Piety or Rage?
On the Charlie Hebdo Massacres
Seyla Benhabib 11 January 2015

Michael Walzer has just published an article on the DISSENT website criticizing those on the American Left who have refrained from criticizing Islam, fundamentalist Islamists and Jihadists – suggesting that they may flow into each other more seamlessly than many think. If we fail to seek at least some of the roots of political Islam’s violent actions in the Muslim religion itself, we may abet rather than confront these movements.

Yet even before the horrid events in France a significant number of intellectuals in Europe, in the United States and elsewhere shared Michael Walzer’s views. Is it just a coincidence that the week of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, Michel Houellebecq’s new novel “La Soumission” which predicts that France will have a Muslim President in 2020 is released? Another best-selling book by Ėric Zemmour, called “La Suicide,” attacks the powers that be and the left for their helplessness in view of Islamization, globalization and Americanization. PEGIDA, a German organization whose German acronym translates as “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West” assembled 18,000 marchers in Dresden on January 5th. Everywhere in Europe anti-immigrant parties are on the rise and “anti-immigrant” simply seems to be a stand-in for “anti-Muslim.” We are facing “Europe’s Dangerous Moment.” (Steven Erlanger, NYT, January 8, 2015).

On the same day as the attack on Charlie Hebdo 26 died in an attack in Yemen, more than that number in Iraq. Who is counting anymore? Two weeks ago more than 130 school children were massacred in Peshawar, Pakistan. Every week hundreds of refugees arrive on the shores of Europe from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, etc. A big swath of the globe, extending from North and Eastern North Africa to vast regions of the Middle East and all the way to the mountains of Afghanistan is caught in a death spiral, with states and societies disintegrating at dizzying speeds. What is happening in this swath of the world? And how exactly is it related to the recent violence in Europe, in Australia, in Canada, and most likely soon again, in the United States as well?

It is not enough to repeat the old bromides about Islam and violence; the Koran and the anti-Enlightenment; the need to stand up for the West… Yes, yes, all that is true but does it help us understand why, with the exception of countries like Turkey, Jordan, Iran, Morocco and Tunisia, the center does not hold in Syria, Egypt, Libya, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen? Or when it does, as in the Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, it does so at the cost of unmitigated repression and corruption?

The condition of these societies is not only generating blind rage among many young Muslims (men in particular), but also something deeper that I will call “civilizational despair.“ You cannot cure this by declaring war on Jihad. For many young Muslims there seems no way out of the cycle of violence, corruption, and poverty. Coupled with the condition of unemployment and marginalization, contempt and sarcasm, exploitation and scorn that many suffer – whether in Paris or London, Berlin or Athens, Rome or Amsterdam, Oslo or Copenhagen – the fertile ground is there for recruiting and training Jihadists to join the hundreds of groups that have now mushroomed in the Middle East. The Kouachi brothers were trained in Yemen and had traveled through Syria. They are clearly part of a global network of fighters who are now circulating in and out of the conflict zones in the Middle East, North Africa, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and even Chechnya. Many Chechens are reported to be fighting with ISIS or ISIL in Syria.

As my colleague Andrew March points out in his response to Michael Walzer, “they are here, because we are there.” The United States and European powers are in one way or another, all implicated in the fate of this region, and have been so – in the case of Europe at least – for centuries. After destabilizing Iraq and supporting for years a Shi’ite regime that marginalized and infuriated Iraqi Sunnis (some of whom now constitute a strong force in ISIS or ISIL), the US has found itself compelled to get re-involved by dropping bombs and sending drones to the area.

Let me be clear: the bombing of ISIS to save the Yazidis who faced an impending genocide was justified; I also wish more had been done to save the Kurdish town of Kobane from ISIS fighters. But to most people in the region, caught between the brutality of the Syrian regime, the declining power of the Syrian opposition (which we have left down) and the mind-numbing violence of ISIS, Western bombs appear part of the same mayhem and blind fate which they cannot understand or control. That is why many prefer to die on the shores of the Mediterranean rather than through the cluster-bombs and chemical agents of the Syrian regime or the sword of ISIS.

No, I don’t think that the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the ensuing violence is just a reaction to the offense to Prophet Mohammed or to Islam; neither do I think that it is about what the Koran says or does not say about blasphemy and apostasy. At its root, it is driven by Muslim rage and Arab Muslim civilizational despair. Islam’s current-day reformers are few and far between, while itinerant and fiery preachers like al-Madoudi have captured global audiences. But even if there were a significant reform movement within Islam, I don’t believe that this would be enough. What is needed is a regional or international effort on the scale of a Marshall plan for the Arab Muslim world that will invest in infrastructure, communications, agriculture, industry, medicine and education. Just as Europe was pulled out of its devastation after WWII, so too this region which is almost bleeding to death, needs to be resuscitated.

At least forty million people died in Europe before peace could be reestablished, the European Union could emerge and Germany could be brought back to the standard of living it had enjoyed before the WWII. The sum total of the devastation and wars in the larger Middle East has not yet been tallied. I suspect that the casualties number around 5-8 million. Do we have to wait until we reach the same levels of devastation as in Europe before we realize that the way to end many Muslim’s civilizational despair is to provide hope? Wasn’t this the promise of the Arab Spring revolutions? They did not succeed in my view for at least three reasons:

a. Many regimes in the Middle East are in the grips either of reactionary oligarchies supported by the West – such as Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates- or of successor military-civilian regimes that emerged out of coups that displaced those oligarchies (Nasserism and Ba’athism in Egypt and Syria; The Qaddafi revolution in Libya). Western powers (but also the Soviet Union and Russia) have supported one or another of these groups for their purposes throughout centuries. Civil society and the forces of political representation are weak and stunted, and repressed as soon as they take root;

b. The game of superpower influence in this region continues. The CIA and the British Intelligence Service deposed the Mossadegh regime, who had nationalized Iran’s oil industry and who was suspected of being a communist, in 1953, throwing its support behind that of the corrupt Shah Pahlavi who would then be overthrown in the early 1979 by the Khomeini Revolution. Against growing Soviet influence in Afghanistan, the United States armed the mujahadeen and the Islamists; the Soviet Union withdrew and the USA inherited the mess it had created by supporting Islamist forces against communism. The Soviet Union and now Russia have maintained a special relationship with Syria and continue to do so. After Russia persuaded President Obama not to attack Syria once it became clear that it had used chemical weapons on its own population, the Syrian situation ran into a stalemate. The victims of this manoeuvering were the civilian population and the refugees who were deprived of free passage to neighboring countries to be guaranteed by a no-fly zone protected by NATO and US possibly.
It may now be too late to restabilize Syria and support the opposition without making huge concessions to ISIS, which is in the process of consolidating the territory it holds in western Syria into a larger Sunni state with portions of western north Iraq. Some kind of a larger Sunni state in this region will result in the partition of Syria and Iraq. The Kurds may be the only winners and acquire either a state of their own or enough autonomy and control of the oil fields such as to remain somewhat immune to the instabilities surrounding them.

c. The wound that the continuing Israeli- Palestinian conflict has inflicted upon the Arab psyche cannot be underestimated. Surely, the hypocrisy of many Arab states such as Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Saudi Arabia in using the misery and vulnerability of the Palestinian refugees for their own purposes cannot be forgotten. All states in this region, at one time or another, exploited the Israeli-Palestinian impasse – whether it be to destabilize their neighbors, propagate their own brand of Islam, or whip up anti-Semitism among their own populations to divert attention from their own corrupt and autocratic purposes.
Nor can we overlook the fact that Israel, whether willingly or not, has been the most vivid reminder to Palestinians and Arabs of the weaknesses, ineptitudes and blockages in their own civilization. Despair about the state of the Arab Muslim world is also despair about the humiliation suffered at the hands of the Israel. And I say this is as a Jew, committed to the existence of Israel in a peaceful Middle East as a democratic state.
Since it has not been possible to resolve this conflict so far, and because the United States’s commitment to Israel has been unwavering, Muslim Arab hopelessness has balled into venomous ressentiment against the West in general – leading to such absurd beliefs that the Twin Towers were not brought down by planes guided by Al-Qaeda Jihadists but by Jews themselves!

Can this global picture of Arab-Muslim rage and despair really explain why two French-Algerian citizens would select Charlie Hebdo rather than any other target and attack it?

To focus the debate so narrowly, upon the questions of intolerance, blasphemy, apostasy in Islam or the aesthetics of Charlie Hebdo’s caricatures, is to miss the real point. Until enough changes take place in these societies and until the rage and humiliation suffered by Europe’s Muslims is mitigated through economic and social programs of successful integration, there will be other targets, and if not caricatures, then telenovellas, operas, video games or other forms of cultural expression which will be attacked. For they are not the cause but simply the occasion for venting rage and despair.

Many social scientists, philosophers and cultural critics have devoted their lives to understanding the rise of the Third Reich and the Hitler regime out of the much-admired achievements of German philosophy, art, music from the 18th to the 20th centuries. Yet no one would explain the aesthetic of the Nazi rag-journal “Der Stuermer” as being primarily responsible for the rise of anti-Semitism and National Socialism.

That is why we also need to move beyond a laziness of thought which diverts attention from the real war taking place in the souls and minds of the Muslim Arab world by focusing solely on the “war of images and caricatures.” It is not piety or impiety that we need to understand but the sources of Muslim rage and despair that we need to decipher, for that rage and despair will always find new images to attack until their sources are healed.

This essay was also published on the Hannah Arendt Center website