Academic freedom is not only at risk in authoritarian regimes. The recent governmental crusade against 'islamo-leftism' in French universities shows it can happen in democracies, too. Nonna Mayer goes back to the origins of the campaign. Here, she analyses the political instrumentalisation of a term intended to intimidate social scientists
Social scientists show the world as it is, not as it should be. We expose false beliefs; we disturb and antagonise those who govern. In authoritarian regimes, academics can be jailed, tortured or even killed for what they write and teach.
In established democracies, such attacks are less brutal, but still cause damage. We see this clearly in the recent crusade against 'islamo-leftism' supposedly contaminating French universities. On the face of it, this may appear a very French debate. However, it shines a useful light on how democratic governments worldwide risk curbing academic freedom.
The debate on 'islamo-leftism' in French universities shines a useful light on how democratic governments worldwide risk curbing academic freedom
The campaign started in October 2020. It was a few days after the murder of Samuel Paty, the schoolteacher decapitated for showing cartoons of the Prophet.
France's Minister of Education, Jean-Michel Blanquer, publicly denounced what he termed islamo-leftism. He declared that this ideology 'wreaks havoc' in French universities and can 'lead to the worst', evoking 'intellectual complicities' with terrorism.
In February 2021, Minister for Higher Education and Research Frédérique Vidal likened islamo-leftism to a 'gangrene' spreading through society, academia included. She announced her aim to establish a clear distinction between 'what is academic research and what is activism' in French universities. To this end, she tasked the CNRS (National Centre for Scientific Research) with conducting an assessment of all research undertaken.
Political scientist Pierre-André Taguieff coined the term islamo-leftism in 2002. He used it to describe the convergence between far-left anti-Zionist militant groups and Islamists defending the Palestinian cause. In Taguieff's eyes, these group share a selective antiracism, substituting antisemitism with islamophobia as the principal threat to Western society.
Since then, Taguieff has gradually extended the scope of the term. Islamo-leftism can now encompass 'misandrist' (man-hating) feminism, intersectionalism, decolonialism, post-colonialism and, more recently, wokism and cancel culture. Thus, the term has come to embody a mishmash of ideologies Taguieff sees as anti-white, anti-West, anti-universalist and alien to French culture.
Education Minister Blanquer tends to agree with Taguieff:
There is a fight to be waged against an intellectual matrix coming from American universities and intersectional theses, which want to essentialise communities and identities, at the antipodes of our republican model which, for its part, postulates equality between human beings, regardless of their characteristics of origin, sex, religion. It is the breeding ground for a fragmentation of our society and a vision of the world that converges with the interests of the Islamists. This reality has plagued a significant part of French social sciences in particularInterview in Le Journal du Dimanche, 25 October 2020
The phenomenon reflects a deep identity malaise, especially among the older generations, in the face of an increasingly multicultural society in which women, sexual minorities, ethnic and religious groups seek to make their voices heard, and where France’s colonial past is revisited.
When social scientists show how inequality stems not only from class but also gender, religion, and origin, they touch a sensitive spot. The scarecrow of islamo-leftism is a useful way for the government to distract attention from these major issues. But flirting with the obsessions of the far right could backfire, helping Marine Le Pen's Rassemblement National pick up valuable votes.
There were early warning signs of a conflict between political elites and academia. After the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, Prime Minister Manuel Valls castigated those who sought 'cultural or sociological explanations for terrorism'. He argued that 'wanting to explain is already wanting to excuse, ever so little'.
June 2020 saw youth demonstrations against police violence in France. In response, President Emmanuel Macron blamed the social sciences for 'ethnicising' the debate, encouraging secessionism and 'splitting the Republic in two'. But never have the attacks gone as far as the present ones. Nor have they been so widely relayed by media on the right and far right, and by prominent intellectuals including Alain Finkielkraut, Bernard-Henri Lévy and Caroline Fourest.
Ironically, Vidal never launched her investigation of French research. It was merely a 'declaration of intent', as a leaked document of the Ministry of Higher Education clearly shows. Thus, the lawsuit filed at the time against Vidal for 'abuse of power' by a group of academics had no legal base. Much ado about nothing, but the harm is done.
The crusade against islamo-leftism deeply fractured the academic community, part of which supported Blanquer and Vidal from the start. Supporters included signatories of the Manifesto of the 100, Vigilance Universités and founders of the Observatory of Decolonialism.
A violent hate campaign has gained force on social networks and websites against supposed islamo-leftists. Its supporters delegitimise research on gender, race, racism, discrimination, colonialism, as well as concepts such as intersectionality, islamophobia, and systemic racism, although international social science does currently use them. Worse, it damages prospects for young researchers. As a recent op-ed in Le Monde by the academics who filed a suit against Vidal points out:
The result of these campaigns are abandoned research orientations, discouraged vocations, theses that will not see the light of day, articles and books that will not be published, funding not allocated, positions not createdLe Monde, 29 March 2023
No one knows what the chimera of tomorrow will be. But academic freedom in France is already under threat, and we must be ready for it. In a joint initiative, the French Political Science Association and the French Association of Sociology have just launched an Observatory of Attacks on Academic Freedom. It's an initiative that could not have come at a better time.