Investigating the social sciences at the university: how to get out of the controversies over ” Islamo-leftism “?


With “Islamo-leftism” , the public debate turns to muddled controversy, and to controversy that is not very scientific.

Couldn’t we approach things differently, and back up the reflection and the positions taken on rigorous knowledge and precise information? Wouldn’t that be better than political statements and repeated petitions in which there are tens or hundreds and over the course of which two camps assert themselves without really debating?

And in this spirit, why not seize on the fly the project of a “sociological survey” formulated by Minister Vidal, who has announced that she wants to entrust it to the CNRS, and consider on the basis of a set of problems that are not limited to an aggressive neologism and a few key words, starting with “intersectionality”, which acts as a foil for some, a rallying sign for others?

Need for an independent investigation

It is not insulting the CNRS to say that it cannot launch such an investigation: it would indeed be judge and party, since in the human and social sciences, its staff, and not only its researchers, frequently carry out their activities at within university laboratories, and in particular mixed research units that it co-finances.

An investigation should be independent and scientific. One could think of HCERES (High Council for the Evaluation of Research and Higher Education), but some might consider the organization too close to power .

The investigation should be piloted by an indisputable international commission. This would also allow the power to respond to concerns within the university community which lead, not without some reason so far, to a parallel with the Hungary of Viktor Orban, where academic freedoms are seriously alienated .

From there, three distinct levels of analysis call for clarification.

An investigation into “Islamo-leftism”?

The first level, still elementary, is the one at which the debate is currently situated. The multiple statements of Minister Vidal cover some very interesting questions. Some relate to the very notion of “Islamo-leftism”, controversial and stigmatizing for Islam as a whole. It would be a first task of the investigation to see if it can or not be transformed into a concept, and become respectful of this religion which is Islam – “Islamo” indeed designates the religion, and not the only variants. Islamists.

It will then be necessary to provide concrete illustrations of the relevance of this application of this concept for French universities: where, when, how, to whom does it deserve to be applied? The investigation will have to establish the facts, specify the actors, which comes up against the major risk of neo-McCarthyism: its system must imperatively include a solid ethics committee.

Other questions arise from the amalgamation which associates without solid demonstration until now this “Islam-leftism” with postcolonial studies, with certain feminist or anti-racist currents, with the action of the American far right fascist during the events of the Capitol (January 6, 2021), and for the use of categories largely imported from the United States, be it “intersectionality” or the new vocabulary of “race”: “racization”, “Racialized”, “social relations of race”, etc.

Each of these categories should be examined in itself, and in its system-forming links between them and with the theme of “Islamo-leftism”, whether in terms of words, writings, or practices. Is there, or is there not, a renewal of categories, ways of thinking, issues that the university, in accordance with its vocation, must accept and put to the test of debate, for example during conferences, or in scientific journals?

Thus, to open up one avenue among many others, it could be interesting to see how researchers oppose, exchange, or could debate, some granting in their analysis of contemporary racism the primacy of social issues – that is, is the position recently adopted by Gérard Noiriel and Stéphane Beaud – others, to a specificity of questions of “race”, this is the case of a number of works relating to Postcolonial Studies, and still others like the intersection of various discriminations, racial, gender, social, etc. – this is the issue of “intersectionality” so often caricatured, negatively, or symmetrically praised without nuance or distance.

This type of questioning certainly calls for the examination of the mixture of genres, which means that the scientific debate, instead of taking place in arenas dedicated to it, becomes a matter of the media, even of social networks, where quality, rigor and the requirement are necessarily lost. With “Islamo-leftism”, we are certainly at the heart of this type of confusion. Who maintains it, and how, how are university life articulated with that of the press and television?

Crisis, or renewal of the debate?

Such questions put us on the path to a second level of analysis: if they arise, what do they bear witness to: a crisis, academic, or even broader, institutional, or the birth of new debates and conflicts ? To situate ourselves on this level, which is classic in sociological analysis, it is necessary to distinguish what is at play within research and higher education establishments, and what torments society as a whole.

Rather than saying, after students were virtually ignored by the government during nearly a year of health crisis, and as we often hear, that the university is not isolated from society, and that it is crossed by the same problems as it, it is better to note here, first of all, that it is healthy and normal for researchers to carry out work having some connection with the general movement of society, and that teachings provide, with all the necessary distance, the insights relating to this movement.

Society, despite the health crisis, continues to debate religion, secularism, racism, anti-Semitism, it is animated by feminist, anti-racist and other protests: how the university, how the human and social sciences could they stay away?

At all times, major contemporary questions have also given rise to commitments in the university, debates which are obviously not all scientific, far from it, and which even when they are scientific, can be extremely hard: is this why is it, or an operation to destroy the Republic as claimed by the organic intellectuals of power? Of intellectual construction maintaining some link with social life, or of crisis behaviors ordered by the decomposition of university life?

The recent controversies encouraged by the minister have two effects, both negative. The first is to immediately disqualify the supporters of certain categories, such as “interactionism”, “race”, without listening to them – it is true that the refusal to exchange and listen is often shared by these same supporters. The second, precisely, is to refuse and prohibit any debate, as if there was only a closed field where the valiant defenders of secularism, the Republic, the universal, and the new barbarians.

The investigation announced by the Minister, if properly conducted, could help put an end to this Schmittian vision of academic and intellectual life, in which there would be only two camps to choose from, friends, and enemies. Obviously, it will require patience and an appropriate methodology, including a prolonged “field” and a real capacity to enter into relations with the actors concerned.

Also at this level, the investigation should take into account what is content of research, what is teaching, and what is general climate, possibly in the form of pressure, intimidation, various prohibitions of expression, boycott of lecturers, sabotage of conferences, of seminar courses – it is not certain that “Islamo-leftism” appears in the front line here. What are the teachings, courses, seminars and other practical or supervised work that fall under this category, but also any other supposed perversion of thought denounced by the right and the far right, who attributes them, to whom are they entrusted? , how, for which audiences?

Such an orientation of the inquiry implies examining the very conditions of university life. Do those in charge still have the means and the will to avoid anything that puts academic freedom at stake internally? It is here the action, or inaction of those in charge that deserves examination, and not only if it is about the supposed articulation of leftism and Islam. The sociology of organizations could be usefully mobilized on this level.

Responsibilities here are not limited to higher education and research institutions alone. They are also to be sought within the framework of the entire institutional system, starting with the Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation.

The Minister denounces Islamo-leftism in the Universities. But what does she really know, how is she informed? What about the role of the Scientific Committee for the Prevention of Radicalization, COSPRAD, installed by it and Secretary of State Laurent Nunez on April 2, 2019 in order, said the press release, to

“To facilitate interactions between public administrations and researchers in the human and social sciences, to propose priority lines of research on questions of radicalization, to disseminate good practices, to encourage reflection on access to sensitive data by in terms of radicalization, to contribute to the promotion of research results in the human and social sciences and their reuse for the benefit of public policies ”.

Does she really know what the Athena alliance is for , to whom she initially wanted to entrust this investigation? The investigation should focus on this ministry, its functioning, its networks, its management of university-type establishments, its way of solving problems, its usefulness perhaps even – it also has its part in this file, which does not is just one element of a much larger whole: France’s research and higher education policy.

Likewise, is our country threatened by the same evils as the United States, where indeed it becomes difficult to have a university position when one is described as “a dominant white male”? Recent developments in the procedures for allocating posts in universities, or the debates which agitate the CNRS as soon as the management refuses to follow the choices of one of its Commissions, reveal problems which, without being those of the ” Islamo-leftism ”are part of the same overall landscape, which is that of a crisis of the university system, in the broad sense, torn by logics, some categorial or corporatist, others elitist, others still dominated by more or less technocratic budgetary and management criteria.

A political dossier

The third level of inquiry that should be conducted is eminently political, and should be considered without fear of examining the highest summits of the state. Minister Vidal, by her recent declarations, has aroused strong reactions, in particular relating to the liberticidal threats posed by her project of investigation, or the temptations that she authorizes for logics of denunciation. It is not because President Macron would then have “reframed” it – a somewhat infantilizing approach – that it acted completely autonomously.

The investigation should here consider the precise political conditions which led to his declarations, the way in which the Head of State tolerates, or provokes a massive right-winging of some of his ministers, the game which is maintained with the organic intellectuals who go in the same sense, the political and political implications of what is at stake there. It should at the same time examine the political and intellectual responses brought to the action of the authorities in this matter.

We do not need an investigation that would only take place at the first of these three levels: it is time to take height, and to mobilize the human and social sciences, in their capacity to produce answers to some questions, even poorly worded.

Author Bio: Michel Wieviorka is a Sociologist