The Politics of the Ostrich: On Pascal Bruckner’s “Un racisme imaginaire: La querelle de l’islamophobie et culpabilité”

By Reza Zia-EbrahimiDecember 7, 2017

The Politics of the Ostrich: On Pascal Bruckner’s “Un racisme imaginaire: La querelle de l’islamophobie et culpabilité”

Un racisme imaginaire by Pascal Bruckner

OVER THE PAST DECADE, the prominent French intellectual Pascal Bruckner has emerged as one of the figureheads of a sustained assault on any public discussion of Islamophobia and the consequences it may have on its victims. He has published op-eds with titles such as “L’invention de l’islamophobie” (the invention of Islamophobia) and “L’islamophobie n’existe pas!” (Islamophobia does not exist!), where he has outlined many of the ideas that the reader will find in Un racisme imaginaire. Thus, those familiar with the man’s writing will find little novelty in this book. To add perplexity to disappointment, the book also lacks focus: indeed, in addition to declaring Islamophobia imaginary, Bruckner devotes significant sections of his book to shadow-box and disparage all the usual scarecrows of the French neoconservative movement: the 1968 generation, multiculturalism, the left under all its manifestations, “political correctness,” sociologists, anthropologists, occasionally the anglo-saxons, and rather consistently — “Islam.” It would take me far more than the space I have been here granted to address all the issues he raises, and will focus on what is the central theme of Un racisme imaginaire: the existence or inexistence of Islamophobia.

Bruckner opens his book by declaring point-blank that his objective is to “delegitimize the term Islamophobia, instil doubt about it, flank it with permanent inverted commas.” He does not therefore even pretend that he is going to engage with objective data, or carry out empirical research. His first round of attack uses etymology to delegitimize the term Islamophobia, and in doing so Bruckner essentially paraphrases the French journalist Caroline Fourest, who claimed in 2003 that Islamophobia as a term was the brainchild of the Iranian 1979 Revolution. [1] According to this theory, the Iranian “mullahs” coined the term to suppress women who refused to wear the Islamic veil. The argument is put forth without a shred of evidence, and as a historian of modern Iran who is familiar with the 1979 Revolution and the discourse of its founders and ideologues, I can confidently assert here that the claim is simply a fabrication and widely acknowledged as such (even by Fourest herself who, embarrassed, edited the online version of her 2003 article accordingly). Undeterred, Bruckner continues to promote the now discredited theory, and another one, also initially made by Fourest, according to which Islamophobia re-emerged during the controversy surrounding Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses and the fatwa against his life. As with the previous claim, no evidence is to be found, no quotation is reproduced, no source is referenced. And for good reason: the claim is fallacious. It took me about 10 seconds and a simple Google search to find a 2015 article where Rushdie declares, “Today, I would be accused of Islamophobia.” Which means that back in 1989 he was not.

Although the term Islamophobia occurs in French texts as early as the 1920s (something recognized by Bruckner), its present-day use cannot be traced to the machinations of Islamists as the Islamophobia negationists would have us believe, but is rooted in a conceptual need to name forms of hostility and discrimination experienced by Muslims. The origins of the term’s present-day incarnation is thus to be found in a 1997 report called Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All, by a UK-based think tank dedicated to the study of racism, the Runnymede Trust. This fact is widely acknowledged by the literature on Islamophobia, that Bruckner sadly ignores throughout his book, thus seriously weakening its core argument. The purpose of Bruckner’s genealogy is simply to suggest that the term Islamophobia is tainted by some original sin, its origins invariably leading to some mad, bearded fanatic. The Iranian mullah story also presents the added advantage of pitting Islamophobia against the struggle of women against the Islamic veil. Two conceptual birds are hit with the same rhetorical stone, but it remains that it is this genealogy, rather than Islamophobia itself, that is imaginary.

The second negationist argument put forth by Bruckner relates to the instrumentalization of Islamophobia, which then becomes — in his words — “a weapon of mass destruction of the intellectual debate.” Islamophobia, he claims, was maliciously coined by “fundamentalists and their Marxist allies” (or “Islamo-gauchisme” as he calls the alliance) to write off as racist anyone attempting to criticize or reform Islam. Of course, it is perfectly conceivable that if you criticize “Islam,” someone might label you an Islamophobe. Bruckner has not reinvented the wheel: Islamophobia, just like any other concept, designation, or idea, can be instrumentalized. Disappointingly, Bruckner does not come up with many examples to illustrate what he believes is a new form of blasphemy law: first, he refers to a few cases in which French Catholic groups sued film directors for blasphemy. That his first example is one from the world of catholic militancy is telling enough. His second example refers to the Organization of the Islamic Conference’s attempt — supported by many non-Muslims states — to ban the defamation of religions in international law. An attempt that — it is worth stressing — has so far miserably foundered, making one wonder why it is a relevant example in the first place. Indeed, no “legitimate criticism of Islam” has ever been “silenced” as a result of that effort. Bruckner mentions a few other cases of clashes in the polemics of Islam in Europe, but none in my view where the accusation of Islamophobia was either central to the controversy, or — indeed — succeeded in forcing anyone into silence. He is right in pointing out that the terrorists who opened fire on the staff of Charlie Hebdo in January 2015 silenced, for good, individuals that they considered to have blasphemed against Islam. Nobody disputes that murdering individuals in cold blood is criminal and shocking. But then again, why should our ability to discuss Islamophobia be undermined by the actions of murderous jihadists? Would we not let them win by doing so? By refusing to discuss Islamophobia, we make it impossible to challenge the jihadist view that Europe is fundamentally Islamophobic and that Muslims have no place there, a view that according to most serious scholarship is one of their top recruitment pitches.

I can think of a perhaps more convincing example, not of the charge of Islamophobia as a tool for censorship, but as a tool for political expediency. When Austrian authorities banned rallies in Austria in favor of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s constitutional referendum in January 2017, the Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesperson called them racist and Islamophobic. No doubt, this is a case of political instrumentalization of the labels racism and Islamophobia, although I should rush to stress that the Turkish declaration had no effect whatsoever on the Austrian government, which seems to indicate that the accusation of Islamophobia is far from carrying the magical effects that Bruckner associates with it.

Provisional conclusion: Despite the paucity of Bruckner’s examples, instrumentalization is possible. That being said, Bruckner’s argument remains illogical. Ask yourself: Does the instrumentalization of a concept mean that the concept itself is inherently bankrupt? Does the phenomenon it refers to henceforth cease its tangible, objective, existence? The claim runs in the face of the most basic form of common sense. Let me illustrate my point. Many on the farther corners of the left liberally use the term “fascist” to discredit ideas or individuals that they find to be too far to the right of the political spectrum. For instance, many hard-left sympathizers in France routinely call the supporters of Marine Le Pen’s Front National party “fascists.” This is an instrumentalization of the concept of fascism designed to discredit one’s political adversaries. However, does this polemical usage mean that the concept of fascism is intrinsically flawed? Does it in itself negate the facts of history? Does it mean that Benito Mussolini was never born, and that the National Fascist Party never took power? Of course not, such flawed reasoning challenges basic rationality.

Another perhaps closer example: Few would deny that some instrumentalize anti-Semitism to silence any criticism of the state of Israel. Benjamin Netanyahu calls the BDS movement anti-Semitic. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) calls Jimmy Carter (the US president who oversaw the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt) an anti-Semite because he criticizes Israeli policies. The ADL joined forces with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) to push through a bill that would criminalize criticism of Israel in the United States as anti-Semitic (the legislation failed on the Congress’s floor). In all these cases, anti-Semitism is instrumentalized to pursue a political agenda: silence criticism of Israel. Yet, does this instrumentalization automatically invalidate the legitimacy of anti-Semitism as a concept, an analytical category, an objective historical phenomenon, and a lived experience for many Jews around the world? Are we to suddenly believe that Jews were never subjected to slander, hostility, discrimination, segregation, and an attempt at genocide? Of course not. But it is exactly such profoundly flawed arguments that Bruckner and his like-minded negationists put forth to have us believe that Islamophobia is imaginary. A word or a concept cannot be held hostage by those who use or abuse it.

The third argument is perhaps the most mystifying and audacious. Bruckner, again following Fourest and her fallacious Iranian genealogy of Islamophobia, claims repeatedly that Islamophobia is used by repressive Muslim states as “a tool of domestic police against Muslim reformers and liberals.” Here again, Bruckner does not provide a single example. And again for good reason: taking the claim at face value would mean that the religious police in Iran or Saudi Arabia initially had their hands tied in the back. They were incapable of repressing what they perceived as anti-Islamic deviance, because they lacked the word that would allow them to do so. And then one day, hallelujah, the term Islamophobia was invented and now they could freely repress religious reformers, secularizing intellectuals, and unveiled women. The reasonably critical reader is left flabbergasted by the daftness of the argument. One keeps reading, hoping that Bruckner will attempt to strengthen his case, or cover his tracks … in vain.

Islamophobia is not defined as criticism of Islamic practices in any dictionary, encyclopedia, or scholarly work on the topic. It is generally defined as hostility toward, and discrimination against, people perceived as Muslims. As such, it stands to reason that Islamophobia is a reality. The European Union and the United Nations have programs in place that attempt to quantify Islamophobia. The hostility aspect of Islamophobia manifests itself in acts of degradation or vandalism against mosques or Islamic centers and cemeteries. Hostility also manifests itself in daily acts of aggression, anything from verbal abuse to physical attack and even murder. The number of such acts is constantly increasing in spite of Bruckner’s claim (based on one single year) that the opposite is true: in my hometown of London alone, the Metropolitan Police registered 1,300 Islamophobic hate crimes in the 12 months leading to March 2017, a whopping 370 percent increase over 2013. We have also recently witnessed an unprecedented number of murderous acts: in January of this year, a gunman known for his anti-Muslim views opened fire in a Québec City mosque, killing six and injuring 19. Individuals carrying such acts are not criticizing Islamic practices, they target individuals that they perceive as Muslims for their “Muslimness” and nothing else. When in July of this year a man drove his car into a crowd leaving the Finsbury Park Mosque in London killing one, he shouted, “I want to kill all Muslims” and “This is for London Bridge,” indicating that he considered all Muslims as collectively responsible for an earlier jihadi attack.

Islamophobia can also kill people on the left, as they are seen as the natural allies of “Islam” (what Bruckner calls islamo-gauchisme). When in 2011 Anders Behring Breivik cold-bloodedly murdered 77 innocent people, mostly young members of the Norwegian Labour Party, he believed that by killing left-wing militants he was curtailing the Islamization of Europe. Like Bruckner, Breivik believes that the left and “Islam” are in bed together in an attempt to Islamize Europe. Interestingly, a flick through Breivik’s tedious manifesto 2083: A European Declaration of Independence shows that this latter’s criticism of the term Islamophobia is similar to Bruckner’s, thus revealing broader ideological affinities.

The second aspect of Islamophobia is the experience of discrimination. Some very serious studies show identifiable and quantifiable forms of discrimination against individuals with Muslim-sounding names in the practices of the state or of private entities. For instance, it has been shown by Patrick Simon that if you have a Muslim-sounding name you are at a disadvantage in the dispensation of public housing in France. [2] A compelling study by Adida, Laitin, and Valfort has shown that you are 2.5 times less likely to be shortlisted for a job if you bear a Muslim-sounding name than someone with identical qualifications but a non-Muslim-sounding name. [3] Again, theology has nothing to do with any of this; this type of discriminatory attitude proceeds from deep-seated prejudices against Muslims as a group, something that can reasonably be called Islamophobia so that the phenomenon has a name.

In light of these examples (that could be multiplied), the question is not whether Islamophobia exists, because it does beyond any doubt. Rather, the question is why are Bruckner and other negationists so keen to convince us that it does not. Why do they recoil in horror when they hear the term? I would like to offer an explanation. If one were to grossly divide the French opposition according to various forms of racism, one would end up with two camps. The first group includes the spiritual disciples of Hannah Arendt, who see totalitarianism as the main impetus behind the Holocaust, and are mainly concerned with anti-Semitism as the supreme form of racism. The second group includes the spiritual disciples of Frantz Fanon, who espouse one form or the other of anti-imperialism, and are more focused on colonial and postcolonial forms of racism, including Islamophobia. The two groups are obviously not as neatly separated as I make it appear: after all Hannah Arendt herself contended in the second volume of The Origins of Totalitarianism that racism was made necessary by European imperialism, and that the two were part and parcel of the history of the totalitarian state. Be that as it may, one can consider Bruckner as a thinker clearly anchored within the first group, genuinely concerned about anti-Semitism, and consistently in favor of Israeli and American foreign policies, including this latter’s disastrous invasion of Iraq. He abhors third-worldism, which he scathingly (and indiscriminately) attacked in his 1983 book The Tears of the White Man. Bruckner is one of the most vehement critics of anything smacking of anti-racism, which he considers as racism (you have to admire the audacious inversion). Any acknowledgment of wrongdoing in colonial history is nothing more than “self-hatred.” Therefore, one could claim that Bruckner belongs to an exclusivist strand within the group concerned with totalitarianism, emphatically opposed to any discussion linking colonialism and racism, and rejecting out of hand any claim that postcolonial forms of racism matter or even exist. Beyond the sometimes wild exaggerations and hyperbolic language necessitated by such immoderate stances, the recurrent vocabulary of totalitarianism is an indication of Bruckner’s categories of analysis, perfectly valid otherwise, but here radically disconnected from the topic at hand: he repeatedly claims that Islamophobia is comparable to “totalitarian propaganda,” the censorship methods of the Soviet Union, and a world akin to Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984.

In a vision of the world influenced by Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations, where a neat, clearly delimited, liberal and democratic “West” is pitted against an equally neat, delimited, but repressive and hostile “Islam,” Muslims can only be represented as oppressors, or as oppressed by other Muslims. He claims that even in Myanmar, Muslims are victimized by their own kind, a lie that is frankly detestable in light of current events. In this rigid mental straitjacket, there is no possibility of envisioning a Muslim being simply a victim, especially of a Westerner’s racism, and God forbids a French person’s racism.

It is this ideological baggage that explains the recurrent attempts to delegitimize any discussion of, or research on, Islamophobia. Not because Islamophobia does not exist — it obviously does — but because it is an inconvenient truth that challenges the rather simplistic us versus them, black versus white, ideational universe described above. Bruckner pours ridicule on Muslims who experience gratuitous antagonism or discrimination, by contending that being subjected to racism is not humiliating or traumatizing, but it is a prize, a status, a cachet, that Muslims cunningly seek. Worse, it is a usurpation of the status of the real and exclusive victims of racism: Jews. He contends that by complaining of Islamophobia, Muslims try to pass for Jews, or rather — as he scornfully puts it — “substitute Jews.” He rightly contends that Jews can be “racialized,” and that as a result anti-Semitism is a form of racism. However, he denies that racialization can be applied to Muslims. In other terms, you are born a Jew but being Muslim is voluntary. This curious contradictory claim runs in the face of a significant literature that highlights that anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are both characterized by discursive dynamics that “racialize” the followers of a faith into a group with inherent psychological characteristics.

How can a thinker so genuinely touched by the plight of the victims of anti-Semitism be so insensitive to the plight of victims of Islamophobia? The answer is inescapable: for Bruckner, there is a hierarchy of racisms. Some are unacceptable, some are acceptable, a binary that reflects a hierarchy of humankind in Bruckner’s mind.

Anyone who opens Bruckner’s book hoping that he might be the long-awaited freethinker who will at long last transcend the above described divide between the opponents of anti-Semitism and colonial racisms, and make the overdue point that racism is always unacceptable, will be disappointed. Un racisme imaginaire is a collection of hackneyed attacks on the field of Islamophobia studies, and not a work concerned with objective facts. It is a cross between a long rant and an ideological pamphlet. Undoubtedly, there will be no shortage of readers happy to absolve its shortcomings and its ideological fanfare as the mostly positive reviews in the French media suggest. Yet, it remains that the book is addressed to a public that has already made up its mind on Islamophobia. For the rest of us, who expect claims to be backed up with a modicum of evidence or rational argumentation, the book is merely a primary source, a document that helps us gauge the state of the intellectual debate in the age of “fake news” and “alternative facts.”


Reza Zia-Ebrahimi is a Senior Lecturer in History at King’s College London. His work is situated at the juncture between global intellectual history and ethnic studies. He has worked on the development of dislocative nationalism in Iran in the period 1860–1979, focusing on the hybridization of European ideas of nation and race by Iranian intellectuals. Currently, his research centers on a parallel study of antisemitism and Islamophobia from the mid-19th century onward. The incidence of conspiracy thinking on strategies of racialization is at the heart of this new research agenda.


[1] Caroline Fourest and Fiammetta Venner, “Islamophobie ?!”, ProChoix, 12 November 2003.

[2] Patrick Simon, “La discrimination: contexte institutionnel et perception par les immigrés”, Hommes & migrations, no. 1211(1998).

[3] Claire L Adida, David D Laitin, and Marie-Anne Valfort, “Identifying barriers to Muslim integration in France,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107, no. 52 (2010).

LARB Contributor

Reza Zia-Ebrahimi is a Senior Lecturer in History at King’s College London. His work is situated at the juncture between global intellectual history and ethnic studies. He has worked on the development of dislocative nationalism in Iran in the period 1860–1979, focusing on the hybridization of European ideas of nation and race by Iranian intellectuals. Currently, his research centers on a parallel study of antisemitism and Islamophobia from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. The incidence of conspiracy thinking on strategies of racialization is at the heart of this new research agenda.


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