Étienne Balibar: Three words for the dead and the living
Étienne Balibar comments on Charlie Hebdo.
An old Japanese friend of mine, Haruhisa Kato – formerly a professor at Todai university – wrote to me with this: ‘I’ve seen the images of all of France in mourning. I’ve been deeply moved by all this. Over the years I really loved Wolinksi’s collections. I have always been a subscriber to the Canard enchaîné, and I enjoyed Cabu’s “Beauf” cartoons every week. I still have his collection Cabu et Paris by my desk, including a number of fine drawings he did of Japanese girls, tourists having fun on the Champs-Élysées’. But further on, this reservation: ‘The 1 January Le Monde editorial starts with the words “A better world? This firstly supposes an intensified struggle against the Islamic State and its blind barbarism”. I was very struck by this statement, a rather contradictory one I thought, that we need a war for the sake of peace!’.
Others have written to me from all over the world – Turkey, Argentina, the USA… all of them expressing compassion and solidarity, but also concern. Concern for our security, for our democracy, for our civilisation – I was about to say, for our souls. I want to reply to these people, at the same time as responding to Libération’s invitation to comment. Intellectuals ought to express themselves, not on account of some privileged insight or still less their particular lucidity, but also without reticence or ulterior calculations. It is a duty incumbent upon them: at the hour of danger, they have to spread the word. Today, in this urgent situation, I just want to talk about three words.
Community. Yes, we need community: for mourning, for solidarity, for protecting one another, for reflection. This community is not exclusive, and more particularly it does not exclude those people – whether French citizens or immigrants – whom an increasingly virulent propaganda reminiscent of the darkest hours of our history paints in the colours of invasion and terrorism in order to make them the scapegoats of our fears, our delusions or our impoverishment. But nor does it exclude those who believe what the Front National say, or those who are seduced by Houellebecq’s prose. So the community has to talk to itself. And that doesn’t stop at the borders, since it’s clear enough that the sharing of the sentiments, responsibilities and initiatives sparked by the current ‘world civil war’ has to be something that’s done in common, at an international level, and if possible (Edgar Morin is quite right on this point) within the framework of a ‘cosmopolitics’.
That is why community is not the same thing as ‘national unity’. This latter concept has in practice only ever served disreputable goals: imposing a silence over troubling questions or having people believe that a state of exception is unavoidable. Even the Resistance did not invoke this term (and with good reason). And now we have seen how in calling for a national day of mourning – as is his prerogative – the President of the Republic took advantage of it in order to slip in a justification for our military interventions, which he’s certain haven’t done anything to push the world any further down its current slippery slope. After which we had all the debates (and they’re a trap) on which parties are and aren’t ‘national’, on whether or not they should bear this name. Is the intention to compete with Ms. Le Pen?
Imprudence. Were the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists imprudent? Yes, but the word has two meanings, which can more or less easily be separated out (and of course this is somewhat subjective). Firstly, disregard for danger, a taste for risk, some would call it heroism. But also indifference toward the disastrous ultimate consequences of a well-intentioned provocation: in this case, the humiliation of millions of people who are already stigmatised, delivering them to manipulation at the hands of organised fanatics. I think that Charb and his comrades were imprudent in both senses of the word. Today, now that this imprudence has cost them their lives – at the same time exhibiting the mortal threat to freedom of expression – I just want to think about this first aspect of imprudence. But tomorrow and the day after that (and this isn’t just a matter for a single day) I really want us to reflect on the most intelligent way of dealing with this second aspect of imprudence and how it relates to the first. And that doesn’t necessarily imply any sort of cowardice.
Jihad. I’m deliberately finishing with the word that people are so afraid of, since it’s high time that we examined all its implications. I only have the beginnings of an idea of this subject, but I’m pretty keen on it: our fate is in the hands of Muslims – however imprecise this term is. Why? Because of course it’s right to warn against amalgams and to counter the Islamophobia claiming that the Koran and the hadith call for murder. But that’s insufficient.
The only way to answer the exploitation of Islam by jihadist networks – whose main victims both worldwide and in Europe itself are Muslims, lest we forget – is a theological critique, and ultimately a reform of the religion’s ‘common sense’, thus making believers see jihadism as a fraud. If not, we will all be caught in the deathly stranglehold of terrorism – with its power of attraction for all the people in our crisis-ridden society who are humiliated and offended – and ‘securitarian’ policies that bludgeon our freedoms, policies being implemented by ever more militarised states. Thus Muslims have a certain responsibility, or rather a task incumbent upon them. But that’s also our responsibility, and not only because the ‘we’ I’m talking about – in the here and now – by definition includes a lot of Muslims. It’s also because the already small chances of such a critique and such a reform will be reduced to nil if we continue to accept the isolating discourse of which Muslims – and their religion and culture – are generally the target.
By Étienne Balibar
Translated by David Broder.
See the original piece here.
See more from Étienne Balibar here.