Au bord du gouffre …

Les observateurs n’ont pas manqué de reconnaitre dans la montée de l’Etat Islamique la conséquence lointaine de la politique aussi irresponsable qu’incohérente des néoconservateurs américains. Certains comme Dominique de Villepin n’hésitent même pas à condamner tout recours à la force par peur qu’une nouvelle intervention étrangère n’aggrave encore la situation.

C’est pourtant se voiler la face devant une réalité nouvelle. On avait de bonnes raisons de se méfier du parallèle que certains voulaient faire entre fascisme et Islamisme radical. Ce genre de scrupule n’est pourtant plus de mise. Il faut reconnaitre que certaines voix n’avaient pas tort de nous mettre en garde contre une nouvelle forme de totalitarisme, d’autant plus monstrueux qu’il défigure une des grandes traditions sacrales de l’humanité.

Une intervention militaire, qui de l’avis unanime des experts, ne parviendra pas à détruire l’EI, comporte des risques, surtout quand elle s’appuie sur une coalition aussi improbable qu’instable. Et pourtant, les chantres du non-interventionniste ne semblent en mesure d’offrir aucune alternative crédible. Pas plus d’ailleurs que les pourfendeurs toujours vertueux de l’impérialisme occidental. L’Occident a une part de responsabilité immense, tant par son aventurisme militaire récent que par la prodigieuse capacité qui est le sien à faire prospérer les idéologies nihilistes tant chez lui qu’ailleurs. Une des grandes tragédies du monde contemporain, c’est qu’après l’effondrement du communisme et avec la désintégration des valeurs libérales, l’Islamisme radical peut sembler, malgré toute sa barbarie, comme la grande idéologie anti-systémique de notre temps. On est aujourd’hui djihadiste comme on a pu être fasciste dans les années 30 ou plus tard khmers rouges. Mais face à l’urgence, s’opposer à une intervention, c’est surtout jouer le rôle de ce que Lénine appelait ironiquement « un idiot utile ».

La solution à plus long terme ne saurait en revanche appartenir aux Occidentaux. Elle passe, tout le monde le sait bien, par un partage plus équitable du pouvoir en Iraq et on le dit moins par un véritable sursaut spirituel au sein d’un monde musulman engagé dans une logique désespérante d’autodestruction que rien ne semble pouvoir arrêter.

The worst case scenario ? well … almost there.

With the descent of Syria into sectarian war, followed by the premises of what might turn to be a new Algerian-like civil war in Egypt, the course of event seems to justify the most pessimistic prognostics about the Arab Spring. At this point, considering the deterioration of the political situation even in Tunisia, the idea that the Arab Spring would be the prelude for a quick democratization of the Middle East seems at best an act of faith. The whole “post-islamist” hypothesis, the idea of an Hegelian type of reconciliation between Islam and democracy, is in limbo … and not necessarily by the fault of the Islamists only.

A putsch against a democratically elected president by a coalition of the military and secularist parties will probably strengthen the hardliners among the Islamists, who never believed in democracy. Whatever one may think about the performances of Muhammad Morsi, it remains that the army, by interrupting a deeply trouble but still existing political transition, has actually saved the Muslim Brothers from a political disaster. What will be remembered is not the failure of the Muslim Brothers to give Egypt a constitution but rather the coup that ousted them, with the backing of a large segment of a population that not so long ago was complaining about the use of torture by the army against demonstrators.

On the short term at least, Jihadist groups, far from being weakened by the “democratic revolutions” in the region, are the great beneficiaries of the Arab Spring. US neoconservatives and Israeli Hawks to some extend too, although they have little to celebrate with the prospect of an opening of two new fronts for Israel, one on the Golan and the other, on the Sinai and an increased of terrorist activity around the globe. In the meantime, Egypt and Syria, two of the major centers of the Islamic civilization are disintegrating, suggesting that Afghanistan might be the future of the Middle-East.

On the Arab Spring, post-Islamism and other forms of wishful thinking

The descent of Syria into what looks more and more like a regional religious war between Shiites and Sunnis (comparable in some respects to the Thirty Years’ War in early modern Europe) and the military coup (How do you want to call it?) against the first democratically elected president of post-revolutionary Egypt may be interpreted by future historians as the end of the historical phase inaugurated by the Arab revolutions. These fateful developments invite us to revisit the narrative regarding the Arab Spring in a more sober manner and to reconsider some common assumptions about it.

“The Arab Spring was a democratic revolution”: There is little doubt that all revolutions are messy and stabilization takes decades. It can be argued for instance that it took France a century (until the fall of Mac Mahon) to reach a collective (and only relative) political consensus regarding the shape of its institutions. Yet, the rosy narrative of a democratic wave sweeping through the Middle-East, the prospect of seeing the Middle East catching up with western democracies seem more and more like wishful-thinking. The consensus (if ever there was one) was on collective discontent with the state of things, not on values. The idea of a somehow necessary progress of human freedom through history is a vestige of an Hegelian mythology that only distorts our understanding of contemporary events.

“Social Media promote liberal democracies”: Social Media (the famous so-called “Twitter-revolution”) seem to have favored more than anything else the rise of a generation of revolutionaries without real political program. Old power structures in the region (and across the globe) appear more and more vulnerable to these forces coming from a largely mythical global civil society. But the degree to which these global activists are representative of the larger society is at best doubtful (see the recent unrest in Turkey). The new strategies of collective disobedience seem to be inspired by an anarchistic imaginary, by nature unable to translate into a stable order. In this perspective, the difference between the (good) global activists and the (bad) jihadists may have been largely overstated. The two find their inspiration in the same unruly and romantic individualism that soon or later leaves the room for authoritarianism, be it secular or theocratic.

“The Arab Spring was part of an American, Israeli, Qatari (whatever you want) conspiracy”: Conspiracy theories, which have multiplied with the first disillusions regarding the Arab Spring, seem also less and less credible. The truth is that nobody is still in charge. Western powers in particular have lost most of their influence in the region and are mostly spectators rather than actors. There is in fact a foreign intervention in Syria … by Iran-backed Hezbollah. This decline of western influence can be traced back to the Iraq War. It seems also that the Obama administration has come to the realistic conclusion that the US can do little to channel the new political forces and prefers to retreat into a form of isolationism. I am not sure he should be blamed for this. A painful lesson from the Libyan war is that Western powers shall be deemed responsible for whatever evil comes out of a revolution they did not initiate but in which they intervened. The same who were stigmatizing Gaddafi as a tyrant massacring its own people, started to praise him as an anticolonial hero once his fate was sealed by the NATO bombings. Not to deny the share of historical responsibility of Western powers in the tragedies of the region but anti-imperialism should not be an excuse for collective schizophrenia, political incompetence and blatant hypocrisy.

“Islamists are becoming good democrats”: It was believed that the beginning of the Arab Spring created the opportunities for a Hegelian reconciliation between the discourse of religion and the discourse of freedom in the region. The apparent failure of the Muslim Brothers, the larger historical force representing political Islam in the region, and the revival of Jihadism (Mali, Syria and tomorrow Egypt) call into question the post-islamist hypothesis. The scenario of a conversion to democracy of local Islamist parties seems less and less reflecting the actual course of events. A few months ago the AKP was the model to follow but the recent unrest in Turkey even casts a shadow on the success of Turkish Islamo-conservatives. It is not Hegel who is winning but rather Carl Schmitt …

“Iran is the biggest threat to regional peace”: The US strategy in the region since the 2003 Iraq war has been to contain Iran at any cost, leaving even open the option of a military intervention to destroy its nuclear program. It cannot be denied however that in the regional context Iran, with its strong tradition of centralized State, appears more and more like a pole of stability in the midst of weak or rapidly disintegrating States (Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq in the West, Afghanistan and Pakistan in the East). In the light of these geopolitical realities, Western powers should reconsider their posture toward Iran and opt for a more balance approach to the Sunnite/Shiite conflict in progress. As unpleasant as it may sound, Iran could play the role of a barrier against regional chaos and it is most certainly a key to any political solution in Syria.

Maybe I should leave the final word to an old reactionary though wise man, one immune to revolutionary enthusiasm: “The more one examines the apparently more active personalities of the Revolution, the more one finds something passive and mechanical about them. It cannot be too often repeated that men do not at all guide the Revolution; it is the Revolution that uses men. It is well said that it has its own impetus. This phrase shows that never has the Divinity revealed itself so clearly in any human event. If it employs the most vile instruments, it is to regenerate by punishment.” (Joseph de Maistre)

Leo Strauss on the phenomenon of “esoteric writing”

The works of Leo Strauss about the phenomenon of esoteric writing in a context of persecution is probably one of the most fascinating aspects of his legacy. The readers learn with him how to read political philosophy as a “detective story”

The assumption that classical text should be « read between lines » proceeds directly from Strauss’s interest in the theologico-political question. The philosopher needs to justify himself, and the right of free enquiry, both in the eyes of the city and in the eyes of religion. To the extent that he deviates from orthodoxy or social accepted view he will have to conceal his real teaching, practice esoteric writings. Only a certain type of reader will be able to crack the code, to understand his real intention.

This may sound quite conventional in a way. But it proves a quite unsettling hypothesis when interpreting for instance medieval texts. Take what Strauss writes about Farabi, who is generally considered as a neo-platonician:

At the beginning of the treatise On the Attainment of Happiness with which he prefaces his summaries of the philosophies of Plato and of Aristotle, Farabi employs the distinction- between “the happiness of this world in this life” and “the ultimate happiness· in the other life” as a matter of course. In the Plato, which is the second and therefore the least exposed part of a tripartite work, the distinction of the two kinds of happiness is completely dropped. What this silence means becomes clear from the fact that in the whole Plato (which contains summaries of the Gorgias, the Phaedrus, the Phaedo, and the Republic), there is no mention of the immortality of the soul: Farabi’s Plato silently rejects Plato’s doctrine of a life after death.

Farabi could go so far in the Plato, not merely because that treatise is the least exposed and the shortest part of a larger work, but also because .it sets forth explicitly the views of another man. As has been mentioned, he treats differently the two kinds of happiness in On the Attainment of Happiness and in the Plato; and he treats religious knowledge somewhat differently in the Enumeration of the Sciences and in the Plato. Proceeding in accordance with the same rule, he pronounces more or less orthodox views concerning the life after death in The Virtuous Religious Community and The Political Governments, i.e., in works in which he speaks in his own name. More precisely, in The Virtuous Religious Community, he pronounces simply orthodox views, and in The Political Governments he pronounces views which, if heretical, could nonetheless still be considered tolerable. But in his commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics he declares that there is only the happiness of this life, and that all divergent statements are based on “ravings and old women’s tales.'”

Farabi avails himself then of the specific immunity of the commentator or of the historian in order to speak his mind concerning grave matters in his “historical” works, rather than in the works in which he speaks in his own name. Yet could not Farabi, as a commentator, have expounded, without a muttering of dissent, such views as he rejected as a man? Could he not have been attracted, as a student of philosophy, by what he abhorred as a believer? Could his mind not have been of the type that is attributed to the Latin Averroists? It almost suffices to state this suspicion in order to see that it is unfounded. The Latin Averroists gave a most literal interpretation of extremely heretical teachings. But Farabi did just the reverse: he gave an extremely unliteral interpretation of a relatively tolerable teaching. Precisely as a mere commentator of Plato, Farabi was compelled to embrace the doctrine of a life after death. His flagrant deviation from the letter of Plato’s teaching, or his refusal to succumb to Plato’s charms, proves sufficiently that he rejected the belief in a happiness different from the happiness of this life, or the belief in another life. His silence about the immortality of the soul in a treatise designed to present the philosophy of Plato “from its beginning to its end” places beyond any reasonable doubt the inference that the statements asserting the immortality of the ;soul, which occur in some of his other writings, must be regarded as accommodations to the accepted views.


In the light of these considerations, it would appear to be rash to identify the teaching of the falasifa with what they taught most frequently or most conspicuously. The attempt to establish their serious teaching is rendered still more difficult by the fact that some opponents of the falasifa seem to have thought it necessary to help the falasifa in concealing their teaching, because they feared the harm which its publication would cause to those of their fellow-believers whose faith was weak.

What Farabi indicates in regard to the procedure of the true philosophers, is confirmed by a number of remarks about the philosophic distinction between the exoteric and the esoteric teaching which occur in the writings of his successors. Farabi’s Plato informs us about the most obvious and the crudest reason why this antiquated or forgotten distinction was needed. Philosophy and the philosophers were “in grave danger:’ Society did not recognize philosophy or the right of philosophizing. There was no harmony between philosophy and society. (Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing)

For Leo Strauss, it is because Liberalism has gradually come to prevail in western societies after the Enlightenment, that the phenomenon of esoteric writings has been progressively forgotten (and even denied by historicists). The beginning of modernity was characterized by a progressive collapse of the boundaries between esoteric and exoteric writings. The result is that most readers, even academics, will tend to remain at an exoteric understanding of the classics. The liberal dogma of public transparency has been extended even to those who could not afford it.

The concept of “esoteric writing” is a powerful hermeneutic key that forces us to pay a closer attention to « familiar » texts. In the present western context, persecution may no longer come from religion, but on the contrary from an aggressive secularism or from the hegemony of liberalism that force religious or conservative thinkers to hide their real intention. It was probably the type of attitude that Strauss himself was cultivating in his works.

One may wonder though whether Strauss does not remain trap in a too simplistic post-enlightenment dichotomy between faith and reason, compared for instance to Voegelin’s richer analysis of the phenomenon of noetic illumination in Plato and Aristotle. Strauss takes for granted that reason and faith are irreconcilable, ignoring not only a vast body of literature in the three monotheisms but also possibly distorting the very essence of the teaching of Plato.

The content of the esoteric truth that would be buried behind an exoteric language is itself not very interesting: a post-enlightenment skepticism toward the supernatural. The question of Strauss’s personal religious views has never been fully sorted out but it often seems that “his” esoteric truth is simply that there is no God and no immortality of the soul, that the summum bonum is the life of the intellect, understood in a very secular sense.  In other words, truth is ugly, a cause of individual despair as well as collective disorder. Only an elite can stand it. It sounds a little bit more like Nietzsche than like Plato, doesn’t it?

Strauss alerts us about the phenomenon of esoteric writings. He awakens us from our liberal “dogmatic slumbers”. It does not mean however that we have to accept Strauss’s nihilism as the esoteric truth concealed by the philosophers of the past.

About Tariq Ramadan and the CILE

To the extent that the Habermassian concept of post-secularism can be legitimately applied beyond the Western context (a possibility that Habermas seems to acknowledge),  Tariq Ramadan can be characterized as one of the most articulated contemporary post-secular intellectuals. In some European countries where the very idea of religious intellectuality is seen as contradictory, his positions are frequently caricatured. He is accused of “double-talk” by those who are simply unable to understand him or unwilling to seriously listen to him.

Here are a few videos from the Center for Islamic Ethics and Legislation that he has established in Doha, Qatar and which is pursuing his project of Islamic Reformation.

General presentation of the CILE

A lecture by Tariq Ramadan

Concluding remarks by Tariq Ramadan to the first CILE conference

His book Radical Reform remains probably the best theoretical introduction to his work.