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In August 2011, in the midst of the Arab Spring, Zineb El Rhazoui, a young Moroccan-French woman, stood in a packed forum on human rights in the Arab world and launched a strong attack against Driss El Yazami, the president of Morocco’s Human Rights Council, blaming him for ignoring the myriad oppressions inflicted on human rights activists in Morocco. Zineb, a self-proclaimed atheist, had already an impressive number of activism credentials to her name, including being cofounder of the Alternative Movement for Individual Liberties (known in French as MALI), which became famous for challenging the penal code criminalizing fasting in public during Ramadan. She was a journalist out of a job, too, and she was upset.
At that time, she chose the wrong target because I know very few people in Morocco, or in the Muslim world, who are as committed to human rights or to a secular society as El Yazami was and still is, so I wasn't surprised when El Yazami gave a superbly nuanced response, pointing out the cultural hurdles facing human rights activists in a Muslim-majority nation like Morocco. Because El Yazami was a reformer from within the system, not an activist agitating against it, he wasn't properly heard by those in attendance.
Zineb, who is associated with Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical weekly targeted by Muslim terrorists in 2015, and is currently under police protection, is back with a more powerful global voice. In her new manifesto, Détruire le Fascisme Islamique (How to destroy Islamic fascism), she is angrier than ever, but her target is now more focused, which makes her case more powerful and, to me, impossible to contest. Calling Western liberals who are always eager to dissociate mainstream Islam from Islamic terrorism “useful idiots,” she reminds her readers that Muslim terrorists derive their legitimacy from the same canonical texts mainstream Muslims do, and to criminalize any criticism of Islam as racism or “Islamophobia” (a punishable crime in France) is to silence all criticism of an ideology that is quite violent. She calls the term “Islamophobia” a “semantic ruse” designed to make Islamic violence an aberration, not a core ideology of the religion itself. The Salafists who choose to wear certain clothes and live a certain way are inspired by early Islam and the ways of the Prophet, the ne plus ultra model of all Muslims. Both are antithetical to peace and life in a civilized society.
One just has to look at the map of the world to realize that no Muslim-majority nation is part of the free world. This is a world where Allah’s supremacy is uncontested; where adoption is outlawed because the Prophet chose to marry his adopted son’s wife; where non-Islamic practices (such as engaging in pre-marital sex, drinking alcohol, changing religion, using the wrong dress code, etc.) are severely punished, sometimes by death. Islam, which means submission in Arabic, is imposed through terror; it is not an act of free choice, as many apologists in the Muslim world never cease to repeat. Any Muslim who adheres to its tenets is, in Zineb’s view, a “jihad reservist.”
Why would the Western left respect a religion that claims that its Prophet was born clean, circumcised, with kohl-shaded eyes, has the sexual prowess of thirty men and can satisfy his eleven wives in quick succession in one hour? Why would they defend a religion that sexualizes and hides most of the woman’s body? Why would they agree with so-called imams (religious leaders) who never question their canonical texts? Since there is no idea of democracy in Islam, why would they support a religion that only recognizes the rights of the majority (mob rule) and tramples over the rights of minorities?
Given that Western leftists are not addressing these questions (partly because they turned Islam into a race), they have become more than “useful idiots.” Zineb actually calls them accomplices and collaborationists who are, through their confused thinking, pushing the world and its people towards more violence. While Muslims, as human beings, must be respected, Islam, as an ideology, must be contested and removed from politics, if the world is going to be spared further terror.
Zineb is not alone in accusing Western progressives and liberals. In his recent book, Le Mépris Civilsé (Civilized contempt), the Swiss Israeli psychologist and writer, Carlo Strenger, thinks that the European left has failed to stand up for the values of the Enlightenment, which was kick started by the likes of Spinoza in the 17th century. With the failure of Communist and Maoist ideologies in the 20th century, many of these leftists chose self-flagellation over critique and found refuge in identity politics, or political correctness. They have chosen a form of tolerance that doesn’t reflect the spirit of the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on the scientific method and the rejection of false or unproven facts. And just like Islamophobia has stymied all genuine critique of Islam, the charge of Eurocentrism is no less disabling to liberal thinkers. The latter find it difficult to state that Western civilization, despite its innumerable flaws, is the most advanced in world history, that the world’s free states today are mostly Western states, or that Abrahamic religious accounts, like the order to sacrifice Isaac (or Ishmael in Islam) for the sake of God, are just too offensive to be taken seriously.
Political correctness, for Strenger, is dumbing down education, encouraging resentment, protecting students from feelings of failure, and allowing most of the world’s population to feel comfortable adhering to religious views that do not make any sense in our modern times. It only delays the day of reckoning, when civilizations clash (as Samuel Huntington presciently predicted), not when liberal democracy triumphs (as Francis Fukuyama wrongly concluded).
Trapped in their paralyzing malaise, Western liberals and progressives have abandoned the defense of human rights, freedom of expression, and gender equality in Muslim-majority communities to conservative, right-wing movements and dealt another blow to their cause. The only way to get out of this moral impasse is for them to adopt what Strenger calls an attitude of “civilized contempt” of anything that undermines the values of the Enlightenment, regardless of their origin.
Last October, Zineb came to New York to attend a meeting and gave an interview to the New York Times. The interview didn’t make national headlines. That was and still is a mistake. Had the U.S. mainstream media given her a prominent voice, she might have preempted the right-wing agenda that played a role in the outcome of the presidential elections. The TV host Bill Maher cannot all by himself reverse the deafening silence of the Western media on this subject.
Strenger is right: The Enlightenment legacy is truly the only thing standing between a civilized future and a world of terror and endless suffering. Any liberal or progressive who doesn't get this is dangerously mistaken.
Anouar Majid is founding director of the Center for Global Humanities in Portland, Maine; founding director of the Tangier Global Forum in Morocco; and Vice President for Global Affairs at the University of New England in Maine, USA. He has written many books and articles on the West, Islam, and the clash of ideologies in the modern world. Majid is also a novelist, the author of Si Yussef (1992, 2005).