Paris shows gratitude to the Afghan hero who tried to stop the Sept. 11 attacks—and whose warnings about Islamist fanaticism remain urgent today.
I can still hear the Afghan commander Ahmad Shah Massoud telling me at his home in Panjshir, while I was profiling him for Le Monde in the spring of 1998, that the France of General Charles de Gaulle and of the anti-Nazi Resistance—the France whose history he learned at Kabul’s Lycée Esteqlal—had always been for him the homeland of liberty.
I can still picture him three years later in Paris, at the dusk reception we held for him with Jean d’Ormesson, Jean-François Deniau, Pascal Bruckner, André Glucksmann, Gilles Hertzog, and a few others. For the first and only time in his short life, he had left his native region. It was just a few weeks shy of Sept. 11, and of his own assassination on Sept. 9 by two al-Qaida suicide bombers disguised as journalists carrying a rigged camera.
Massoud had come to alert the European Parliament, in Strasbourg, of an imminent threat to the West. He loved France, and he spoke to us in French. But was he heard?
How was it that none of the networks, with the exception of Canal Plus and parodist Karl Zéro’s Le Vrai Journal, deigned to offer him a platform? What explains the fact that after our interview appeared in Le Monde, no one seemed to absorb the considerable information that he had passed on (and that I laid out in black and white) about the precise location in Kandahar of Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden?
All of these memories came rushing back to me on Feb. 3 when Arnaud Ngatcha, deputy for international and Francophone relations to Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, called to tell me that the city council had unanimously decided to rename a drive near the Champs-Elysées in Massoud’s honor.
And it is those memories, that series of missed signals, those strange misunderstandings, commingled with the mysteries of the history of Franco-Afghan friendship penned over the course of a century by hundreds of physicians, humanitarians, writers, big-hearted adventurers who joined the mujahedeen’s anti-Soviet resistance, globetrotters without guides, and archaeologists following in Alexander’s steps, searching for the phantom cities of Bactria and Bagram—yes, all of that is swirling around in my head as I come to realize that Paris will be the first city in the world to pay such singular homage to the life, work, and spirit of the legendary Afghan leader.
For those all over the world who saw him—and still see him—as the man who defeated the Red Army and who, if he had been heard, might have slowed and perhaps arrested the growth of political Islam, this step is a long overdue form of reparation.
For his son, Ahmed, who took up his father’s torch, and who I saw just a few weeks ago in the same house in Jangalak surrounded by the same amphitheater of mountains—now threatened by Taliban fighters who are taking advantage of the disarray of the international community and preparing to return in force—Paris’ action is the City of Light’s tribute to the enlightened Islam that, like his father, he defends.
And, to judge by the profusion of calls that I am getting from Kabul; the emotional messages from the last surviving comrades of Massoud the elder, who like Abdullah Abdullah have been hoping for this gesture for 20 years; to judge by the enthusiasm on social networks of the young comrades of Massoud the junior who have returned from London, New York, or Paris to resume the fight against murderous obscurantism with him, I can tell that this initiative of the city of Paris has been received as an act of solidarity with the new Afghanistan. This great and noble country, over the years, invited women to unveil their faces, honored its poets, artists, and mystics, and encouraged its journalists to exercise their noble profession. But it will surely fall once again into the grip of the Taliban’s executioners if Joe Biden’s new administration follows through with the withdrawal of American special forces announced several months ago by Donald Trump.
But it is a beautiful gesture for Paris as well!
For the Paris whose purest quality, as Louis Aragon put it in a 1944 poem, is its “insurgent forehead.”
The Paris that is stronger than fire and lightning when it defies danger and holds out its hand to “people from everywhere.”
The Paris that, from Thomas Jefferson to Walter Benjamin, from Bolivar to Garibaldi and so many others, has welcomed the persecuted and their future liberators.
The Paris that is never so free as when it honors the world’s free men and women.
A tomb for Massoud in Paris?
Yes—and that is marvelous.
But, even better, may the tomb also be a cradle for the tolerant, democratic Islam that Massoud embodied with such flair, and whose victory seems, in Afghanistan as in the rest of the world, increasingly uncertain.
Witness the atrocious and effective release of Daniel Pearl’s killer in Karachi on Feb. 2.
Witness the fanatics who, from a growing number of mosques in Asia and Africa, howl for the death of Jews, Christians, moderate Muslims, and atheists.
Witness the communal separatism and no-go zones that, despite sound legislation backed by President Emmanuel Macron, are encroaching like the desert in the French Republic.
And witness Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the great recruiter, more active than ever in the lost lands of Armenia, Syria, Libya, and—if we do not stop him—Europe.
Is any current question more burning than this one?
And is there any better way of emphasizing that question than by honoring Ahmad Shah Massoud in Paris?
Translated from the French by Steven B. Kennedy.