René Girard on terrorism: “We have to radically change the way we think.” Have we?

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parisToday is the funeral of René Girard, the renowned French theorist who taught us so much about violence (a larger memorial service will also be held in January at Stanford Memorial Church). It is also a day of national mourning in France, which yesterday suffered a terrorist attack of an unprecedented scale, the biggest attack on the nation since World War II. On the occasion of this atrocity, I am reprinting René’s prescient words from Battling to the End, which I had published on this blog after the Charlie Hebdo massacres of last January – the two events seem to be bookends of a very violent year.

Battling to the End was first published in Paris in 2007, long before the current cycle of events. Hence, he reflected on the devastation of September 11, 2001, but his suggestions are even more pertinent today, “as history has accelerated and politics has lost importance.” He called for a deeper understanding and a radical rethinking of our current assumptions, understandings, and strategies. “The work to be done is immense,” he wrote. Has that happened? I don’t think so. I reviewed this book for the San Francisco Chronicle here, and wrote an article about him here – which included part of the excerpt below. Requiescat in pace, René. We love you.

Atta, the leader of the September 11 group who piloted one of the two airplanes, was the son of a middle class Egyptian family. It is staggering to think that during the three last days before the attack, he spent his nights in bars with his accomplices. There is something mysterious and intriguing in this. Who asks about the souls of those men? Who were they and what were their motivations? What did Islam mean to them? What does it mean to kill themselves for the cause? The growing number of attacks in Iraq is impressive. I think it is strange that there is so little interest in the logic of these events, which dominate the world just as the Cold War once did. Since when? We are not really sure. No one could have imagined that we would be in this situation barely 20 years after the Berlin Wall fell. This disturbs our vision of history as it has been written since the American and French revolutions. Our vision of history does not take into account the fact that the entire West is challenged and threatened by this. We have to say “this” because we do not know what it is. …

girard4On September 11, people were shaken, but they quickly calmed down. There was a flash of awareness, which lasted a few fractions of a second. People could feel that something was happening. Then a blanket of silence covered up the crack in our certainty of safety. Western rationalism operates like a myth: we always work harder to avoid seeing the catastrophe. We neither can nor want to see violence as it is. The only way we will be able to meet the terrorist challenge is by radically changing the way we think. Yet the clearer it is what is happening, the stronger our refusal to acknowledge it. This historical configuration is so new that we do not know how to deal with it. It is precisely a modality of what Pascal saw: the war between violence and truth. Think about the inadequacy of our recent avant-gardes that preached the non-existence of the real. …

If we had said in the 1980s that Islamism would play the role it plays today, people would have thought we were crazy. Yet the ideology promoted by  already contained para-religious components that foreshadowed the increasingly radical contamination that has occurred over time. Europe was less malleable in Napoleons time. After Communism, its vulnerability has returned to that of a medieval village facing the Vikings. The Arab conquest was a shock, while the French Revolution was slowed by the nationalism that it provoked across Europe. In its first historical deployment, Islam conquered religiously. This was its strength and it also explains the solidity of its roots. The revolutionary impetus accelerated by the Napoleonic era was checked by the equilibrium among nations. However, nations became inflamed in turn, and destroyed the only possible means of stopping revolutions from happening.

We therefore have to radically change the way we think, and try to understand the situation without any presuppositions and using all the resources available from the study of Islam. The work to be done is immense. …

battling to end_webOf course, there is resentment in its attitude to Judeo-Christianity and the West, but it is also a new religion. This cannot be denied. Historians of religion, and even anthropologists, have to show how and why it emerged. Indeed, some aspects of this religion contain a relationship to violence that we do not understand and that are all the more worrying for that reason. For us, it makes no sense to be ready to pay with one’s life for the pleasure of seeing the other die. We do not know whether such phenomena belong to a special psychology or not. We are thus facing complete failure; we cannot talk about it and also we cannot document the situation because terrorism is something new that exploits Islamic codes, but does not at all belong to classical Islamic theory. Today’s terrorism is new, even from an Islamic point of view. It is a modern effort to counter the most powerful and refined tool of the Western world: technology. It counters technology in a way that we do not understand, and that classical Islam may not understand either.

Thus, it is not enough to simply condemn the attacks. The defensive thought by which we oppose the phenomenon does not necessarily embody a desire to understand. Often it even reveals a desire to not understand, or an intention to comfort oneself. Clausewitz is easier to integrate into a historical development. He gives us the intellectual tools to understand the violent escalation. However, where do we find such ideas in Islam? Modern resentment never leads all the way to suicide. Thus we do not have the analogical structures that could help us to understand. I am not saying that they are not possible, that they will not appear, but I admit my inability to grasp them. This is why our explanations often belong to the province of fraudulent propaganda against Muslims.


3 Responses to “René Girard on terrorism: “We have to radically change the way we think.” Have we?”

  1. Rita Horiguchi Says:

    This is very insightful. Thank you for this re-post.

  2. Mark Bell Says:

    1) How can gifts be made in honor of dr. girard?
    2) When is the january memorial?

  3. Cynthia Haven Says:

    It looks like the memorial service will be on January 19, but plans are still being finalized. There will be an announcement when things firm up.

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