French intellectuals from Montaigne to Claude Levi-Strauss have repeatedly criticised Muslims’ ‘patriarchal and sexist abuses of women’. But when Kamel Daoud, an Algerian writer, recently tried to do the same, he was greeted with severe criticism from many Westerners and accusations of Islamophobia in response. This leads us to ask: who does have the authority to question ‘Islam’?

Daoud’s ‘offensive’ opinions appeared in articles titled  ‘Cologne, site of fantasies’ (Le Monde) and ‘The Sexual Misery of the Arab World’ (New York Times). He expressed extremely strident views on the New Year’s Eve Cologne attacks, arguing that Western media often portrays the refugee as a survivor, forgetting that they come from a cultural trap that entangles their relationship to God and to women. He stated that:

one of the great miseries plaguing much of the so-called Arab world, and the Muslim world more generally, is its sick relationship with women.

The intellectual lynching that followed hit him hard. Just a few days later an article (which looks more like a manifesto) was also published in Le Monde, signed by 19 journalists and intellectuals, accusing him of essentialism and of feeding into Islamophobic fantasies. 1 Many of his friends found themselves obliged to defend him, Adam Shatz amongst others, while declaring their disagreement with the fundamentals of his argument, saying that Daoud just didn’t think it through this time. On the other hand, his forthright opinions, unconventional and divisive as they could be, were appreciated by newspapers like Liberation, l’Obs, as well as the Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, and authors like Jean Daniel.

The fierce criticism forced him to quit journalism and focus on fiction. He declared that he has changed the instrument but not the position, insisting that he is not Islamophobic, he is free. What Kamel Daoud thinks of ‘our cultural monstrosities’, is something that he lives, like many other Arabs, in the heart and the body every day, he said.

He’s always been an outspoken critic of the Algerian regime. Journalist in the French-speaking Algerian newspapers Le Quotidien d’Oran, he’s tackled everything, with politically incorrect commentary on corruption, identity, religion, and other socio-economic problems facing ordinary Algerians. A Goncourt first novel winner for The Meursault Investigation (2013), he prefers to write in French, and takes a step back from the Arabic language while arguing that being a Muslim does not make someone an Arab, and that people (specifically Islamists) should learn to separate language from religion. 2

He refuses to write in Arabic even though he can give media interviews in Algerian Arabic. According to him, ‘Arabic is trapped by the sacred and the dominant ideologies. It was fetishised, politicised, and ideologised.’ In December 2014, criticism over his public views culminated in a fatwa labelling him an apostate, and an enemy of Islam and the Arabic language. This should not come as a surprise in a country where scores of journalists, writers, musicians and theatre directors were persecuted during the ‘black decade’ of the civil war in the 1990s. Kamel Daoud had been criticised, ostracised, and persecuted by the Algerian state and elite over his political and religious views.

Daoud, who has repeatedly criticised religious fundamentalism, attempted to offer a lucid, trenchant, and courageous analysis of the Islamic tradition. Did he get his target right? Definitely. But the method was dangerous in the eyes of many. The controversy irritated many people, but there’s a sense of a politically correct and overly cautious approach to Islam in Europe, which is adopted by many intellectuals, and which has a tendency to sabotage the counter-weight of originality of any Muslim-to-Muslim attempt to neutralise academic conformity.

In the case of Daoud, the criticism ranged from ‘passing on worn-out orientalist clichés’ to ‘Islamophobia’. Does this mean Muslim-to-Muslim criticism is inherently incapable of bringing an agile and candid modern understanding of their religion? Well, if it succeeds to escape the censorship of the religious and political authorities, it does not often resist Islamophobic stigmatisation, and so fails to inject new life into the debate.

The Kamel Daoud debate reveals a certain blindness among many on the left: a vision too angelic, too binary, which echoes a ‘Third World’ discourse the of the 1960s. It portrays an antagonistic European world which is necessarily culpable, in contrast to a Muslim world which is ontologically innocent. The resulting lack of lucidity makes intellectuals like Kamel Daoud vulnerable to Islamophobic accusations. But if Muslims like Daoud can’t pose questions of Islam, then who can?

Imen Neffati is a WRoCAH funded PhD student in the University of Sheffield History Department where she is researching anticlerical print culture and ideas of free speech. You can find her on twitter @Carmen_2505.

Image: Sheherazade and Sultan Schariar by Fedinand Keller, 1880 [Wikicommons].


  1. 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 (politiical scientist), Pascal Ménoret (anthropologist), Stéphanie Pouessel (anthropologist), Elizabeth Shakman Hurd (political scientist), Thomas Serres (political scientist), Seif Soudani (journalist).
  2. The novel retells the story of Albert Camus’s classic L’Etranger from the perspective of the brother of the Arab man killed by the protagonist (Meursault).
Tags : Algerian civil warhistory of Algeriahistory of IslamKamel DaoudMuslim women
Imen Neffati

The author Imen Neffati


  1. A much needed piece. Thank you Imen.
    As many have pointed out – from Chris Hitchens to Maryam Namazie – the charge of ‘Islamophobia’ has become a means of stifling legitimate criticism and discussion of Islam. Much of the western left go to extreme lengths (usually justified in some way by quoting Fanon) to turn a blind eye to or to excuse practices it would normally denounce. This has the effect of leaving dangerously exposed those Muslims or former Muslims who wish to address religiously justified injustice in their own nations from Bangladesh to Iran. They are branded as ‘apostates’, Islamophobes and western stooges. And, if slaughtered by Islamists of government agents, their deaths are met with leftist silence.

  2. The answer is that there is a concerted effort, by Muslim lobbying groups, Left wing media (the Guardian, BBC) to effectively create blasphemy codes in free liberal societies against the criticism of Islam. And they appear to be making significant progress, as being critical of Islam not only leads to opening yourself up to violence, but to becoming persona non grata, on a par with a racist or paedophile. The result of this will be the advance of theology inimical to our freedoms and culture, and that will be catastrophic.

  3. At some point the compartmentalization of western left wing political theory must collapse, in essence they will eat themselves. The Islamic faction will devour the feminist faction along with the LGBT faction.

    As usual it will be up to the right to protect the feminist and LGBT factions, even though we have suffered their abusive name calling and relentless attacks for years. The real question is do you think Gay men and women will appreciate it or will they be ungrateful little sh*ts.

  4. Brilliant article and much needed. As already stated by another commenter, the term ‘Islamophobia’ (like ‘white privilege’, ‘racist’, ‘sexist’, and ‘bigot’) is used to shut down any conversation about controversial topics. Such smalls steps towards shutting down freedom of speech are the beginnings of totalitarianism, as has been seen throughout history. Instead of presenting a logical and reasoned argument, backed up by fact, people (and very often students on today’s university campuses) just shout words like ‘racist’, ‘sexist’, and ‘bigot’ to silence intelligent criticism to which they have no real response.

  5. I think it is important to understand that what makes a statement racist or islamophobic is merely its content and not who said it. A Muslim intellectual repeating Bernard Lewis’s ridiculous and unevidenced claims about the ‘uncontrolled’ sexual frustration of the Arab Youth being the driving force for their social and political actions does not make the claim more acceptable or less racist.

    As for criticising Islam, there have always been papers and books that critiqued Islamic thoughts or Islamic interpretations both by Muslim/Arab as well as by non-Muslim/non-Arab writers, none of which have been burnt and none of which have been issued fatwas against. In fact a dynamical critical process have always existed within Muslim discourse and continues to exist until this day. Check for example the lectures of ‘Adnan Ibrahim’ and his TV shows that were broadcasted on Arabic Gulf channels (believe it or not!), not to mention the large number of followers. Therefore, I guess the author’s attempt to indicate that criticism is not accepted in Muslim discourse is completely inaccurate.

    As for the reaction taken by some Arab intellectuals against Daoud’s article, such reactions are not exclusive to the Arab/Muslim intellectual community, check for example how some Swiss and French intellectuals reacted against Tariq Ramadan’s books and articles and how he has been banned from speaking in French and American universities.

    1. “check for example how some Swiss and French intellectuals reacted against Tariq Ramadan’s books and articles and how he has been banned from speaking in French and American universities.”

      I checked and that’s why I wrote the blog that you read above! I just looked at the French intellectuals reacting to Daoud, so far.

    2. Again, when you say my “attempt to indicate that criticism is not accepted in Muslim discourse is completely inaccurate”, you missed the point, this blog was only interested in the French context, Kamel Daoud wrote in France, his blog was posted in Le Monde, and was taken on by French intellectuals in French platforms.

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