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By Paul Berman and Michael Walzer
Last month the Algerian novelist and journalist Kamel Daoud astonished the readers of Le Monde in Paris by threatening to renounce journalism, not because he is afraid of Islamists at home in Algeria, though a fatwa has been issued against him, but for another reason, which is still more dismaying. He has been severely condemned by people from the Western intellectual class, and silence seems to him an appropriate response.
The denunciations of Daoud are a distressing development. And they are doubly distressing because they conform to a pattern that has become familiar. It goes like this: A writer with liberal ideas emerges from a background in the Muslim countries, or perhaps lives there now. The writer proposes criticisms of Islam as it is practiced, or of sexual repression under Islamic domination (a major theme), or of the Islamist movement. The criticisms seem blasphemous to the Islamists and the reactionary imams, who respond in their characteristic fashion. In the Western countries, intellectuals who mostly think of themselves as progressive make their own inquiry into the writer and his or her ideas. They hope to find oblique and reticent criticisms of a sort that they themselves produce. But they find something else—criticisms that are angrier and more vehement, or more sweeping, or more direct.
The Western intellectuals, some of them, recoil in consternation. And, as if liberated from their reticence, they issue their own condemnation of the offending writer, not on grounds of blasphemy but on grounds that purport to be left-wing. The Western intellectuals accuse the liberal from the Muslim world of being a racist against Muslims, or an Islamophobe, or a “native informant” and a tool of imperialism. Sometimes they accuse the liberal from the Muslim world of stupidity, too, or lack of talent. This was Salman Rushdie’s experience in the years after he came out with The Satanic Verses, back in 1988, which he has described in his memoir Joseph Anton. The experience of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, originally from Somalia, offers probably the most widely discussed example after Rushdie’s. But the pattern of Western condemnation can be observed in many other cases as well, directed at liberal writers of different kinds and views—the authors of political essays, memoirs, literary criticism, journalism, and novels, from backgrounds in countries as diverse as Egypt, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Kamel Daoud’s Algerian colleague, the novelist Boualem Sansal, last year’s winner of a prize from the French Academy, has come under this kind of condemnation. And now the pattern has reemerged in regard to Daoud himself.
Daoud stands high on the world scene because of his novel, The Meursault Investigation, which adds a philosophical dimension to the affair. The book is an homage to Albert Camus, and a rebuke. In 1942 Camus published a novel titled The Stranger, which tells the story of a French Algerian named Meursault, who gratuitously murders a nameless and silent Arab on the beach. Daoud in The Meursault Investigation tells the story of the murdered man’s younger brother, who contemplates what it means to be rendered nameless and silent by one’s oppressor. In France, Daoud’s reply to Camus won the Goncourt Prize for a First Novel in 2015, among other prizes. In the United States, it received two of the greatest blessings that American journalism can bestow on a writer not from the United States. The New Yorker published an excerpt. And the New York Times Magazine published a full-length admiring profile.
These triumphs created a demand for Daoud’s journalism, as well. For 20 years he has written for the Algerian newspaper Le Quotidien d’Oran, but, in the wake of his novel’s success, his journalism began to appear prominently in Le Monde and other European newspapers. He was invited to write for the New York Times. And he responded to these opportunities in the way that any alert and appreciative reader of his novel might have expected.
He offered insights into the Islamic State. He attacked Saudi Arabia, with a side jab aimed at the extreme right in France. But he also looked at the mass assault on women that took place in Cologne on New Year’s Eve by a mob that is thought to have included men from the Arab world. He dismissed a right-wing impulse in Europe to regard immigrants as barbarians. And he dismissed a left-wing, high-minded naïveté about the event. He pointed to a cultural problem. In the New York Times he wrote: “One of the great miseries plaguing much of the so-called Arab world, and the Muslim world more generally, is its sick relationship with women.” More: “The pathological relationship that some Arab countries have with women is bursting onto the scene in Europe.” In Le Monde he wrote that Europe, in accepting new immigrants and refugees, was going to have to help them accept new values, too—“to share, to impose, to defend, to make understood.” And now his troubles began.
A group of 19 professors in France drew up a statement accusing Daoud of a series of ideological crimes, consisting of “orientialist cliches,” “essentialism,” “psychologization,” “colonialist paternalism,” an “anti-humanist” viewpoint, and other such errors, amounting to racism and Islamophobia. Le Monde published their accusations. A second denunciation came his way, this time in private. It was a letter from the author of the New York Times Magazine profile, the American literary journalist Adam Shatz. In his letter Shatz professed affection for Daoud. He claimed not to be making any accusations at all. He wrote, “I’m not saying you’re doing it on purpose, or even that you’re playing the game of the ‘imperialists.’ I’m not accusing you of anything. Except perhaps of not thinking, and of falling into strange and potentially dangerous traps”—which amounted to saying what the 19 professors had said, with the additional accusation of stupidity.
Daoud published the American journalist’s letter in Le Monde, just to make clear what he was up against—though he did it with an elegant show of friendliness. He explained that he, and not his detractors, lives in Algeria and understands its reality. He noted the Stalinist tone of the attacks on him. He insisted on the validity of his own emotions. He refused to accept the political logic that would require him to lapse into silence about what he believes. And then, in what appeared to be a plain and spiteful fury at his detractors, he declared that he is anyway going to do what the detractors have, in effect, demanded. He is going to silence his journalism: a gesture whose emotional punch comes from The Meursault Investigation, with its theme of silence. Or, at minimum, Daoud threatened to be silent—though naturally the calls for him to continue speaking up have already begun, and doubtless he will have to respond.