Mame-Fatou Niang: “I Worry That Reality Is Being Manipulated by Irrational Reasoning”

We spoke with Mame-Fatou Niang, an expert in post-colonial issues at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, about the meaning of the term “Islamo-leftism,” the polemic it has provoked, and its repercussions for research in France.
Mame-Fatou Niang.

For the last two months, “Islamo-leftism” has been at the center of a public debate targeting the credibility of social sciences in French universities. On February 14, the minister for higher education and research, Frédérique Vidal, commissioned a CNRS investigation into potential abuses in the research sector and the ways in which “Islamo-leftism is corrupting all of society.” While this scandal has been met with a major push-back from almost all university lecturers and researchers while dividing opinions within the political class, French universities have not come out of this ideological debate unscathed.

France-Amérique: In the public sphere, Islamo-leftism is conflated with identity studies from American universities. As a result, indigenist, racial, and decolonial theories have supposedly shifted towards attacking Western values and even preaching a hatred of white people. Why does France feel the need to identify these ideas as specifically “American”?

Mame-Fatou Niang: This is not an import but rather an export, a boomerang effect if you will. Cultural studies originally developed in the United States thanks to the influence of thinkers from the Third World and French intellectuals who were themselves products of colonialism, such as Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, Edouard Glissant, and Maryse Condé. Bourdieu, Derrida, and Foucault also had a major impact, of course. Targeting importation implies refusing that this colonial history is rooted in our own country. It is a French issue, not something sent over by America. Just look at Haiti, French West Africa, the Code de l’Indigénat laws in Algeria, the fact that slavery in France was abolished twice – once in 1794, before being reinstated by Napoléon in 1802, then definitively in 1848. This is not American history; this is French history!

According to Frédérique Vidal, Islamo-leftism refers to “all radicalities our societies are undergoing” and is supposedly preventing “the work of researchers and lecturers.” In your experience, have you observed any such phenomenon in French or American academic circles?

I think it is fascinating that Islamo-leftism, which began as a whisper in a neglected corner of the academic world, is now being brandished as a major threat to French research. If you look through the records of doctoral theses, how many titles include words such as “decolonial,” “race,” or “gender”? According to a study by Mediapart, the question of race in French sociology from 1960 to 2018 made up just 2% of published academic research. I believe that Islamo-leftism is simply being used to combine totally opposing schools of thought and interests, whose only similarity is their study of French colonial history and the impact of gender and sexuality on society. It is a complete farce that only becomes relevant when it is understood as a more significant political tool for those who instrumentalize it than for those against whom it is used. I worry that reality is being manipulated by irrational reasoning to promote popular fantasies while also discrediting the social sciences.

The open letter from the Observatoire du Décolonialisme et des Idéologies Identitaires published on January 13 refers to academic “activism” which is said to be holding back “the exercise of critical rationality and structured scientific debate.” What do you think about this opposition between “knowledge” and “political activism”?

The question of activism is a strange one coming from an observatory that has published no scientific documents and only exists thanks to the highly mediatized political pressure it exerts. I would call their activity activism! As researchers, we pursue a scientific approach reflected in articles, symposiums, and monographs, driven by a desire to bring discussions down from their academic ivory towers. This ongoing dialogue between research and the public sphere is attacked for being activism, but can we really say that universities are places of neutral knowledge? There is no such thing as neutral knowledge; all knowledge is rooted in a context.

During the June 2020 protests against the murder of George Floyd and the Adama Traoré affair in France, Emmanuel Macron accused academics of “racializing social issues.” What is your analysis of this statement? Is it a way of denying the true nature of the French social debate?

I thought the president’s reaction was incredibly sad and serious, as it made researchers and other French citizens who stand up against police violence into public scapegoats. What’s more, this statement emphasizes questions of class over racial problems, which corresponds to the ideas of French universalism. Yet how we experience society is different depending on whether we are a woman or a man, disabled or non-disabled, black or white, or wearing a hijab or not. In my work, I study the intersectionality of class discrimination and ethnic categories. This is not to multiply issues or create identities of victimhood, but rather to shine as much light as possible on the discriminatory conditions in which social groups exist.

Do you think this controversy could have a positive effect on research in France by inspiring debate?

For now, many of my French colleagues are carrying out their research in shameful conditions and are feeling very discouraged. In my opinion, the stage is set for a new brain drain; French university courses are recognized abroad and the research sector in France is collapsing.