Bernard-Henri Lévy is a French author, philosopher and activist. His next book, to be released in 2016, is Le Génie du Judaïsme. This commentary was translated by Steven B. Kennedy.
So it’s war.
A new kind of war. A war with and without borders, with and without states, a war doubly new because it blends the non-territorial model of al-Qaeda with the old territorial paradigm to which Islamic State has returned.
But a war all the same.
And, faced with this war unwanted by the United States, Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, and now France, only one question is worth asking: What should we do? How, when a war like this is forced upon you, do you respond and win?
Principle number 1: Do not play with words. Call things by their right names. Dare to utter the terrible word “war,” a word that the democracies try to push out of the range of hearing, beyond the bounds of their imagination, their symbolic system, and their reality. This aversion to war is their mission, their distinguishing trait, and their crowning glory, but it is also their weakness.
Recall the nobility and the candour of Léon Blum revealing, in a famous debate with Elie Halévy in the 1930s, that he could not grasp the notion of democracy at war, except as a contradiction.
Recall the dignity but also the limits of the great consciences of humanism in the second half of that same decade, when they watched with alarm as Georges Bataille, Michel Leiris, Roger Caillois, and others from the College of Sociology called for the intellectual rearmament of a world that believed, then as now, that it was done with its dark past and with history.
That is where we stand today. Thinking the unthinkable: war. Accepting the oxymoron of a modern republic required to wage war to save itself.
And thinking it all the more painfully because none of the rules laid down by theoreticians of war, from Thucydides to Clausewitz, seem to apply to that non-existent state that brings fire from a distance that is all the greater because its front lines are fluid and its fighters have the tactical advantage of making no distinction between what we call life and what they call death.
France’s government, including the President, understands this. French political leaders across the spectrum have voiced their unanimous support. That leaves you, me and society, both collectively and individually. Each of us, this time, is a target, a front line, a soldier without knowing it, a cell of resistance, a locus of mobilization and of biopolitical fragility. The idea is heartbreaking and appalling, but it is a fact that we must face.
Principle number 2: The enemy. To utter the word “war” is to evoke an enemy. As Carl Schmitt taught, we must deal with the enemy as enemy, viewing him as someone to be tricked, outmanoeuvred, tangled up in negotiations, or struck silently, depending on the tactics adopted, but in no case appeased. But, following Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas and every other theoretician of just war, we must also call the enemy by his true name.
That name is not “terrorism.” It is not a dispersed collection of “lone wolves” or “lunatics.”
And, as for the relentless culture of excuses that persists in portraying these death squads as oppressed and excluded individuals pushed to the edge by an unjust society and forced by poverty to execute young people whose only crime is to like rock music, soccer, or a cool autumn night at a sidewalk cafe, that is an insult to the world’s poor as well as to the dead.
No. These ignorant men who level their guns at the gift of life and at the freedom of movement and expression of the world’s great cities; who detest the urban spirit as much as they do the underlying spirit of laws, rights and peaceful autonomy of people freed from ancient subjections; who could benefit, if only the words were not so utterly foreign to them, from Victor Hugo’s protest in response to the massacres of the Commune: that attacking Paris is worse than attacking France because it destroys the world – these men should rightfully be labelled fascists.
Better: the product of the grafting that Paul Claudel saw coming when he noted in his journal for May 21, 1935, in one of those insights that occur only to the truly great: “Hitler’s speech? A kind of Islamism is being created at the centre of Europe.”
What is the advantage of naming things accurately? To place the cursor right where it belongs. To remind us that against such an adversary, war must be waged without truce or mercy. And to require each of us, everywhere, in the Arab-Muslim world as on the rest of the planet, to say why we are fighting, alongside whom, and against whom.
Of course, this does not mean that Islam, any more than other systems of thought, has any special affinity for the worst. It does not. And the urgency of the fight forced upon us must not distract us from that other vital battle, the battle for the other Islam, for enlightened Islam, for the Islam of the heirs of Afghanistan’s Massoud, Bosnia’s Izetbegovic, Bangladesh’s Mujibur Rahman, the Kurdish nationalists, and the Sultan of Morocco who, against orders from the Vichy government, made the heroic decision to save the Jews of his realm.
But that implies two things, or rather three.
First, an understanding that the Islamic lands are the only parts of the world that never underwent the work of remembrance and grieving done by the Germans, French, other Europeans, and Japanese, because in much of the Islamic world, the myth has persisted that the fascist storm of the 1930s was contained within the perimeter of Europe.
Next, the need to emphasize even more clearly the critical, primordial opposition between the two visions of Islam, two visions that are locked in a war to the death, two visions that constitute, if we must continue to use this phrase, the only clash of civilizations that matters.
And, finally, the acknowledgment that this process of identification and demarcation, this inking of the line along which the allies of Tariq Ramadan and others of his ilk face off against the friends of the great Abdelwahab Meddeb, this process of separating whatever might feed the “Viva la muerte” of the new nihilists from the ideological, scriptural and spiritual work that is needed to keep the ghosts from returning or emerging in new forms – must fall primarily to Muslims themselves.
I know the objection. Right-thinkers complain loudly that to ask good citizens to dissociate themselves from a crime they did not commit is to imply their complicity and thus to stigmatize them.
That is not the point. The “not in our name” that we hear from French Muslims is no different from that uttered by Israelis dissociating themselves 15 years ago from the policy of their government on the West Bank. No different from that of the millions of Americans who, in 2003, protested against the absurd war in Iraq.
No different from that of British Muslims and students of the Koran who, more recently, took it upon themselves to declare that there is a gentle, merciful, tolerant and peaceful Islam that has nothing to do with the Islam in whose name a soldier can suddenly be stabbed on a sidewalk.
“Not in our name” is a noble cry; a noble gesture. But what is needed now above all else is the simple act, essential in war, of isolating the enemy, cutting his supply lines, and no longer allowing him to swim like a fish in the water of a community of which he is, in fact, the shame.
To speak the word “war” also implies, inevitably, the identification, the marginalization, and, ideally, the neutralization of that part of the enemy camp that is operating at home. Which is what Churchill did when, upon the outbreak of war, he imprisoned 2,000 people considered to be domestic enemies, some as close to him as his own cousin, George Pitt-Rivers, second-in-command of the English fascist party.
And, making due allowance for situational differences, that is what France must do by banning those who preach hate; by placing under closer surveillance the thousands of persons already classified as potential jihadists; and by persuading social networks in the United States not to allow calls for kamikaze killings to proliferate in the shadow of the First Amendment.
It is a tricky undertaking. As emergency legislation always is. And for that reason, it is more essential than ever that we not shrink from our obligation to offer asylum to Syrians fleeing fascislamist terror. Essential that we continue to welcome migrants while working to eliminate as many as possible of the cells bent on murder. That we widen our embrace of anti-IS refugees in proportion to our efforts to deal firmly with those among them who would take advantage of our adherence to principle to infiltrate welcoming countries and pursue their criminal missions.
Doing both at once is not a contradiction. First, it is the only way to deny the enemy the victory of watching us betray the open and generous mutual tolerance that is the pride of our democracies. And second, I repeat, it supports a strategy critical in all just wars, which is to prevent from coming together forces that can and should be kept apart – while reaffirming to the vast majority of France’s Muslims that they are not only our allies but also our fellow citizens.
I come now to the heart of the matter. The real source of this flood of horror. And that is the Islamic State, which occupies a good third of Syria and Iraq and provides to the perpetrators of possible future Bataclans the rearguard bases, command centres, crime schools and training camps without which none of this would be possible.
Last week, in Sinjar, Kurdish forces backed by the international coalition won a clear and decisive victory. I could cite many examples over the past six months in which the Kurds – who, for the time being, are the only ones engaging the enemy on the ground – have routed IS’s rabble army without a fight.
This was the situation two decades ago in Sarajevo, when putative experts raised the spectre of the hundreds of thousands of ground troops that would have to be deployed to prevent ethnic cleansing from reaching its grisly apogee. Yet it turned out that a handful of special forces, backed by strikes, was sufficient. I am convinced that the IS hordes are much braver when blowing the heads off defenceless young Parisians than when facing real soldiers of freedom. Similarly, I believe that the international community possesses all of the means necessary to defeat the threat it faces, should it choose to do so.
What holds us back? Why have we been so stinting in assisting our Kurdish allies?
What is it about this war that the America of Barack Obama, at least for the moment, seems not to really want to win? I do not know the answer. But I know where the key lies.
And I know the alternative to using the key: No boots on their ground means more blood on ours.
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