Paris in the age of extremes
The satirists have been slain, their killers have been gunned down, a million have marched in peaceful protest, and so the dead have been buried. But last Jan. 14, the new cover of Charlie Hebdo came out: A caricature of the grieving Prophet Mohammad holding up a sign, “Je suis Charlie,” under the banner, “Tout est pardonné.” All is forgiven.
It is business as usual.
I find it awkward, however, that we should carry on, and somehow pretend as if the future of the global community were largely unscathed from the carnage in Paris, which carries with it a startling symbolic value.
The roots of resentment between the West and the rest are deep, and they are entangled in a complex set of historical narratives that provide a lead on how we can possibly comprehend why or how these Islamist militants were driven to the point of a gun.
Paris is an “isle,” a city that proudly stands by itself, distinct and yet vital to the nation to which it belongs. It was the hotbed of the 18th-century revolution that brought to the world the French ideals of freedom, equality and fraternity; hence, in the age of empire, Paris was an ideational resource of the “civilizing process” when our European predecessors were confident that their values would work well beyond their borders.
In 1919, the city provided the backdrop of the peace conferences that would end the Great War, but that would also give birth to the League of Nations and the arbitrary partitioning of the Ottoman Empire—present-day Turkey, the Balkans and the Middle Eastern states—principally between France and the United Kingdom.
Midway into the 20th century, upon the creation of international financial institutions and international organizations such as the United Nations, the West, and primarily the United Kingdom and continental Western Europe along with the United States on the opposite side of the Atlantic, increasingly enjoyed hegemonic leverage in terms of shaping the institutional contours of our political communities and the global economy.
One such of worthy note is the resilience of the liberal democratic state, largely accompanied by models of capitalist economy. But its unstoppable charge has been challenged since the events of 9/11, including the occupation and eventual dismemberment of Iraq, and the legitimacy of governments emerging out of the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, including the present conflict in Syria. It is in these areas of brutish conflict and oppression that Muslim rage against the West, unfortunately, becomes understandable.
Islamic terrorism can be understood in at least two ways: first, as the clamor of a disgruntled civilization where state and religion continue to coexist in political rule vis-à-vis the secular state; and second, as the manifestation of what some scholars say is a “deeper malaise” within Islam among tribal factions—Sunnis and Shiites, between al-Qaida and the Isis/Isil cult, to name a few—but all of them seeking to redefine what it means to be Muslim in a modern world in which the faithful feel their beliefs have been left behind.
Another is the expansion of the international human rights regime that goes hand in hand with the advance of political liberalism. The primacy of reason, individual freedom and autonomy are essential to making rights claims. One of the major human rights documents, the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, interestingly also came out of the French Revolution. The Paris attacks have now poignantly spun the debate on the freedom of expression.
One dominant response has been to claim that the freedom of speech is absolute. We hold this to be true. But it is absolute only in the sense that it is inviolable; it does not constitute one’s free license to exercise such a right, especially where it violates the dignity of another human being.
Rights come with responsibility. The claims that Muslims, and indeed the followers of any creed for that matter, make to the Sacred are, likewise, not only in every way absolute but also constitute the essence of their humanity.
The argument being made here is not so much that the West and Islam are in default of or at odds with each other as that there is a sense of inequality that is corroding the peaceful coexistence of cultures—irrespective of whether one condescendingly deems the other “backward.” There is a vacuum of human respect—a mockery of the differences that arise from the hopes and frailties of our finite existence.
In this light, the Paris attacks are the most recent of a series of faceoffs: the 1989 fatwa on Rushdie for his “The Satanic Verses,” the 2001 terrorist attacks of 9/11, the 2004 Madrid train bombings, the 2005 London bombings, the deadly riots against the lampoon of the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten, and the 2014 Taliban massacre of 132 schoolchildren in Pakistan in December.
Paris 2015 must be understood as forming part of the struggle of the disenfranchised and the contest to define emerging standards of civilization as human society grows in global interconnectedness. It was a rupture on the excesses of the freedom of speech no less than on the cruelty of fanaticism. The tragedy is that these fair indignations are wielded by the hands of zealots, and the death and destruction they inflict makes of their cause a genuine travesty.
The French prime minister must, therefore, be clear about what he means when he declares that France is at “war” on “radical Islam.”
We continue to live in what the historian Eric Hobsbawm has called the “age of extremes.” It is hijacked by the terrorism that we ourselves sow. The war that we are waging is against violence in all its forms, not against the faiths in which the history and the future of humanity abide. Losing sight of this distinction will, I believe, kill the gifts that Reason has upon us bequeathed.
Kevin H.R. Villanueva, PhD, is the director for research at the HZB School of International Relations and Diplomacy at the Philippine Women’s University and a lecturer at the European Interuniversity Centre for Human Rights and Democratisation (Italy). He is Filipino-Spanish.
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