Three centuries ago, God died; enlightened materialist philosophers killed Him.
There has not been nearly enough time for the consequences to become apparent to everybody; too much is at stake philosophically, too many institutional interests are threatened, too much human psychology must be overcome, and, for at least the past hundred and fifty years, too many individual and group identity issues have become involved.
Nietzsche identified the phenomenon and named it, but he had little to say about its underlying causes; and, though he did say that it could take ages, he never actually predicted how long it would be before the Divine corpus finally and definitively decomposed.
Now we are starting to figure the time frame out. God has already gone missing in what Donald Rumsfeld called “the old Europe”; in North America and Australasia a similar process is underway, though at a slower pace.
In the new Europe, thanks to Communism, God had long been a dead letter in enlightened circles. Not much has changed since Communism’s demise except that the more benighted sectors of eastern European societies are now more emboldened in flaunting their backwardness.
In Latin America and other developing Third World regions, the dead God is also in various stages of decomposition – particularly in urban areas. In the Far East, God was never much of a factor in the first place.
This does not mean that atheism is winning out over theism in a protracted world-historical battle; theism won that battle centuries ago. Because the arguments can be interesting, and because the losing side refuses to concede defeat, it keeps getting refought. But theism’s chances of ever coming out on top are about the same as the UK’s chances of recovering its North American colonies.
Theism’s future, therefore, is not refutation, but indifference. It was indifference that overtook the pagan religions of Greek and Roman antiquity, and that allowed Christianity to supersede them. Paganism disappeared because the old gods no longer mattered.
The Gods of the religions that emerged in the Axial Age are now becoming similarly irrelevant. This is not yet evident to everyone; far from it. But it is happening; indeed, it has already largely happened. Believers abound, but true belief has largely given way to self-deception. Faith is no longer about God and godliness, not really; it is about the psychological, social and political condition of believers themselves.
However archaic mentalities seldom vanish completely; and when they do, it takes more time than has elapsed since true belief became morally and intellectually impossible.
And so, within communities shaped by the so-called world religions — not just the Abrahamic ones (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), but also the religions of India and Southeast and East Asia — there remain dark recesses in which the seeds of true belief survive. They mostly lay dormant.
Lately, though, within one or two corners of the Abrahamic fold, circumstances have come together in ways that enable some of those seeds to germinate. The consequences can be monstrous.
Apart from a few bizarre eruptions of godly savagery in remote quarters of central Africa, the world has so far largely been spared from having to deal with ravages perpetrated by monsters grown from seeds left over by Christianity.
This is an historical anomaly. Christian true believers were a scourge upon the earth in the centuries that separated pagan tolerance from the dawn of the liberal age.
Liberal tolerance was a creature of the intellectual and political ferment that led to revolutionary upheavals in the Netherlands and in seventeenth century England. It came to fruition during the Enlightenment and in the revolutions enlightened thinkers inspired in Britain’s North American colonies and in France.
With more than a little disingenuousness, liberal tolerance is what Western leaders and corporate media pundits have been celebrating in the aftermath of the Islamist attacks last week in Paris on the offices of Charlie Hebdo and on a Kosher supermarket near the Porte de Vincennes.
Some of the celebrating reeks of hypocrisy, but the ideals being celebrated rank among humanity’s greatest achievements. That more than two million people came out into the streets of Paris to demonstrate for tolerance was one of the very few good things that has happened so far this century.
Too bad, though, that, in Europe today and also in the United States, the line between defending tolerance and attacking Muslim communities is easily crossed, and that anti-Jewish violence has again returned to European soil. It isn’t all the dead God’s fault, but a lot of it is.
Judaism has been more blameworthy in the past hundred years than at any time since the destruction of the Second Temple, but its consequences too have been fairly benign.
Jews were excluded from political life throughout Christendom. They fared better in Muslim lands, but there too, they occupied subaltern positions. For more than a millennium and a half, Jews were therefore in no position to enforce intolerance outside their own communities.
Neither did they have any reason to perpetrate atrocities or spread terror. Quite the contrary, they had every reason to avoid even the appearance of doing anything of the sort. Claims that they did – that, for example, they poisoned well water or stole and sacrificed Christian babies – were used as pretexts for visiting unimaginable horrors upon them.
The Zionist movement produced its share of atrocities over the years, and Zionist terrorism — directed against the British and against indigenous Palestinians — was instrumental in the struggle for Israeli statehood.
But Judaism was not to blame. In its early years, Zionism was an entirely secular colonial project; its relations to Judaism were sometimes hostile and always attenuated.
Before the Second World War, most strains of Orthodox Judaism were expressly anti-Zionist for age-old theological reasons, and most Reform Jews were opposed for liberal theological reasons. Also many leading Zionists were non- or anti-religious.
It was only after the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 and then, with greater intensity, in the aftermath of the 1967 Six Day War that nationalist and religious elements within Israeli society, and in Jewish communities abroad, began to fuse.
Jewish nationalism joined with religious fervor – or, in this case, more likely, a religiously inflected form of identity politics – is rife in today’s settler movement. In the United States and elsewhere, some of Israel’s most perfervid backers are, if anything, even more ardent.
But even were Jewish terrorists, whether true believers or just unusually militant ethnocrats, to cross the line, don’t expect the atrocities they perpetrate to cause millions to turn out in the streets of Paris or London or New York.
The general public in Western countries will not be affected; Palestinians and others of Muslim heritage will bear the brunt alone, and most Americans and Europeans will hardly care.
It is different with Muslims. Let a few of their co-religionists perpetrate horrendous crimes in the name of the dead God and his Prophet, and Americans and Europeans jump on the chance to blame the whole lot.
The irony is palpable.
Muslims in Muslim lands could have terrorized Jews and other “infidel” communities as much as they pleased; they could have been as viciously intolerant as their Christian counterparts. But, for the most part, such things were not done in the Islamic world. Radical Islamists have to search hard for precedents to emulate.
This may be news to the West’s burgeoning population of Islamophobes, but “clash of civilizations” theorists know better. They know too how much more advanced Islamic societies were in comparison to the societies of Christendom throughout the Middle Ages and, indeed, until well into the modern era.
But then, according to the story they tell, the Christian West (and maybe the Christian East as well, though to a lesser extent) tapped into aspects of their Christian – or, as polite society nowadays prefers, their Judeo-Christian – heritage.
Then, we are told, Muslims were left standing in the dust, and they have been nurturing an inferiority complex ever since. It was only a matter of time before they would lash out.
A collective inferiority complex? Could clash of civilization theorists have read too much Adlerian psychoanalysis? They certainly didn’t read too much history.
To hear them tell it, to understand why the “Judeo-Christian” West came to dominate the Muslim East, we can forget about the infusion of wealth from the New World – made possible, in large part, by the extermination of indigenous populations. And we can forget about the Atlantic slave trade.
Above all, we can forget about the wealth-generating consequences of the capitalist mode of production — based, as it is, on the relentless exploitation of labor.
Capitalism emerged in Europe; it was what enabled today’s developed economies to develop. For reasons Marx explained long ago, its historical mission has always been to develop productive forces to such an extent that, for the first time in human history, a leap into “the realm of freedom” becomes possible.
But, as Marx also made plain, at the level of lived experience, the capitalist way of organizing the economic sphere has been, and continues to be, a very mixed blessing.
Clash of civilization theorists could care less about all this. What matters to them are just the purported differences between two mutually hostile “civilizations,” grounded in differences between Islam and the other Abrahamic faiths.
Never mind that the Muslim world managed to remain humane and tolerant for centuries, even as its purported inferiority complex festered; or that it was only when Britain and France and other European powers began to scramble for colonies in Africa and the Near East that the decline that clash of civilization theorists gloat over became salient.
When the European powers realized how important Middle Eastern oil would be in their imperial designs, the decline accelerated. Still, all might have been well had the United States not jumped into the fray after World War I and more or less taken it over after World War II.
Uncle Sam made sure that the peoples of the Middle East would be ruled by compliant – and corrupt – dictatorships. With the American government and American corporations running the show, left-leaning secular political forces never had a chance.
As in other parts of the Third World, nationalist self-assertion was out; abject servility became the order of the day.
Then Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor, got a bright idea: get the Soviet Union bogged down in Afghanistan, like the United States had been in Vietnam. All that was needed, he realized, was guns and money enough to cause the seeds left over from the days before God died to germinate and flourish in Afghanistan’s remotest regions. His strategy worked – against the USSR.
Carter’s successors carried it on, especially after Iran was “lost” to a different shade of religious fanaticism. Why not add godly zealotry to the arsenal the United States was already deploying against progressive (not just Communist) and nationalist movements throughout the Muslim world?
Not unrelatedly, the Israelis decided, around the same time, that a good way to undermine the Palestinian resistance movement led by Yasser Arafat would be to facilitate the rise of Hamas, an Islamist alternative to the Palestine Liberation Organization.
It didn’t take long for the Americans and the Israelis to lose control of what they had started. The consequences never stop coming; the events in Paris last week are only the latest in a long line.
And yet American and European leaders keep making the problem worse. Are they doing it deliberately – perhaps because the ruling classes of the West welcome excuses for surveilling everybody and everything or because they thrive on perpetual war? Time will tell. The one sure thing is that they keep on feeding the monsters they created.
They couldn’t do it, though, without Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich Gulf states where the news of God’s death has never entirely registered.
It was in those sparsely populated desert regions, where civilization, Islamic or otherwise, had barely penetrated, that “fundamentalist” Islam, Wahhabism, was born three centuries ago.
At first, it was a strictly local phenomenon; to the outside world, insofar as anyone was aware, it seemed nothing more than a harmless throwback to archaic modes of thought.
Then, with the discovery of oil and the realization of its strategic importance, the British and the Americans began throwing money at local Wahhabi notables whom they recruited to serve as functional equivalents of colonial administrators.
It was a recipe for disaster – concoct a state out of backward desert tribes in the grip of an archaic strain of Islamic theology, accord them military protection, arm them to the hilt, and then supply them with limitless wealth.
What better breeding ground could there be for religious fanaticism to grow into a worldwide menace?
Wahhabi ideology, like other atavistic religious tendencies, has a puritanical streak. Its adherents are therefore disposed to abhor hypocrisy and corruption.
This is why relations between the most militant Islamist groups, like Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic State, on the one hand, and Saudi and Gulf state elites, on the other, are ambivalent, at best.
The Saudi royal family is terrified that their co-thinkers will overthrow them in the name of the ideology they both espouse, and that they and their Gulf state counterparts sustain. They are right to worry; this is precisely what radical Islamists want.
What They Have Done
Radical Islamism was born and bred in Saudi Arabia, America’s favorite Middle Eastern country outside Israel. What the Saudis want is to hold on to their power and wealth. Their bastard offspring, the radical Islamists now terrorizing the world, would rather do them in in the name of the ideology they share; their first goal is to kill the father.
An outside observer might also conclude that they want to do the world’s Muslims in as well – the ones living in majority Muslim countries, and the ones living in the West.
They have certainly done Muslims no favors.
That outside observer could also point out how, in much the way that Brzezinski and his successors got benighted Islamists to do the dirty work for them, radical Islamists today get “enlightened’ Westerners to do theirs.
On 9/11, Al Qaida showed the way: by attacking centers but also icons of American economic and military power, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, they caused America to do grave harm to itself – militarily, economically, and morally.
Al Qaida made George Bush and Dick Cheney – and all those troops that no one dares speak ill of — unwitting but highly effective recruiting agents for itself and its successors.
And it caused America’s latent Islamophobia to blossom forth.
For historical reasons having mainly to do with the vicissitudes of European colonialism, Europe’s Islamophobia was never very latent; it too blossomed forth in due course.
In the nearly fourteen years that have elapsed since 9/11, a new generation of radical Islamists learned how to achieve similar results more efficiently.
France is their latest Western victim, and apparently their most spectacular success.
Apparently under the aegis of Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, three lost souls, the Kouachi brothers and Amedy Coulibaly, along with whoever else was working with them, achieved what Osama Bin Laden and his cohort achieved at far greater expense and with far more planning and effort: they struck a nerve.
They assaulted France’s image of itself as a land of Enlightenment values.
According to the official line, it is secularism (laïcisme) and republicanism that make France what it is. Staging atrocities at the Charlie Hebdo offices and at a Kosher supermarket is a way, symbolically, of saying fie on that, just as surely as going after symbols (and more!) of American military and economic power is a way of showing that the American empire can be taken on and defeated.
Never mind that France’s self-representations are more than a little exaggerated and, in particular, that, by American standards or even by the looser standards of other European countries, France’s record on protecting offensive speech barely merits a passing grade.
It is ancient history, the year was 1970, but Charlie Hebdo itself is a case in point. It owes its existence to the suppression of the satirical magazine that preceded it, Hara-Kiri. Charlie Hebdo’s ancestor’s offense was to have published a title that failed to treat the death of Charles de Gaulle with the gravity that France’s Interior Minister thought it deserved.
It has only gotten worse. Nowadays, in France, it is as if what is deemed fit to print or otherwise express is determined by a panel of busybody goodie goodies of the kind that write hate speech codes for American campuses. The difference is that in the United States Zionists are treated with a tad less deference and Muslims get a tad more respect.
In France today it is hard even to speak out in favor of the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement or to hold public rallies in defense of Palestinian rights.
On the other hand, French governments in recent years have been more than a little eager to accommodate Israeli efforts to strike fear in the hearts of French Jews. The Israelis want them to emigrate to the Promised Land for the same reason that they wanted Russian Jews to come to Israel in the eighties: because they need bodies.
With all those fertile Arabs in their midst, they need Jews to counter the Palestinians’ “demographic bomb.”
One would think that a proud republican France would vehemently object to Israeli efforts to encourage French citizens to emigrate. But never mind that. As long as it is all the Arabs’ fault, the Land of Enlightenment is fine with it.
France’s Socialist government even had synagogues cancel Sabbath services for the first time, they loudly proclaimed, since World War II. Somehow the French state, which could play host the next day to some forty world leaders, many of them reviled miscreants, could not protect synagogues from “terrorist” (read “Muslim”) attacks.
What a motley collection of world leaders they were. At least President Obama had the decency to stay away. One would like to think that, as the Commander-in-Chief of America’s war on whistleblowers, and in light of his record on ordering assassinations of journalists in Yemen and elsewhere in the Middle East, that he was too embarrassed to show up. If so, he has grown a notch or two morally since the day he accepted the Nobel Prize for Peace.
No one has claimed that security considerations kept him away. But it was security reasons, they say, that forced the Grand Synagogue of Paris to call off Sabbath services.
Then somehow, like the oil whose miraculous appearance Chanukah commemorates, security suddenly materialized – enough for François Hollande and Benjamin Netanyahu to meet in the Grand Synagogue Sunday night.
Divine intervention? Or did someone decide that their meeting would serve the cause, just as closing the Grand Synagogue down the day before had done?
One can see the slogan coming — “Save French Jewry.” Netanyahu thinks Israel needs a French Brezhnev, someone who could be prevailed upon to let his people go — to help ethnically cleanse Palestine. Hollande is unlikely to play that role; there is no percentage in it for him or for the French ruling class. But you wouldn’t know it from events last week.
And if you watched CNN or read The New York Times, you wouldn’t know either that anti-Semitism is not the problem.
Real anti-Semitism, the genuine article, was practically invented in France towards the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. It survived and flourished there until at least the end of the Vichy period. By now, though, it is practically a dead letter.
Of course, just as atavistic religious mentalities survive in retrograde places, true anti-Semitism survives too – even in countries, like France, that have generally moved on.
But, for the most part, anti-Jewish hostility, and violence against Jews today, in France and elsewhere in Western Europe, is a different phenomenon. It is a by-product of Western machinations in the Middle East and other historically Muslim lands.
Vichy lives on in the hearts and minds of many French people – but Muslims are the new Jews. It is much the same in Germany and throughout Europe, where the specter of fascism again haunts the continent.
In the United States, the most rabid Zionists are the ones towing a fascist line – reconfiguring anti-Semitic tropes and using them against Muslims.
As in the United States, the proto-fascist Right in France and Germany and elsewhere in Europe has exchanged anti-Semitism for Islamophobia. Remarkable as it would have seemed decades ago, the fascist mind is now, if anything, philo-Semitic. Ironically, this is one of the very few fortunate consequences for Israeli and world Jewry of Zionism’s colonial project in Palestine and its identification with the West’s, especially America’s, imperial designs.
There has been plenty of attention paid to the role Christian anti-Judaism played in the rise of anti-Semitism, and also to how it functioned, as the great German Social Democrat August Bebel famously put it, as “the socialism of fools.”
Connections between rightwing politics and anti-Semitism, from even before the era of the Dreyfus Affair, have also been much discussed.
Throughout Europe and wherever European ideas held sway, Jewish emancipation, one of the many glories of the Revolution in France, was identified with progress and modernity – in other words, with the Left – regardless of the political sympathies of individual Jews.
This has changed in recent years, thanks to Israel’s role in world politics and the ways it keeps Palestinians and other historically Muslim peoples down.
In Europe, as much as in the United States where low-Church Protestant dispensationalist theology also plays a role, the Right has learned to stop worrying about Jews and to love the so-called Jewish state.
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls would do well to bear this in mind before he endorses the idea that, after the atrocities radical Islamists committed in Paris, the time has come to declare war on radical Islam.
So should Barack Obama before he, yet again, lets the French ignite a spark that bursts into a conflagration that he “leads from behind.” We know what happened the last time he did that: how much death and devastation he and his “humanitarian” advisors brought to Libya, further destabilizing a region already broken by almost a decade and a half of Bush-Obama depredations.
But instead of coming to its senses, France is calling out the troops, more than ten thousand of them – to guard “sensitive targets” including Jewish schools but not, it seems, Islamic communities which really are in danger.
And Obama is calling for a summit to be held in Washington on how the next stage in George Bush’s “global war on terror” should go. If the past is any guide, expect it to go the wrong way – with more surveillance, more infringements of basic rights and liberties and more war.
It happens with the regularity of a law of nature: Islamists commit an atrocity that strikes a nerve in the West, and the West responds self-righteously and hypocritically and in ways that make the problem worse.
Remember what George Bush told Congress after 9/11: “they” hate “us” because they hate our freedoms and our democracy. Not a word about what we have done to them, and continue to do.
Now it seems that graduates of Sciences Po and the ENA (l’École Nationale d’Administration) have internalized the Bush worldview. For all their vaunted intellectual depth and knowledge of the world, they are no wiser than Lindsey Graham or John McCain.
How much safer everyone would be – French Jews as much as everyone else in France – were the French government to make sure, as best they can, that French Muslims will be protected from the pogroms the hard Right is itching to unleash.
And how much better off the world would be were Western countries to acknowledge the legitimacy of the grievances that radical Islamists feed upon, and to correct them at their source.
A Concluding, Unscientific Conspiracy Theory
What then do radical Islamists want beyond ridding the Muslim world of its corrupt leaders?
The story we hear in corporate media is that the terrorists are just crazy violent types – either because violence is integral to Islam or because of that inferiority complex Muslims have endured for so long.
And since frightening citizens into accepting whatever their governments do or say seems to be what their sponsors want them to do, self-declared terror experts, working as government and media consultants, tell us that Western Muslims are especially susceptible to radical Islam’s temptations because they comprise an “underclass” that Muslim preachers prey upon.
There is some truth in this. Ruling circles in the West succeeded in causing the Left to fall into a seemingly endless eclipse, taking moral and social progress off the agenda, and putting many of the gains of the past in jeopardy. Without any prospect of progress, all that is left to hope for is pie in the sky.
And the neoliberal policies Western capitalist have imposed upon the world have pushed ever larger numbers of people into underclass status. In Europe more than the United States, the life prospects of young Muslims have suffered grievously on this account.
But there is nothing wrong with the life prospects of the leaders of the organizations that train the perpetrators of radical Islamist atrocities and that then orchestrate the violence. Surely, they are not just acting out. What, then, are they doing it for?
Can they be taken at their word? Could it be that they really want not just to overthrow corrupt rulers in Muslim lands, but also the state system itself. Do they really think that they can replace the modern state with a Caliphate – in other words, with institutional structures similar to those that governed Muslim regions more than a thousand years ago?
To hear the pundits tell it on CNN and Fox News, this is exactly what they want. Worse still, they seek world domination. What a limited imagination those pundits have – the best they can do is dust off Cold War talking points about the Communist menace.
It is clear where this is going: Notre Dame will be turned into a mosque; French law will give way to sharia law, and the Fifth Republic will be declared finished as France is governed from Baghdad or Damascus. In time, the United States will follow – pourquoi pas?
CNN might as well have hired Marine le Pen or, better still, one of her less circumspect fascisant co-thinkers. Fox, of course, already has them on staff.
One thing is for certain: violent Islamism is a godsend for the fear-mongers who keep the world safe for the fraction of the one percent who actually benefit from our otherwise wretched status quo.
Conspiracy theories are based on what logicians call “abduction,” inferences to the best explanation. They fail, when they do, because they don’t take all the relevant facts into account – including the absence of evidence for the existence of conspiracies.
9/11 gave rise to conspiracy theories galore; they fell short not just because the only good case for them comes from reflecting on who benefited, but also because they failed to take the full measure of the incompetence of America’s national security state into account.
It would be child’s play for a good conspiracy theorist to make the case that the Kouachi brothers and Amedy Coulibaly were working for Israeli intelligence or le Front National or maybe even the CIA.
If not, then they, and those like them, really are just whacked out crazy violent types desperate enough to place themselves in thrall to atavistic clerics intent on reversing centuries of moral and intellectual progress.
A conspiracy theory might seem compelling because the alternative is hard to believe three centuries after the death of God. Nevertheless, the alternative is almost certainly true.
As Malcolm X famously said of violence in America after the Kennedy assassination: “the chickens are coming home to roost.” This is how it is now, but on a global scale. After centuries of Western domination of the Muslim world, the chickens are back to a degree that was unimaginable only a few decades ago.
Therefore there is indeed much to fear. But CNN and the others don’t quite name the real danger. In the clash of stupidities taking place in our time, the inadvertent (or possibly intentional) obtuseness of Obama and Hollande and Cameron and the rest is scarier by far than anything Al Qaida in any of its incarnations or the Islamic State, for all its savage brutality, can contrive.
The situation is bad and it is about to become worse still. Never has the urgency of a radical change of course been more obvious. And if the events of the past week are any indication, never has the obvious been so steadfastly ignored.
ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).