Charlie Hebdo or the End of the New Enlightnment

On September 11th, 2001, Islamic terrorists murdered almost 3000 people in New York City. On January 7th 2015, 12 people were murdered in Paris. There had been, in the past, worse terrorist attacks in Europe. On March 11th, 2004, for example, Al-Qaeda terrorists murdered almost 200 people in Madrid. The terrorist attack in Paris was, in terms of casualties, a relatively minor event. And yet Paris, if one may venture an observation without the benefit of hindsight, is different. It is one of those moments when processes that have been ignored or downplayed suddenly become obvious to the eye of anyone but the most ideologically committed deniers of reality. 7/1 marks the end of the Post-Modern project. It might take a while, but when we'll look back at the history of Europe, we might say that this event marks the moment Baby Boom era came to an end.

The years that followed WWII saw the birth of the generation that came of age in the 60's, a generation that saw Western Nationalism as the root of all evil. It became the problem that must be solved if peace and prosperity were to be achieved. The sons and daughters of those who shed Europe’s blood in two world wars, turned their backs on the ideas and dreams of their fathers' generation. They denounced Western arrogance, rejected its moral self-assurance, and ridiculed whatever they held sacred. The general feelings was that prehistorical Europe's elites (in Europe anything prior to 1945 is considered prehistory) forced themselves on everybody else; If you were not like "us", you were morally or intellectually inferior, or both. Non-Westerners needed to be re-educated and it was the "white man's burden" to supply that education and to exact steep tuition fees. Those who would not see reason (western reason that is), those who did not fit in for other reasons (racial, national, even aesthetic) were to be eliminated lest they thwart the triumphant chariot of Progress on its way to the even-better- of all possible worlds.

This complacent dream was dealt a devastating blow in the killing fields of Europe as well as its death camps. The fathers had lied. They did not lead us to heaven but to hell. Western colonialism, nationalism, racism, the Church, patriarchy, discrimination of minorities, cultural arrogance – all these, the forefathers’ values, were crimes and sins, to be atoned for and abolished. The main culprits in the pursuit of happiness, it was agreed, were nationalism and organized religion. Both had to go, or at least lose their bite.

The New West condoned a much broader notion of pluralism than in the past: every human being had the right to pursue happiness in any way, shape and form he or she pleases. It saw the state not as a source of (national) pride, but as a mechanism for distributing common goods; it saw the Church, not as the privileged moral compass of society, but as a private club—one amongst many. The ‘68 generation sought to create a new ideal society over the ashes of the old world – a new world, more just and more tolerant. Society, the idea gradually developed, ought to be a free exchange of ideas and cultural preferences: you throw ideas and life-styles into the social market and may the best men, or women, win.

That was a noble vision indeed. But did it work? The devastating assault of "critical", post-colonial, thinking on the "white man's burden" was highly effective. It helped create, at least in Europe, a more peaceful, more egalitarian, more pluralistic society.

The new order was not free of inner contradictions. Take, for example, the ambiguous role played by the USA. The USA hadn't suffered the trauma of two world wars. It had come out triumphant, its national territory intact. The USA had no colonial empire that needed dismantling, nor did it ever experience totalitarianism like the people of Europe. The USA came out of WWII militarily, economically and morally strengthened. American society felt it had nothing to apologize about, nor was there anything seriously wrong with its founding fathers. As a result, it did not feel compelled to denounce either nationalism (at least not its version of it) or the use of violence in international affairs. America was the heavily armed policeman, first (during the Cold War) of the West, and then (after the collapse of the Soviet Empire) of the world. The self-critical voices in America were focused on the Vietnam War—a hugely less traumatic experience than WWII. Critical modes of thinking had a limited effect on American elites. Americans never hesitated to use force, not just to defend themselves, but also to bring their ideology (freedom, democracy à l'américaine) to (often less-than-enthusiastic) others.

The European dream of a non-violent, non-nationalistic, ideal society relied on the US being both nationalistic and violent. The drastic cut in European military expenditure was a crucial element in Europe’s post-war prosperity. Europe would criticize the rude American "sheriff" while heavily relying on him. The US success in handling the cold war, for example, evoked criticism in Europe, especially the European Left, and yet, it was nice to have the sheriff around. Without him Europe would have probably become part of the Communist empire (not a good thing, all things considered). Indeed it was nice to have the Americans around, even at times of internal European conflict; The Balkan crisis was left for the US to solve—in their typical, unpleasant fashion. Europeans love peace, so it was nice to have somebody fight their dirty wars.

Yet if the problem of foreign affairs was solved by letting the American bully take care of things, internal problems had to be taken care of by Europeans themselves. And here lied a problem; Europe might have given up the old worldview that legitimized forcing its values on the rest of the world, but it had not stopped believing its values to be ideal. The European elites just assumed that their pluralistic, egalitarian values are the preconditions for the best of all possible worlds. The triumph of this worldview, it was hoped, would not require coercion. Suffice to set an example to the world, while avoiding the condescension and disrespect that created antagonism in the past (and of course American crassness too). It might take a generation or two, perhaps a friendly financial push or two, but eventually it would happen—we will all be post-modernist westerners, part of the Facebook revolution. We Are the World. Immigrants were invited to join the project—the rainbow coalition–from within. The first generation of immigrants might still hold on to their old ways, but the second generation will not. They will be French, or Belgian or Dutch, its past – mere nostalgia, devoid of real force.

The one possibility the New Enlightenment did not seriously consider was that the "Others" would not share the supposedly-self-evident common core values. Some "Others" look at the new city on the hill and see much that they dislike. They might think for example that the least evident truth is that "all men were created equal" or that they have, by birth, "certain inalienable rights". Instead, they may take religion, national or racial identity seriously. And sadly they may consider equal rights for women or the pursuit of gay happiness, offensive.

The rise of "radical" Islam is a case in point. There are complex reasons for this phenomenon and many varieties, but if there's a common denominator to all of them, it is a sense of wounded pride. Islam, once a force to be reckoned with on the world scene, was now treated as the dignified (dignified!), but slightly dull witted, relative. The supposed-open mindedness and multiculturalism of Europe—so different in their eyes from American belligerence– did not impress Islamists. For them, the distinction between the American and European versions of western culture—so dear to western intellectuals–was of little significance. The West, from both sides of the Atlantic spoke of dialogue, but showed little interest in what Muslims had to offer besides oil. Some Islamists thought that the new West was worse than the old. Colonialism was indeed  evil, but the colonialists, conservatives themselves, were less harmful to Muslim religion and family values. The new enlightenment used means more devious than battleships to impose its values. Women’s lib, universal education, secularism, the separation of Church and State – all these were far more dangerous than soldiers and tax collectors. Muslim attempts to adopt western institution without destabilizing traditional ideas did not pay off. No Muslim country (with the exception of secularized Turkey) offered its citizens the economic advantages that Western institutions were supposed to bring.

The reaction to the post-colonial West started in the East, but gradually poured over into the immigrant communities of Europe, where Islam served as a rallying point in the battle against Western complacency. Religion is not a rational argument. You cannot win it "from the outside". It is immune to ridicule and ordinary logic. To be heard, you must be one of "us" for it is a war of "us" against "them". Doing "horrible", "abominable" things is a way of slapping your truth in the face of your opponent: "You may be rich and educated and powerful. We do not care what you think. We spit in your face. Answer that if you can".

 9/11 was the first major expression of radical Islam's spitting in the face of the West. For Americans it was not a crise de conscience.  America was attacked by a foreign force. Foreigners attack the US, because they are jealous, or stupid, or evil, or all three. The US reacted, as a state would react to a foreign aggressor, with an all-out war against the perpetrators (and against others who had nothing to do with it). The attack in Paris is different. Not only was it carried out from within, by sons of immigrants, who were supposed to have become French of their own accord, but because they targeted the most “enlightened” elements in French society. Charlie Hebdo’s caricaturists were faithful sons of the New Europe. They were impartial in their ridicule and offended Judaism and Christianity as well. The only idea that was sacred to them was that nothing which institutionalized religions or states produce is sacred.

How will France react? It is hard to say. Old ideas take time to die and the French intellectual elite is deeply committed to its articles of faith. But whether heeded or not, the terror attack in Paris was a wakeup call. It should awaken the French to realize that no matter how pluralistic they think they are, how understanding and sympathetic to the Other they are, their opponents shall remain unconvinced. Is France worth more than words? Is it worth fighting for? That is the question. A state is not a free market where cultural groups trade their wares. A state is the expression of a specific national tradition and a specific national history. The majority has a right to enforce not only the rules of the democratic game, but a specific way of life that immigrants must accept when they enter the state. The French national way of life, a set of values and traditions, is under attack. It has the right to defend itself. The question is, will it?

translated from Hebrew by Nava Ney

4 תגובות

  1. Not sure I agree with the claim "Charlie Hebdo’s caricaturists were faithful sons of the New Europe. They were impartial in their ridicule and offended Judaism and Christianity as well. The only idea that was sacred to them was that nothing which institutionalized religions or states produce is sacred"

    At least from what I have read CH has evolved over the years from an anarchic lefty outfit to a more centrist one, and guided by its various editors line. Likewise, I understand that recent years the caricatures about Islam and the the Profet far out did those about other religions. The terrible massacre was indeed a product of second generation alienated youth who could find in Islamic ideology a reason to vent their angers and anxieties – hence the important of also identifying the social causes. But the point is that in many other places where multiculturalism or a multifath has extisted for hundreds if not thousands of years circumspection outwighs irreverence – perhaps an indication of how the French's blind faith (in their own brand of Liberty ) has been to the detriments of all concerned. None of this justifies the atrocious acts of murder but it gives necessary context often lost in the demeaning chorus of anti Islam .

    I also thing we can debate the point about Islam's 'wounded pride', which can too easily fall into the trope of labelling islam as as 'honour' an based culture/ religion , but that'll have to wait for another time.thank you both, as usual a thought provoking piece r


  2. צירוף מקרים?
    ראשית,תודה על המאמר.
    הגעתי אליו לאחר שסיימתי לקרוא (קריאה ״נוסטלגית״) את המאמר שפרסמת ב׳הארץ׳ לאחר הארוע המכונן (הקודם?) של ה11 בספטמבר (״רגע לפני שהעתיד נעשה היסטוריה״)
    כנראה שהרבה אנשים החכימו השבוע.
    (אבל רבים עדיין ״נעולים״ בעבר)


  3. כתבה מאירת עיניים. כדאי אולי להזכיר שגם אמריקה איננה מחוסנת מפני טרור של יחידים כפי שראינו את מתקפת שני האחים בבוסטון .אין מקום בעולם כיום שמחוסן או מסוגל לתת מענה כלל עולמי גם אם חחברו יחדיו כוחות רבים משום שגם אם הכתובת מצויה על הקיר אין לה מענה בזמן אמת לא כוחני ולא חברתי משום שגם אם יגויסו כל העובדים הסוציאלים בעולם וגם אם יבוצעו המוני סיכולים ממוקדים זו כפי הנראה לא תהא הדרך. העולם המערבי על כל ערכיו נמצא בדילמה קשה ביותר ובעיקר איך לשמר את ערכיו עליהם לחם והקיז את דמו שלו.


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