Pierre Rigoulot is a French historian, author of many books on the Collaboration period and communist regimes, notably in Cuba and North Korea. A contributor to the Black Book of Communism, he directs the Institute for Social History, a Paris think tank founded by Boris Souvarine and headed, since the passing of the much regretted Jean-François Revel, by Emanuel LeRoi Ladurie. In the wake of the January terrorist massacres in Paris, which decimated the editorial leadership of the satirical paper Charlie-Hebdo and cost the lives of personnel in the police, the building housing the paper’s editorial offices, as well as, in a coordinated attack, customers in a kosher grocery, there has been a massive mobilization in France to defend the Republic against its enemies, foreign and domestic. But who are France’s enemies? It is this critical question which Mr. Rigoulot, in the name of his Institute, addressed in this editorial a week ago. — Roger Kaplan
Are We at War with Jihadist Islam?
We do know that radical Islamism is at war with us.
There has been no official declaration of war.
The enemy is not fielding a regular army as defined by conventional standards, including the universally accepted laws of war.
There is no clearly demarcated front.
But still, it is war. Asymmetrical war, certainly. The West possesses the most advanced technology, with laser-guided bombs, air forces, aircraft carriers deployed in the Persian Gulf against throat-slitting infantry who, as well, have access to advanced weaponry: their chiefs have the money to buy them and they can loot them from stockpiles abandoned by retreating foes. They are disunited, but they are mobile, and they have shown they can launch operations at will, even into the heart of our capitals.
We hear it said it is wrong to qualify as an armed conflict isolated acts of aggression. But wars begin thus, with small engagements. The Algerian War did not begin when the National Liberation Army assembled divisions on the Moroccan and Tunisian frontiers, but at the time of the first aggressions, in November 1954, which included murdering bus passengers and police men on their beats. Historians of the future may date the beginning of the war of radical Islamism against the West in 2001, or they may go further back, to the fatwas pronounced against Salman Rushdie.
Since then, aggressions, assaults, assassinations have multiplied. There is no word but war for what we are in.
It is a war with weapons, but also with words. We are hearing the clash of two conceptions of the kind of world we want. We must, therefore, respond to the totalitarian, ideological, and ideocratic movement that has attacked us. Its fanatical followers are convinced they hold the Truth and are destined to impose it everywhere, even here, in France, where peaceful coexistence (in French, vivre ensemble, living together) is a habit well established in our mores, acknowledged and put into practice by consensus, with no interference from God.
We must respond, indeed, less to them — who live in another world and who view us as “Crusaders and Jews” — than to those among us, in our own society, who are tempted to join them. The right to criticize freely, the obligation to tolerate opposing viewpoints, must be rationalized, defended, explained in our democratic societies, repeatedly. We must insist that the stranger in our midst be recognized and tolerated, worthy of respect. But this implies that the stranger’s stranger — that would be us — be recognized and tolerated and respected as well, and that very specifically includes the agnostics and atheists who live side by side with persons of belief and faith.
This is a fundamental rule of our way of life. It is one upon which we must insist. We must fight for it. It is quite simply nonnegotiable.
Granted, we know there are xenophobic sentiments in the air: they must be deplored. Islamophobia — an automatic dislike and rejection of Muslims, without reference to their political and civic choices — can lead, in France, to behavior that is punishable by law; and the law must be applied. But the liberty we defend includes the freedom to criticize Islam, just as much as to criticize Christianity or Judaism. In the Free World — an old-fashioned term that may be getting a fresh lease on life — criticizing religion, in general, or a particular religion, is normal. It is part and parcel of how free men think.
Yet, this is denied by the Islamists and those in the West who support them.
Social Issues Yada Yada
The supporters of Islam’s fanatics are the ones who most threaten us. They grew up in the West, which educated them, more or less. They know our world, our culture, and they want no part of it. Several thousand of them lately left Europe and its decadent comforts for a more serious engagement, sometimes unto death, in distant lands. Others find excuses for them without leaving the safety of our orderly society.
Do not scoff: Those of us who fantasized, fifty years ago, of joining Che Guevara or other third-world revolutionaries may remember the appeal of giving oneself body and mind and soul to a mad Absolute. We may even recall that we read with relish tinged by a bad conscience the insane preface J. P. Sartre wrote to Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth: “At the outset of a revolt, killing is necessary: a European must be slain. In doing this, you hit twice with one stone, killing an oppressor and liberating an oppressed: the net result is a dead man and a free one.”
Once, it was the Working Class, the People; now, it is the Faithful, the Community of Believers.
We must channel such desperate, nihilistic fanaticism into, forgive the cliché, constructive directions. Not out of benevolence, but because those who would fall prey to the lure of such fanaticism are in our midst.
This needs saying because already, as always, the “root causes” yakety-yak is telling us the problem of homegrown terrorism is our fault: we parked these immigrants and their children in “ghettos,” we neglected them, we “caused” their alienation and anger.
This is not so.
They are not discriminated against. Social mobility exists. But you have to be willing to make the effort to be mobile, within the rules of France — just as everyone else must, wherever they come from. France is not responsible for the choice some of her children make to become terrorists. If France bears any responsibility, it is for being too indulgent toward these populations that reject her and her moral and civic standards, letting them, for example, continue their oppression of their womenfolk with all the twisted notions this gives to boys growing up.
School. Family. Respect for women. These are battles that must be waged on the home front, in a war that we must win.
Do we have the will, the endurance, to wage it? Keep in mind that the Communist world collapsed upon its own realization, even on the part of its leaders, that it was built on a foundation of lies. It had nothing left to offer.
The West is in no such position. There are lies aplenty, but they are not central to the system. Yet, it is true that our freedom, with the solitude and the absence of faith that sometimes is part of the territory, represents a burden of its own. Sometimes, it pushes alienated, but energy-filled youth into a quest for a Total Idea, a Unity, into which they can fold. Recruiters for the totalitarian jihad exploit this longing. They use words, arguments. They have our number, but we have it too. We know who and what we are, and it is what we want. It is worth fighting for and dying for.
That is the meaning of the great demonstrations of January 11. The millions of people in the streets were not “like Charlie,” which most never read and whose ideas and manner they do not share. But they “are Charlie,” the tragic personification of freedom.