Living with Islam

La Peur des barbares: Au-delà du choc des civilisations [Fear of the Barbarians: Beyond the Clash of Civilizations]

by Tzvetan Todorov
Paris: Robert Laffont, 312 pp., €20.00 (paper)

Denny Henry/epa/Corbis
The Dutch politician Geert Wilders at a screening of his anti-Islam film, Fitna , at the National Press Club, Washington, D.C., February 27, 2009
In the general cacophony of more or less (usually less) informed opinions on the challenges posed by radical Islam to liberal values, or, as some would put it, “Western civilization,” a few voices stand out for their clarity, scholarship, and good sense. Some of the most cogent happen to be French. There are several possible reasons for this. France once ruled over a large number of North African Muslims, many of whose descendants now live in France. Also, modern France, more than any other European nation, is based on a set of ideas. French national identity, at least in theory, is defined not by ethnic loyalties but by a political idea of citizenship, an idea that includes acceptance of French language and culture. This encourages an intellectual approach to questions of belonging, which calls for open minds.

Two French scholars, Gilles Kepel and Olivier Roy, have done more than most writers to open the minds of Western readers to the world of Islam. Both have written learned and stimulating books on the politics of the Middle East, as well as on the Islamic presence in contemporary Europe. They agree on many things, but on one big thing in particular: that there is no reason why Muslims should not be loyal democratic European citizens. Where they disagree is on the best way to bring this about. Roy is the more liberal, in that he views attempts by the state to impose cultural values on individual citizens with distrust, while Kepel tends toward the more conventionally French belief that imposing common values is what a state must do.

Kepel’s latest book to appear in English, Beyond Terror and Martyrdom, is a strong critique of what he calls the two “grand narratives” that have created so much havoc in the Middle East, and by extension in Europe too. He uses the word “narrative” not so much in the manner of modish academic theory but more concretely, as a vision projected by modern mass media.

The first grand narrative is that of global jihad, espoused by the likes of Osama bin Laden: a holy war of Muslim martyrs against all infidels. By staging spectacular acts of suicidal mass murder against “Zionists,” “crusaders,” and all their decadent allies, a religious revolution will take place and Islam will rule the world. As Kepel explains very well, this grand narrative soon splintered into several rival narratives. Shiites pitted their version of martyrdom against that of Sunnis. When bin Laden’s murderous spectacles failed to lead to world revolution, other holy warriors, such as Abu Musab al-Suri, also known as “the engineer,” began to favor global acts of terror on a smaller scale: a war of attrition rather than propaganda by violent…

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