President Hollande spoke of the need for constitutional changes to amend the processes of the state of emergency (which go back as far as the Algerian war). It’s a question of defining a “state of war” suited to a situation that is neither a “state of siege” (in order to overcome a rebellion) nor Article 16 of the Constitution handing full powers to the President of the Republic – employed once by General de Gaulle at the time of the ‘generals’ putsch’ in April 1961. What’s your take on this discussion? More generally, do you think an amendment to the Constitution is a proper response to the attacks of November 13?
Basically, it seems to me to be sensible to adapt the two relevant paragraphs on emergency in the French Constitution to today’s situation. The fact that this is now on the agenda is clearly a consequence of the fact that the President called a state of emergency after the shocking events and wants to extend it for three months. I cannot judge the reasons why this policy is necessary; I’m no security expert. But, seen from afar, it looks like a symbolic act on the part of the government to react to the mood of the country – and probably in an appropriate manner. In Germany this warlike rhetoric of the French President – driven by domestic politics – is met with significant reservations.
President Hollande has also decided to increase the level of French intervention in Syria, notably by bombing Raqqa, the “capital” of Daesh (ISIS). What do you think of such interventionism in general?
This is not a new political decision but a stepping up of the French air force’s operations that are long under way. Of course, experts agree that such a remarkable phenomenon as Daesh – a mixture of a “Caliphate” within undefined territorial borders and of globally deployed killer squads – cannot simply be defeated from the air. But an intervention by American and European ground troops would not just be unrealistic but, above all, unwise. It’s of no help at all bypassing local political forces. Obama has learned the lesson of the failed interventions of his predecessor and, at the last G20 summit in Turkey, made an interesting remark. He pointed to the fact that foreign troops can no longer guarantee the results of their military successes post-withdrawal. What’s more, you can’t cut the ground from under ISIS’s feet through military means alone. The experts agree on that too.
However much we look on these barbarians as enemies and must oppose them ruthlessly, we simply cannot be allowed to deceive ourselves over the complex reasons for this barbarism if we want to succeed in the long term. Given the state of mind of a deeply wounded French nation, a Europe in turmoil and a highly insecure western civilisation, this may not be the right time to recall the context which lies behind this explosive and, for now, uncontrolled potential for conflict in the Middle east – from Afghanistan and Iran to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Sudan.
Let’s just cast a glance back at the era since the Suez crisis of 1956. A policy based almost exclusively on geo-political and economic interests of the USA, Europe and Russia has run up against an artificial and tattered legacy of the colonial period in this fragile region of the world; these powers have exploited local conflicts for their own ends and contributed nothing towards stabilising the situation. It’s common knowledge that the conflicts between Sunnis and Shias, the main source of energy for ISIS’s fundamentalist drive, erupted only as a consequence of George W. Bush’s illegal (in international law) intervention. Barriers in the faltering process of modernisation in these societies may also be rooted in distinctive aspects of a proud Arab culture. But the West’s policy is far from innocent when it comes to the lack of any future prospects and hopelessness felt by young generations seeking opportunities to build a better life on their own and be recognised for doing so. And, when all political efforts fail, become radicalised in order to regain their self-respect via sociopathic routes.
A similarly desperate psycho-dynamic of lack of self-respect seems to make isolated petty criminals, who come from our European migrant milieus, into the perverse heroes of remote-controlled killer commandos. Early journalistic research into the background and CVs of the November 13 terrorists would suggest this is the case. Along with the causal chain leading to Syria there’s another one drawing our attention to the failed efforts to integrate in the social cauldrons of our big cities.
At the time of the 9/11 attacks, a certain number of intellectuals around the world, including Jacques Derrida and yourself, worried at the removal of civil liberties threatened by the pressures of the “war on terror” and recourse to ideas such as the “clash of civilisations” or “hoodlum states”. This diagnosis has been largely confirmed by the use of torture, NSA controls, arbitrary detentions in Guantanamo etc. Is a fight against terrorism that keeps the democratic public space intact possible or even thinkable in your view? And in what conditions?
Looking back at 9/11 we, like many of our American friends, must note that Bush’s, Cheney’s and Rumsfeld’s “War on Terror” has harmed the political and mental state of American society. The Patriot Act, swiftly enacted then by Congress and still in force, undermines basic civil rights. The same holds for the fatal extension of the concept of “enemy combatant” that has legitimised Guantanamo and other crimes and has only been withdrawn from circulation by the Obama government. Without this unwise reaction to what had been until then an unimaginable attack on the World Trade Center, the spreading of the kind of mentality that today signs up in agreement with such an unspeakable character as Donald Trump, the Republican presidential contender, could scarcely be imagined.
That’s no reply to your question. But can we not – like the Norwegians in 2011 after the horrific attack on the island of Utoya – resist our first reflex of turning back on ourselves in face of the incomprehensible alien and of resorting to aggression against the “internal enemies” (Carl Schmitt)? I’m confident that the French nation will set an example as it did after the attack on Charlie Hebdo. There’s no need here for repulsing a fictive danger such as the looming “subjection” to an alien culture. The danger is much more concrete. Civil society must beware of sacrificing individual liberty, tolerance towards the diversity of life-styles and readiness to take on the perspective of the other – all these democratic virtues of an open society – on the altar of an imaginary stage of security that we cannot reach anyway.
Given the fortified Front National that’s easier said than done. But there are good reasons over and above exhortations. The most important is staring us in the face: prejudice, mistrust and seclusion of Islam, fear of it and a preventive fight against it, are also down to sheer projection. For jihadi fundamentalism expresses itself in religious codes but it is no religion. Under other circumstances it could use any other religious language, indeed any other ideology to hand, that promises redemptive justice. The world’s great religions have roots going back a long way. On the other hand, jihadism is a thoroughly modern form of reaction to uprooted ways of life. Of course, a prophylactic pointer to the background of failed social integration or faltering social modernisation does not absolve the perpetrators of their personal guilt.
Germany’s attitude towards the inflow of refugees came as a positive surprise despite a recent rowing back. Do you think that the terrorist wave threatens to change this state of mind (isn’t it already being said that quite a few Islamists tried to sneak in via the crowds of refugees)?
I hope not. We’re all sitting in the same boat. Both, the terror and the refugee crisis, are – perhaps for the last time – dramatic challenges for a much closer sense of co-operation and solidarity than anything European nations, even those tied up to one another in the currency union, have so far managed to achieve.
This interview was conducted by Nicolas Weill and was first published by Le Monde in French. It was translated and adapted for Social Europe with permission of the interviewee.