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Open Letter: the threat of academic authoritarianism – international solidarity with antiracist academics in France

Tuesday 10 November 2020

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A critical response to the Manifesto signed by over 100 French academics and published in the newspaper Le Monde on 2 November 2020, after the assassination of the school teacher, Samuel Paty.

At a time of mounting racism, white supremacism, antisemitism and violent far-right extremism, academic freedom has come under attack. The freedom to teach and research the roots and trajectories of race and racism are being perversely blamed for the very phenomena they seek to better understand. Such is the contention of a manifesto signed by over 100 French academics and published in the newspaper Le Monde on 2 November 2020 [1]. Its signatories state their agreement with French Minister of Education, Jean-Michel Blanquer, that ‘indigenist, racialist, and “decolonial” ideologies,’ imported from North America, were responsible for ‘conditioning’ the violent extremist who assassinated school teacher, Samuel Paty, on 16 October 2020.

This claim is deeply disingenuous, and in a context where academics associated with critical race and decolonial research have recently received death threats, it is also profoundly dangerous. The scholars involved in this manifesto have readily sacrificed their credibility in order to further a manifestly false conflation between the study of racism in France and a politics of ‘Islamism’ and ‘anti-white hate’. They have launched it in a context where academic freedom in France is subject to open political interference, following a Senate amendment that redefines and limits it to being ‘exercised with respect for the values of the Republic’ [2].

The manifesto proposes nothing short of a McCarthyist process to be led by the French Ministry for Higher Education, Research and Innovation to weed out ‘Islamist currents’ within universities, to take a clear position on the ‘ideologies that underpin them’, and to ‘engage universities in a struggle for secularism and the Republic’ by establishing a body responsible for dealing with cases that oppose ‘Republican principles and academic freedom’. The ‘Islamogauchiste’ tag (which conflates the words ‘Islam’ and ‘leftists’) is now widely used by members of the government, large sections of the media and hostile academics. It is reminiscent of the antisemitic ‘Judeo-Bolshevism’ accusation in the 1930s which blamed the spread of communism on Jews. The ‘Islamogauchiste’ notion is particularly pernicious as it voluntarily confuses Islam (and Muslims) with Jihadist Islamists. In other words, academics who point out racism against the Muslim minority in France are branded allies of Islamist terrorists and enemies of the nation.

This is not the only contradiction that shapes this manifesto. Its signatories appear oblivious to how its feverish tone is redolent of the antisemitic witch-hunts against so-called ‘Cultural Marxists’ that portrayed Jewish intellectuals as enemies of the state. Today’s enemies are Muslims, political antiracists, and decolonial thinkers, as well as anyone who stands with them against rampant state racism and Islamophobia.

Further, when seen in a global context, the question of who is in fact ‘importing’ ideas from North America is worth considering. The manifesto comes on the back of the Trump administration’s executive order ‘on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping’ which effectively bans federal government contractors or subcontractors from engaging what are characterised as ideologies that portray the United States as ‘fundamentally racist or sexist’. [3] Quick on Trump’s heels, the British Conservative Party moved to malign Critical Race Theory as a separatist ideology that, if taught in schools, would be ‘breaking the law’ [4].

We are concerned about the clear double standards regarding academic freedom in the attack on critical race and decolonial scholarship mounted by the manifesto. In opposition to the actual tenets of academic freedom, the demands it makes portray any teaching and research into the history or sociology of French colonialism and institutionalised racism as an attack on academic freedom. In contrast, falsely and dangerously linking these scholarly endeavours to Islamic extremism and holding scholars responsible for brutal acts of murder, as do the signatories of the Manifesto, is presented as consistent with academic freedom.

This is part of a global trend in which racism is protected as freedom of speech, while to express antiracist views is regarded as a violation of it. For the signatories of the manifesto – as for Donald Trump – only sanitised accounts of national histories that omit the truth about colonialism, slavery, and genocide can be antiracist. In this perverse and ahistorical vision, to engage in critical research and teaching in the interests of learning from past injustices is to engage in ‘anti-white racism’, a view that reduces racism to the thoughts of individuals, disconnecting it from the actions, laws and policies of states and institutions in societies in which racial socioeconomic inequality remains rife.

In such an atmosphere, intellectual debate is made impossible, as any critical questioning of the role played by France in colonialism or in the current geopolitics of the Middle East or Africa, not to mention domestic state racism, is dismissed as a legitimation of Islamist violence and ‘separatism’. Under these terms, the role of political and economic elites in perpetuating racism both locally and on a global scale remains unquestioned, while those who suffer are teachers and activists attempting to improve conditions for ordinary people on the ground.

In the interests of a real freedom, of speech and of conscience, we stand with French educators under threat from this ideologically-driven attack by politicians, commentators and select academics. It is grounded in the whitewashing of the history of race and colonialism and an Islamophobic worldview that conflates all Muslims with violence and all their defenders with so-called ‘leftist Islamism’. True academic freedom must include the right to critique the national past in the interests of securing a common future. At a time of deep polarization, spurred by elites in thrall to white supremacism, defending this freedom is more vital than ever.


Associate Professor Alana Lentin, Western Sydney University

Associate Professor Gavan Titley, Maynooth University

Professor Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Columbia University

Professor Michael Rothberg, 1939 Society Samuel Goetz Chair in Holocaust Studies, UCLA

Professor David Scott, Ruth and William Lubic Professor, Chair, Department of Anthropology, Columbia University

Professor Gurminder Bhambra, University of Sussex

Professor Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies, Columbia University

Professor Laleh Khalili, Queen Mary University of London

Professor David Theo Goldberg, Director, University of California Humanities Research

Professor Emeritus Talal Asad, CUNY Graduate Center

Professor Anne Phoenix, University College London

Professor David Roediger, University of Kansas

Professor Lewis R. Gordon, University of Connecticut

Dilip M Menon, Mellon Chair in Indian Studies, Director Centre for Indian Studies in Africa, University of Witwatersrand

Professor Lisa Duggan, New York University

Professor Johnny E. Williams, Trinity College, Connecticut

Professor Ramón Grosfoguel, University of California Berkeley

Distinguished Emerita Professor, Genevieve Rail, Concordia University

Professor Claudia Breger, Villard Professor of German and Comparative Literature, Columbia University

Professor Karim Murji, University of West London

Professor Joan Scott, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton University

Professor Gil Anidjar, Columbia University

Professor Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, Brown University

Professor David Palumbo-Liu, Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor, Stanford University

Professor Ghassan Hage, University of Melbourne

Professor Jean Beaman, University of California, Santa Barbara

Professor Philippe Marlière, University College London

Professor Michael Cronin, Trinity College Dublin

Professor Andrew Ross, New York University

Professor Ann Whitney, Chair, Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies, Barnard College

Professor Priyamvada Gopal, University of Cambridge

Dr Adrián Groglopo, University of Gothenburg

Professor Ann L. Stoler, The New School for Social Research

Professor Umut Erel, The Open University

Dr Yiva Habel, Södertörn University

Associate Professor Ravinder Kaur, University of Copenhagen

Dr Zahra Bayati, University of Gothenburg

Dr Scott Burnett, University of Gothenburg

Associate Professor Aylwyn Walsh, University of Leeds

Professor Mahmood Mamdani, Columbia University

Distinguished Professor Sarah Schulman, City University of New York College of Staten Island

Professor Nicholas Mirzoeff, New York University

Professor James Schamus, Columbia University

Professor Michael Harris, Columbia University

Professor Diana Mulinari, University of Lund

Professor Anders Neergaard, Director of REMESO, Linköping University

Dr Nicholas Smith, Södertörn University

Professor Sindre Bangstad, KIFO (Institute For Church, Religion And Worldview Research) Norway

Professor Stephen Sheehi, Sultan Qaboos Professor of Middle East Studies, William and Mary

Dr Jason Toynbee, Open University

Dr Max Ajl, Wageningen University

Dr Hamza Hamouchene, Transnational Institute

Associate Professor Hanna Wikström, University of Gothenburg

Dr Getahun Yacob Abraham, Karlstad University

Professor Emeritus John Holmwood, University of Nottingham

Professor Miriam Ticktin, The New School for Social Research

Professor Karen Seeley, Barnard College

Professor Brinkley Messick, Columbia University

Professor Richard Peña, Columbia University

Associate Professor, Barzoo Eliassi, Linnaeus University

Ben Ratskoff, UCLA

Associate Professor (retired) Ronit Lentin, Trinity College Dublin

Dr Aurelien Mondon, University of Bath

Dr Nicholas Guyatt, Reader in History, University of Cambridge

Dr Simon Dawes, University of Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines

Professor Emeritus, Jordi Marsal, University of Barcelona

Professor Francisco Marquès, Polytechnic University of Barcelona

Associate Professor Pamila Gupta, University of Witwatersrand

Dr Justine Feyereisen, Wolfson College, Oxford University

Dr Jamila Mascat, Utrecht University

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5 November 2020

Source Open Democracy.


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