How to explain the inconceivable

I am often asked to comment on what happened in Paris last December since I have both French and American citizenships and I live in the US. Like a lot of my compatriotes, it has been difficult to watch those events unfold on Friday afternoon December 13 (I was working at George Mason University in DC ). Since then, he has been also impossible to rationalize what really happened and to give a sense on those horrific events. Today I listened to “Geopolitique”, a short program aired on France Inter which described events and their consequences in the geopolitical scale. Bernard Guetta summarized very well what are my thoughts on the Paris events and its consequences, so I decided to share with you  an English translation which has been freely adapted. The French version   “Comment expliquer l’inconcevable” is available on the France Inter web site.

PeaceForParis by the artist Jean Jullien
PeaceForParis by the artist Jean Jullien

The perpetrators of the most recent murders have no excuse whatsoever, especially not one that seeks to blame the societies they live in. Nor, for that matter, did Mohamed Merah before them, or the killers of November 13, or the killers of January 7 in Paris. They were certainly not mentally ill and they certainly were responsible for their actions — and cannot claim that the challenges of integrating into a new society make them the bloodthirsty monsters they became.

In order to identify racism, racial profiling or immigrant ghettos as the cause of such crimes, we must first erase from our minds the fact that these realities do not make a killer out of everyone — or even most — of people who suffer from them on a daily basis. So how is it that men who grew up in France and were not that different from their classmates joined fifteen hundred others who were poisoned by jihadist recruiters and joined the Daesh?

There is certainly no single explanation for why that happened, but with the death of fascism, communism and the Guevarists maquis in Latin America, jihadism is the last and only ideology left standing with a global appeal. Nowhere else in the Middle East one can find another cause with its power and grip on people, nor one as messianic, nor one that asks as much blind obedience to a common cause and is also so universally condemned – in short, one infinitely alluring to men without judgment who want, above all, to give meaning to their lives by defying, without exception, all established orders.

For these men, becoming a jihadist means entering a new existence in which they can identify with the struggles of a region they do not understand and peoples and cultures they do not know, and immerse themselves in the belief that that they are changing the world by iron and fire.

As was so rightly pointed out Olivier Roy, they do not embody a radicalization of Islam but the Islamization of radicalization, a radicalism that every generation or so eventually succumbs to. But this one is uniquely terrifying because once one is proclaimed a soldier of God, once one is on a divine mission, everything is permitted, absolutely everything, without taboo or restrictions or limits.

Above all, the fate of these miserable cretins should lead us to ask ourselves about the dangers we run by no longer believing in anything. It is great to have finally rejected failed ideologies and their illusions and nostrums. But in their place, we have taken to laughing at everything, ridiculing everything, and renouncing collective ambition in order to cultivate individualism and enjoy absolute freedoms. We have chosen an acquired eternal over fighting injustice and the status quo — and by doing this, we facilitate the work of the propagandists of jihad.

From the idiocies of M. Trump to those of M. Putin, from one form of the new European extreme right to another, forces significantly closer to the typical voter than jihadists are working to make nationalism, isolationism and rejection of others our collective belief and unifying ideals. Surely there is a better route than our own jihad. The fight for progress and the Enlightenment never ended, and we must now pick up that banner anew and resume the fight — because on the outcome of this struggle depends everything rational, compassionate people value and hold dear.

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