Emmanuel Macron took advantage of the columns of The Financial Times on Thursday 5 November to reply to an article which that newspaper published on Franco-Algerian relationships. What could be more normal? But what is less so is that the article, written by one of its regular journalists, Mehreen Khan, was suppressed by the journal two days earlier: “Macron’s war on ‘Islamic separatism’ divides France even further.” If we needed proof that the French authorities are trying to set up a debate on this subject, a decidedly one-sided debate, we could find no better example.
The paradox is strange indeed. At a time when the rhetoric on the freedom of speech, the freedom to draw cartoons, the freedom of all forms of expression, is hailed by the media and politicians of all persuasions, a rhetoric wherein France, the country of human rights, is fervently celebrated, the demands for censorship have never been so frequent. They are especially aimed at the academic community. Thus, Jean-Michel Blanquer, minister of national education, accused “Islamo-leftism of wreaking havoc in universities” and claimed that the murderer of Samuel Paty had been conditioned by people who encourage that kind of intellectual radicalness.
What conclusion is to be drawn? That university scholars who, in their great diversity, do not share the government’s analyses must be—what is the proper word?—condemned, ostracised, expelled from the university? This statement by the minister elicited an indignant response from the conference of university presidents in defence of the construction of the critical mind.
By contrast, the minister received the support of one hundred academics who asked their minister, Frédérique Vidal, minister of higher education, to take steps for detecting individuals drawn by Islamist sirens, to come out strongly against the ideologies that they imply and to commit our universities to the struggle for secularism and the republic by setting up a body in charge of bringing up directly cases involving violations of republican principles and academic freedom.
In other words, the minister was called upon to interfere in French research on Islam and to distinguish between the wheat and the chef. There was a time when that was called a witch-hunt.
The example presented here is emblematic. Farhad Khosrokhavar is a highly respected scholar, the author of many books on radicalization. He has done much fieldwork, particularly in prisons. At the journal’s demand, he submitted an article to Politico Europe, dealing with the reasons for the radicalization in France. The text was published, then withdrawn two days later, with no explanation given to the author. As another academic scholar, Tom Theuns, said, it is possible not to agree with him—he does not even agree with himself—and he is surprised by this censorship. Yet one can only approve Teuns’ conclusions:
Freedom of academic expression should be defended exactly in the same way as that of the cartoonist. If sociologists can no longer develop plausible hypotheses for the domestic causes of terrorism, or for practicable, moderate yet controversial propositions, it would seem that the debate has become hyper-partisan and anti-intellectual.
[This article was originally published on Orient XXI on 9 November 2020.]