The French left does political correctness and moral outrage much better than the American left, so the row over what Algerian novelist and journalist Kamal Daoud recently said about sex in the Arab world has been bigger and louder in France than in the United States. But it is equally stupid in both places.
Kamal Daoud’s day job is writing for a French-language daily in Oran but he is a big new name in French literature, having won the prestigious Prix Goncourt last year for his first novel. And being a journalist, he wrote a couple of opinion pieces about the mass sexual assaults on German women by Muslim men (some of them recently arrived refugees) in Cologne, Hamburg and Stuttgart last New Year’s Eve.
One article went to Le Monde in Paris, the other to the New York Times. In both, Daoud deplored the exploitation of the attacks by right-wing parties in Europe, where almost a million Muslim refugees have arrived in the past year and anxieties about a “cultural invasion” are high. But he also wrote about the task facing Europeans who have to integrate these immigrants into their society, and he didn’t pull his punches.
“(The immigrant) comes from a vast, appalling, painful universe - an Arab-Muslim world full of sexual misery, with its sick relationship towards woman, the human body, desire. Merely taking him in is not a cure,” he wrote in Le Monde.
He warned that giving Muslim refugees in Europe “papers and a place in a hostel is not enough. It is not just the physical body that needs asylum. It is also the soul that needs to be persuaded to change.” This task will take a very long time, and Europeans should be aware that.
This is what really enraged the right-thinking opinion leaders of the French left. A “collective” of intellectuals and academics published a counter-article in Le Monde in which they accused Daoud of “feeding the Islamophobic fantasies of a growing part of the European population.”
But the worst betrayal was by Daoud’s close American friend Adam Shatz, who wrote a long and favourable profile of him for the New York Times last year. "It is very hard for me to imagine that you truly believe what you have written,” Shatz wrote in the same paper last month. “This is not the Kamal Daoud that I know.”
Daoud is being punished for speaking the truth – that the sexual attitudes of Muslims recently arrived in Europe often differ drastically from those of the Christian and post-Christian majority – but he would have suffered less abuse if he had put this difference in its proper historical context.
The sexual inequalities, dysfunctions, fantasies and hang-ups that he identifies as a specifically Islamic burden were almost all present in Christian societies too just a few centuries ago. Even today radical Christian sects (and ultra-orthodox Jews) struggle under the same burden.
It is the same because Muslims, Christians and Jews actually belong to the same broad civilisation and the same religious tradition – Muhammad, Jesus and Abraham were all born within a long day’s drive of one another – so all they inherited the same brand of patriarchy.
The Christian societies (if you can still call them that) are escaping from it now because they got a couple of centuries’ head start on the Muslims in the process we call “modernisation”. It’s not really a fundamental cultural difference at all. It’s just a question of dates, but that means that at the moment the differences are very real – which is all Daoud is really saying.
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