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.


1 Nineveh, the ancient capital of the Assyrian empire, is on the Tigris, opposite present-day Mosul, occupied by the Islamic State.

2 Fleeing to Geneva is presumably a reference to Tariq Ramadan, the charismatic professor of Islamic studies and prominent public intellectual. He was born in Switzerland to Egyptian parents, and is the grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood.

3 The Jonah story also appears in somewhat different form in the Qur’an.