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No Room for Rebuttal

Paper in The French Review titled “Islamism’s Conquest of the French Republic” draws outcry, not only on charges of Islamophobia, but on its scholarly merit. An editor who joined in criticism is fired.

December 20, 2017
 

France’s Muslim residents might only number 8.8 percent of the country’s population, but Islamists are using the country’s values of human rights and secularism against itself, with an end goal of imposing Islamic law across the land.

Quelle horreur.

But how real is the supposed threat of “Islamism’s Conquest of the French Republic,” the title of the paper published, in French, in the journal The French Review, which lays out the above argument?

The article was published in the journal in October and has drawn outcry since. Its detractors have not only called it racist and Islamophobic, but also lacking academic rigor. (It’s worth noting, for example, that critics of France’s secularism laws have denounced them as a seemingly neutral in theory, but in practice disproportionately used against Muslims.) Since the journal is published by the American Association of Teachers of French, and is a resource for instructors across the United States, a group of professors has organized in opposition, though not without stonewalling and retribution, they say.

An editor of the journal was fired after signing a letter in response to the article that criticized its academic merits and the presentation of French Muslims.

“The level of overgeneralization is striking. It really reads like an advocacy piece, it does not read like a scholarly piece,” said Hanan Elsayed, an associate professor at Occidental College, who teaches French and Arabic. “The tone is very much that of the anti-immigrant right-wing discourse in France.”

The article’s author, S. Pascale Vergereau-Dewey, of Kutztown University, did not respond to requests for comment.

Upon seeing the article, Elsayed said she and others were outraged, and started drafting a response.

“It’s not a matter of disagreement. Our request, which our letter stated clearly, is that we wanted a right to respond and disagree publicly,” she said. “Given the nature of the article, we wanted to disagree publicly because the article does not meet the scholarly standards.”

Edward Ousselin, the journal’s editor in chief, denied a request to publish a letter signed by more than 50 professors from universities across the globe criticizing the paper. Catherine Daniélou, the president of the American Association of Teachers of French and an associate professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said that, according to the journal’s archives, it hasn’t published responses to articles, though scholarly work rebutting or showing a different point of view would be allowed. She said Vergereau-Dewey’s article passed the same blind peer review that every other article passes.

"The letter denigrates and disparages our double-blind peer-review process. This is a gratuitous slur against our editorial board and its members, recognized scholars with whom I work on a daily basis and who regularly impress me with their thorough work and intellectual honesty," Ousselin said in an email. "This attempt at intimidation by numbers will backfire. If the article’s arguments were so easy to refute, the logical thing to do would be to respond through the established scholarly channels and to let 'L’islamisme à la conquête de la République française' fade into obscurity."

The letter is critical on multiple fronts, reading in part,

We are struggling to understand how an article with an inflammatory title like "L'islamisme à la conquête de la République française" was even sent out for peer review. It is in fact an advocacy piece that endorses the Islamophobic views of French writers such as Renaud Camus, Caroline Fourest and Elisabeth Schemla. It is even more difficult to understand how, having gone through peer review, if indeed that is the case, Vergereau-Dewey’s text was accepted for publication. The article exhibits a profound ignorance of Islam, Islamism and the culture of Muslims in France. The author takes her personal biases as arguments; she repeatedly refers to the "French values" of individualism and secularism without the slightest acknowledgment of the large body of recent scholarship devoted to a critical examination of these values, above all French secularism.

Joining the signatories was Corbin Treacy, an editor of the journal and an assistant professor at Florida State University whose work focuses on North African history and culture. He has since been fired from the unpaid position.

“It’s a concern,” said Elsayed, who expressed worry about the journal’s reputation and a possible precedent for censorship set by the firing. Treacy declined to comment.

The American Association of Teachers of French has launched a review into the article, Daniélou said, which has also included searching the archives of the Review to see if response letters had been published before in the journal’s history. She said she hadn’t heard from Treacy, and also that the process of reviewing the paper’s academic merits would be thorough. It’s ongoing, she said, and hasn’t yet reached a conclusion.

“It is important to note that we do not have a policy of allowing rebuttal of any article that is published. We have a responsibility to our authors who have submitted their work in good faith, undergone the review process, and been published not to denigrate their work. We fully recognize that others may disagree, perhaps vehemently, with points of view expressed in a given article,” Daniélou said in a statement.

“In the interest of scholarly inquiry, we invite any person who disagrees with a specific article to submit their own article presenting the topic in a manner they feel is more appropriate. They may, of course, cite the article in question, if they choose to do so, in order to refute points they believe are in error, but to attack the author, the process or The French Review as a publication is not conducive to furthering dialogue or understanding.”

For now though, rebuttal or not, some of the paper’s critics have been rubbed the wrong way.

“Many of us are embarrassed to have been published in such a journal,” Elsayed said.

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