Photo: Amine-Rock-Hoovr/Unsplash

Should the West be destroyed? Should it be set on fire and drenched in blood so that it can be rebuilt – or trampled in its ruins? The “antis” who inhabit this space, both historical and imaginary, are divided: between those who fear the end of the world and those who want it, between those who are trying to make it happen and those who are wary of it. There are those who see the West as being on the verge of collapsing. There are messianic ecologists, radical antiracists, populists. Some are nostalgic for the days when the Third World was in vogue; others rouse the people with victimization rhetoric. Boosters of the “old stock.” Reverse racists. In their multitudes, they are starting to act like armies.

No use denying or relativizing it: there is the whiff of a death wish in the total revolution being imagined. Since the West, according to some, is guilty by definition, the demand is no longer for change but, little by little, for destruction, for a return to a barbarity of revenge.

The reasons are diverse. Anger that had long been silent, guilt among “native” Western elites, the end of an exceptional reprieve given to traditional democracies, raging populisms and social media. We must never forget that the internet has stirred up the crowds just as the printing press did centuries ago, or as papyrus did in ancient times. You don’t transform the means of communication without changing the way revolutions are made or the way crowds are stirred up. It’s important to remember that the screens come first and then the guns – not the other way around.

The struggles for the best end of this world thus converge: those revelling in victimhood, antiracists, along with intellectual masochists and professional sceptics, artists proclaiming supremacy or defeat. The wish to change the West is deeply contaminated by the wish to see it die a painful death. And in the exhilaration the suicidal consequences are ignored: the death of the West means your own death, and the death of the hope of living there or going there by small boat or plane, destroying the only space where it is truly possible to send out your cry of anger.

The very fact of defending the West as a space of freedom – admittedly an incomplete and imperfect one – is regarded as blasphemous in this new struggle of classes and races. It is forbidden to say that the West is also the place you flee to when you want to escape the injustice of your country of origin: to escape dictatorship, war, hunger or simply boredom. It is fashionable to say that the West is guilty of everything as a way of defining your own absolute innocence. The West, in the form of a white body, will then be crucified so that we can all be saved: a horizontal trinity, with the two other thieves to the left and right of this giant Christ.

Costly errors and illusions. The West is both guilty and innocent. But killing the guilty does not break the cycle of pain. It simply makes victims and executioners exchange robes. We all know this: a truism we need to remember.

It is urgent to remember that, with so many radicalisms grafted onto today’s anger, we won’t be able to avoid violence if we continue blindly along the same path. The internet and the agitators on social media glibly market as legitimate the vision of burning down the West as a “new purity,” but it’s a mistake that will have grave consequences. In a few decades, we will find ourselves living in these bare fields, forging the barbarity we thought we were denouncing.

Putting the West on trial, Soviet-style, in ease and comfort, costs little when you don’t live in the dictatorship you’ve fled. Conducted by intellectuals from the South in comfortable exile in the West and misguided locals, these show trials are an evasion: devoid of courage, sincerity or utility, they lead nowhere. Why reread the ravings of a journalist who fled his country in the Maghreb 20 years ago, content to denounce the “local” dictatorship without setting foot in it while spending his time castigating the democracies that welcomed him? Living in comfort, such people obey the rule that it is easier to topple the statue of a tyrant in the North, with smartphones flashing, than to topple a real tyrant living in the South. Why even bother to respond to those who accuse you of intellectual servility for simply stating the obvious?

Monstrous when hungry (as an internet user would have it), with its predatory past, unjust, yet attractive, fascinating in the night of the world, surrealistic dream for the migrant, well-pleased with its unfinished democracy, hypocritical about its plunder of resources and its murderous colonial past, oblivious and happy, the West is what it is. It is imperfect and needs to be perfected, not destroyed. Those who dream of destroying the West have found no better dream than the barbarity of revenge, unable to rise above personal slights.

This is what we must remember if we are to avoid giving simplistic and hateful expression to our just anger. Antiracism is a just struggle. It must not become an act of intellectual vandalism or destructiveness in this fragile world. Its goal is not a past that blinds us but a better future. For everyone. Of this I am convinced.

Old Peugeot taxis are regularly negotiating the potholed roads along the North African coast. Entire families are squeezed into these taxis. Despite the squeeze, no one is complaining. On the horizon is the noise of the Mediterranean surf. The sea is grey, impenetrable, hiding its dead. Beyond the horizon is the land of imagination, Europe. The scene contains a boat of Algerian harraga (migrants).1

In recent weeks the number of taxis along these roads has become ever larger. Hundreds of boats are leaving for the imagined land. Meanwhile, the governors in Algiers are busy finding a successor to the immortal Abdelaziz Bouteflika in the forthcoming election. The political leaders in our Algerian “paradise” are too busy containing street demonstrations against the regime to worry about the roads leading to the sea. And so the masses are leaving – including young mothers with babies. It is no longer a matter of delinquents fleeing; it is a matter of “boat people.”

This rush to the sea is also a sign of something else. People are not fleeing because of hunger or war – there were no harraga during the ten-year civil war in the 1990s. People are fleeing the nonsense, the absurdity, the sexual and cultural repression, the contempt for people displayed by the gerontocrats who run the country. Algerians are fleeing in order to breathe, to walk in the streets in the evening, to watch a football match, a pretty woman or a handsome young man – to enjoy themselves. After 5 p.m., in an Algerian village, you have three choices: the mosque, drugs or suicide. That was how a close friend summarized the state of affairs in late 2018 Algeria.

Somewhere else, something better

Three symbolic facts.

First, in all the YouTube videos showing harraga crossing the Mediterranean, as soon as the boat is launched, the migrants start to sing. At the top of their lungs, like supporters of a football team that has won its match, like guests at a party. In Algeria, your throat is always parched, your body is in a straitjacket laced by religion and by the cult of the old bones of the liberation martyrs.

Second, men and women are mingling. The Islamists oppose any mixing of the sexes – whether in a taxi, in an elevator, at a party, in a restaurant or in a school. Here, in a crowded boat, mingling is fine. According to shari‘a, a woman inherits half as much as a man. In the boat, women pay the same fee to the traffickers and risk the same death as the men.

Third, the vest worn by the migrants is orange – a gilet orange. The cost is about €25.

There, afloat on the Mediterranean, between the reality of life in Algeria and the fantasy of Europe, what is the meaning of this migration? What are the Gilets Oranges of the south seeking in the land of the Gilets Jaunes of the north? Algerian journalists have recently been asking the question. In Algeria, France is the totality of the West. What is currently happening in the West, what is visible, is a troubled soul, a depleted pocketbook and concern over the roots of Western culture.

The Gilets Oranges are dreaming of getting away from Algeria; the Gilets Jaunes are comparing their lives with the lives enjoyed by elites in France. It is fascinating to see that the crisis in France is not dissuading the Gilets Oranges. Scenes of streets aflame, tear gas and riots have no dissuasive impact. They may be fleeing unemployment in Algeria only to be unemployed in Europe. They may be exchanging a gilet orange for a gilet jaune. Do they dream of Paris, the fashion capital? There are many ironies as to why Europe, which is obviously suffering, nonetheless makes Algerian migrants dream. There remains the question: Why are so many boats heading north?

There are answers. Algerian migrants are pragmatic. For Gilets Oranges, Europe offers the possibility of Gilets Jaunes able to demonstrate, go where they like, make demands – the Gilets Jaunes are free, while the Gilets Oranges are not. The Gilets Jaunes may not earn much but they are alive; the Gilets Oranges have yet to be born. For an Algerian woman in her gilet orange, a gilet jaune is preferable to the hijab, the burqa, male machismo, prison and the violence of men. In the boat somewhere in the Mediterranean, the harraga can sing; men and women squeezed together can dream. Something that their country refused them.

So how do young Algerians see the future? For them, the future is orange.

Continue reading “The Future is Orange”

Faced with end-of-the-world jihadism, any intellectual identified as “Arab” is afflicted with the Jonah syndrome. Caught between Nineveh and Tyre, between the West and Islamistan.1 What use am I faced with mounting xenophobia and religious intolerance? How can I fight against obscurantism, against those who slit throats? How to resist and change the world?

Jonah took to the sea; he fled. He concluded that his role as envoy of God was at an impasse. End of scene one.

To flee is possible. Faced with the rise of Islamism, many “Arab” intellectuals have chosen the West: object of their jeremiads but place of their security. It is a choice one can make: Jonah abandoned his mission from God and raised the sails of his boat. What can be done against the barbarians who rape, kill, resell women as slaves? Nothing. Jonah took his wife and children and fled via Jaffa to live in some faraway land – or Geneva.2

In the myth, however, there is a second scene. Jonah is guilty of causing a raging storm. If the sea is threatening, it is because someone aboard has drawn this misfortune onto the boat. The sailors draw lots and Jonah’s name appears. He agrees to be thrown into the sea, which then calms. This is the conclusion of some “Arab” intellectuals exiled in the security of the West: they see themselves accused, considered responsible for the present obscurantism and thought to have attracted murderers onto the West’s boat. Some exiles see themselves as responsible for their country of origin even as they flee it. Like Jonah, who fled his country instead of spreading God’s word to the people. There is punishment because the intellectual chose to flee his country instead of enlightening people. Exile, according to the myth, is no solution because your origins, your country’s misery, will catch up with you. To flee a problem is not a solution; it is to carry the problem along with you. The West is a boat on a sea disturbed since September 11. The “Arab” intellectual who has fled will be punished. Either for his cowardice or for his uselessness.

Scene three. Jonah is swallowed by an immense fish (symbol of Jonah immersed in doubt about his mission). There is denial. The “Arab” intellectual in exile transforms himself into a commentator in Paris or a taxi driver in New York. He saves his life; he kills his soul. He chooses to remain eternally in the belly of the fish, but he will suffer. To be an “Arab” intellectual is today an ongoing agony: the jihadists almost always have your surname or your given name.

Scene four. Jonah returns to Nineveh – the “Arab” capital these days – and explains to the “Arab” world that it will be punished if it does not reform. According to the myth, Jonah does return and undertakes the task God gave him. There follows a celestial lesson in humility and the city is spared.

This is a complex biblical fable.3 The questions raised are almost impossible to answer. What good are progressive modern “Arab” intellectuals since Islamism is gaining ground? How can I be useful when barbarism is riding high? Should I go into exile? No. The problem will catch up with me in the 11th arrondissement. Should I stay? They are going to kill me one day. Should I remain quiet? I cannot; I have read too many books. Should I write? Yes. And sketch, and dance, laugh, talk and defend freedom. It is a bit pompous, but these are my tags on the wailing wall. Here is my answer for the time being: we don’t arrive in this world with a Kalashnikov, a beard and “Allah Akbar” on our tongue. One becomes a jihadist over time. By means of black books and ideas, fatwas or frustrations. In other words, via a culture. There is the challenge! Continue to create and offer to the next generation an alternate culture to that of disaster, Islamism and terror. The challenge is cultural and the battle is one of ideas. It is simple: they kill in the name of a book; I defend myself in the name of other books.

This article appeared in French in Le Point, Paris, on January 30, 2015, and was translated for Inroads by John Richards.

Continue reading “The Jonah syndrome”