Bernard-Henri Lévy: A Long-Awaited and Critical Appeal Falls Short
On July 31, forty-two men and women describing themselves as “French and Muslim” published a call to fellow French Muslims to “assume our responsibilities” and “act” against terrorism.
The letter was eloquent. Its message was clear.
Appearing on the same day as the ceremony that drew countless Muslims to the cathedral in Rouen to pay their respects to Father Jacques Hamel, murdered in the name of ISIS, and just a day after the faithful in many of France’s mosques were urged to share in the sadness of their mourning Catholic compatriots — crowning, in a manner of speaking, the mounting number of statements in which intellectuals, writers and imams have condemned readings of Islam that support terrorists in their nihilistic cult of crime and death — the July 31 manifesto may well be the decisive moment in an upswelling of solidarity and conscience.
And the first thought that came to mind was this: Finally! Yes, finally a plain statement containing not a scintilla of denial! Clear voices breaking the silence to take an unequivocal stand against the criminal tendencies at work in benighted readings of the Koran! And what a relief to see Muslims, distinguished Muslims, acknowledging that while radical Islam is not wholly unrelated to Islam writ large, they do not share that view — indeed, they dissociate themselves from it in the strongest terms — so that henceforth it cannot be enacted or defended in their name. The bold stance we have been waiting for has finally come. This is good news.
Except that no sooner was the letter published, no sooner did we recognize the nobility of the authors’ gesture, no sooner did we laud the courage of this thinker, of that former cabinet member, and of those business leaders and physicians who, at that instant, had placed themselves on the front lines of the war between the two Islams — a war that is (and this cannot be overemphasized) the great issue of our era — another thought crept in.
The letter begins with an enumeration of the recent terrorist acts that have beset France.
It does not omit Charlie (“the murder of cartoonists”), Bataclan (“the murder of young people listening to music”), of Magnanville (“the murder of a pair of police officers”). Nor, of course, does it fail to mention Nice (“the murder of men, women, and children celebrating the national holiday”) or Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray (“the murder of a priest celebrating Mass”). Clearly, it purported to present an exhaustive list of the attacks.
Except it left one out. And what it left out was the hostage-taking at the kosher supermarket on January 9, 2015, which occurred less than three years after Mohamed Merah’s murders at the Jewish school in Toulouse.
The omission was immediately noticed. I was disturbed by it, and said so on Twitter — which earned me (and others, I’m sure) an avalanche of insult: “You’re never satisfied … When Muslims are silent, that’s bad; when they speak up, that’s bad, too … What are you doing to national unity? Maybe you’re the one who’s trying to pit French people against one another?”
But the fact is that a slip like this cannot be allowed to go unremarked. And, given the prominence of those who signed the letter, it cannot fail to be upsetting.
What could have been going through the head of the person who (as is typical with this sort of group letter) composed the first draft? Or through the heads of the 41 others who, in the hours that followed, read and re-read the draft (as is also the usual practice), weighing each word, suggesting changes and talking things through before eventually signing?
And what are we to make of the embarrassment of the signatory who, interviewed on Europe 1 the morning after, responded that the four people killed at the kosher supermarket were part of “the Charlie effect,” and that this did not need to be “spelled out.”
The infamous Jean-Marie Le Pen might have said that those four deaths were a “detail” in the sequence of events. Borrowing an expression from the United States, it might be observed that apparently Jewish lives matter less than others.
But I will refrain from over-interpretation. And still more from engaging in polemics. I do hope, however, that a clarification will be issued promptly to dispel the confusion.
I expect that these men and women of good will, whose intentions are — as has been observed — above reproach, will explain their thoughts, as well as any reservations, in the days to come. Because one cannot effectively denounce the executioner while simultaneously drawing distinctions among his victims. One cannot purport to oppose ISIS’ intention to immerse France in blood and fire and then, when the time comes to count the dead, display selective memory.
And above all, one cannot claim to be seeking a way out of an “intolerable situation,” one in which denial feeds the problem and confusion sows seeds of division and suggests the possibility (God forbid) of the war of all against all, while at the same time soft-pedaling the antisemitism that is, like it or not, one of the signs and, perhaps, one of the sources of what Abdelwahab Meddeb, the great scholar of Tunisian origin, called the “malady of Islam.”
A question of principle, yes — but also one of truth. A necessary way station for anyone truly wishing to “reestablish Islam” and win “the cultural battle against Islamic radicalism.”
If we are to join forces to win this war, there is no other way forward.
Bernard-Henri Lévy is one of the founders of the “Nouveaux Philosophes” (New Philosophers) movement. His books include Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism.