The Charlie Hebdo Attack And What It Reveals About Society

The Charlie Hebdo Attack And What It Reveals About Society

You went through the tragedies of the 20th century – two wars, Shoah, Stalinism. What’s the specificity of the islamic extremist threat we’re facing today, in your view?

Political assassination is as old as humanity and the chances that it will be dead before humanity dies are dim. Violence is an un-detachable companion of inter-human antagonisms and conflicts – and those in turn are part and parcel of the human condition. In various times, however, political murders tended to be aimed at different kinds of victims.

A hundred years or so ago it was targeted mostly against politicians – personalities like Jean Jaures, Aristide Briand, Abraham Lincoln, Archduke Ferdinand and countless others; ideologically varied, located at different points of the political spectrum yet all belonging to the category of current or future power holders. It was widely believed at that time that with their death the world (or the country) will turn away from what was viewed as the cause of grievance, and toward something better – a more friendly and comfortable condition.

On 11 September 2001 political assassinations were directed not against specific, identifiable and named political “personalities” in the political limelight, or for that matter against people held personally responsible for the wrongdoings the assassins pretended to punish, but against institutions symbolising the economic (in the case of the World Trade Centre) and military (in the case of the Pentagon) power. Notably, a centre of spiritual power was still missing in the combined political operation.

There were two aspects of the Charlie Hebdo murders that set them apart from the two previous cases:

First: on 7th January 2015 political assassins fixed a highly media-visible specimen of mass media. Knowingly or not, by design or by default, the murderers endorsed – whether explicitly or obliquely – the widespread and fast gathering public sense of effective power moving away from political rulers and towards the centres viewed as responsible for public mind-setting and opinion-making. It was the people engaged in such activities that the assault was meant to point out as culprits to be punished for causing the assassins’ bitterness, rancour and urge of vengeance.

And second: alongside shifting the target to another institutional realm, that of public opinion, the armed assault against Charlie Hebdo was also an act of personalized vendetta (going back to the pattern set by Ayatollah Khomeini in his 1989 Fatva imposed on Salman Rushdie). If the 11 September atrocity chimed in with the then tendency to “depersonalise” political violence (following the pour ainsi dire “democratisation” of violence by mass-media publicity that divided its attention according to the quantity of its – mostly anonymous and incidental – victims, and the volume of spilt blood), the 7th January barbarity crowns the lengthy process of deregulation – indeed the “de-institutionalisation”, individualization and privatisation of the human condition, as well as the perception of public affairs shifting away from the management of established aggregated bodies to the sphere of individual “life politics”. And away from social to  individual responsibility.

In our media-dominated information society people employed in constructing and distributing information moved or have been moved to the centre of the scene on which the drama of human coexistence is staged and seen to be played.

A lot has been said about this attack: a prosecution of the holy wars between christians and muslims, an assault on freedom of expression, a symbolic challenge to Paris as the cradle of Western values. What do you think?

Each of the causes suggested to have their part in inflaming the christian – muslim antagonism contains a grain of truth but none offers the whole truth. Many factors contribute to this profoundly complex phenomenon. One of them, perhaps the most decisive, is the ongoing diasporisation of the world, which results in transforming the distant stranger, or briefly visiting stranger, or passing-by stranger, into a next-door neighbour – sharing the street, public facilities, workplace and school. The close proximity of the stranger always tends to be somewhat unnerving. One doesn’t know what to expect from a stranger, what his or her intentions are, how would s/he responds to one’s gambit. More importantly yet, one cannot – unlike when moving around the securely “online only” world – skip over the all-too-real differences, often jarring and repellent, manifesting at close quarters their incompatibility with one’s habitual, and thus feeling homely, cozy and secure, mode of being.

How do we react to that situation? The snag is, that we’ve failed thus far to develop, let alone to entrench, a satisfactory response. The strategy widely seen as progressive is a policy known under the name of “multiculturalism”. In his Trouble with Principle (Harvard University Press 1999) Stanley Fish distinguished two varieties of that strategy: a “boutique” and the “strong” multiculturalism. Boutique multiculturalism, as Fish defines it, is a superficial fascination with the Other: ethnic food, weekend festivals, and high-profile flirtations with the Other. Boutique multiculturalism is exactly what all this global consumerism nonsense in the Facebook status message means. Purveyors of this superficial brand of multiculturalism appreciate, enjoy, sympathise with, and “recognise the legitimacy” of cultures other than their own. But they always stop short of approving these radically. “A boutique multiculturalist”, Fish suggests, “does not and cannot take seriously the core values of the culture he tolerates.” By the same token, I’d say, s/he adds offence to the injury: a humiliation to the wound, the offence of disregarding or flatly rejecting what the “stranger” next door holds sacrosanct; humiliation of a jovial and benevolent dismissal of a “you can’t be serious, you can’t mean it” kind. Fish wrote:

The trouble with stipulating tolerance as your first principle (…) is that you cannot possibly be faithful to it because sooner or later the culture whose core values you are tolerating will reveal itself to be intolerant at that same core. The distinctiveness that marks it as unique and self-defining will resist the appeal of moderation or incorporation into a larger scale. Confronted with a demand that it surrender its viewpoint or enlarge it to include the practices of its natural enemies – other religions, other races, other genders, other classes – a beleaguered culture will fight back with everything from discriminatory legislation to violence.

It is in the nature of offence and humiliation to seek an outlet through which it can be discharged and a target. And when it so happens, as it does all around increasingly diasporised Europe that the boundaries between humiliating and the humiliated overlap with the boundaries between socially privileged and socially deprived, it would be naïve not to expect that both the outlets and the targets are avidly sought and keenly pinpointed. We presently live on a minefield of which we know (or at least we should) that it is spattered with explosives. Explosions occur, though there is no way to predict when and where.

Radical islamic ideology or economic “structural” inequalities: what component plays a major role in determining this phenomenon of radicalization and terrorism in Europe and the world?

Why do you reduce the issue of “radicalization and terrorism in Europe” to the phenomenon of “radical islamic ideology”? In Soumission, Michel Houllebecq’s second grand dystopia sketching an alternative (to the triumph of individualized consumer) path to disaster, the 2022 French elections are won by Mohammed Ben Abbes following a neck and neck race with Marine Le Pen. The tandem is anything but accidental. Prophetic? It could happen like this, in case we are unable or unwilling to change course.

Hopes for freedom of self-assertion and for arresting the rise of social inequality, invested in democracy, blatantly failed to realize. Democratic politics, and yet more the trust in democracy as the best road to the solution of the most haunting social problems, are in crisis. As Pierre Rosanvallon argues,

Those in power no longer enjoy the confidence of the voters; they merely reap the benefits of distrust of their opponents and predecessors.

All around Europe we witness a rising tide of anti-democratic sentiment – and a massive “secession of plebeians” (in their current reincarnation as precarians) to the camps located on the opposite extremes of the political spectrum though promising in unison to replace the already discredited high-mindedness with yet to be tried high-handedness of autocracy. Spectacular acts of violence may be seen as reconnaissance sallies into that. The word of the Prophet, the spokesman of Allah, is just one of the banners deployed to rally the humiliated and deprived, left behind and abandoned, cast-out and excluded, frightened, angry and vengeance-seething desperadoes.

You asserted ethics always needs an “I”, not a “We”. That’s the opposite of fundamentalism. Is the “I”, the affirmation of individual identity, the way for ethics to defeat fundamentalism?

In his first Esortazione Apostolica, Pope Francis restored the lost-from view moral dimension to our soumission – surrender – to the licentious, unbridled, left of social leash capitalism, dazzled by its lust for gain and blind to human misery. You won’t find a more profound and comprehensive answer to your question:

In our time humanity is experiencing a turning-point in its history, as we can see from the advances being made in so many fields. We can only praise the steps being taken to improve people’s welfare in areas such as health care, education and communications. At the same time we have to remember that the majority of our contemporaries are barely living from day to day, with dire consequences. A number of diseases are spreading. The hearts of many people are gripped by fear and desperation, even in the so-called rich countries. The joy of living frequently fades, lack of respect for others and violence are on the rise, and inequality is increasingly evident. It is a struggle to live and, often, to live with precious little dignity. (…)

Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape. (…)

Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a “throw away” culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the “exploited” but the outcast, the “leftovers”.

Nothing to add, nothing to detract.

Fragments of this interview were first published in Italian in Corriera della Sera.



Une réflexion sur “The Charlie Hebdo Attack And What It Reveals About Society

  1. Je vous suis très reconnaissant d’avoir partagé cet article, Véronique

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