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 @.
Image: Sheherazade and Sultan Schariar by Fedinand Keller, 1880 [Wikicommons].
- 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). ↩
- 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). ↩