Now, while we are all in shock following the killing spree at the Charlie Hebdo offices, is the moment to gather the courage to think. We should, of course, condemn the killings as an attack on the very substance of our freedoms and condemn them without hidden caveats. But the spectacle of universal solidarity is not enough: we need to think further.
If ever there was an image of hypocritical falsity, it was the arrival of world leaders from Cameron to Lavrov, Netanyahu to Abbas, linking arms in Paris on 11 January. The true Charlie Hebdo gesture would have been a caricature brutally and tastelessly mocking this event.
Our thinking should have nothing whatsoever to do with the cheap relativisation of the crime (the mantra that runs, “Who are we in the west, perpetrators of terrible massacres in the third world, to condemn such acts?”). It should have even less to do with the fear among western liberals of being guilty of Islamophobia. For these false leftists, any critique of Islam is denounced as Muslim-hating.
I also find insufficient calls for moderation along the lines of Simon Jenkins’s claim (for the Guardian on 7 January) that our task is “not to overreact, not to over-publicise the aftermath. It is to treat each event as a passing accident of horror . . .” The attack on Charlie Hebdo was not a mere “passing accident of horror”. It followed a precise religious and political agenda and, as such, was part of a larger pattern. Of course we should not overreact, if by this we mean succumbing to blind Islamophobia, but we should ruthlessly analyse this pattern.
Long ago Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that western culture was moving in the direction of the Last Man: an apathetic creature with no great passion or commitment. Unable to dream, tired of life, he takes no risks, seeking only comfort and security, an expression of tolerance with one another. “A little poison now and then: that makes for pleasant dreams. And much poison at the end, for a pleasant death. They have their little pleasures for the day, and their little pleasures for the night, but they have a regard for health. ‘We have discovered happiness,’ say the Last Men, and they blink.”
It may appear that the split between the permissive first world and the fundamentalist reaction to it runs more and more along the lines of the opposition between leading a long, satisfying life full of material and cultural wealth, and dedicating one’s life to some transcendent cause. We in the west are the Last Men, immersed in stupid daily pleasures, while the Muslim radicals risk everything.
W B Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming” renders our predicament perfectly: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” This is an excellent description of the split between anaemic liberals and impassioned fundamentalists. “The best” are no longer fully able to engage, while “the worst” engage in racist, religious, sexist fanaticism.
But do the terrorist fundamentalists really fit this description? Their intensity in fact bears witness to a lack of conviction. How fragile must the belief of a Muslim be if he feels threatened by a stupid caricature in a weekly satirical magazine?
The recent vicissitudes of Islamic fundamentalism confirm Walter Benjamin’s old insight that “every rise of fascism bears witness to a failed revolution”. The rise of fascism is the left’s failure, but simultaneously a proof of revolutionary potential, a dissatisfaction that the left was not able to mobilise.
And is the rise of radical Islamism not exactly correlative to the disappearance of the secular left in Muslim countries? When, in the spring of 2009, the Taliban took over the Swat Valley in Pakistan, the New York Times reported they had engineered “a class revolt that exploits profound fissures between a small group of wealthy landlords and their landless tenants”. However, if by “taking advantage” of the farmers’ plight the Taliban are “raising the alarm about the risks to Pakistan, which remain largely feudal”, what prevents liberal democrats in Pakistan as well as the United States from similarly taking advantage and helping landless farmers?
And what of the core values of liberalism: freedom, equality, and so forth? Fundamentalism is a reaction – a false, mystifying, reaction – to a flaw in liberalism, and this is why it is again and again generated in liberal societies. The only thing that can save its core values is a renewed left. In order for this key legacy to survive, liberalism needs the brotherly help of the radical left. This is the only way to defeat fundamentalism: to sweep the ground from under its feet.