What We Believe
i

An Imaginary Racism: Islamophobia and Guilt, by Pascal Bruckner, trans. by Steven Rendall and Lisa Neal. Medford, MA: Polity, 2018, 206 pages, $19.95.

Never has the power of language had such varied and pervasive vehicles available to it as the internet, mobile, and social media. The Orwellian corruption of language in the service of propaganda reminds us that we live in a rhetorically dangerous time. This and many other themes are skillfully woven together in this important book. The subtleties and richness of French political philosopher and ethicist Pascal Bruckner’s writing reminds the reader of the exquisite Bordeaux wine his culture produces. Although Bruckner is dealing specifically with Islamophobia, the lineaments of his exploration apply to the broader subject of racism, which I believe is helpful in our present troubled intellectual milieu in dealing with Islam and American black and minority communities.

I have wrestled over the validity of reviewing this book for Ordained Servant because Bruckner is a neo-Enlightenment thinker. He reminds me of Neil Postman, who believed that a return to Enlightenment epistemology was the solution to the problem of technopoly,[1] whereas Bruckner believes it to be the way to help assimilate moderate Muslims into European or Western society. He does understand that modern Islam is a vast and diverse religion with large pacifist and moderate wings, as well as many likely tempered, at least in part, by their contact with Western cultures (consider just three different branches: Sunni, Shia, Sufi, just to scratch the surface). But he also sees that Islam has a large and uniquely militant population committed to its founding texts.

I decided that it is good to review such a book as this (I reviewed Bruckner’s book on happiness in Ordained Servant in 2011)[2], partly because I think it is important that we challenge and inform our critical thinking with the best thinkers outside of our tradition. Furthermore, Bruckner has insights into the nature of Islam and race that are helpful in unraveling the complexity of our present cultural and religious conflicts.

There are two poles in the discussion of race and the integration of Muslims into Western cultures: difference and unity. Pascal Bruckner points to the different approaches taken by British and French imperialism (18–20). The British allowed the different cultures of various colonies to remain essentially the same, i.e., as they were, respecting their integrity, whereas the French wanted their culture to be imposed on their colonies. For Bruckner the Enlightenment liberalism of France and its European allies is the solution to the integration of Islam.

SUMMARY OF THE BOOK

Bruckner begins, in the “Introduction: A Semantic Rejuvenation,” by exploring the definition of “Islamophobia.” He notes that its “lexical rejuvenation” (3) conflates two different meanings:

the persecution of believers, which is obviously reprehensible, and the questioning of beliefs, which is practiced in all civilized countries. Criticism of a religion falls within the domain of the spirit of examination but certainly not within that of discrimination. Striking a religious believer is a crime. Debating an article of faith, a point of doctrine, is a right. Confusing the two is an intolerable amalgamation. (4)

As an example, Bruckner imagines that closing debate over the truth of Christianity with the use of Christianophobia would have stunted its evolution (4). While it is unlikely that by “evolution” he has the importance of doctrinal development in mind, it is certainly true that polemics in response to opposition have strengthened, not weakened, genuine Christian faith ever since the ancient church. So, Bruckner defines fundamentalism as closed to discussion of its doctrinal and ethical assertions (5).

The book is divided into five parts with nineteen chapters, an introduction, and an epilogue. The titles are very descriptive of the content of each. Part I, “The Fabrication of a Crime of Opinion,” is a prime example.

In Chapter 1, “The Disappearance of Race, the Proliferation of Racists,” Bruckner makes the perceptive observation about racism and its supposed opponents, that “anti-racism never ceases to racialize every form of ethnic, political, sexual, or religious conflict. It constantly recreates the curse that it claims to be fighting” (10). As a result, anti-racism undermines the prudence purposes of wise governance by using manipulative language.

Let us recall that the goal of a wise politics is to prevent discord and avoid war. But anti-racism, which has become the civil religion of modern times, has been transformed into a permanent war of all against all, a rhetoric of recrimination. (11)

Bruckner also understands modern technologies have exacerbated this problem:

The contraction of time and space brought about by new technologies and means of transportation leads to the abolition of the distances that used to protect us from what was far away. But on a planet where human tribes, constantly on the move, collide with one another, the pressure becomes oppressive. (11)

This makes multicultural societies full of conflict. Thus, the unifying fabric—cultural standards and traditions—is being torn apart. “Difference is being reaffirmed at the very time when we want to establish equality, at the risk of involuntarily continuing the old prejudices connected with skin color and customs” (13).

Bruckner observes that “political correctness” is a euphemism for a new kind of conformism, “the convention of the unconventional, an orthodoxy of heterodoxy that merely doubles one dead-end by adding another” (13). Among its dangers is its “allergy to naming things” (14), an anesthetizing of language which seeks to eradicate (cover up) difficulties, in other words, the givenness of reality. He goes on to conclude that “to ban a priori any criticism of a system, of a religion, is to risk amputating freedom of thought” (15). Thus, instead of “hate speech” being defined as that which incites violence, it is redefined as any speech that is critical of a system or a religion.

In Chapter 2 Bruckner explores the “Weapon of Mass Intimidation,” in which he asserts that “The celebration of diversity as a supreme norm can in no case provide a common foundation. It is the very idea of human quality that is abandoned.” He goes on to point out something more subtle, “that the unreserved praise of cultural particularities can also conceal a neo-colonial paternalism …” (20). In other words, diversity may be used as a weapon to gain control over a particular culture. He goes on to demonstrate how Islam has used this tactic: “So woe be to liberal Muslims who dare to criticize their religion or question their countries’ mores” (23). “The accusation of being Islamophobic is nothing other than a weapon of mass destruction in intellectual debate” (24). Opinion has become the new crime.

In Chapter 3, “The Miracle of Transubstantiation,” Bruckner contends that contemporary Marxism, because of its moribund position in the Western world, looks to Islam as the best disenchanted, oppressed minority to be an ally in its cause (30ff).

Part II, “The Left Suffering from Denial,” explores the political left’s denial of the importance of religion in Islam. Bruckner quotes Bernard Lewis to this effect (38). So, he taps into one of the best experts on Islam. Chapters 4–6 seek to demonstrate the existence of and reasons for what Bruckner calls Islamo-Leftism. As odd as such an alliance between Islam and the left would appear, the destruction of capitalism is their common cause (39). Bruckner’s analysis is interesting and often quite perceptive. He observes that “Ultraviolence is a symptom of impotence” (43). Thus, terrorism is witnessed on both sides as it is engaged in by Islamic and Leftist extremists. So, Bruckner seeks to explain this “unnatural marriage.” Thus, in true Orwellian fashion, the Left seeks to rationalize the extreme differences between the two ideologies. So, just as the Newspeak of Nineteen Eighty-Four[3] characterizes oppression as liberation, the Left explains the veil, “The more hidden women are, the more they are free!” (53).

In the final chapter of this section Bruckner explores a phenomenon familiar to Americans, the innocence of criminals and the guilt of victims. He concludes, “Beneath the surface, the far left and radical Islam agree on one point: they want to destroy this society …” (63).

In Part III, “Are Muslims the Equivalent of Jews?” Bruckner contends that because Jews are now not as easily characterized as victims, Arabs have taken their place. Jews have become the oppressors. Bruckner’s analyses the rise of what he labels a “new pathology: victimism.” So, he asserts that “anti-racism always pursues two contradictory objectives: mixture and diversity, universal non-distinction and the beauty of the multiple” (81). His most troubling conclusion is, “in our time, true racism expresses itself in the words of anti-racism” (83, emphasis in original). This point is explored in more detail in the final chapter (10) of this section, “The Semantic Racket.”

In Part IV, “Are We Guilty of Existing?” Chapter 11, “The Criminalization of Reticence,” reminds us of the recent popular slogan, “Silence Is Violence.” One is bullied into taking sides. Bruckner points out the tragic irony of the origin of such control in the very terrorist extremists who claim to be the victims. They bully their own into submission (103). I leave the remainder of this four-chapter section to the curiosity of the reader.

Part V, “What Is God’s Future?” begins with a jarring quote from the French poet  Jacques Prévert, “Our God who art in heaven, stay there” (135). Bruckner at once respects the Christian church as part of Western culture, while denying the truth of its faith. He does understand what most leftists deny, the reality of radical Islam and its root in Islam’s founding texts. He notes that Islam, unlike Buddhism and Hinduism, “offers propitious soil for it (radicality)” (139). Thus, while seeking tolerance of Islam, he insists that “European Islam must abandon its passivity toward extremists” (143). “What we owe to the Prophet’s (Mohammed) religion is not pity for its fate but the truth: the recognition for its past grandeur, its current tragedy, and the urgency of its transformation” (144).

Bruckner likens the tolerance he is advocating to the tolerance that Catholics and Protestants learned after centuries of ruthless religious wars, and he even acknowledges that Christian religious wars were waged “in spite of the Gospels” (162, 173). For Bruckner, Islam must evolve from the militarism of its founding texts to a moderation commensurate with Western liberalism.

As Chapter 17 announces in its title, “Western Values Are Not Negotiable”; especially freedom of speech must not be compromised. Bruckner wants no part of grounding his solution in Christian faith. So, Bruckner applies the principle of the historical French colonial mission at home to Europe: “Therefore the goal should not be to Islamize Europe, but to Europeanize Islam” (158). His faith is in secular liberal Western governance with the motto: “Life goes on, stronger than anything. Barbarity kills but does not break” (159). But he hesitates to give up Christianity, at least in as much as it contributes to his solution, understanding that such a void will be filled with something else (161). He seems to long for the old American and European past in the post Peace of Westphalia (1648) era (164). He acknowledges that “The genius of Christianity in its maturity is to have been able to provide a space for skeptics and agnostics, to permit them to breathe, far from the Holy Scriptures, in order to enter into dialogue with them” (166).

Finally, in Chapter 19, Bruckner simply cannot escape dealing with Christianity:

Christianity was redeemed because its teeth were filed down, because it returned to the purity of the Evangelical message, to the pacifism of the first centuries before Theodosius declared it the sole religion of the Empire. It was by moving away from Christ’s word that Catholicism became murderous and violent, and it is by returning to the founding text, to literalist piety, that Islam is dangerous. (173)

Bruckner ends with a tepid hope, which is understandable given his rejection of historic Christianity or any ultimately transcendent reality. Bruckner is essentially dealing with socio-political realities rather than the transcendent truth of Scripture. He believes that we must “persuade ourselves and the rest of the world of the eminent virtues of our civilization and our mores” (178).

ANALYSIS OF THE BOOK

It is a sad pleasure to interact with such a fine mind; it is also the duty of Christian leaders to do so. It is part of what Paul calls us to in God’s Word: “For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds” (2 Cor. 10:4).

The Corruption of Language

The theme of linguistic manipulation is one the greatest strengths of this book. Whoever controls language wins arguments and even control over whole populations. Bruckner explores this in detail in Chapter 10, “The Semantic Racket.” But beginning with the “Introduction: A Semantic Rejuvenation,” Bruckner explores this theme throughout the book.

A prime example of this is the conflation of the meaning of “hate speech,” (4) so that persecution, which is reprehensible, and criticism or disagreement, which is a vital part of a healthy civilization, now become the same. Labeling the analysis and criticism of any belief system as hate speech leads to silencing of opposition.

Another example, noted above, is seen when the Left seeks to rationalize the extreme differences between Islam and their ideology by redefining terms or reconstructing the common understandings of various situations.

As I quoted above, Bruckner’s most troubling conclusion about the manipulative use of language is, “in our time, true racism expresses itself in the words of anti-racism” (83, emphasis in original). Also, “Racism” is now being defined so broadly that it functions as an all-purpose weapon to gain power by cancelling the rational discussion of issues.

This made me think of the analogy of the marked card deck, which is, of course, the manipulated language of the left along with microaggressions (2 through king) and the race card (the ace). This language is used in whatever circumstance manipulation or cancellation is required to silence an opposing idea. Christians must therefore seek to clarify and define terms carefully and not allow the discussion of truth to be derailed by subtle linguistic alterations. What began with the serpent’s manipulation of God’s Word in the Garden has been practiced by every tyrant in history since.

Noticing and analyzing this dangerous Orwellian phenomenon is an important duty of Christian leadership. Christians should be alert to the pervasive redefinition of words in the modern context. This is a communication problem that Christians must be aware of as we seek to distinguish the gospel from all political agendas.

A Christian Response to Islam

The irony of Bruckner’s analysis and desired solution is found in his conception of the necessary transformation of Islam into a tolerant participant in Western civilization. This would be to deny their founding texts, whereas he lauds Christianity for returning to the founding text of the Gospels (162, 173). Thankfully, the liberalization of many Muslims through the existence of pacifist traditions within Islam as well as the attractions of Western culture, especially its freedom and prosperity, make assimilation possible and in many cases a reality.

But in this case, rather than ignoring foundational elements of their founding texts, as Bruckner wants Muslims to do, Christians came to acknowledge that the New Testament clearly teaches that Christian warfare is entirely spiritual, and thus they fought with spiritual weapons alone, the chief of which is the power of God’s love in the good news of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 10:1–5). So, Christian tolerance came from returning to the text of Scripture.

Bruckner seems to ignore how much of the tolerance he promotes is rooted in the presence of Christianity in French and other cultures. While the degree to which this is true may be debatable in a given culture, the reality of such an attitude is clearly an essential part of Christian ethics. Bruckner contradicts himself here, since the literalist piety of Islam leads them to theocratic militance, but Christians returning to the gospel message of their text seem to be in a different category. In fact, both religions have texts that the true believer takes seriously; but it is the nature of those texts where the difference lies. So, how can it be that “Plurality is the future of the great religions”?

It is no surprise that, despite Bruckner’s often penetrating analysis of how to deal with Islam, his solution seems largely untenable. His earnestness, certainly, cannot be doubted since, given the fate of Charlie Hebdo editors and death threats to authors like Salman Rushdie, he is risking his life by writing such a book.

Sadly, he wants nothing to do with the “genius of Christianity in its maturity” which he appreciates as an important ingredient in his program of tolerance. This program is a combination of education and wise governance. Christianity, unlike some other exclusivist world religions, does not need or desire to establish its central authority in an earthly government or caliphate, because its king resides in and rules from heaven. Thus, Christianity seeks to establish embassies among all nations.

Christianity seeks its unity broadly in the imago Dei in common culture, and narrowly in the mediatorial person and work of Jesus Christ for his people, while respecting God-given cultural uniqueness, provided that that uniqueness is not contrary to biblical orthodoxy. Differences need a solid common foundation.

For a Christian response to Islam, I recommend two articles that encourage a wise and irenic approach.[4] Bryan Estelle concludes that while we must support government efforts to resist radical Islamic terrorism, the church must not lose its focus on its central mission, preaching the gospel to every kind of neighbor.[5] John Muether emphasizes the importance of understanding the diversity of Islam and the effectiveness of the Reformed Faith in Muslim evangelism.[6]

While Bruckner proves Islamophobia to be “an imaginary racism,” true racism does exist in some institutions and certainly in individual attitudes. Christians must avoid conflating terrorists with all Muslims and instead treat Muslim neighbors with respect and love and pray for our enemies (Matt. 5:43–47).

Bruckner’s contention that Marxism is seeking rejuvenation by allying itself with Islam, what he calls Islamo-Leftism (30ff.), seems to be similar to what is happening in America, where the oppressed minority is black, Hispanic, or native American. It is no accident that Black Lives Matter was founded by neo-Marxists. Since Marx divided culture into oppressed and oppressors, it makes sense that neo-Marxism must identify these categories differently in different cultures, since class structure is not the same as it was in nineteenth century Europe, especially Russia. Marx makes his position explicit in The Communist Manifesto.[7] Neo-Marxism emphasizes the presence of racism, not so much in individual attitudes as in the structural systems and relationships in culture. Thankfully, most minority Americans do not agree with this analysis, which brings us to the problem of racism.

A Christian Response to Racism

Bruckner’s analysis of Islamophobia demonstrates the dangers of imaginary racism and the use of deceptive language imposing racism where it does not exist. But it also, unwittingly, demonstrates the weakness of secular alternatives. Bruckner wants to make a way for peaceful Muslims to be part of European society, while recognizing the existence of large radical Islamic populations and the presence of militancy in Islam’s founding documents.

While some alleged racism may be imaginary and used in a quest for power, the problem of racism is a real and serious problem. Careful analysis is important, but solutions will not come easily. While institutional and government structures may need to change in some instances, clearly attitudes must change, and while that can happen among unbelievers, the profoundest changes will reside in the new creatures of the New Covenant. While racism will exist as long as human sin does, Christians must oppose it with all of our might and main. Christians have the only ultimately durable ethical foundation to oppose racism in its various forms. Specifically, we must oppose any use of ethnicity, skin color, education, or class to distinguish ourselves as superior to others. More generally, we must oppose anything used to distinguish ourselves as superior to others.

David VanDrunen, in a recent Ordained Servant Online article, “Reflections on Race and Racism,” distinguishes between two areas of response to racism:

In political communities, the antidote to racism is recognition of our common humanity. Christians believe that all human beings are children of Adam, image-bearers of God, and beneficiaries of God’s common grace under the Noahic covenant. However it is understood, our common humanity provides grounds for unity over against the divisiveness of racism and identity politics. But such political unity is relatively shallow, a unity of peaceful co-existence that will always remain fragile in a sinful world in which so many things threaten to divide us. In this context, I believe the (classical) liberalism of the U.S. constitutional order, or something like it, is the best we can do.[8]

In our churches, however, the antidote to racism is recognition of not only our common humanity but especially our redeemed humanity. Christians are co-heirs with the Last Adam, re-created in the image of Christ. Their source of unity flows not from common grace but from saving grace, not from this present creation but from the new creation. These redemptive resources are far more powerful than anything political communities have at their disposal, although churches have often used these resources poorly.[9]

Bruckner’s analysis of language and its purposeful corruption in the interests of power is especially helpful in alerting us to deal in a wise and loving way with those who oppose a Christian understanding of the race problem.

David VanDrunen’s article, mentioned above, offers an excellent analysis of the word “race.” He insists that it does not exist but is a social construct. Unlike sex, which has a biological foundation, race has no objective basis; ethnicity on the other hand does and has nothing to do with a person’s skin color,

We are dealing with “profoundly complex” issues. It is easy to understand that race does not exist, but when an imaginary but powerful concept has taken hold of so many minds for so long and wreaked so much harm, charting a viable way forward is not simple. … I urge Reformed churches to resist the call to be politically engaged and to strive to be consistently non-political, refusing to “intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth” (Westminster Confession of Faith 31.4).[10] Contemporary tensions over race makes this idea more important, not less. [11]

Echoing VanDrunen’s conclusions on dealing with racism, church officers need to cultivate what he calls the “elusive combination of humility and critical thinking.” While the concept of race is imaginary, racism is not, and it must be dealt with using intelligent compassion and not a little self-reflection. There are two poles in the discussion of race which I believe only Christianity can ultimately hold together: difference and unity.

In dealing with racism in whatever form, hatred of or disrespect for Muslims or American blacks, the imago Dei is central to the formation of a godly attitude, for to despise others made in God’s image is to despise God himself. With so many voices wanting to insist and not discuss, we must exercise a patience, love, and fortitude, which only our Savior can provide.

Endnotes

[1] Neil Postman, Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000).

[2] Gregory E. Reynolds, “Flying with Wax Wings: The Secular Quest for Happiness,” Ordained Servant (2011): 143–49; Ordained Servant Online 20 (June–July 2011), https://opc.org/os.html?article_id=260. Pascal Bruckner, Perpetual Euphoria: On the Duty to Be Happy, translated by Steven Rendall. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010, 2000 French edition).

[3] George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1949).

[4] Bryan D. Estelle, “How Should the Reformed Church Respond to Islam?” Ordained Servant 17 (2008): 48–54; John R. Muether, “The Reformed Faith and the Challenge of Islam,” Ordained Servant 27 (2018): 46–52.

[5] Estelle, “How Should the Reformed Church Respond to Islam?” 53–54.

[6] Muether, “The Reformed Faith and the Challenge of Islam,” 47–48, 51–52.

[7] Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1954), 15ff.

[8] For a detailed argument see David VanDrunen, Politics after Christendom: Political Theology in a Fractured World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2020), especially ch.12.

[9] David VanDrunen, “Reflections on Race and Racism,” Ordained Servant Online (March 2021), https://opc.org/os.html?article_id=874.

[10] Some Reformed theologians discuss this issue in terms of the “spirituality of the church,” while others believe the term has been poisoned by its abuse and that we should not use it. I will not engage this debate here.

[11] VanDrunen, “Reflections on Race and Racism.”

Gregory E. Reynolds is pastor emeritus of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online, August–September 2021.

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Ordained Servant: August 2021

Our Adult Children

Also in this issue

God’s Work in Our Adult Children’s Lives

The Writings of Meredith G. Kline on the Book of Revelation: Chapter 3, “The First Resurrection: A Reaffirmation” (1976)

A Study in the Structure of the Revelation of John, Part 1

Commentary on the Form of Government of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Chapter 21

How to Fight Racism by Jemar Tisby

The Great Tradition by Richard M. Gamble

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A Hymn to the Evening

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