TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Robert Redeker on the “Free World” and Islam

News reports over the weekend, including in the New York Times of September 30, recounted developments in France involving Robert Redeker, an article of whose in Le Figaro of September 19 on Islam elicited death threats which have forced him into hiding.

Redeker has been described as a high school teacher in Toulouse, which is true. He is also the author of some ten books and numerous article publications, listed on his c.v. He has written for Le Monde as well as for Le Figaro (so he cannot be cast simply as conservative); indeed he is an editorial board member of Les Temps Modernes.

Unfortunately it is important to underscore all of this. We are facing another case of threats to free speech and free thought in Europe, but the news reporting subtly tries to minimize the significance (did somebody say “appeasement”?). There are suggestions that he is merely a high school teacher (as if high school teachers have less of a right to free speech than do the journalists of the wire services), or that he was writing for the “center-right” Le Figaro, suggesting that he probably got what he deserved. Shall we henceforth write that Elaine Sciolino writes for the “center-left” New York Times? In fact, Redeker turns out not to be a “center-rightist,” for whose free speech our “center-left” might not give a hoot, but very much a European intellectual with a publication record with all appropriate pedigrees.

Discussions of the full text, which is available in French through this link, have excerpted the presumably offensive passages. As with the reporting on the Pope’s Regensburg address, this journalism has had a sensationalist effect: statements are taken out of context and the full argument disappears. In the case of the papal speech, this process probably had to do with an intentional political opposition to aspects of current Vatican policy. In the Redeker text, which is much shorter, the “politics of excerpting” is presumably a function of “sound-bite” culture—even in the high-end print journalist of the NYT. It is easier to cherry-pick a sentence or two than to describe the line of thought. It would have been quite possible to provide a translation of the full Redeker text (assuming of course some courage in the editorial board room, yes, quite a counter-factual), in which one might have been able to follow his arguments; instead the citation of isolated passages amplifies the intensity of the prose and the particular assertions, robbed of the surrounding thinking.

The Figaro article is entitled: “Facing Islamist Threats, What Should the Free World Do?” The key term here is “free world,” le monde libre. A vital element in Redeker’s argument is the right to free speech and free thought which he considers to be under siege. “Free world” also references the Cold War: here is again the parallel between the clash with Islamic radicalism today and the competition with the totalitarianisms of the past. Yet while the US discussion, including at this blog, recently has tended to invoke more the dictatorships of the right (“Islamo-fascism”), Redeker’s title recalls the spirit of the critique of Soviet Communism—and this turns out to be a major element of his argument.

Free thinking, its defense and the threats to its survival open the essay:

The reactions following upon the analysis by Benedict XVI of Islam and violence are part of the efforts pursued by this Islam to stifle that most precious good of the West which does not exist in any Muslim country: the freedom of thought and expression. Islam is trying to impose its rules on Europe: special women-only hours in swimming pools, prohibitions of caricatures of this religion, the need for special dietary treatment for Muslim children in cafeterias, the battle for the veil in schools, and accusations of Islamophobia against free spirits.

Initially at least it seems that Redeker is mixing a variety of issues here, some pertaining to matters recognizably central to free speech (caricatures, accusations of Islamophobia) and others that, in the French Republican context, would appear as improper concessions to religious practice (gender segregation, veils, diet). Yet this distinction, which easily seems self-evident from a perspective of Anglo-American multiculturalism—the rules of public debate versus everyday cultural choices—may not be tenable, as Redeker makes clear in the passages immediately following. These everyday practices of ethnic or religious custom are perhaps not fully separable from questions of free speech. (Is the conflict one between universalist expectations of freedom and a specific way of life? Or is it a conflict between one particular way of life, Western Europe, with its particular historical traditions, and a very different way of life?)

Redeker takes as a point of reference the popular innovation in recent years of the artificial beaches set up along the Seine (with genuine sand trucked in by the city to the delight of the residents). Parisians being Parisian, the clothing has been fashionable but often scanty and sometimes absent—but immodest beachwear was prohibited, according to Redeker, in order to accommodate Muslim concerns. Similar developments (such as gender segregation at some Italian beaches) have taken place elsewhere in Europe. Why this suddenly more restrictive public morality?

How can we explain the prohibition of string bikinis on the Paris Beach this past summer? The official argument was strange: a risk of “troubles to the public order.” Did they mean that gangs of frustrated boys might become violent in the face of the display of beauty? Or were they afraid of Islamist demonstrations, with brigades of virtue on the beach of Paris?

However the non-prohibition of the wearing of the veil in the street is, in light of the criticism that this pillar of the oppression of women faces, more likely to “trouble the public order” than is the string bikini. It is not out of place to see that this prohibition represents an Islamicization of the mentality of France, a submission more or less conscious to Islamic dictates.

Anglo-American multiculturalism might tend to be prepared to accept the veil as a private religious practice (whether in public or not). Redeker proceeds from the more stringent argument that the veil forms part of a patriarchal culture, which should neither receive state sanction (hence prohibition in public schools), nor (a more radical claim) toleration in the public at all.

His reference to the “non-prohibition of the wearing of the veil in the street” seems at first far-fetched. One might think that the state obviously has some concern with behavior in public schools (where France prohibited the veil) and it is can appear reasonable, from the standpoint of French Republicanism, to worry about concessions to religious sensibilities in other public venues (public swimming pools—nor should we in the US forget that these were also important points of controversy in the civil rights movement). But “the wearing of the veil in the street”—is that a proper topic for state administration?

Here argument is possible. It is true that the “street” is a venue maintained by the state and therefore is subject to jurisdiction. Various behaviors are illegal on the “street”—although it is questionable as to whether the state genuinely enforces such quality-of-life laws consistently. One would arrive at differing conclusions depending on the evaluation of the veil: on the one hand, as an expression of a multicultural “choice” or, on the other, as an indication of the oppression of women.

Redeker’s examples of gender role issues also suggest an underlying continuity between restrictions on free speech in the private sphere (domestic practices) and the vicissitudes of free speech in the public of intellectual debate. Here Redeker unfolds his strong parallel between the observed growing acceptance of the conservative morality of Islamic sensibility.

As before with communism, the West finds itself under ideological surveillance. Similar to the now defunct communism, Islam presents itself as an alternative to the western world. Following that erstwhile communism, Islam tugs on sensitive heart strings in order conquer. It boasts a legitimacy that troubles occidental consciousness with its attentiveness to the Other: to be the voice of the poor of the planet. Yesterday, the voice of the poor claimed to come from Moscow, while today it allegedly comes from Mecca! Today again intellectuals incarnate this message of the Qu’ran, just as they used to incarnate the message of Moscow. They excommunicate today because of Islamophobia, just as they used to do for anti-Communism.

The openness to the Other, which is specific to the West, involves a secularization of Christianity, the core of which can be summarized this way: the Other can always pass before me. As the heir to Christianity, the West is the being that exposes its soul to discovery. It takes the risk of appearing to be weak. In the same spirit of Communism, Islam holds generosity, openness of the spirit, tolerance, tenderness, the liberty of woman and morality, and democratic values as marks of decadence. These are weaknesses which it tries to exploit with the help of “useful idiots,” good people with good intentions, in order to impose a Koranic order on the world.

The essay continues with other themes, including some religious-historical comparisons, and they will be discussed here in later contributions. These introductory sections are themselves rich enough. They raise questions about relations between freedom of speech in the private and public spheres, surely an issue in the West that predates current waves of migration but which is now magnified in discussions of women in Islam in the West. Western societies have always been conflict-ridden, but they have also presumed various forms of consensus with regard to acceptable practices. These have always been historical, contested, and changing—which is exactly what “tradition” means. In other words, any current practice can certainly be reexamined (nothing is cast in stone) but there should be good reasons to give up established expectations.

In addition to such cultural-historicist concerns, there is a political theoretical divide between a certain liberalism and radicalism. The willingness to separate the private from the public has always been more a liberal than a leftist figure of thought: if the state is obligated to defend gender equality in public, does it have any interest at all in equality and free speech in private? A liberal response might plead tolerance on the grounds that the authority of the state is not unlimited and that there should be a private realm not subject to state control (this is, for example, a feminist argument against abortion restrictions as well as a conservative argument against confiscatory taxation). A more radical or leftist position would have a more difficult time describing a zone beyond state regulation and could find itself obligated to appeal to the state to correct a situation it might evaluate as abusive, e.g. the mandatory veil.

Redeker also provides an alternative account with regard to the imputations of totalitarianism in aspects of Islamic radicalism. In part it is a matter of the claims of the movements and states associated with this radicalism (how Ahmadenijad speaks, how the terrorists speak): an anti-occidentalism that lays claim to represent the poor of the world. As in the conflict with Communism, a discussion ought then to ensue regarding measures to combat poverty and their relative success: why the growing impoverishment of the Iranian population, under the Islamist regime?

Yet another crucial part of the contemporary totalitarianism discussion involves the role of western intellectuals and their propensity to succumb to the appeal of dictators. Communism (perhaps more than Nazism) is inseparable from the history of its western intellectual defenders, apologists and dupes. Redeker explains how the specifically western fascination with the Other, a positive capacity to be open to the Other (which also explains the characteristic dynamism of the West) can also rapidly decline into a willingness to glorify it and to proscribe any critical inquiry into its practices. Redeker’s willingness to undertake such criticism has forced him into hiding. His text deserves close attention, just as he personally deserves support and solidarity from proponents of free speech.

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