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Kamel Daoud: Sexual Demonization and the Secularist Select

(Y. Gastaut, (Y. Gastaut, "L'immigration et l'opinion en France sous la Ve République", Paris: Editions du Seuil)

In a controversial NYT op-ed, the Algerian journalist and prize-winning author Kamel Daoud weighed in on the infamous events of last New Year’s Eve in Cologne, Germany. He wrote of the sexual harassment and rape authored by Muslim migrants and refugees as symptoms of a “sick” relationship with sex and women in general, and that this “disease” was now spreading to Western lands. This spectacular episode of sexual violence had managed to turn what had been general sympathy for refugees fleeing terrorism into anger, fear, and hatred. A large group of men had congregated at Cologne’s central train station before breaking off into smaller groups to commit robberies and sexual assaults. Subsequently, Angela Merkel’s “open-door” asylum policy was roundly criticized, as well as the lack of police response to the crimes as they happened. The event also led to a miraculous occurrence, the alignment of secular left and right-leaning voices in a unified stance: new checks on migration and asylum policy were now being proposed in the name of feminism and the protection of women’s bodies, in conjunction with the already familiar call to limit the influx of non-Christian men in the name of preserving Europe’s traditional “character.” The sudden influx into Germany over the course of last year—of more than 1.1 million asylum seekers fleeing the aftermath of US intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan and civil war in Syria—threatened to become a ticking “sexual time bomb,” if sensational press headlines were to be believed.

This controversy recently took another turn when a group of respected academics, some of whom are Algeria specialists, published a letter in Le Monde taking Daoud to task for the Orientalism and especially the Islamophobia they attributed to his article, which contained myriad generalizations linking Islam with sexual delinquency (translated and later published on Jadaliyya). On the one hand, these scholars saluted Daoud’s courageous journalism in the face of real threats to his person during the Algerian civil war between Islamists and the military government, referred to as “The Dirty War.” However, his brave condemnations of violent puritanism in Algeria signify differently when transposed to a Euro-American context: in this way his formerly minoritarian secular voice joined the choir of an “islamophobic majority.” This failure to address power differentials (as well as the shifting sands of majority minority balances) when one moves from the global south to the north, is actually a quite common characteristic of what I’d like to call the anti-Muslim or “secularist Arab select,” who find a ready audience in the Euro-American press. Recently, a Jadaliyya article profiled commentators the mainstream media has chosen to weigh in on the greater significance of ISIS: among them one finds a select group, Arab polemicists who repeatedly occupy center stage in US coverage, who claim ISIS shows “the true face of Islam.” When gender and sexuality are added to the equation, this seems to amplify the process by which Arab secular or anti-Muslim voices are called upon, and indeed deemed qualified, to represent the Muslim point of view. Often this comes at the expense of qualified voices whose research has been dedicated to understand the complexities of Arab gender and sexuality in an international frame. Brigitte Gabriel, Nonie Darwish, Jeanine Pirro, and Wafaa Sultan—now stars of US conservative media—have all presented themselves as refugees and/or critics of their sexually intolerant “home” cultures and have obtained pulpits that specialists of gender and sexuality in the Islamic world can only dream of reaching.

With much drama, Daoud declared on February 20th that he would no longer pursue journalism, as resolved in a public exchange between himself and his friend Adam Shatz, an American essayist. Daoud cited the “immorality” of academics, privileged in their ivory towers, who would “pronounce him guilty of Islamophobia” from comfortable shelters “in western capitals (or) café terraces where comfort and security reign.” He went on to say that he found it shameful that specialists who have never lived through what he has survived were inciting “local hatred” against him by imposing the verdict of Islamophobe, a sentence that “today can also be used as a tool of Inquisition,” he claimed. Indeed, some of the signatories to the letter accused of being too comfortable on café terraces are Algerian, and are all too familiar with the ravages of war: historian Noureddine Amara penned an open letter to Daoud stressing this point, marveling at how quickly his signature had landed him in the “gang of academics” said to be bullying Daoud. Allegations of bullying are hard to support when Manuel Valls, the security-minded Prime Minister of France known as the “muscle” to President François Hollande’s “softness,” publishes a letter in support of Daoud and in condemnation of the “peremptory” academics’ “indictment.” Valls praised the path Daoud has tread, a path that “France (also) treads, making it known to all those who have abandoned thought, that a Muslim will never by essence be a terrorist, not any more than a refugee will ever by essence be a rapist.” This statement however seems to lose all meaning when placed in conjunction with Daoud’s assertion that “sex is the greatest destitution and deprivation (misère) in Allah’s world,” a place where “woman is negated, refused, killed, raped, imprisoned or possessed.”

While Daoud’s lament is poignant, it takes on the tonality of a journalist upset at the fact-checkers for checking his facts. His is a familiar refrain, one that those in positions of influence use to conveniently deflect critique, especially from those who bring persuasive arguments against their right to speak for entire groups of people. Professor Jocelyne Dakhlia, one of the signatories of the Le Monde letter, weighed in again when a throng of voices coalesced in defense of Daoud saying that, by asking for more critical perspective after the Cologne attacks, the academic signatories were in some way justifying them. With the frustration of someone who has to underline the obvious, Dakhlia wrote that “a public personality must expect that they’ll have to respond to objections or critiques, and it is surprising that a man who has held strong against the Islamists for so long, a man whose Algerian chronicles I’ve personally admired, a man of his moral stature, would withdraw from debate after only two critical texts.” She went on to decry the fact that very few media outlets were giving a voice to male migrants condemning the attacks, and lamented the lack of media coverage of reports from Cologne’s refugee camps that Muslim women were being sexually harassed by camp guards. She also underlined the basic unoriginality of Daoud’s claims, caught between two pre-existing French representations, that of the 1970s isolated migrant worker whose lack of sexual outlets leads to depression (seen in Tahar Ben Jelloun’s psychiatric study The Highest of Solitudes), and that of the 1960s spectre of the Algerian “rapist,” which anti-immigration forces promoted during the Algerian War and in the aftermath of decolonization.

One wonders if the academics’ “hostility” is truly to blame, or rather, Daoud’s unwillingness to engage in uncomfortable debate with those who might have the research credentials to contest his claims? While some leftists and post-colonial academics do indeed occupy a position of relative privilege, they are “first responders” of a sort: they have historically come to the defense of the otherwise defenseless, alerting the public to ethnic scapegoating before it is too late, cautioning against generalizations that could later lead to violence, and always pointing out differentials of power so easily ignored in the sensational media. Daoud however believes that it is excessive to ask him to pay attention to power differentials, maintaining that he cannot be held fully responsible for the uses to which others put his (very strong) words in outside contexts. With mock irony he states: “I suddenly find myself responsible for what will be read differently in different lands and in different atmospheres. Denouncing the surrounding theocracy here at home becomes an islamophobic argument elsewhere. Is it my fault? In part. But it’s also the fault of our times.” This kind of statement is of a piece with the common refusal of those who belong to the secularist Arab select to consider the politics of instrumentalization, to question how criticism of a religion held by the majority in one country changes meaning when transposed to a country where that religion is under the microscope. He justified his withdrawal from journalism by interrogating the very role of Islam Insider he had comfortably occupied up till that point: “The writer who comes from the lands of Allah today finds himself the object of intolerable press solicitations. I can’t do anything about it except subtract myself from it: via caution, as I had once thought, but also via silence, as I have since chosen.”

A similar argument to the one Daoud makes about the incitement of “local hatred” could be made in reverse: Daoud, in generalizing about Muslims and their “sick” relationship to sex, has imperiled the image of Muslims living in Europe (and indeed that of all Muslims living in the “West”). European Muslims are the ones who will have to deal with the aftermath of being painted as potential rapists, who will have to face angry stares in the metro, and passersby changing over to the opposite sidewalk, among other consequences of guilt by association.

In their collective op-ed, the academics asked “Of what is Kamel Daoud the name?” Those of us working on North Africa who were overjoyed to see Daoud decorated with prizes for the Meursault Investigation were less so when it became clear that proponents of Islamophobic secularism were citing him in order to anchor their xenophobic arguments. Nowadays, when I am asked for the umpteenth time if I have read (and enjoyed!) this or that piece authored by Daoud, I feel a certain apprehension in regard to the real reasons behind Daoud’s popularity and almost universal celebration in the European and American cultural spheres.

Even Daoud’s good friend Adam Shatz told Daoud, after the latter’s turn to sexual demonization in the New York Times, that it was “hard to imagine you could really believe what you have written.” He brought up a hidden transatlantic parallel, the portrayal of Puerto Ricans in the US, in his letter to Daoud: “I remind you that we saw similar events, not on the same scale of course, but still, at the New York Puerto Rican Day Parade a few years ago. The Puerto Ricans who had molested women in the street were not under the influence of Islam but of alcohol… Without proof that Islam was acting on the spirits of those men in Cologne, it seems curious to make such propositions (as the ones you made), and to suggest that this ‘sickness’ threatens Europe.” This parallel between North Africans in France and Puerto Ricans in New York, both of them populations settling in the colonists’ mainland in the aftermath of colonialism, both routinely accused of machismo, has an infamous precedent: the late Charles Hirsch, Paris police prefect in the 1950s, had compared North Africans, who were for him “an endless source of conflicts,” to the “Puerto Ricans in New York” and “wetbacks in Texas.”[1]

The sexual demonization Daoud has reinforced has a still longer history. Borrowing from lingering Orientalist ideas about the Islamic sexual menace, this portrayal usually targets young male Arabs and Muslims and emphasizes a lack of civilization rooted in an inability to contain one’s primal urges. Medical historian Richard Keller amply documented this racialist view in his book on the Algiers school, a group of psychiatrists in colonial French Algeria that made the first “scientific” links between Islam and sexual delinquency. This portrayal is highly ambivalent in the way it presents Muslim men as both sexually conservative in their views of women and sexually aggressive in their frustrations about them. In contemporary times, researchers like Nacira Guénif-Souilamas have explained how this portrait of the young Arab as sexually unassimilated has given new life to what should by now have been a moot question: that of the integration of Muslims born in Europe, already several generations removed from their immigrant ancestors. In this way, the figure of the brown sexual menace has provoked feelings of sexual nationalism, and caused politicians who previously had sought to curtail the rights of women and homosexuals to suddenly come to their defense in the face of a common “foreign” enemy. The “black sexual menace” and the “black peril” are American tropes that we have, one hopes, critiqued to the point of their unacceptability: such rhetoric about black men’s violent designs upon white women have been exposed for their obvious racism. However, similar rhetoric appears about European Muslims today in a different form, not yet politically incorrect.These tropes shape women as well: the Arab woman mute and hidden away, and the white woman taught to be careful.

In response to fear-mongering about this menace, the Netherlands and the German state of Baden-Württemberg decided in the 2000s to create what Daoud euphemistically called “guides to good conduct” in his New York Times article. In reality, these were nothing other than citizenship tests designed to highlight Muslims’ supposed incompatibility with European sexual values; Germany’s test for instance was divided between questions about national security and questions of a sexual nature, implicitly asking whether it is appropriate to, for example, beat one’s wife, kick out one’s gay son, or oppose a daughter’s mixed marriage. These European sexual values find little consensus among European nations, who cannot agree on them even within EU frameworks.

Despite what some sensational European media outlets may imply, it is important to stress that no religion or ethnicity has the monopoly on sexual violence or harassment. Cases in point are the public beatings of homosexuals in Eastern Europe, or closer to home, the mob sexual violence committed on college campuses (as evidenced in the remarkable documentary on the epidemic of rape in our nation’s universities, The Hunting Ground). Yet the calls for an honest analysis of the Christian or Caucasian “tendency” toward sexual violence have not been forthcoming. Daoud often alludes to the “sexual misery” of young Muslim men—uneducated, poor, without marriage prospects. This is rhetoric that we have more familiarly heard from far-right politicians in Europe stoking fears about the culture of poverty and how it imperils the daughters of the nation: young and unemployed young men of color, haunting Europe’s housing projects, whose dissatisfaction with life supposedly translates into sexual violence against the women they can’t “have.”

It would be hard to imagine a white, male politician repeating any of the generalizations and unsourced claims about Muslim sexual violence contained in Daoud’s op-ed without facing serious criticism.  It is possible for Daoud to not only say but get away with this kind of character assassination because he is part of the secularist Arab select the xenophobic right (and now left) depends on to say unsayable things about Muslims, who can declare whatever he likes in the name of cultural “authenticity.” The danger here is in engaging in what researcher Eric Fassin has called a “sexual clash of civilizations,” a line in the sand that will lead to new and fictitious distinctions between Muslims, secularists and Christians.

In many ways, Orientalism makes possible such fictions of difference by erasing distinctions of time and space, such that Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi fundamentalism and the highly dynamic societies of Indonesia and Tunisia can be mentioned in the same reductive term repeatedly employed by Daoud: “the lands of Allah.” It is ironic that Mr. Daoud’s op-ed would mention Orientalism, a critique of demonizing and Othering representations, just as he reinforces the most stale Orientalist stereotypes about the Middle East’s “intolerant and intolerable” sexualities.


[1] Hirsch, Charles-A.. “La criminalité des Nord-africains en France est-elle une criminalité par défaut d'adaptation ?”. Revue internationale de criminologie et de police technique. Vol. XIII, n° 2, avril-juin, 1959, p. 129-141.


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