In The Oath of Tobruk, Bernard-Henri Lévy’s film on the war to overthrow Muammar Qaddafi, the writer-director exhumes images passed down from René Clément of an Arabic-speaking Jewish shepherd native to the Libyan sands. In the same film, he evinces a hope for “renewed ties between the children of Abraham.” Another scene shows him in a tense conversation with the fearsome “emirs of Derna,” Islamists suspected of colluding with Al-Qaeda. After putting them through a series of preventive tests and cracking their shell of self-imposed isolation, he conjectures :“Theirs is not the Islam of the Enlightenment for which I have been fighting for so long, but nor is it the Islam of all-out war that wants to bury the West.” His hope—“to bore a hole into the granite of Jihadist ideology”—expresses the growing importance of the the new Eastern Question in the thinking of Bernard-Henri Lévy. (1)
An importance based on a good deal of thought: Since radical Islam burst onto the world scene at the end of the 1980s, Lévy has forged theoretical models to assess the danger posed by the phenomenon. To the leading proponent of the “clash of civilizations,” Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington, Lévy consistently objected that Islamic fundamentalism was not a single block nor a coherent entity shut off from and incompatible with other entities. Just back from Afghanistan in April 2002, BHL already understood the fracture in the world of Islam: “Enlightened Islam against fundamentalist Islam: That is … the major issue of our new century. The Afghan people and Hamid Karzai will not prevail in that battle unless we help them. (2)
American Vertigo, Lévy’s chronicle of a trip he took through the United States in 2004 in the footsteps of Alexis de Tocqueville, first appeared in English in January 2006. In it, Lévy refined his thoughts on the subject of radical Islam: “The only clash of cultures or world visions that has meaning today is not the clash between America and Islam [but] within the borders of Islam, the clash of two Islams, embodied in the names of Massoud and the Taliban.” (3)
Over the past decade, BHL has developed a set of axioms for the struggle against fanaticism. Again and again he has insisted that the true fissure is not the split between the Islamic world and the rest of the planet, but rather the collection of fissures that divides the civilized world into two irreconcilable families: the adherents of the “open society” and the rear guard of intolerance and identity-based exclusion, isolation, and withdrawal: the “democrats” versus the “theocrats”; the adepts of secularism and the separation of powers (chiefly, of religion from the state) versus the violent minority of theological-political zealots.
Nothing is more foreign to his thinking than the temptation, widespread in American conservativism, to caricature Islam as being prone to violence. Radical Islam, and the global threat that it poses to liberty, the rule of law, and, above all, to Muslim women, must be seen not as the fulfillment but rather as the betrayal of the peaceful message of the Muslim faith. Radical Islam relies on criminal methods and an apocalyptic Gigantomachy in which the Koran plays very little part. The Islamic world is riven and ravaged by a high-intensity philosophical war whose shifting front lines Lévy has followed doggedly from Bosnia, in 1993, to Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2002 and Sudan in 2012.
There is indeed “a political battle between the peaceful legacy of the Koran and the legacy that propels the preachers of jihad; a merciless war pitting the partisans of aggiornamento, on the one hand, the adherents of a faith that, like other monotheisms before it, resolves to accommodate itself to the rights of the individual, of the other, against the proponents of what I believe I may be the first to have labeled fascislamism.” (4)
Fascislamism: The word is new, at least in French, since several neoconservative American authors, such as David Horowitz, have also used the expression. In summer 2006, while covering the war unleashed by Hezbollah against Israel, BHL used the term to designate the new global enemy, decrying “fascislamism with an Islamic face, a third wave of fascism, a movement that is to our generation what original fascism and communist totalitarianism were to our elders.” (5)
Two years later, in 2008, with Philippe Val, who was then director of Charlie-Hebdo, he organized support for Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a member of the Dutch parliament of Somali origin, who had been sentenced to death by the fundamentalists and abandoned by the Dutch authorities. That effort led him to formulate the categorical imperative of our time: “I believe that we have a duty of solidarity with those who fight against Islamism and for the values of tolerance, freedom, and secularism. Do you remember the demonstrations, the chains of solidarity that formed on behalf of Sakharov and his fellow dissidents? Well Ayaan is like Sakharov. (6)
Like Sakharov? Really?
In fact, it was a good parallel, and a compelling one. The difference is that Sakharov was the victim of the Soviet Union, a police ideocracy. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, by contrast, defied an Islamist theocracy.
Like the Algerian writer Boualem Sansal, who, in Le Village de l’Allemand, evokes the unspoken collaboration of some Arabs with European fascism, BHL knows how to go about tracing the ideological pedigree of radical Islam. He is well aware that, of all possible genealogies, the persecutors of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Taslima Nasreen, Naguib Mahfouz, and Iranian Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani (7) chose the darkest. He knows that it was from European fascism, and particularly from National Socialism, that most morbid of the conservative revolutions of the twentieth century, that the liquidators of the enlightened legacy of Al-Farabi, Averroes, and Rumi drew their inspiration and models. The bloodthirsty age whose coming is proclaimed from the Sahel to Indonesia by these impassive horsemen of the apocalypse must be understood as a delayed effect of fascism outside the area where it was born, as the fascist legacy streaming over the Arab world like a comet’s tail,(8) or, if one prefers, as the deferred exportation of the terrifyingly antihumanist, homicidal thinking of Thomas Mann’s Jesuit character, Naphta, in The Magic Mountain.
A delayed effect of fascism? The tail of the comet of extreme-right revolutionaries? By 1933, BHL reminds us, Naphtas had begun to act in the Arab world: Hassan al-Banna, who founded the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 1928, theorized, in the purest subservience to Nazi terminology, “the industry of death.” To serve the Reich, the Brotherhood pushed servility to the extent of “inventing Arab-Muslim origins for Hitler—a house in Tanta, in the Nile Delta, a house that was supposedly his mother’s birthplace.” (9) As the Nazi death factories quickened their pace in Europe, antisemitism was in full bloom in the Middle East, home to 700,000 Jews. As for Mohammad Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem from 1921 to 1937, who some still like to paint as an Arab patriot, superstitious but debonnair, BHL reminds us that he was no stranger to infamy.
Nevertheless, eight decades later, “the fact is that, on this matter of Islamism, and, more particularly, on the German-Islamic pact during World War II about which so little is said today—even though it had, and has, no less impact than the Nazi-Soviet pact—a whole body of knowledge existed, and has mysteriously been lost.” (10) To inventory that pilfered, ransacked knowledge, to give a voice to the silence of that past, to bring back to life an entire lost section of “antifascist memory”—those are the goals that Lévy has set for himself since La pureté dangereuse (1994) (11), and, even more explicitly, since his novel-investigation of 2003, Who Killed Daniel Pearl? (Melville) (12)
Inside the “matrix” of fascislamism
Sometimes it happens that artists have a foreboding, as if in a flash, of oncoming disaster.
Claude—yes, Paul Claudel, the very conservative author of The Satin Slipper, the corseted diplomat of the period between the two wars—was he such an artist? Could this paragon of bourgeois conformism have been capable, one fleeting day, of the degree of higher consciousness that Spinoza, in the fifth book of his Ethics, calls “the third kind of knowledge”? Was Claudel, at least on that day, a visionary? Could he see the barbarous developments lurking just around the corner?
Whatever the case, he made a piercing prediction in his Journal for May 21, 1935, cited by BHL in Left in Dark Times: “A sort of Islamism is forming at the center of Europe.”
Today, of course, as we have too often seen, a wholly objectionable polemical or apologetic use is made of the long-distance affinity between forms of totalitarianism. This is what we get from Fox News and from American editorialists overeager to demonize Islam. And, in France, there are still too many people who like to play with the false idea that Islam is prey to an irrepressible impulse toward violence and war, and that jihad is thus the one true face of Islam.
None of that is acceptable; indeed it is urgent that we respond to these supposed “breakers of taboos.” But what we cannot do is stop thinking, stop exploring and investigating the recent past, or stop lighting up the blind alleys of the history of the first decades of the twentieth century, which, even then, was globalized.
Consistent with the work of essayist Paul Berman, Lévy’s own exploration of the concept of “fascislamism” opens up an archaeological space, in Michel Foucault’s sense of the term, space for an archaeology of fundamentalism within Islam. Far from being a subjective hypothesis, the linking of radical Islam to Europe’s anti-liberal revolutions of the 1920s and 1930s has been corroborated in recent years by several historians, including historians of ideas. One of the most recent is Jeffrey Herf’s Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World (Princeton University Press, 2010), a French translation of which was published in 2012 by Calmann-Lévy and the Shoah Memorial under the title Hitler, la propagande et le monde arabe. Herf is a German historian at the University of Maryland.
Following Lévy’s lead, Herf dispels the darkness and the veil of denial that shroud an essential aspect of the resurgent totalitarian impulse: the dangerous liaisons between the Third Reich and several Arab leaders of the time. The author is innocent of any mistrust of the Arab world or the Muslim faith. He is not an adherent of the idea of the “clash of civilizations.” Inspired by anti-totalitarianism, in the manner of BHL’s friends Michael Walzer and Paul Berman, Herf sees radical Islam not as a consequence of the Koran and the civilization it spawned but rather a resurrection of the totalitarian nightmare that gripped Europe between the two world wars. His inquiry mines vast amounts of data, including sound recordings transcribed by the American intelligence services in Cairo. His piecing together of the puzzle of the Nazis’ political contacts on the southern rim of the Mediterranean is methodical and dispassionate. And it confirms one of BHL’s seminal intuitions: the intense cross-fertilization between the anti-western reaction that was building in the Arab world at the time and the political expression of that reaction in the form of fascism in Europe.
On November 28, 1941, notes Herf, Hitler received with great ceremony and even affection, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin el-Husseini, who was then in exile in Berlin and who became the most effective transmitter of the Nazi message in the eastern Mediterranean. Through him, even before the start of the second world war, Nazi leaders pursued their insane ideological ambitions, building a communications machine specifically designed to spread the message of hate and death throughout North Africa and the Middle East, a machine that ran full bore into 1945. Herf exposes the sophisticated strategies the SS used to export their obsessions and to attract to the Nazi cause Arab wielders of power and influence. Examples include the dropping of millions of pamphlets by the Afrika Korps over Egypt, Palestine, Iraq, and Syria, as well as the Reich’s shortwave radio broadcasts that hammered home the message to “kill the Jews before they kill you.” In January 1944, according to Herf, Heinrich Himmler himself addressed the Bosnian members of an SS division founded by el-Husseini: “What could possibly separate we Germans from you Muslims? We have common objectives. For two hundred years, Germany has not had the least bit of friction with Islam.”
In that tirade, Himmler sought to cement the allegiance of the Arab world to the pagan, anti-semitic Reich. He sought to silence those in the Arab world who were trying to resist the dark tide of Nazi occultism. He omitted mention of devout Muslims’ rescues of Jews, actions that honor Islam. (13) He scorned the Muslim faithful who had elected to oppose his homicidal regime by enlisting under the colors of Free France. But ideas have consequences. Herf’s work, elaborating on the historical insights of Berman and the conceptualization of BHL, underscore the instrumental quality of ideas. It shows that the ideological “superstructure” so dear to Louis Althusser and his axiomatics of “theoretical praxis” was not, is not, detached from reality or from “infrastructure”—indeed it molds and shapes it. The Nazi regime was defeated in 1945, but the regime’s demise did not halt the viral growth of ideologies that, since the Nazi capitulation, have spread beyond Europe in unexpected ways. Did the end of the war fracture the conspiratorial granite of the Hitlerian Weltanschauung, which the Third Reich had tried, through tireless propaganda, to convey beyond its zone of immediate harm? Did the Liberation neutralize the cloud of poisonous ideas that the regime had for years pumped into the air around the world? Are we really sure that this diabolical matrix has ceased spreading fanaticism? That question is at the heart of a Voltairean line of inquiry that BHL has followed concerning what he calls “contemporary vileness.” (14) In 1946, with Hitler gone from the world stage, Jeffrey Herf notes that Hassan El-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, encouraged the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem with these words: “Germany and Hitler are gone, but Amin el-Husseini will continue the struggle.”
Herf is exploring an almost virgin territory, a sort of no-man’s-land of historical knowledge. In the wake of just the few earlier studies—Berman’s excellent Terror and Liberalism (Norton, 2004), and, in 2010, the essay The Flight of the Intellectuals: The Controversy Over Islamism and the Press (Melville, 2011; Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies by Ian Buruma and Avishaï Margalit (Penguin, 2005); and Croissant fertile et croix gammée: Le IIIe Reich, les Arabes et la Palestine by Martin Cüppers and Klaus-Michael Mallmann (Verdier, 2010)—Herf asserts not only that radical Islamism is not an avatar of Islam, but that it has nothing in common with Islam, being instead the most recent toxic pearl ejected from the diseased oyster of fascism.
A concept, but for what?
Whence the urgency, faced with gauntlet thrown at the feet of the democracies by the “new barbarians,” as BHL put it in Who Killed Daniel Pearl, to remain skeptical of those tenured members of the “world university,” recently evoked by Jean-Claude Milner, who engage in anti-Zionist demonology and tell us to “move on—nothing to see here” (15); to avoid those mediocre thinkers who, according to Berman, “are on the run, too quick to laugh nervously at outspoken Muslim progressives and reluctant to tell the truth about the reality of Islamism; and to keep at bay those useful idiots who indulge, in Alain Finkielkraut’s apt phrase, “the new demons of Islamo-progressivism.”
And above all, to support, wherever they can be found, those whom Lévy calls “the sons of Massoud.” To aid them, to “Tikkunize” for them. To give “support and arms” to that “majority of the Muslim world that aspires quietly, like the women of Algeria and the Muslims of Bosnia-Herzegovina, to enjoy freedom of judgment and belief, democracy, the right to blaspheme, equality of the sexes, and, in short, all the values extolled by Voltaire.” (16)
Because history has not ended. As BHL says, paraphrasing Toynbee, “History is still on the move.”
The jihadi death squads, Pearl’s assassins, have not won. But we need to stand firm, with quiet determination, alongside Massoud’s progeny, alongside all of the children of the Islaim of enlightenment and peace, and to resist those whom Spinoza, faced with other forms of fanaticism, called the ultimi Barbarum.
Lévy is not naïve. His hope is not for an anodyne “happy ending.” He knows that a good working concept such as “fascislamism” does not do away with the problems that it designates. He also knows that the battle of fanaticism against the democracies is coming around again on the wheel of history and that we are not likely to see it withdraw of its own accord. “The supply of possible barbarisms,” he wrote in the foreword to War, Evil, and the End of History (Melville, 2004), “which we had believed to be depleted, now has an unexpected variant.” But at least the concept of fascislamism allows us to see clearly and to approach the field of battle with our eyes open. By resituating radical Islam in the long European night of totalitarian forms, this new philosopheme has the advantage of emphasizing the extreme modernity of this most recent of the “secular religions.” Radical Islam owes its power to attract adherents to that very modernity, that terrible, implacable newness. It represents not a stubborn artifact of another age but rather an exalted future. It is, in Heideggerian terms, highly suited to the age of calculating thought and technical neutrality. Omar Sheikh, the Anglo-Pakistani killer of Daniel Pearl, as portrayed by BHL with disquieting insight, began as a sociologically integrated young man, universally esteemed by those he met. The child of a quiet family with no links to jihadism, he excelled in his classes at the London School of Economics. But at some point, according to Lévy, his critical faculties, the virtues of self-scrutiny cultivated in the best schools in England, yielded suddenly and tragically to a fascination with purity, with the absolute.
How did this pure product of the West, educated and technified, become a radical militant of anti-western terrorism, hijacked and mentally reprogrammed by the brainwashing of the madrasas? That is the dizzying enigma that kept the author of the novel-investigation in suspense.
He does not claim to have solved the riddle, at least not completely. Nor does he think that he can illuminate every dark corner of Sheikh’s homicidal trajectory.
Faced with the decision of Daniel Pearl’s assassin to commit a fascislamist act, BHL does not dispel each and every contradiction and dilemma. He does not presume to explain the inexplicable. His thought remains in the realm of epokhè—somewhere between doubt and certitude.
But, at the same time, BHL acknowledges the urgency of the eternal Leninist question: What is to be done?
In the incertitude and indecision of the present moment, as Arab revolutions dangle between “the southern slope of freedom,” in the words of Mahmoud Hussein, and the reformation of servitude, BHL reaffirms Voltaire’s rejection of consolations, theodicies, and the “providential monadology” imagined by Leibniz. In his view, the blind negativity of jihadism demands a “volontarism” without foundation or ontological certitude, or, as he put it in his preface to Voltaire’s Le Philosophe ignorant, a “skepticism without despair.” At the same time, he appropriates another piece of Voltaire’s advice, a commandment that may be the fundamental principle of “Lévyism,” the injunction not to lurk, idle, in the shadows.
Translation by Steven Kennedy
(1) The Oath of Tobruk, DVD.
(2) Rapport au président de la République et au Premier ministre sur la participation de la France à la reconstruction de l’Afghanistan, Grasset / La Documentation française.
(3) American Vertigo, Random House, 2007, p. 266.
(4) Bloc-notes, Le Point, October 23, 2010.
(5) Bloc-notes, Le Point, December 23, 2010.
(6) Interview with nouvelobs.com, February 8, 2008.
(7) See posts on VOLONTE DE PURETE / VOLONTE DE GUERIR.
(8) Bernard-Henri Lévy, Pièces d’identité, Grasset, p. 1,268
(9) Ce grand Cadavre à la renverse, Grasset, 2007, p. 338. Published in English as Left in Dark Times, Random House, 2009, p. 169.
(10) Left in Dark Times, op. cit., p. 171.
(11) See posts on VOLONTE de PURETE and VOLONTE de GUERIR.
(12) First published in French as Qui a tué Daniel Pearl?, Grasset, 2003.
(13) L’Etoile jaune et le croissant, Mohammed Aïssaoui, Gallimard, 2012.
(14) Voltaire, Le Philosophe ignorant, preface by Bernard-Henri Lévy, Biblio-essais, 2009, p. 16.
(15) Jean-Claude Milner speaking on “Répliques,” France Culture, October 27, 2012.
(16) Voltaire, le philosophe ignorant, op. cit., p. 15.