Confusing Jihadism With Internationalism

'Islam is not the problem' written on a wall in Shoreditch (London). Picture taken on the 10th january 2015, three days after
'Islam is not the problem' written on a wall in Shoreditch (London). Picture taken on the 10th january 2015, three days after the shooting in the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris

I return here to Jean Birnbaum's book, Un silence religieux (Seuil 2016), which I mentioned in passing in last week's column.

The book raises a thorny issue and advances debate by highlighting our systematic underestimation of the spiritual element when analyzing jihadism.

Birnbaum gets it right -- and this is the book's strongest point -- when he mocks what he calls no-connectionism (as in "Islamism has no connection with Islam"), which, among commentators and political leaders alike, invariably accompanies the rote warning, intoned after each attack, not to tar all Muslims with the same brush.

Stimulating and new are the pages in which the author, traveling up the long, unquiet river that is the history of the left, catalogues the thousand and one ways in which, from Marx's time to Michel Foucault's, the left has tried to reduce religion to a symptom, an opiate, an ideological ornament, a passing illusion, a diversion -- every possible argument that might help us avoid coming to terms with the solid, singular, irreducible fact of political Islam.

This reductionism has had two immediate and terrible consequences that the book does a good job of revealing.

First, despair among the proponents of enlightened Islam, whose struggle within the faith to lay down bright lines to distinguish the spiritual treasures of Islam from their bloody caricatures is obliterated and betrayed.

And, second, the strategic and moral error of a segment of the left that, by consenting to share the stage with an heir of the Muslim Brotherhood, by backing a veiled woman in a regional election, or by urging the "proletariat" to join forces with a self-styled "prophet" whose flock consists of the lost sheep of the revolutionary pastoral, is running the awful risk of justifying the unjustifiable.

So far, so good.

But the book's last chapter, entitled "Jihadists and Brigadists," suddenly changes everything.

In these strange pages, written, as it were, in another hand, the author, wishing to move one step closer to serious consideration of the enemy's discourse, explores its transnational dimension, mutual assistance among the world's Muslims, and the way in which that assistance exploits, and I quote, the "grammar" of "borders," "territories," and "sovereign powers."

In the process, he treats us to an item-by-item comparison of Islamic radicalism with the international brigades in Spain, the other great modern example of an indignant, rebellious youth leaving father, mother, and social milieu to demonstrate its active solidarity with martyred brothers by traveling far beyond its national base and its points of reference.

I acknowledge that Birnbaum is cautious.

And I did read the passages in which he takes care to specify that the jihadists' relationship with death -- their habit of treating it like good news and glorifying it -- means that we are dealing with "two ideas of man that are irreconciliable twins."

But if that is what he believes, why place so much emphasis on the "parallel destinies" of the French volunteers who, in the 1930s, crossed the Pyrenees and, today, cross the border between Turkey and Syria?

Does he have the right to illustrate the "symmetry of the two scenes" by commandeering Malraux's Man's Hope and the fraternal passion that, from Madrid to Barcelona, from the fall of Toledo to the rescue of the wounded aviators from the Sierra de Teruel, shines through the novel?

Are we really talking about the same fraternity here? When the members of one group speak of the "Muslim brotherhood" and those of the other lay claim to the motto of republican France, as do Malraux's Manuel, Garcia, and Barca the winemaker, are they talking about the same thing? The same hope? The same "fervor" and "enthusiasm"? Are the two really examples of the same "rebellious imagination," to use the terms of Foucault, who Birnbaum invokes once more?

For someone like me, who grew up admiring the nobility of republican, international Spain, there is in this comparison something deeply offensive that I cannot just let pass.

To concede to the jihadists an "ideal," a taste for "solidarity," and a will to "engage in a decisive struggle on which the fate of humanity turns," as well as the courage to "defy death" and to die (and I quote) "for their ideas" is quite a gift.

But more than that, I believe that Birnbaum's reasoning is faulty and that, between the hopes of the two groups, between the lived fraternity of one group and the terror-bound assembly of the other, between the taste for life of the heros of free Spain and the unvarnished nihilism of the Daesh rabble, one finds the same difference that the philosopher found between the constellation Canus and the barking dog.

How is it that the same man, in the same book, that is, in the same act, can start off seeing so clearly and then get it so wrong in the end? That is another question, one that will not surprise those of my readers who are at least somewhat familiar with the history of intellectuals coming to grips with what is tragic in their time. But this paradox, this deviation, as well as the apparent success of the book and the favorable reception that, I am told, its final chapter is getting, made this expression of disagreement all the more urgent. There are various ways of banalizing evil, of which Birnbaum's is one.

Translated by Steven B. Kennedy