“Islamo-leftism”, Culture War and Academic Freedom: It’s All about Islam

On February the 14th, Frédérique Vidal, the French Minister for Higher Education made controversial declarations on “Islamo-leftism” – Islamo-gauchisme – and its negative influence on Universities during a TV interview. She even stated that French University (including academics and some students organisations) could deliberately promote it. A few days later, during a debate in the Assemblée Nationale, Vidal reasserted her intention to order an inquiry on the influence of “Islamo-lefstim” in France. Vidal’s declarations raised protests and backlash. 

A forthcoming investigation to measure Islamo-leftist

Vidal initially tasked the CNRS (National Centre of Scientific Research) of investigating and assessing “Islamo-leftism”. But the CNRS refused and condemned her statements. The academic institution justified its position by asserting that “Islamo-leftism is not a legitimate research topic” but rather a manipulation of academic research and a “political catchphrase”[1]. The Conference of University Presidents also vehemently condemned it [2]. 600 academics and scholars signed an open letter asking for Frédérique Vidal’s resignation[3]. The signatories expressed their concerns about the suspicion towards academic knowledge. In their views, such a political interference threatens the independence of research or is “witch-hunt”. 

Vidal’s accusations have also had repercussions among members of the presidential majority. Gabriel Attal, the spokesperson of the government declared that the priority of the Minister should be the situation of students. Indeed, the pandemic has made French students particularly vulnerable to socio-economic precariousness. Long queues of students waiting for food supply offered by non-profit organizations are now very common in most of French cities. For this reason, members of the political opposition blamed the timing of Vidal’s announcement as France is facing a sanitary crisis and that the vaccine campaign is particularly slow compared to other European countries. 

An uncertain terminology

In the current French debate, Islamo-leftism seems to cover a large variety of meanings. A brief genealogy of the concept provides some valuable insight . According to Pierre André Taguieff, the self-proclaimed author of the term, Islamo-leftism originally referred to the alliance of leftist activists with Islamist movements in the early 2000’s [4]. Nonetheless, Taguieff rejects the current political use of the term[5]. Later on, extreme-right has retrieved the concept to express its hostility towards both the left and Islam. Some politicians from the presidential majority have have expanded its use to a broader audience.

As a matter of fact, “Islamo-leftism” was revived in the last months on the backdrop of the on-going debates on “ Islamic separatism”. Jean-Michel Blanquer, the Minister of Education, employed it few months ago, both in Senate and in the media, after the assassination of Samuel Paty[6]. At that time, Blanquer stated that “Islamo-leftism [was] wreaking havoc” French Universities[7]

In the same vein, Vidal declared, during her statement in front of French deputies, she wanted to establish “a distinction between what is academic research and what is militant research or personal opinion”. As used by Vidal, the term targets academics as the new enemies from within the Republic. This terminology resonates with the concept of “judeo-bolchevism” used during the WW2 according to the linguist Albin Wagener[8]. It thus turns social scientists into activists for whom ideology takes precedence over scientific knowledge. Another historical comparison has been drawn with “McCarthyism”[9]

Islam at the heart of French debates 

The dispute on islamo-leftism is part of what some see as a “culture war” related to the status of “race” and “class” in both academia and politics, modeled on the American current situation. For example, Vidal mentioned the negative influence of “post-colonial studies” imported in France from the USA. In the same vein, Emmanuel Macron in the winter of 2020 blamed American newspapers and universities of shaping “Islamo-leftism”[10]. Such political positions reveal the growing political suspicion towards social sciences in France. 

Research on Islam is particularly in the spotlight and crystallized both political and media attention. The field has turned into a battle between two stark opposite side. One the one hand, some scholars and public figures denounce those who turn a blind eye to – or even support – “radical Islam”. It even implies an alliance between “Islamo-leftists” and the promoters of Islamic “separatism and terrorism”. On the other hand, the islamo- leftists accuse these scholars of compromising academic integrity by advancing the government’s political agenda and acting as adviser to “the prince”. 

Generally speaking, this controversy is related to a general climate of securitization of Islam in France. As the future presidential election is approaching, Macron will probably face extreme-right leader Marine Le Pen for the second round. His strategy seems to aim at attracting extreme-right voters on sensitive issues such as Islam, security and immigration. The forthcoming months will determine if and how the investigation of “Islamo-leftism” will happen an if Vidal will be able to overcome the open resistance of the French academia.












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