The French philosopher talks about his new film, Peshmerga, which follows the Kurds fighting Isis, and gives his thoughts on Brexit and the crisis of democracy
By Richard Williams, Thursday 14 July 2016 10.49 EDT
We are meeting to discuss Peshmerga, a new documentary film about the Kurdish men and women fighting Isis in northern Iraq. But it seems wrong, in this of all weeks, not to take the opportunity to ask the most visible and controversial French philosopher of his generation about the current state of the world: the global turbulence that encompasses jihadism, mass transmigration, Kim Jong-un’s missiles, Black Lives Matter, Brexit and the weather. What’s it all about, Bernard-Henri Lévy?
“This is the tempo of history,” he says. “You have in the history of the world, and especially in the history of the western world, some crucial moments like this, when you have a concentration of crises. The end of the 18th century was one, with the French revolution. The middle of the 19th century. Just before the first world war. The 1930s. You have moments like these when you have the feeling that the whole world is out of joint, and that men and women of goodwill are trying to find their way in darkness.
“This is not rare. History is a sort of pulsation. Hegel showed that there is a constant work of history with some moments like this of climax, of crisis – of kairos, the Greek term, the decisive moment. These are the moments when you need some people who make a good analysis and with real leadership, which sometimes we have and sometimes we don’t have. In England, at the end of the sequence of the 30s, you had the grand leadership, which was Churchill. In France, we waited for De Gaulle, but it was a little late.”
Winston Churchill, it turns out, is a hero to BHL, as Lévy has been known in France since the early 1970s, when he appeared at the head of the group dubbed the nouveaux philosophes. He was born in 1948, the son of a man who had fought in Spain and then, during the second world war, in north Africa and Italy. “I belong to the French who would not be alive without Churchill,” he says. “I would not have been born without the greatness of this country.”
The outcome of the Brexit vote, not surprisingly, upset him. “For me, all my life, England has been really an example, a model. In dark times, this country has so often had the good reflex. I never saw in my lifetime, and I don’t find in my memory, a circumstance in which this country has gone through such a disaster with open eyes and such a popular fervour, left and right united in the same dishonour, nobody wanting to take the responsibility of going out. This is incredible. What’s sad is that England has added a little chapter to the history of the shameful comedy of bad politics.”
The referendum, he says, should never have been called. “A referendum is really the last option. It should not be a regular form of government. There is a great mistake in taking the option of referendum for personal reasons, for domestic reasons, in order to improve a career and so on. And when the destiny of a country is at stake, the destiny of a continent, it’s such a risk to play that with a tiny majority.
“You ask the people for a reply to a question. But democracy is not only a reply to a question. Democracy is first to shape the question, number two to reply, and number three to adapt to the reply with some laws and decrees and so on. Democracy means all three: to raise, to reply and to apply. A referendum is only number two, without the raising of the question and the application. So, even in the most traditional terms of political philosophy, you cannot say that a referendum is the embodiment of democracy. Not: ‘Are you for Europe or not for Europe?’ A question in democratic terms is something more sophisticated. Which can be the product of the will of the people, but not like this” – he snaps his fingers – “on one Thursday.”
And will the consequence of the British withdrawal be to solidify Europe, or to atomise it? “I don’t know. First of all, it is atomising the United Kingdom. Mr Cameron, Mr Boris Johnson and Mr Farage made a big achievement – they took the risk of destroying a great 60-year-old institution, and the many-centuries-old political whole that is the United Kingdom. This is the situation. And Europe without the UK, without the British spirit, cannot be Europe. It will be a huge loss of being, a loss of substance.”
Lévy is used to being lampooned as a celebrity intellectual, with his unbuttoned shirts and his swoosh of hair, his usual table just inside the door of the Café de Flore in Paris, his liking for the company of beautiful women (he is married to the actor and singer Arielle Dombasle, whom he cast in Le Jour et la Nuit, his hilariously bad feature film of 1997), his inheritance of a successful timber business from his father (since sold for many millions), and his flamboyantly extreme positions. But this is a man who, after his studies with Althusser and Derrida, became a war correspondent with the magazine Combat – founder: Albert Camus – and has since left that table at the Flore to spend a considerable amount of time in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bosnia, Sudan, Libya and many other of the world’s more awkward zones, researching his articles, books and films.
For Peshmerga, the concluding part of a trilogy of films that began with Bosna! (1994) and The Oath of Tobruk (2012), he travelled along the frontline, witnessing battles and meeting the fighters, among whom he found the salient features of his ideal of enlightened Islam. These include “gender equality, a sense of secularism, a true experience of democracy, openness to otherness, all these characteristics that make enlightenment, which I spent most of my life searching for in the world of Islam.
“I found it in Bosnia, in Bangladesh, in parts of the Arab world like Tunisia, but with the Kurds I had the feeling of seeing the proof, for those who might doubt it, that Islam and enlightenment and Islam and democracy can match and do match in some circumstances.”
He rejoiced in the sight of women fighting alongside men, and of Muslims protecting Christians and displaying with pride the surviving traces of Jewish culture in Iraqi Kurdistan. But don’t we in the west, I asked him, when we identify partners in such places, often make choices that prove, with hindsight, to have been naive or opportunistic?
“I started this process without knowing a lot and I had no plan, except to follow the road. It was the most modest and humble approach I had in all my life, probably. In order not to be badly surprised by the future, you have to know what you can rely on in the past. And when you fall in love, with a woman or a people, you try to understand their history. So I did that. And in the history of the Kurdish nationalism, in the history of Kurdish patriotism, in the history of the minorities inside the Kurdish people, there were already the seeds and some achievements of that. When the past matches with what you observe currently, it makes a reliable perspective.”
Nevertheless, an Amnesty International report in January this year spoke of peshmerga destroying Arab villages. “I know how serious Amnesty International is, so I suppose they have good evidence of that. What I observed myself is the opposite, and I show it: Kurds, peshmergas, bringing back Arabs and giving them back their villages after they were hunted out by Isis. What Amnesty said may be true, but I did not see it.”
He believes the words of the Dominican priest who claims, in his film, that Isis will disappear as quickly as it appeared. “With my team we were witnesses to six battles, and the result was exactly the same each time: victory of the peshmerga, retreat of Isis. Very low cost in human losses. What will happen tomorrow, in my view, is that if the west decides so, Isis will be reduced to very little, if not nothing, in the reasonable term. But it supposes that we help. It supposes that the Kurds are not left alone. It supposes that they are equipped with heavy weaponry, with protection against gas, and so on. Now my feeling is that the west begins to understand that.”
These days, the buttons of BHL’s crisp white shirt are undone merely to the sternum rather than the navel. In the midst of an answer during this interview, in fact, he absent-mindedly does one of them up – although when he takes the stage half an hour later to introduce his film to an audience at the Hexagon Society in London, he has undone it again. But that shouldn’t stop us taking him seriously.