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"Europe is possible"

An interview with Bernard-Henri Levy, by Thierry Chervel

"American Vertigo" is the title of Bernard-Henri Levy's latest book (recently appeared in German translation). In 2004, Levy was invited by the Atlantic Monthly to travel across the USA. He watched George Bush on his electoral campaign, went to the camp at Guantanamo, visited New Orleans before Katrina struck and gained insights into American puritanism at a brothel near Los Angeles. The book is also a reflection on the intellectual scene in the USA and the relationship between Europe and the USA. Thierry Chervel met up with Levy at the Leipzig Book Fair at the end of March.

"Thierry Chervel: In the epilogue to your book "American Vertigo," you sketch an impressive panorama of the intellectual landscape in the United States, citing many names from Samuel Huntington to Francis Fukuyama to Paul Berman. Would you say that the intellectual centre of gravity has shifted from Europe to America?

Bernard Henri-Levy
: Absolutely. The impact of Christopher Hitchens' articles in Slate or elsewhere, the neo-conservative movement, the way a speech by Charles Krauthammer and a response by Francis Fukuyama fired up discussion for six months - all of that attests to an intellectual vitality and a climate of contention for which Europe is losing its taste. I spent thirty years of my life thinking Paris was the world capital of intellectual discussion. Today Paris has ceded that role to New York in my view. And that's one of the reasons why I accepted Atlantic Monthly's offer (which, let's not forget, meant dedicating two years of my life to the book - one for the trip and another to write it). I felt that going there was crucial if I wanted to go on thinking about the questions I'm passionate about, things that seemed decisive for the future of my children and grandchildren.

Are you familiar with the list of the world's 100 top intellectuals published by Prospect Magazine
. Fourteen are English and 38 are American. However only three are French, three are German and only two from all of Eastern Europe. Is that today's intellectual universe?

According to Prospect.

Is intellectual life becoming more provincial?

On which side?

On both sides - in the Anglo-Saxon world, but also among the major non-Anglophone countries in Europe.

Every intellectual sphere, no matter how vibrant, tends to become provincial. All intellectual life also creates its own anti-intellectualism and the desire to narrow it's horizons. That's only natural.

Why does one get the feeling we're lacking a younger generation of intellectuals both in France and in Germany?

I don't think in terms of generations. You know the work by Aristotle: "On Generation and Corruption." As soon as you start thinking in terms of generation, you think in terms of corruption. Matters of the mind don't function in terms of generations. Perhaps they do in business, or in the management of state affairs, and they certainly do in fashion. But there are areas where they don't, notably in the worlds of art and thought. There are young artists on the other side of 80. And inversely there are artists and thinkers who start out old, weighed down by time, memory and tradition, and who end up young much later on. It's a strange sort of time, the time of the mind. Personally I've never felt I was a contemporary of the people born the same time I was - neither when I was 20, nor now at 58. An intellectual is someone who belongs to other time-frames, which at certain times might suddenly seem very alien to our own. An intellectual is someone who suddenly thinks as though Kant's essay on the Enlightenment had been written yesterday.

Hold on! There are tides in the history of thought. When you started your career at the end of the 60s, there were many intellectual giants in France. Sartre was still there. There were the great historians, the post-structuralists, the nouveaux philosophes...

Sure, there are such tides. But that's something else. They are conditioned by real historical circumstances. They set the stage on which the ideas play, they ask the questions that need to be answered. The generation question doesn't concern me much. What interests me is whether new questions can be asked. Here I do have cause for concern, because the new ones are long in coming. I don't appreciate the questions being asked today.

For example?

The question of radical Islamism, of terrorism, or of the challenge to the Enlightenment. And the question of what we haven't learned or retained from the anti-totalitarian thought of the last 20 or 30 years....

You say you're close to the anti-totalitarian thought of the neo-conservatives, who you also defend.

I don't defend them! Or rather: I only defend them against the demonisation they're subjected to - that's very different. I defend them against the inane reductionism of people who cast them as imperialists eager to wage war with Iraq to steal its oil. I say in my book: "No! It's not that simple! Their reasons for starting this war were neither base nor immoral! They started it for the reason they gave: the naive idea that in doing so they would spread democracy in the Arab world! If it had only been a question about oil they could have simply made a deal with Saddam Hussein, who asked for nothing better."

That's the extent of my defence, because the war in Iraq isn't the only issue. There are also questions of domestic policy where, in my view, they don't act like intellectuals in the sense of free spirits. Just because you support an administration on one issue, does that mean you have to toe their line on all the others? When you go to a restaurant, are you obliged to eat everything on the menu? I've had this debate with several of them, and it's a major source of contention between us.

And the war in Iraq?

That's something else again. That was a catastrophe. And it had to be one, bearing in mind how they conceived of it. On the political level they committed absolutely tragic errors. I'm convinced of that. My disagreements are of a political nature. I don't blame them for their immoralism, but for their political naivte. It's not that they didn't moralise enough (if anything they moralised too much!), but that they weren't actively enough engaged in politics (or more exactly, they were engaged in idiotic politics). As I said at the outset: this war was "morally right and politically wrong."

Which means...

Nothing is more moral than wanting to topple a dictator. But you have to have a plan for what happens next. You have to have solid allies on the ground. Like in Afghanistan with the Northern Alliance. And you're better off having a real international consensus behind you as well.

That's not the work of intellectuals!

But it is their work to think it through. Or to put it another way, the neo-conservatives' error was to nourished what I call the mirage of democratic messianism. That's roughly the idea that it's enough to decree democracy for it to come about, and that you don't need the patient work we call politics. These people don't believe in politics at home, and how could they? These are people who don't believe it's the job of politics to tackle poverty, the lack of medical care, the decline of the cities, and so on. How could they think so when they're busy constructing a democracy in a country that's emerging from decades of dictatorship? What we do share is the idea that democratic values are universal. Like them, I believe these aren't occidental values, or more exactly, that the fact that they were conceived in the West doesn't make them Western in an exclusive, fatalistic way. However I believe that to convince people who are not spontaneously convinced takes time - that is, politics.

You were against the war in 2003.

That's right. But for the reasons I've mentioned. Not moral ones, nor for reasons having to do with I don't know what sort of idiotic pacifism. What was needed was a multilateral alliance, and allies on the ground. And a plan for afterwards. In Afghanistan, at least two of these conditions were met. But not in Iraq. You know in 2003 I sepnt some time in Pakistan. Frankly it seemed to me quite clear that these people were doing themselves no favours. If the key question was radical Islamism, if our adversaries were Al Qaeda and similar organisations, then it was clear that the real target wasn't in Iraq but elsewhere, notably Karachi. Not in Arab Islam, but in Asian Islam. I wrote several articles saying that before the war. And I still hold to what I wrote back then.

What consequences will the debacle of the neo-conservatives have?

The worst would be if the most worthy aspect of their thinking was discredited - their universalism, their refusal of relativism and isolationism and what Bernard Kouchner and others called the "duty to interfere."

Despite the defeat of their thought, you are sympathetic to their anti-totalitarianism. Like some of them you speak of Islamism as a new totalitarianism, even as an "Islamo-fascism."

I think I was one of the very first - but you'd have to check it - to use the term "Islamofacism". It's not a neo-con term, it's just a reality.

Can we interpret this phenomenon, which is rooted in 1,400 years of religious tradition, in terms of something like fascism? Fascism was something completely different, with its mass formations and it's central power, il duce.

You talk as if Islamism only had one source. The Islamists also draw on fascism, real fascism, the fascism of Mussolini and Hitler. That's very clear when you look at Mohammed Amin al-Husseini, for example, the "mufti of Jerusalem" and one of the founders of Arab anti-Semitism. He was a member of the SS and he mobilised the Arabs for the Waffen SS in the last years of the war. And it's also clear when you take a look at the political origins of the Muslim Brotherhood. These movements and these men were and are inspired by real fascism, not just a metaphoric one.

Still, they function entirely differently.

Of course. But, you have to understand that this phenomenon of Islamism takes place in a double context. There is, if I dare say, the "little" context, the religious one. But there's also another context, what I call the "big" political context, which is tied up with the history of fascism. Some people would have us believe Islamism is a purely religious affair, that the whole problem lies in the Koran and all you have to do to correct matters is amend it. That's not my opinion. Of course I believe the Koran must be amended. I believe we need a generation - of Muslims of course - who will undertake with the Koran the work of religious Aggiornamento that the Jews and Christians did with their own sacred book. And I believe, to put it brutally, that a part of the problem will be resolved when Muslims accept that the divine word must be subjected to commentary - when, to put it another way, a sort of "talmudic" tradition emerges in Islam.

But at the same time, that condition is necessary but a far cry from sufficient. Because after that will come the major, perhaps essential work, of addressing the political sources of Islamism. Ian Buruma has made some impressive statements about this in his book on "occidentalism," as has my friend Paul Berman in "Terror's new clothes." And then there's the book "Halbmond und Hakenkreuz. Das Dritte Reich, die Araber und Palästina" (Half Moon and Swastika - The Third Reich the Arabs and Palestine) by Klaus-Michael Mallmann and Martin Cüppers, two German authors. It established an - alas - essential fact. The book tells the little-known history of the project for an Arab contingent in Rommel's army, which was supposed to spread the final solution to the 600,000 Jews living in Palestine. This book pulverised one of the major arguments, if not the argument, of the leftist Islamicists, namely: "We had nothing to do with the Shoah; we had nothing to do with the history of Nazism; why should we have to pay for it, a crime committed by the Europeans, by tolerating Israel?" But in fact there was a real Arab Nazism. Some identified with the project of the Shoah. And if certain Arab regimes at the time, certain intellectuals, agitators and preachers rallied behind Hitler, it wasn't not just out of their hatred for the Anglo-Saxons or the desire to liberate themselves from colonialism. No. It also sprang from an ideology, a conviction.

How should we react to Islamism?

In two contexts. First of all the religious one, as I've said, and that's up to the Muslims: the time has come for commentary! Let 100 Talmudic flowers blossom! Secondly the Arab-Muslim world has to go through the mourning that we have in Europe. As long as the Arabs maintain that the history of European fascism doesn't concern them, nothing will get better - that's my conviction.

Let's get back to the intellectual panorama and the very particular relationship between France and America. Where does their love-hate relationship come from?

Each is indebted to the other. France participated to America's national liberation through Louis XVI, La Fayette, Beaumarchais and many others. And two centuries later, the Americans liberated France.

That's hard to excuse!

I'm sure you know Jules Renard's bon mot: "I've got no enemies because I've never helped a soul." That's exactly it. Add to that the countries' commitment to universalism, an almost messianism of the universal...

Is America moving away from Europe?

I don't think so. Or, more precisely, I think that as long as the United States remains the United States, the connection to Europe will remain very strong. Perhaps it will become more discrete, even clandestine. Perhaps it will express itself differently, more gently. But it's an integral part of America. What is America? It's a new Europe. I think Americans know that. They sense that it functions and olds, like Enée leaving Troy to found Lavinium: the new world instead of Europe. America is the fire of the European Enlightenment set alight on new shores. Without this idea, it would be nothing more than an amalgam of communities, a juxtaposition of bubbles, the sort of post-modern society some people dream of, but perhaps no longer the American dream. Jean Baudrillard, for example, thought that was where America was heading. I don't think so, however. I don't think, for example, that the Hispanization of society means a turning away from Europe. I don't think that America's commercial proximity to the Pacific realm is leading it away from the values of the Enlightenment, from Europe.

Yet it's in a crisis with the debacle in Iraq.

No more and no less than during the Vietnam War, or in the decades before, leading up to the civil rights movement. People seem to be completely taken aback by Bush. Why? Before Bush there was Nixon. And before that there was segregation, the Ku Klux Klan. And all that didn't stop American democracy from thriving, progressing and developing. And where are we today? People act as if America was going through a huge, irreversible shift to the right. But if you look at the last fifty years, you'll see that today America has progressed a lot. Bush's two victories, the triumph of the creationists and the religious fundamentalists is nothing compared with the – victorious! – battle for civil equality, for the equality between men and women, and the right to abortion. We've seen a democratic revolution the likes of which has happened nowhere else on earth. Compared with all that, the current shift to the right seems much more like the last shudder of a beast that knows it's doomed.

People sometimes say that's what Islamism is like as well: a last convulsion against an unavoidable modernisation…

Yes, I know. That's what certain Islamologues like Olivier Roy and Gilles Kepel say. But the two have nothing to do with each other. I'm afraid Islamism could have a strong future, with strong roots in religion and politics.

What did you learn about Europe in America?

I learned that it's possible. When I came to the USA I was in a melancholy mood over the question of Europe. It was the time of the French debate over the European constitution, the time when even the "yes" partisans didn't dare say you had to vote "yes" because Europe was a good thing in itself, but because it was good for France. I was close to thinking that the Europe was possible just an illusion of our generation. I said to myself: "I've spent my life thinking Europe was one with history, that it will come together no matter what happens, you just have to let it be. We could all go to bed and it would form, behind our backs. But perhaps it won't form itself at all, perhaps it's undoing itself before our eyes…"

And America made you see things differently?

Yes. I saw this federation of states, this national community made up of people who speak even less the same language than the Europeans and who are faced with problems of ethnicity far more weighty than those in Europe. And I think that miracles are possible, that the inorganic nation, the inorganic social body, can be constituted. I discover that constitutional patriotism, to speak with Habermas, is not just a philosophical reverie, that it's something that works. One can create an army, maintain schools, raise taxes, etc. When you cross the country as I did, when you see how a landowner in Alabama has nothing in common with a Mexican from San Diego or a European from Savannah or Charleston, and that despite all that America has been able to constitute itself, that rekindles your hope in Europe.

What will the French elections bring for Europe?

I've no idea. I hope above all that the next president – whoever it is – will accept that the most important task is to mend the broken thread of European hope.

That's not exactly topic number one in the campaign.

François Bayrou
brings it up. So does Ségolène Royal. And you know Royal is probably – if not the most European of the three major candidates - certainly the one in the best position to bring part of the forces behind the "no" into the "yes" camp. That's one good reason to vote for her. It's not the only reason, but it's a good one.

She's come out in favour of Europe?

Of course. Many times. She was a partisan of the "yes". And today that's one of the major thrusts of her campaign. So there are grounds for hope. You know, the last time I was embarrassed about my country was a couple of weeks ago, when Madame Merkel gathered together the European countries in Madrid. She chose for this meeting the French name "Amis de la constitution." Yes. "Amis de la constitution" was the name of the Jacobin club during the French Revolution. But one country wasn't there that day. And that country was France.


Bernard-Henri Levy, born in 1948 in Beni-Saf, formerly French Algeria, is a philosopher, journalist, activist and one of France's most respected philosophers. He first gained wide public recognition in 1977 with his essay "Barbarism with a human face." Since then he has published dozens of books. He was one of the twelve signatories of the "Manifesto: Together facing the new totalitarianism," a response to the upheavals following the publication of the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy.

Interview: Thierry Chervel

Translation: jab.

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