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The Fantasies of Kamel Daoud

[Screenshot from France Inter interview with Kamel Daoud. Image from Youtube] [Screenshot from France Inter interview with Kamel Daoud. Image from Youtube]

[This collective letter, translated by Muriam Haleh Davis, was originally a response to Kamel Daoud’s piece, “Cologne, lieu de fantasmes,” in which he purports to analyze the allegations of sexual violence committed by refugees in Germany that occurred on New Year’s Eve. Both articles – Daoud’s piece and the collective response – appeared in the French newspaper Le Monde on the 31 January and 11 February, respectively. Subsequent to their publication, German investigations have shown that most of the perpetrators were neither refugees nor new arrivals in Europe. Moreover, given Daoud’s piece in the New York Times this past Friday, entitled “The Sexual Misery of the Arab World,” the signatories of this letter felt that an English translation was necessary since our criticisms also apply to his more recent intervention. The original French version of this letter, with the same signatories, is available here. This letter does not reflect the views of the Maghreb Page Editors or of Jadaliyya.]

In an article published in Le Monde on 31 January 2016, the journalist and writer Kamel Daoud proposes to analyze “that which happened in Cologne on New Year’s Eve.” However, rather than an analysis, this self-proclaimed humanist delivers a series of embarrassing clichés regarding the refugees that come from Muslim countries. While proclaiming his desire to deconstruct the caricatures promoted by “the right and extreme-right” of the political spectrum, the author recycles the most well-worn orientalist clichés - from Islam as a religion of death (Renan) to the psychology of the Arab crowds (Le Bon). Far from offering a profound and detached approach to the question - something that is required given the gravity of the current situation – Daoud’s article only feeds the Islamophobic fantasies of a growing proportion of the European (and American) public [1] under the comfortable pretext of refusing to engage in a naive optimism (angélisme). 

Essentialism

Daoud’s text is based on three logics that, though typical of a culturalist approach that has been the object of critique for the last forty years, are still extremely dangerous. First of all, Daoud reduces a geographical space that includes more than a billion individuals and occupies several thousand kilometers to a homogenous entity that is solely defined by its relationship to religion, i.e. “the world of Allah.” All the men who live in this region are thus prisoners of God and a pathological relationship to sexuality determines their acts. The “world of Allah” is that of pain and frustration. Undoubtedly influenced by his experiences during the Algerian civil war (1992-1999), Daoud hardly bothers to nuance the idea that Islamists are the driving force behind this logic of death. In this a-sociological vision that constructs a non-existent space as the object of analysis, the occident appears as home to a happy and emancipatory modernity. The reality of the multiple forms of inequality and violence that women experience in Europe and North America naturally goes without mention. This radical essentialism produces a fantastical geography that opposes a world of submission and alienation to a world of liberation and education.

Psychologization 

Kamel Daoud purports to diagnose the psychological state of the Muslim masses. In so doing, he situates the responsibility for sexual violence in the psychology of individuals who are seen as deviant, while also denying these people the slightest trace of autonomy. Religion, after all, entirely determines their acts. Muslims appear as prisoners of an Islamist discourse and are reduced to a state of suicidal passivity (they are “zombies” and “kamikazes”). Thus, according to Daoud, once they arrive in Europe, refugees are forced to culturally withdraw due to their uprooting (déracinement). This is when the herd mentality (retour du grégaire) inevitably takes hold and is then turned against women, who are both the object of hate and desire (this is especially true of so-called “liberated” women). 

To psychologize sexual violence is doubly problematic. On the one hand, it erases the social, political, and economic conditions that increase the likelihood of these acts (one could speak of the housing conditions of the refugees or the circumstances of their emigration that encourage a high proportion of young males). On the other hand, it portrays a mass of refugees who are potential sexual predators since they all suffer from the same psychological disease. Even Pegida would not have gone so far [2].

Discipline 

“Is the refugee thus a ‘savage’?” asks Daoud. While he responds in the negative, merely posing the question reinforces the idea of an absolute otherness.  This amalgam weighs on all asylum seekers who are subsequently viewed as an external mass of frustrated individuals that resemble the living dead. Having nothing to collectively offer western societies, they also lose the right to their individual stories; the diversity and richness of their experiences are simply erased. Culturally ill-adapted and psychologically deviant, refugees must be – above all – re-educated. Since Daoud is not satisfied to merely offer a diagnosis, he also proposes a familiar solution: one must “offer asylum to the body but also convince the soul to change.” 

The project that he proposes is clearly disciplinary, invoking both cultural and psychological reforms. In other words, certain values must be imposed onto this sick mass of people, beginning with a respect for women. This project is scandalous not only because it harkens back to the well-known history of the civilizing mission in France, but also because it invokes the alleged superiority of so-called “western values.” Beyond this colonialist paternalism, he affirms that in contrast to a “naïve optimism (angélisme) that kills,” the deviant culture of the Muslim masses represents a real danger for Europe. He thus makes welcoming those who have fled war and devastation subject to certain conditions. In this, his discourse is resolutely anti-humanist, regardless of what Daoud himself proclaims.

What Does Daoud Represent? 

In the footsteps of other Algerian writers such as Rachid Boudjedra or Bousalem Sansal, Kamel Daoud speaks as an intellectual who is part of a secular minority in his country, where he struggles against a sometimes violent puritanism. In the European context, however, he espouses an Islamophobia that has become dominant. Beyond Daoud’s article itself, we are alarmed by the increasingly common tendency in Europe to racialize these incidents of sexual violence. We are alarmed by the fact that racist discourses are cloaked in humanist values that have never seemed so tattered. We are alarmed to see that an extremely serious event in Cologne is serving as a pretext to encourage violent political projects. Faced with unprecedented violence, it is surely necessary to stick to the facts, as Daoud suggests. It should be possible to do this without adopting the same, tired, Islamophobic clichés. Yet, the current climate seems to prevent such an approach.

Noureddine Amara (historian), Joel Beinin (historian), Houda Ben Hamouda (historian), Benoît Challand (sociologist), Jocelyne Dakhlia (historian), Sonia Dayan-Herzbrun (sociologist), Muriam Haleh Davis (historian), Giulia Fabbiano (anthropologist), Darcie Fontaine (historian), David Theo Goldberg (philosopher), Ghassan Hage (anthropologist), Laleh Khalili (anthropologist), Tristan Leperlier (sociologist), Nadia Marzouki (political scientist), Pascal Ménoret (anthropologist), Stéphanie Pouessel (anthropologist), Elizabeth Shakman Hurd (political scientist), Thomas Serres (political scientist), Seif Soudani (journalist).


[1] The section in parenthesis was added by the translator.

[2] Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West) is a far-right German group.

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