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Pascal Bruckner and the reality disconnect

Pascal Bruckner wants to forbid the word 'Islamophobia'. What should be the next to go: Racism? Relativism? By Alan Posener

The French writer Pascal Bruckner wants to forbid a word. Which sounds more like a typically German obsession. But for Bruckner, "Islamophobia" is one of "those expressions which we dearly need to banish from our vocabulary". One asks oneself with some trepidation which other words we "dearly need" to get rid of: Right-wing populism? Racism? Relativism?But let that ride. Bruckner's essay has the advantage of stating the case against "Islamophobia" clearly and concisely and thus allowing those who – like myself – propose to hang on to the word until a better one comes along to answer in a similar clear and concise way.

Let me present Bruckner's arguments in his own words:

"Iranian fundamentalists invented the word Islamophobia, formed in analogy to 'xenophobia', in the late seventies. The aim of this word is to declare Islam inviolate. Whoever crosses this border is deemed a racist."

The argument that Islamists coined the phrase in order to portray any and all criticism of Islam as a symptom of illness (a phobia being an irrational fear), may be right or wrong. It is, however, irrelevant. Remember that the word "Antisemitism" was also coined by reactionaries who wanted to give their hatred of the Jews, inspired by Christian Antijudaism, a "scientific" gloss. In point of fact, the "Antisemites" never had anything against any other Semites (for instance Arabs), and their hatred was reserved for a people which (pace Thilo Sarrazin) was and is one of the world's most ethnically diverse. And yet we still use the expression today, and not only to characterize the ideology developed by its European inventors. For instance, few people today would hesitate to call Martin Luther an Antisemite, just because he knew nothing about race and genetics and therefore didn't call on pseudoscience to justify his murderous hatred of the Jews.

"However, a religious faith is no more identical with a race than is a secular ideology. (…) Did not the President of France himself, for whom no mistake is too base not to stoop to, compare Islamophobia to Antisemitism? A tragic error. Racism attacks people for what they are: black, Arab, Jewish, white."

Let us for a moment put aside the question of whether you can "compare" Islamophobia with Antisemitism. (Of course you can. That is, you can show the similarities and the differences between the two forms of discrimination. But let that ride, along with the question whether the racial discrimination in the Southern States of the USA, Apartheid in South Africa, "ethnic" – in point of fact, religious – cleansing in the Balkans etc. can be "compared" to the racial policies of National Socialism.) Let me deal with two basic misunderstandings that Bruckner formulates here: 1. Race and religion are sharply divided in the mind of the racist. 2. "Racism attacks people for what they are."

Let's start with the second contention, because it is so obviously wrong that it can be easily repudiated. The racist does not attack people for "what they are", but for what he thinks they are. The racist imagines an "international Jewish conspiracy", led by the "Elders of Zion" meeting in Prague's Jewish Cemetery (so much for the sharp division of race and religion, but more on that later); homophobes hallucinate a "faggot republic"; Islamophobes an "Islamist offensive in Europe" (Pascal Bruckner), leading, one presumes, to the Caliphate of "Eurabia" (Bat Ye'Or), aided and abetted by useful idiots like myself who insist on using forbidden words like "Islamophobia".

Which brings us to the first contention. As I said before, the idea that "scientific" racism has nothing to do with religion was put about by the racists themselves, who wanted to give their crude ideas a scientific gloss with the help of statistics and skull measurements etc. The argument was snapped up gratefully by the churches after 1945, because it seemed to absolve Christianity from 2000 years of Antijudaism. After all, they had only criticized "a religious faith", which had as much to do with race as any old ideology, as Bruckner says. Anybody could leave the "people that murdered God" (oops!) by submitting to baptism. But just as the phrase "people that murdered God" – a phrase still used by the Pius Brotherhood, by the way – implies a collective guilt of all Jews for the sins of their forefathers and the existence of a "people" somehow distinct from the religion, so was hatred of the Jews always more than just a criticism of their religion. As is the case with Islamophobia.

Bruckner may not want to know this, but many authors have drawn attention to the influence of religious ideas on the Antisemitism of Adolf Hitler, who was baptised a Catholic and never left the Church. Let me quote from one of the more recent publications. In his excellent book "Anständig geblieben: Nationalsozialistische Moral" (Staying Decent: The Morals of National Socialism), Raphael Gross explores, among other things "the afterlife of religion in National Socialism" in a chapter entitled "Positive Christianity: Religion and Morality in Hitler's politics". It is an exciting read. I'll have to concentrate on a few quotes from Hitler's speeches in order to show how his criticism of religion segues into racism.

On October 27 1928, Hitler said: "This, our movement, is truly Christian. We are filled with the desire to see Catholics and Protestants find to each other in the hour of our people's need…" And who is the enemy of Christianity? The Jews. Although Hitler wrote in "Mein Kampf" that "Judaism was always a people with certain racial characteristics, and never a religion", he constantly defined Judaism, as Gross remarks, "in religious terms, that is, through the Jews' lack of religion". Thus, in "Mein Kampf", Hitler continues: "From his own original character the Jew can never develop a religious institution, for the simple reason that he lacks any form of idealism and therefore any belief in the hereafter". Here, a presumed characteristic of Judaism (whether true or untrue need not bother us here) is used to characterise "the Jew" as member of a people or race. And as today's populists like Geert Wilders say that Islam is not a religion but a political ideology, a blueprint for the conquest of the world for the Umma, Hitler contended that "the religious teaching of the Jews is first and foremost a command to keep Jewish blood unadulterated… As to the moral value of Jewish religious instruction, it has been studied in detail in all eras." With the result, of course, that the Jews lack our "moral values", because, as the churches in Germany contend, "values need God" – our Christian God, of course. Finally, and here we return to our starting point, namely the Christian character of National Socialism: The mind of "the Jew", according to Hitler, "is as deeply and essentially alien to real Christianity as was his character to the great founder of the new teaching two thousand years ago."

How can someone claim that criticism of a "religious faith" and racism have nothing to do with one another and still expect to be taken seriously as an arbiter of words?

"Worldwide a new Thought Crime is being constructed (i.e. "Islamophobia"), which reminds one of the way the Soviet Union persecuted "enemies of the people".

Comparing "Islamophobia", as Bruckner does, with the Soviet attack on "enemies of the people", implies that it is used mainly against Muslims in order to subdue criticism of or deviation from Islam, as the Leninists used the formula against their own people. This is not the case. The scandalous laws against apostasy and blasphemy existing in nearly all Islamic states are perfectly up to that task. And where they are not, for instance when, as in the case of Salman Rushdie, the blasphemer happens to be living in a democracy, there's always a fatwa. "Islamophobia" is an accusation almost exclusively reserved for Non-Muslims (and, admittedly, a few radical Kemalists); I use the word to characterise a kind of xenophobia wrapped in religious terms.

But since Bruckner quotes the example of the Soviet Union to underscore the imagined "Islamist offensive", it might be more pertinent to look into the abuse of Anticommunism by people like Joseph McCarthy in order to understand Islamophobia. Being Anticommunist was, in the 1950s, not only honourable; critical and Antifascist intellectuals had to be Anticommunists if they did not want to compromise their ideals. McCarthy and his henchmen, however, turned Anticommunism into a hysteria and the rationale for a witch hunt.

Something similar is being attempted with Islamism today, and it is here that criticism of religion and religious politics morphs into Islamophobia. I personally have never made a secret of my Atheism, and I have at different times and for different reasons criticized Christianity, Islam and Judaism. (And I have been accused of Christianophobia, Catholophobia and Islamophobia.) But if someone were to suggest that there was no difference between my – I hope – reasoned, if occasionally unfair and polemical criticism of ideas and institutions on the one hand and the denigration of a whole group of people, as in the case of Thilo Sarrazin on the other, then I would have to conclude that the PISA studies were wrong, which gave France a middling place among the developed countries as far as reading and understanding texts is concerned.

Call it what you will: there is a form of criticism of Islam which is attempting, via expressions such as "Islamic culture" on the one hand and "Christian-Jewish Leitkultur" (guiding culture) on the other, to establish the concept of two different classes of European citizens. This attempt is driven by an irrational fear, which is comparable to McCarthy's Anticommunist hysteria and which I call "Islamophobia". (And, yes, there were Communist spies in the US Government, and yes, there are Islamist terrorists. But hysteria and fear are not good advisors in the struggle for an open society and against its enemies.)

I'm open to suggestions for better words. But anyone who denies that the process of exclusion and denigration that I've sketched is in fact happening, is obviously suffering from a kind of delusion, a disconnect from reality; and for that person, it is only logical to wish to forbid the words that might remind him that reality exists.


Alan Posener is a British-German journalist and a correspondent and commentator for Die Welt and Welt am Sonntag in Berlin and one of Germany's most influential bloggers. His latest book, "Pope Benedict's Crusade", is a critique of Benedict XVI.

This article was originally published in German at on 14 December, 2010. - let's talk european