the famous French investigative journalist Edwy Plenel. He was reacting to the release that same day of celebrity French novelist Michel Houellebecq’s latest book, Soumission.
The novel, set in 2022, describes life in France under Muslim rule after the electoral victory of a fictional party called the Muslim Fraternity against Marine Le Pen’s National Front. Plenel accused the novelist of playing into far-right fears of a Great Replacement whereby France’s five-million-strong Muslim population would gradually outnumber France’s majority Christian population, and replace its culture and its values. Some observations and comments can be drawn from the way Plenel and other French journalists reacted to the book’s theme.
In the interview, Plenel said it was criminal for France-Inter, one of France’s main radio stations, to have given air time to Houellebecq and let him discuss his book. He claimed that this would never have been allowed if the book had dealt with Jews rather than Muslims and said inviting Houellebecq was just as bad as inviting Louis Ferdinand Céline. It is commonly accepted that Céline, the author of Voyage au Bout de la Nuit, was one of 20th-century France’s most influential and skilled writers. Yet Céline is also known as a notorious anti-Semite. In 2011 there was great controversy surrounding the way in which France should – or indeed should not – commemorate the 50th anniversary of his death. Is Plenel right to argue that Houellebecq is just as bad as Céline? Whereas Houellebecq is simply envisaging the possibility of Islam becoming more visible in the public and political sphere, without explicitly saying whether this would be a negative development, Céline was openly anti-Semitic, calling himself “the Jews’ enemy number one.” He published a number of anti-Semitic pamphlets, including Bagatelle Pour Un Massacre in 1937, in which he attacked what he believed to be the Jewish race and called for its outright elimination.
During the Nazi occupation he maintained close links with those in charge of organizing anti-Semitic persecution in occupied France. It seems therefore inappropriate, to say the least, to compare Houellebecq’s arguably scaremongering but in no way hateful novel with Céline’s anti-Semitic and murderous diatribes.
Yet this flawed analogy is only one out of many flawed comparisons being made in the French press between the history of French anti-Semitism and contemporary Islamophobia.
Many journalists reacting to the recent terror attacks in France have argued that Islamist terrorism in France did not grow in a vacuum.
These journalists have intimated that one cannot understand why these attacks happened without looking at the alienation that France’s Muslim population is suffering from in France.
Some, including Edwy Plenel in his latest book, Aux Musulmans, argue that French Muslims are turning into France’s new Jews in terms of the amount of hate and discrimination directed against them. However, although it is undeniable that Islamophobic prejudice exists and is growing within French society – as recent arson attacks against French mosques sadly attest – it is historically inaccurate to compare the fate of French Jewry in the 1930s and 1940s with that of contemporary French Muslims.
One of the key differences between these two historical situations is that in the case of contemporary French Islamophobia, unacceptable prejudice and hate against the Muslim community is intertwined with a more legitimate ideological opposition to radical Islam. If it is true that Islamic radicalism in France has not sprung from a vacuum, it is equally true to assert that Islamophabia is fueled by external factors. Most experts agree that prejudice against Muslim communities grew markedly in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which made the West realize that radical Islam posed a threat to its security and values. Of course, as French commentators and members of the public have been so adamant to stress in the past few days, it is crucial to avoid confusion between radical Islam and non-violent, mainstream Islam.
However, in the same way that Islamophobia grew in tandem with the growth of radical Islam, it is likely that Islamophobic sentiment in the West will wane as people realize that radical Islam is loosing support, and indeed as Muslims demonstrate that their practiced faith is at odds with violent and intolerant interpretations of Islam, and that far from being tempted by radical Islam they are seen to be actively engaged in a fight against it. This is a key difference with 1930s European Jewry.
Indeed, the bulk of the prejudice Jews suffered then was racially motivated. Even when anti-Semites blamed Jews for being responsible for financial crises or political turmoil, they were not being attacked for following aspects of Jewish doctrine, rather it was their supposed racial predisposition to such behaviors that was decried. French Jews in the 1930s thus did not have any ideological tools they could use to fight against the prejudice they faced.
Another significant difference between French Jews in the 1930s and French Muslims today is that French Muslims are much more numerous than Jews ever were in France. Moreover, French Muslims could count on the support of the multitude of majority Muslim states to defend them if the threat against them ever became so acute that their lives were in danger – contrary to French Jews in the 1930s, who could count on no one to save them. Contemporary French Muslims therefore are not nearly as vulnerable as French Jewry was in the 1930s.
Consequently, while all must be done to protect French Muslims against Islamophobic violence and prejudice, the vulnerability of French Muslims should not be exaggerated to dismiss an honest assessment of and fight against the roots of Islamic fundamentalism in France.
Yet the most crucial difference between contemporary French Muslims and French Jews in the 1930s is the attitude both communities adopted to respond to the difficulties they faced in France.
It is undeniable that French Muslims today face considerable social and economic difficulties, and that the majority of them seek to overcome those challenges through non-violent resilience.
However, as many French journalists have argued, radical Islam has prospered in France in recent years in part because of the feeling of alienation French Muslims suffer from. The danger, however, is to assume that radical Islam or any form of violent sectarian activism is a natural and unavoidable response to the type and intensity of the socio-economic difficulties French Muslims face today. This conclusion is dangerous because it sends the message to potential terrorists that violence is a legitimate – and ultimately effective – way to raise awareness about the French Muslim community’s plight.
It is in this case that the parallel with the French Jews in the 1930s is most instructive – and yet seldom mentioned by journalists.
Despite many French Jews in the 1930s suffering from abject poverty, routine violent anti-Semitic outbursts and ultimately genocide, French Jews never turned to violence to raise awareness about their suffering. Instead, they used their resourcefulness to integrate into society and seize the scarce opportunities available for social improvement. If Jews did not resort to violence in the 1930s why should contemporary violence emanating from disenfranchised sections of the French Muslim community be more understandable? The main problem with the flawed comparisons between contemporary French Muslims and French Jews in the 1930s is that they contribute to a state of mind that prevents France from effectively combating radical Islam and alleviating French Muslims’ difficulties. Indeed, it dissuades France from enlisting the French Muslim community in the fight against radical Islam, despite it being the country’s most precious ally in this struggle. French Muslims are the French citizens who can best assess the reasons for the growing popularity of radical Islam in France and they can help the government offer a real alternative to the solutions radical Islam purports to offer French Muslims.
It is encouraging that French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, in his speech to Parliament on Tuesday, January 13, had the courage to say that France was engaged in a war against radical Islam and that such a war had to be fought and won first and foremost within Islam itself.
Valls exclaimed that France’s current battle was as much a fight for French Jews not to feel scared of living in France, as a struggle for French Muslims never again to be ashamed of being Muslims in France. Let us hope that his message will be heard by French society.The writer grew up in France and has just completed his BA and MPhil in Modern European History at the University of Cambridge.