In his article Islamophobia: a French Specificity in Europe? Vincent Geisser argues that while French society and culture exhibit symptoms of Islamophobia, there is no official prejudice against Muslims and that those who claim that France or the French government is Islamophobic are guilty of inappropriately using the term. Instead, Geisser asserts, these perceived symptoms of Islamophobia are more nuanced and derived from cultural and historical causes within French society. What ultimately happens is that French society aims to convert or transform potentially dangerous aspects of political Islam into a more Western and Francophone friendly version of itself. In what follows, I will offer a critical response to Geisser’s proposed definition of Islamophobia, arguing ultimately that it is inadequate.
One assumption that Geisser makes is that the degree to which a country can be considered Islamophobic relies predominantly upon the explicit nature of its political institutions. That is to say, in order to properly declare that France was more Islamophobic than, say, England, France’s government would likely, or even probably, demonstrate some form of institutional prejudice against Islam as a whole or Muslims as a cohesive group (whether perceived or actual). Lacking the evidence of any such overt governmental prejudices, on Geisser’s view, France cannot be genuinely described as Islamophobic.
However, this seems to be an inadequate measure of Islamophobia since nearly all countries devoted, either genuinely or in rhetoric alone, to Western and liberal ideals (e.g. equality, rule of law, and democracy) would seek to avoid such overtly prejudice institutions for fear of domestic and international repercussions. Rather, the covert forms of prejudice such as anti-Islamic newspaper and magazine articles, reports on the evening news, social media from politicians, and the plethora of websites devoted to condemning the actions and beliefs of Muslims the world over ought to be taken into account as well. [Yet this is just one suggestion. A truly comprehensive measure of Islamophobia would be multi-dimensional and account for other aspects as well such as attitudinal measures.]
Another assumption that Geisser makes is that the presence of a historically antagonistic and changing relationship between French society and Islam somehow discounts or eliminates the possibility of Islamophobia. He argues that because the relationship between these two entities has been amicable at some times and hostile others, it does not or should not count as a case of Islamophobia. However, this seems to ignore the entire problem with Islamophobia and commits the fallacy of origins. It simply does not matter whether or not Islamophobia has developed as an entirely new phenomenon of its own or external accord, but whether or not it is present at all. Instances of anti-Islamic behavior mark a disturbing aspect of the general population’s social beliefs and actions that must be eliminated through education and tolerance.
Furthermore, Geisser states that instances of Islamophobia reduce to “assaults on Muslims and attacks on mosques.” However, Islamophobic behavior is not just limited to physical violence. This ignores the belief aspect of Islamophobia, arguably the most crucial aspect of the phenomenon, while focusing almost solely on the action aspect. But Islamophobic behavior is not just limited to that which is violent and aimed at Muslims. It can be public criticisms in the media, it can be racial slurs that appear on Internet websites and blogs, or it could be just prejudice and generalized beliefs held by a particular person. Geisser’s assumption is thus too reductionistic to be adequate.
Regarding the evidence for his own view, Geisser advances a historical argument that charts the various shifts in how French citizens and Muslims related and interacted. He notes that during the Middle Ages when Christendom was struggling to establish itself as a global power, European Christians viewed Muslims as a mortal enemy. This alleviated some of the sectarian tensions temporarily. Later, during the French Revolution, Islam was viewed more favorably by society since they were not associated with the Catholic Church, at the time, the revolutionaries’ most detested enemy to advancement and change. During this time, Geisser asserts, Muslims were viewed as an exotic and “outstandingly liberal” people due to their social and sexual norms. Yet this view, according to Geisser, was replaced by a more Eurocentric one due to the successes of modern science as well as the imperial conquests of various European nations. This sense of superiority led to a denigration of Muslim peoples and their culture. And, as Geisser notes, the consequences of these French imperialistic actions are still recorded in the minds of the conquered Muslim groups in places like Algeria.
Next, Geisser, in discussing the intricacies of the French/Islam relationship, argues that the lack of institutionalized Islamophobia within the French state is further aided by a “cold tolerance” towards Islam in general. Acknowledging the existence of institutions such as the French Council of the Muslim Faith and the Regional Councils of the Muslim Faith, Geisser argues that the French government is not against Islam, per se, but the public officials and politicians do want to transform the culture and the religion into something that can be properly and completely assimilated into French society without detrimental effects for the native population. Geisser’s sentiment is summed up perfectly by this quote “According to the French republican norm, a perfect Muslim is one who has given up a part of his faith, beliefs and ‘outdated’ religious practices.”
Overall, Geisser’s argument is not effective or convincing. Due to the lack of conceptual adequacy and , I cannot say that I agree with Geisser when he says that France is no more Islamophobic than any other European nation. Because he defines Islamophobia in such an excessively narrow way, his concept it is found to be lacking. The way he defines related key concepts concerning Islamophobia seem to make caricatures of the real issues at hand. While he does provide somewhat credible evidence, he can also be considered guilty of committing the stacking the deck fallacy. He does not adequately explore, for instance, French society’s push to remove the hijabs from Muslim women (viewed by most as a form of cultural chauvinism which directly ties into Islamophobia). Nor does Geisser fully report all the different kinds of Islamophobic activities and crimes committed in recent times. As a result, his work was already outdated because he did not explore the proper scope of research and the situation in France has changed significantly in the two years since the article was published.