Charlie Hebdo and the Secularist Long Game

place des terreaux

Ah birbone! ah dannato! ah assassino! Villain! Wretch! Murderer!’  shouted Renzo, striding up and down the room, and grasping the hilt of his dagger every so often…. He stopped suddenly in front of the weeping girl, looked at her with sad and angry tenderness, and said: ‘I’ll make sure he never does a thing like this again.’ ‘No, Renzo, no! — not that, for the love of Heaven!’ cried Lucia. ‘God is the God of the poor and oppressed; but how can you expect him to help us if we do evil?’ (Alessandro Manzoni, The Betrothed, ch. 3)

The cliché that evil begets evil is true not only in it’s obvious sense (that righteous anger and zeal for justice can quickly turn to  hatred, revenge, and unlawful violence), but also in the sense that such reaction itself provides occasion for the long term strategies of well meaning but thoroughly mischievous movements.

The recent murder of Charlie Hebdo journalists was perhaps a work of Renzo-like passion on the part of Muslims angered by crass insults to the prophet, and the murder itself gives occasion to all kinds of evil. On the one hand it will increase the naively secularist and racist reaction of the likes of Riposte Laïque, but on the other hand I think it will further the long-term goals of the multi-culturalist, leftist, secularists who oppose them. The left’s fake opposition to bourgeois liberalism really conceals a more thoroughgoing and intelligent commitment to liberal principles. As a fellow blogger on The Josias points out, even the most ostensibly anti-bourgeois publications of the left have been spouting bourgeois platitudes over the Charlie Hebdo murders. French nationalists accuse the left of letting their hatred of their own cultural heritage blind them to the fact that Islam is much greater threat to their hard won freedom. But I think there is more to  their seemingly irrational position (“To be a good ‘laïque’ today you have to encourage the building of mosques in France”) than the naive secularists realize. The clever secularists are playing the long-game; their expectation is that the can encourage Muslim’s to become “moderate.” That is they can hollow Islam out, and make its practitioners good liberals who amuse themselves by going to pray on Fridays. And if one considers how successful this strategy has been in dis-mantling continental Christianity, this might not seem so unrealistic. This strategy involving Muslims in leftist politics through alliances over immigration, encouraging the education of Muslim clerics in European schools and so on.

What are we to think of this? My Josias colleague argues that it would be foolish to take sides in this contest: both “radical Islam” and the secularists should be opposed. I agree. And yet, one can still ask “which is worse?” Michel Houellebecq has been accused of “Islamophobia” for his latest novel envisioning an Islamicized France. But, as he points out in an interview, “things don’t go all that badly, really.” “There is a more fundamental opposition between a Muslim and an atheist than between a Muslim and a Catholic,” Houellebecq says, and it’s hard to contradict him. It is difficult to say which would be more successful in opposing Christianity Muslim France or secularist France— but at least Muslim France would be more up-front about its opposition.

In any case, nothing is to be gained by assisting the secularists bring about a more “moderate” Islam. What does “moderate” Islam mean? I once heard Raphaël Liogier say that the idea of “moderate” Islam makes it sound as though Islam were a drug which one might safely take in small doses, but that one ought not to take too much of. I don’t subscribe to Liogier’s overall project, but here he makes an excellent point. The idea of “moderate” religion is completely stupid. Moderation is good with respect to finite goods, but how can it be considered good with respect to the infinite good? Moderate religion is fake religion. This does not mean that ISIS terrorists are the most authentic Muslims; since the basis for such terrorism in Islamic law is highly shaky, Muslims who oppose ISIS can claim that they are more extremely Muslim than ISIS.

One might of course object that Islam is not the true religion, and that therefore one ought to encourage its being watered down. I grant the premise, but the conclusion does not follow. A passage of Bl. John Henry Newman’s Apologia is apposite here:

For is it not one’s duty, instead of beginning with criticism, to throw oneself generously into that form of religion which is providentially put before one? Is it right, or is it wrong, to begin with private judgment? May we not, on the other hand, look for a blessing through obedience even to an erroneous system, and a guidance even by means of it out of it? Were those who were strict and conscientious in their Judaism, or those who were lukewarm and sceptical, more likely to be led into Christianity, when Christ came? […] Certainly, I have always contended that obedience even to an erring conscience was the way to gain light, and that it mattered not where a man began, so that he began on what came to hand, and in faith; and that anything might become a divine method of Truth; that to the pure all things are pure, and have a self-correcting virtue and a power of germinating.

Who is more likely to be led to the truth: a Muslim on fire with devotion to the Creator, willing to give everything, and do anything for His sake, or a “moderate” Muslim who will never do anything that offends the consensus of a decadent secular culture? Even if the devout Muslim commits sins that are worse than anything done by the lukewarm one, he still seems closer to the Kingdom. St Paul holding cloaks at the murder of St Stephen was in itself a worse sin than the tolerant attitude of moderates like Gamaliel, and yet who became a prince of the Apostles?

Update: A Retraction.

Update 2: Fanaticism vs. Liberalism

7 thoughts on “Charlie Hebdo and the Secularist Long Game

  1. You might like Charles Taylor’s The Malaise of Modernity:

        The worry has been repeatedly expressed that the individual lost something important along with the larger social and cosmic horizons of action. Some have written of this as the loss of a heroic dimension to life. People no longer have a sense of a higher purpose, of something worth dying for. Alexis de Tocqueville sometimes talked like this in the last century, referring to the “petits et vulgaires plaisirs” that people tend to seek in the democratic age.[1] In another articulation, we suffer from a lack of passion. Kierkegaard saw “the present age” in these terms. And Nietzsche’s “last men” are at the final nadir of this decline; they have no aspiration left in life but to a “pitiable comfort.”[2]
        This loss of purpose was linked to a narrowing. People lost the broader vision because they focussed on their individual lives. Democratic equality, says Tocqueville, draws the individual towards himself, “et menace de la renfermer enfin tout entier dans la solitude de son propre coeur.”[3] In other words, the dark side of individualism is a centring on the self, which both flattens and narrows our lives, makes them poorer in meaning, and less concerned with others or society. (3–4)

    Now, who benefits from this transformation of man, or as C.S. Lewis might say it, this abolition of man?

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  2. Pingback: Weekly Reading – January 9, 2015 | Opus Publicum

  3. Pingback: A Retraction | Sancrucensis

  4. Pingback: “The poor and the despised: this is who we must defend ourselves against?” | Sancrucensis

  5. Your piece, and Newman’s proposition, reminds me of the scene in The Last Battle when Aslan speaks to Emeth (which Wikipedia just informed me comes from the Hebrew אמת : “truth,” “firmness,” or “veracity”): “… I take to me the services which thou hast done to Tash … if any man swear by him and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him.” At the same time it’s difficult to square that off with an act of terrorism, but then again if we reduce the act to irrational violence (which is what “terrorist attack” basically connotes now) rather than try to understand its motives, even the justice of them- as Sam Kriss does in that article you posted- then in searching for security from “the Muslims” we might end up embracing a false savior.

    Two questions come to mind from your piece:

    When you write, “Were those who were strict and conscientious in their Judaism, or those who were lukewarm and sceptical, more likely to be led into Christianity, when Christ came?” – how do you account for the Pharisees who were not lukewarm exactly but so strict that there was no room to recognize the savior when he came? I saw you addressed this a bit in the retraction of your “semi-palagianism” but I wonder whether you’re onto something about the difference with Paul. What makes his zeal different from other Pharisees? Or maybe, as Samantha suggests, and supported by Bruegel, his conversion fall is such a total paradigm shift that where he came from is as ugly as a horse’s hindquarters: .

    The second question didn’t come up in the retraction:

    Houellebecq says “There is a more fundamental opposition between a Muslim and an atheist than between a Muslim and a Catholic.” I agree that that is hard to contradict fundamentally (at least if the atheist really is an atheist and not in fact an agnostic of good faith, open to the evidence, just not yet convinced) but pretty darn close to the foundation you have Benedict XVI redrawing the lines of engagement in the Regensburg lecture between those who are open to inquire into the “reasonableness of faith” and those who aren’t, with Islam left wanting. And in a non scholarly setting he raised the question directly, “Islam needs to clarify two questions in regard to public dialogue, that is, the questions concerning its relation to violence and its relation to reason” (Light of the World by Peter Seewald, p. 98).

    Of course, if there were a test the neo-liberal project would get a low score for taking the reasonableness of faith seriously too, quite possibly lower. Is there a test?

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    • Pasting this from another thread because it’s relevant to your excellent questions, CD:

      I ought to have made a further distinction after pointing out the stupidity of the the idea of “moderate religion.” After one has dismissed the moderate/extreme distinction one still needs to be able to distinguish between the false zeal of the pharisee and the true zeal of the saint. Jeremy Holmes mad the following distinction Facebook:

      «It seems to me that fanaticism (or “extremism” or “fundamentalism” or whatever other unsatisfying word you put on it) always involves a fear of the ambiguity that comes from real engagement with questions and with people. It is a need for black and white and a fear of gray. It puts on a mask of violence and physical fearlessness to hide its great fear in the face of spiritual questions. Because secularism promotes questioning all religious tenets, it seems to be the opposite of fanaticism. But the true mean is not fanaticism (which can’t ask the question) or secularism (which only questions to destroy) but something else for which I don’t have a name–some kind of fearless religion (which boldly asks questions to find the truth). Ratzinger’s writings have always seemed to me to embody this last virtue.»

      Maybe fear is only part of the root (of “fanaticism”) though. I think that pride is also in there somewhere— instead of docile to reality they pridefully identify their own proper conceptions with reality. “Fundamentalism” is a bad term for this though because one can meet the phenomenon just as much in subtle and sophisticated systems of thought as in crude simplistic ones. There is something analogous in natural reasoning: what De Koninck calls “system building,” in his brilliant lecture “Three Sources of Philosophy.”

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