The fire this time
Last year those who seemed to know France best argued that the car-burnings in the capital were really fueled by alienation and joblessness rather than by any kind of ideological Islamism. That might have been true then. It may still be true today. The question is whether it will still be true tomorrow. The Times of London runs this story:
“The thing that has changed over the past month is that they now want to kill us,” said Bruno Beschizza, the leader of Synergie, a union to which 40 per cent of officers belong. Action Police, a hardline union, said: “We are in a civil war, orchestrated by radical Islamists.”
Car-burning has become so routine on the estates that it has been eclipsed in news coverage by the violence against police. Sebastian Roche, a sociologist who has published a book on the riots, said that torching a vehicle had become a standard amusement. “There is an apprenticeship of destruction. Kids learn where the petrol tank is, how to make a petrol bomb,” he told The Times. ...
Nicolas Sarkozy, the Interior Minister who hopes to win the presidency next May, has once again taken the offensive, staging raids on the no-go areas and promising no mercy for the thugs who reign there. ... National politics seem far from Clichy, a leafy town of hulking apartment buildings only ten miles but a universe away from the Elysée Palace. However, the Interior Minister is cited by the estate youths as the symbol of their anger. “Sarko wants to wipe us out, clear us off the map,” said Rachid, 19. “They said they would help us after last year, but we’ve got nothing.”
How might an ideological Islamism arise in the French suburbs? Ideologies arise and spread when people start thinking about events in the same way. For example, First Amendment lawyer Greg Greenwald is concerned that Bush followers are developing a "political ideology"; an ideology which although it has no obvious leader is spontaneously springing into existence around the cult personality of the Great Decider.
The anti-government ethos espoused by Barry Goldwater and even Ronald Reagan is wholly unrecognizable in Bush followers, who – at least thus far – have discovered no limits on the powers that ought to be vested in George Bush to enable him to do good on behalf of all of us. And in that regard, people like Michelle Malkin, John Hinderaker, Jonah Goldberg and Hugh Hewitt are not conservatives. They are authoritarian cultists. Their allegiance is not to any principles of government but to strong authority through a single leader. It is hard to describe just how extreme these individuals are. Michelle Malkin is the Heroine of the Right Blogosphere, and she believes in concentration camps. As an avid reader of Michelle’s blog, I really believe that she would be in favor of setting up camps for Muslim-Americans and/or Arab-Americans similar to the ones we had for Japanese-Americans which she praises. Has anyone ever asked her that? Could someone? I don’t mean that she would favor interning them indefinitely - just for the next few decades while the war on terrorism is resolved.
And as excessive as the Bush Administration’s measures have been thus far -- they overtly advocate the right to use war powers against American citizens on American soil even if Congress bans such measures by law -- I am quite certain that people like John Hinderaker, Jonah Goldberg and Jeff Goldstein, to name just a few, are prepared to support far, far more extreme measures than the ones which have been revealed thus far. And while I would not say this for Jeff or perhaps of Jonah, I believe quite firmly that there are no limits – none – that Hinderaker (or Malkin or Hewitt) would have in enthusiastically supporting George Bush no matter how extreme were the measures which he pursued.
But not even Greenwald suggests the existence of a secret organizing cell; a common handbook or training camps to systematically manufacture these Bush-bots. However, the recent discovery of something called Jesus Camp may provide liberals with a smoking gun. At Jesus Camp innocent children — children, mind you — are taught to speak in tongues and worship George Bush. If a Jesus Camp can exist, than can a "political ideology" be far behind? Yet while this may sound overwrought Greenwald's basic point, the idea that conservatives can start thinking about events in similar ways: that is develop an ideology, is probably correct. In fact it would be surprising if they did not. Any honest liberal — and certainly any Marxist — would be the first to admit that they themselves had an ideology; an ideology that once had a beginning, proof that ideologies can arise even where they did not previously exist.
If even conservatives can develop a political ideology, nothing in principle prevents French youth in the banlieus from developing one of their own. Or prevents them from adopting a proven, culturally familiar ideology which has already survived for longer than European civilization. Why should car-burnings fueled by alienation and joblessness not, at some point, become fueled by ideological Islamism? After all Islamism does have secret organizing cells; a common handbook and training camps. The current attacks on French police may or may not be driven by an ideology, but they certainly can be in the future. But if a danger of radical Islamism arising in Europe exists what is the best way to head it off? Some who have argued that the failure to comprehensively garrison Iraq gave the insurgency a start will by a process of reverse reasoning conclude that applying a similarly "tough" policy in the Paris suburbs would be a mistake. After all, what is expected to work in Baghdad surely will not work in France. The Times story continues:
M Sarkozy’s muscular approach is being challenged not just by Socialist opponents. President Chirac and Dominique de Villepin, his Prime Minister, are waging their own, softer, campaign to undermine the colleague whom they do not want to be president. M de Villepin called in community leaders this week and promised to accelerate hundreds of millions of pounds of measures that were promised last autumn to relieve the plight of the immigrant-dominated suburbs.
Some may deride Chirac or de Villepin as appeasers. However the probable truth is that no one has yet figured out how to stop a vigorous ideology in its tracks. The West's own experience with Nazism and Communism shows that both accommodation and confrontation can fuel, rather than retard their growth. There is no magic formula; and perhaps there is no formula. Ideologies often resemble epidemics which must run their course, which neither medicine nor quarantine; nor fire nor water can much reduce. Albert Camus, who watched Nazism at close quarters could find no better comparison to it than a Plague. Martin Asiner in a brilliant review of the book at Amazon describes characters reduced to spectators rather than participants in the vast historical drama they are powerless to affect. In one of literature's greatest ironies the atheist Camus makes his character in the novel, the medical doctor Rieux, into a secular sort of holy man in the face of this mysterious disease.
Bernard Rieux is a doctor who sees his city come apart at the seams, but has no effective means to stop the plague. He administers a drug that is very nearly futile. All that he can do is to make a difference, even to one patient. Of course, he cannot, and this is precisely Camus' point. In a world gone mad where absurdities become the norm, there is the tendency to throw in the towel and meekly accept one's fate. This Rieux refuses to do. As he goes about his business as a doctor, his patients die left and right, but his presence in the front lines create meaning to what seems truly an apocalypse with no meaning. If he cannot offer an effective antidote, he does the next best thing: he dispenses hope, thereby impressing his own meaning.
In the face of complex historical trends we cannot fully control; before ideologies whose rise we cannot stop by stratagem the antidote often is hope. Hope does more than simply allow us to to "impress our own meaning" in some abstract way; its real power is that it helps people to endure, because outlasting a plague is the only certain way that civilizations can survive it. If the West hopes to live it must find a shelter within its own heart from which to resist an Islamism that has outlasted the centuries. “The thing that has changed over the past month is that they now want to kill us,” said French police spokesman Bruno Beschizza. For that reason the thing that must change for everyone in the face of this challenge is that they be determined to survive. Only then can job programs, education or police crackdowns have any effect. Or maybe they will never have any effect; but simply give us something to do until the plague goes away.