“Fascists in our lecture halls! Dismiss Professor Kinzler! Islamophobia kills,” read the large banners hanging at the University of Grenoble. Activists from the French student union Unef also posted the slogans online.
Five months after the brutal murder of history teacher Samuel Paty, being accused of Islamophobia is not something that is taken lightly in France. Following a debate that sparked outrage at the Grenoble Institute of Political Studies, two professors are under police protection.
Here’s how it happened: 3 1/2 months ago, students and teachers at the university were discussing the title of a planned seminar on the topic of equality. Should “Islamophobia” be included alongside “anti-Semitism” and “racism”?
Professor Klaus Kinzler, who teaches German language and culture at the university, felt that Islamophobia wasn’t comparable to anti-Semitism. Following his advice to not include the term “Islamophobia” in the title of the seminar, he was excluded from the email discussion.
Incidentally, the Stuttgart-born professor is married to a Muslim woman.
When another professor showed solidarity with Kinzler, the student union Unef also targeted him.
France’s interior minister for citizenship, Marlene Schiappa, reacted to the case: After the decapitation of the teacher Samuel Paty, the current hate campaign against the professors is “a particularly disgusting act,” said Schiappa in a TV interview. The Unef has actively “put the life of professors in mortal danger,” she added.
A reflection of France’s integration problem
German historian and author Philipp Blom sees in France’s current discussions on Islamophobia a reflection of social issues related to the country’s position as a former colonial power, where strong “functional racism” rules.
The integration of immigrants from North Africa has failed blatantly, points out Blom. “In the banlieues on the outskirts of Paris, it doesn’t feel like you’re living in France. You don’t have the same opportunities as other people,” Blom told DW.
Experiencing marginalization and humiliation, an entire generation has come of age in milieus in which petty criminals and radical Islamists vie for domination. “I can understand that this creates anger, including murderous anger,” says Blom.
But that is not a specifically French problem, adds the historian, who is also a member of the Board of Trustees of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade. Still, the experience of humiliation is “a very important political force.”
Identity politics and cancel culture
Klaus Kinzler told German newspaper Die Welt that there is a form of political activism in France that disguises itself as academia.
Similarly, political scientist Claus Leggewie points out that those activists aren’t fighting against the powerful, the establishment, the far-right or the real fascists, but against people whose views are seen as “not being pro-Islamic enough.”
Leggewie describes the case as being about “canceling” specific persons, silencing them, and “banning ideas and discussions.”
Social media has also become the echo chamber of social identity groups, which are increasingly excluding people with other ideas. By staging controversies online, members of these groups gain immediate media recognition, says Leggewie. “That is exactly what has happened in Grenoble, and with Samuel Paty basically too, and in his case it was fatal,” adds the political expert.
Islamophobia versus anti-Semitism
Klaus Kinzler has been a professor at the Grenoble Institute of Political Studies for 25 years now. He was “not surprised” by the slogans on the university building, since the student union Unef had already branded him as a right-wing extremist and Islamophobe in social networks.
Racism and anti-Semitism — which are both criminal offenses in secular France — have nothing to do with Islamophobia, in Kinzler’s view. “Anti-Semitism has resulted in millions of deaths. Genocide without end. Then there is racism, slavery. That, too, has led to tens of millions of deaths in history,” he told Die Welt. “But where are the millions of deaths linked to Islamophobia?” he asked, nevertheless clarifying: “I do not deny that people of Muslim faith are discriminated against. I just refuse to put it on the same level. I think this is an absurd deception.”
Kinzler was a “completely normal professor of German at a provincial institute” and had always enjoyed his work, he told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Before the controversy, his students told him that they appreciated that he defended free, liberal positions. “The exchanges were always enriching,” he said.
In the end, he says, he is less offended by the students who launched the hate campaign than by his colleagues, researchers and professors — who have distanced themselves from him without searching for dialogue.
“That has never happened to me in 30 years of a university career,” Kinzler told DW. “I’ve always been allowed to say what I wanted, even if scandalized me. It’s something new that I’m confronted with … argument is more or less no longer approved of in academia but is a form of offense.”
For many of his colleagues, he says, he is now the “reactionary right-wing fouler of the nest” who has deeply damaged his institute’s reputation.”
He assumes that he will be considered “persona non grata” for the next few years — perhaps even until retirement.
“But I can live with that,” he said. “I have done nothing but defend democracy. I defended myself, I defended my colleague, and I defended academic freedom.”