Scholars of the Enlightenment should be in high demand these days. For the political and media responses to the plot to bomb up to ten U.S. airliners in mid air above the Atlantic reflect its two-faced intellectual and philosophical heritage. There is that great optimism in human nature, the belief in rationality and science, the conviction that everything has an explanation and that every problem has a solution. There is the unbending belief that “all men are created equals,” that we are entitled to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Then there is the dark side, not of Locke and Montesquieu, not of the American Revolution and the Federalists, but of the French terror, of the tyranny of ideas over the liberty of men, of the totalitarian regimes that sprang out of Enlightenment philosophy no less than liberal democracies did.
Some, in Europe and the U.S., have already understood terrorism’s true nature: the tool of a totalitarian murderous ideology, which must be confronted for what it is, not for what we wish it to be, if liberty is to survive.
But others are trying to play down this characterization, for fear of the consequences of putting radical Islam in the same category as Fascism and Communism, especially given that Islam is not a distant reality of the East, but it now dwells in the heart of Europe.
Watching the details of the murderous plot and learning the identities of the plotters — mostly British Muslims, one of them a middle-class convert to Islam — commentators were quick at work stirring debate away from such conclusions and indicating different solutions. Writing in the Italian daily La Stampa, for example, Igor Man comments the plot by spending more than two thirds of his op-ed, entitled “The Shadow of Beirut” discussing Hezbollah, Lebanon, and Palestine. His main conclusion? One must return to “the head of the waters,” the “ancient question of Palestine.” Grievances arising from the troubled Middle East feed into terror. Solve them, and there will be no terror. Elsewhere in his newspaper, there’s a reminder of this view: Al Qaeda’s number-two, Aiman al-Zawahiri had warned us all, a few days ago, that they would not remain indifferent to events in Lebanon. The logic of cause and effect is at work: There is a belief that Western foreign policy in the Middle East — including, crucially, support for Israel — is the “root-cause” of Muslim grievances. These grievances must be addressed, says Dan Flesch in a Guardian commentary, lest anger mounts to the boiling point. Timothy Garton Ash (writing in Italy’s second daily, the left-leaning La Repubblica) decries the apparent failure of Britain’s integration model. Should we try harder? Yes, we should (there are 1.6 million Muslims in Britain; Not trying harder would be foolish). But what, in detail, does it mean to try harder? Ash is willing to think that one of the reasons there is so much anger among British Muslims is British foreign policy (which has nothing to do with integration, incidentally). Why don’t French Muslims join terrorism against their own country, he asks himself? Is it because France did not join in the Global War on Terror — which Muslims, Ash reminds us, see as a Global War on Islam?
Or perhaps Ash was on holiday when French suburbia was set on fire by angry Muslims; perhaps he did not see the writing on the walls of 185 French cities, where similar Islamist slogans suggested the anger was not just an outburst of socio-economic grievances. Besides, that they see the GWOT as a GWOI does not make it so. Maybe it means they are delusional, or maybe it means that their leadership is cloaking the mantle of victimization in order to hide the fact that radicalization and unwillingness to embrace Western values are at the root of the problem.
Perhaps it is easier to argue that the problem (Muslim anger) has a solution (change of foreign policy), rather than recognize that our belief in rationality and our optimism about human nature are sometimes misplaced. It is a legacy of the Enlightenment that we find it so hard to deal with madness and fanaticism. We are always inclined to seek an alternative explanation: There is a cause — our policies — there is an effect — their anger — and there is a solution — our change of policy.
Western impulses to explain away the threat of terror and seek a solution to the problem are empowering in a way. We have a diagnosis and we have a cure. But they are also misleading. For why should it be logical or even understandable that Muslim anger at Western foreign policy solicits terrorism? Should anger at high taxes, inefficient health care, poor environmental standards, or disagreeable op-eds solicit “understandable” similar responses? Should we condone people blowing up airliners because they think the highest tax bracket should not be higher than, say, 30 percent? Should we “address their grievances”? By, say, lowering taxes? What if someone decides to blow up, say, the Guardian because they are fed up with the political inclination of its Comment section? Should the Guardian address their grievances by becoming right-wing? Can we not call it blackmail, instead, as it should be the case? Can we not say that differences of opinion are only legitimate when voiced in the peaceful forms amply provided by the open societies we are part of? That what makes people angry is no excuse for killing people?
The “root-cause” argument boils down to excusing the inexcusable. It also ignores the plain facts: The foiled plot to blow up airliners was not hastily planned in response to Israel’s war on Hezbollah, or U.S. and British reluctance to stop Israel. The planning began months before those events. The real cause is a totalitarian ideology that uses grievances as excuses but has goals we can never accede, if the West is to stay true to its values and beliefs, let alone interests, as an open society.
Western inability to look at evil in the face, call it for what it is, and respond to it instead of caving in to its blackmail is understandable. Evil makes little sense to us. It is irrational, illogical, and it defies our expectation that all human beings somehow must want the same things: a job, a house, a decent and peaceful life. Those who defy this logic cannot be crazy. They must be banging on the table because they have been “deprived” and “left out” of the grand bargain that our affluent society has given virtually everyone else. Give them what they want, and we will have our quiet back.
This logic is behind the fascination for Hezbollah that is gripping much of Europe’s hard Left. Their romance with the new revolutionaries is driven by their old fetishes: Hassan Nasrallah is a new Che Guevara; American hegemony and its imperialism in the Middle East must be stopped. The freedom of oppressed people must be defended. The aggressor comes from the West, not the East. Those amongst us who attack the West are not evil, just misguided. Their methods are questionable, but their cause is just. If we only indulged them in their political demands, all would be well.
Yet, this logic only leaves us exposed to the dark side of the Enlightenment, that tradition that raised the Idea of Liberty above the Life of the people it was supposed to grant Happiness and in the process murdered untold millions for its triumph. Radical Islam has been rightly labelled as fascist, not only because much of its roots lie in the West, but also because it acts like a totalitarian ideology, whose main aim is to create a new world order based on an Idea, the triumph of which justifies the murder of anyone who stands in the way and the death of million others as sacrifice to the cause. What, after all, is the difference between those who are ready to kill thousands of innocents in the name of radical Islam and, say, Cambridge historian Eric Hobsbawm — secular and Communist — who claimed once that had the triumph of Communism cost the lives of 20 million people, that would have been a fair price to pay? Life is cheap in the pursuit of a grand idea, whichever this idea happens to be. And there will always be intellectuals ready to lend their pen to obscure its true nature.
We should understand this logic. It is part of the Western intellectual heritage. Socialism is not a child of the East — it was deadly in Europe. Fascism is also a child of the West — and it also killed tens of millions across the Continent. The West tried to “address the grievances” of an angry and humiliated Germany in the 1930s. Why do we assume that “addressing grievances” is going to go differently this time?
We should also not ignore what “addressing grievances” does to those members of our societies who will pay the cost of this policy. They will learn the lesson and turn away from democracy and liberalism because they will explain democracy’s inability to confront evil as a failure of its moral and ideological underpinnings. Just as the failure and inadequacy of liberal governments to face the Communist threat after World War I empowered the fascists, so will the failure to treat radical Islam as a brutal totalitarian ideology end up empowering Europe’s extreme right.
The path will soon be opened to a process of erosion of those liberal-democratic values our societies thrive on because sooner or later, the inability of the “addressing their grievances” approach to solve the problem, gives way to a violent backlash. When last year “unaddressed grievances” blew up the London Underground, racist acts against people of Asian background increased 600 percent. Expect more of the same now. Racist parties across Europe have been making electoral inroads in the last five years. Expect more of the same now. Ignoring the nature of the threat or pretending there is a quick solution to it will only raise the price of protecting our freedom in the long term.
As for those who have “unaddressed grievances,” one thing should be made clear: as children of the Enlightenment, we believe that some values are universal, both rights and duties. Therefore, we believe in reciprocity. Those who renege on this social compact and choose not to play by the rules are beyond the pale. They must be treated accordingly.
— Emanuele Ottolenghi is the incoming executive director of the Brussels-based Transatlantic Institute.