05/12/2016, 18.19
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The utopia of the Islamic State against a self-deified atheistic West

by Fady Noun

Economic need and desire for revenge are the reasons that drive young Syrians to join the Jihadis. The conflict between Arab East and the liberal West is sterile. Arab societies and Arab Springs have failed. We need a new model of civilisation and international relations as well as the contribution of Arab Christians to fight Jihadism.

Beirut (AsiaNews) – The "quest for meaning", which a report by NGO International Alert includes alongside economic need and the desire for revenge as a motivation driving young Syrians to join jihadist groups, deserves analysis (see L'Orient le Jour, 5 May 2016). This, let us say it right away, is neither new nor surprising. Man needs meaning as much as bread, wrote Card Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, in Credo for today: what Christians believe (Ignatius Press, c2009).

Thus, because of failure to find meaning for their lives in the projects of society proposed to them young Syrians have looked for it elsewhere. Today’s Arab societies are those based on military regimes or single party with secular ideologies built in the Arab world during the 20th century. A lot has been said about the regimes born from the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire, or in the wake of decolonisation, so there is no need to dwell upon them. Among the books written on the subject, one whose title resonates most eloquently is by Ghassan Tueni with Gérard Khoury and Jean Lacouture: Un siècle pour rien (A century for nothing). Few words that say it all; everything else is nothing but a show. Arab regimes have failed to propose, even less implement models of society that can meet Arab aspirations to a life that ensures, along with prosperity, a Third World "take-off", a certain dignity of meaning and an historical purpose.

We know that the "search for meaning" is also high among the motivations that drive young Westerners to travel to the Nineveh Plain. The search for meaning is irreplaceable: it defines the nature of the relationship that every human being has with his or her society, history, and finitude. This quest is not satisfied with a non-answer because this non-response ends up being a form of answer. Perhaps it is because of such forgetfulness, or unsatisfactory answers that the various Arab Springs have failed as an alternative to traditional Arab societies.

In Eric Voegelin et l’Orient, millénarisme et religions politiques de l’Antiquité à Daech (Eric Voeglin and the Orient, millenarianism and political religions from antiquity to Daesh), Renaud Fabbri sheds some light on the issue, and deserves some attention. The tome shows that “the quest for meaning” is constitutive of an individual’s personal balance, and is equally necessary for political society as a whole.

"Voegelin uses the term 'transcendental representation' for a society’s (absolute, paradigmatic) need to organise itself as a function of a truth that is transcendental,” writes Fabbri. It is this 'transcendental representation' – which was symbolically abolished with the abolition of the Caliphate in 1923 after the fall of the Ottoman Empire – that Islamist thinkers and groups want to restore, sadly borrowing their models from archaic societies, apocalyptic loans, rather than seeking expressions that conform to the standards of an enlightened, historical, yet it to be define modernity.

The “transcendental representation” was also abolished in the West, in a process also dubbed “the disenchantment of the world”, starting in the 19th century with the civilisation of “the death of God". Somehow, history confirmed Eric Voegelin’s argument, namely that religion would make a come-up, after going underground, in a pathological way in “political religions” (like Nazism and Communism), which ravaged the 20th century.

It is clear that Muslim societies today cannot identify with the secular model of society found in the West, for a simple reason, as Voeglin points out: in the latter, “secularisation is interpreted as an aberrant form of immanentisation, a deification of society itself.”

This clearly explains why the (Arab) East and the (Liberal) West cannot meet each other in nothing but a confrontational or sterile way, given the lack of a shared transcendental representation, or at least converging transcendental representations.

This is what has happened with the Islamic State (IS) group with the emergence of a hostile representation of the secular “self-deifying” order of the West. This hostility takes various forms, from economics to metaphysics and eschatology. Admittedly, this representation was not born with IS itself, but the latter gave it its first actual territorial form, not delocalised as was the case with al Qaeda.

Still, even putting aside IS’s extreme model, we can more clearly see the path that lies ahead so that the encounters between civilisations generated by globalisation – as expressed in international organisations like the United Nations or bodies like the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership – may bear fruit beyond commerce. For these meetings to become the basis for human exchanges, or exchanges of values, these constructs and partnerships must still change at the cultural, but especially the spiritual level. What is missing from the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership for it flourish, one may ask? A shared soul is the answer, as John Paul II put it, i.e. converging representations, a comprehensive holistic project. At this particular level, Fabbri believes that "the response to the contemporary disorder can only be spiritual in nature and must come primarily from Muslims themselves." And Europe will have to stop to doubt itself!

Clearly, any response to jihadism can never be purely military or security-oriented; it will have to offer another model of civilisation and international relations. Of course, the Islamic State’s utopianism is self-destructive. “If IS was anchored only in a rational construct, it would not be multiplying its attacks outside its territory, particularly in the West. Without that, the big powers would have come to arrangement with it, especially since it rules over space and people. Now it has become everyone’s enemy,” said in a recent interview Hamit Bozarslan, a political scientist at EHESS.

However, the need for transcendental representation will continue to lurk under the irrational utopia. Responding to Daesh will not be the prerogative of governments alone, but is something that falls on peoples and civilisations. Notwithstanding their fears and exiles, it would interesting to see what role Arab Christians can play as intermediaries to modernity, on the cusp between faith and reason. Insofar as Christians can wake up to that task!

By virtue of the paths of reflections that it can open, and the intuitions that it can nurture, Renaud Fabbri’s book is a great gem. A political scientists at the Université de Versailles (France), the author is a specialist in political philosophy and the philosophy of religion. He lived for many years in the Middle East.

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