(Eric Gaillard, Reuters)

When One Religious Extremism Unmasks Another

Johan van der Walt

The resort to states of emergency in response to Islamic extremism reveals Europe’s own Ordo-Liberal extremism. Philosopher and legal theorist Professor Johan van der Walt argues that this form of governance, based on fundamentalist market moralism, can only respond – inadequately – to the symptoms of political violence rather than addressing its causes. He argues that this Ordo-Liberal extremism curtails the possibility of meaningful politics by preventing creative, sensitive and inclusive reinterpretation of current socio-historical conditions. This increasingly leaves Europe to deal despairingly with suicidal levels of social disintegration by resorting to crude and cheap methods of governance licensed by declared and non-declared “states of exception,” which further exacerbate the situation.

Reims, Saturday morning, 14 November
When I woke up on the morning of Saturday 14 November, I found myself in the middle of a national state of emergency. It was the first time that I had been in one since the extended states of emergency called by the apartheid government in South Africa in the 1980s. Looking through a hotel dining room window at the eerily empty main street that leads from the station into the city, I commenced to unpack my thoughts so as to put some order into them and to stop them from circling mindlessly around emotions of shock, dismay, and, no doubt, cruel and vengeful anger. It was precisely to try to put a stop to the pointless and thoughtless emotions of anger and vengefulness to which horrifying bloodshed invariably moves people – as the great René Girard who recently passed away taught us so well – that I began to think more purposefully about the state of emergency to which the whole of France woke up that Saturday morning. What did this state of emergency mean, apart from that which it undoubtedly announced, namely, the suspension of civil liberties and the extension of police powers? France was ready for this curtailment of liberty for the sake of security, claimed Le Figaro confidently three days later (Tuesday, 17 November). On that same day, however, Libération evinced a clearer sense of what was dawning in France with the big black capital letters on its front page: L’ETAT D’URGENCE PERMANENT – A PERMANENT STATE OF EMERGENCY.

The “new” state of emergency, since when and until when?
The immediate background that elicited the assessment of the state of affairs by Libération was of course François Hollande’s extension of the two weeks of emergency called on Friday evening to three months by Monday evening. The larger background was the general sense among more percipient observers that this state of emergency was not going to end in any foreseeable future, even if it were to be recalled after three months, just like it had not begun on that Friday or Tuesday evening, but long before. It had in fact begun so long before that its commencement has become difficult to pinpoint. One would at least have to go back to the introduction of new security legislation in France after the Charlie Hebdo attack in January 2015, short on the heels of the substitution of the Patriot Act with the New Freedom Act through which the unofficial but effective state of emergency was extended in the United States.

I refer to this legislation in France and the United States in the introduction to my recent article “The Literary Exception” in New Perspectives. The article seeks to distil from the work of Giorgio Agamben an argument for transforming the fascination with, and fatal attraction to, states of emergencies in the Western political imagination. Agamben traces this political imagination to the unstable distinction between actuality and potentiality in the political metaphysics that the West inherited from Aristotle. The profound reflection on the institutions of the tumult and the exception in his analysis of the metaphysics of potentiality and actuality provides an incisive and penetrating perspective on the tumultuous times with which the 20th century ended and the 21st began. It is from this profound background perspective that one must also understand his comments on the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris in January 2015, during an interview that Telerama conducted with him earlier this year.[1]

Telerama observes in the interview that France has passed fifteen anti-terrorist acts since 1986, but all of this has not prevented the terror attacks in Paris in January. This observation has surely become exponentially more pertinent in the wake of the attacks of 13 November. How must one explain the evident failure and fallibility of these statutes? Agamben’s response to this question is this: This type of security legislation only facilitates ways of reacting to acts of terror, they do not at all look into and address the causes of these acts. In fact, they create a governmental regime of reacting to consequences instead of governing causes: “La conséquence des politiques ultra-sécuritaires [est un] système qui abandonne toute volonté de gouverner les causes pour n’agir que sur les conséquences.” It is for this same reason that I refer to security legislation as a desperate measure in “The Literary Exception.” Excessive governmental reliance on them surely tells the story of governments that have given up the hope that something more constructive and incisive can be done to govern and marginalise potential threats of terrorist attacks, instead of just reacting to them. Any governmental action that is informed by this despair – this lack of more fundamental transformative and therapeutic aspirations – would necessarily bear the mark of a permanent state of emergency, irrespective of whether and when a state of emergency is actually declared or recalled. Levels of alert may vary over time, but constant alert necessarily becomes the core characteristic of government that has resigned itself to the containment of explosive situations.

Another core feature of such incessantly desperate government is its diminishing capacity for historical self-understanding, that is, its increasing inability and unwillingness to reinterpret itself in view of newly emerging realities that evidently render established codes of common understanding dysfunctional. This is the thought that I wish to elaborate further, in what follows, with reference to the “de-hermeneuticization” that is taking place in France and Europe today.

The Ordo-Liberal “De-hermeneuticization” of Europe
There is of course no such word as “de-hermeneuticization,” but let us bear with it for the sake of an argument that will highlight the increasing resort to technocratic reactions to destructive social developments in contemporary Europe, at the expense of responding to them in ways that seek to understand why they arise so as to possibly reduce the potential and probability of their recurrence in future. My resort to the word “de-hermeneuticization” takes its cue from the profound address given by Navid Kermani on the occasion of his acceptance of the Friedenspreis des Deutschen Buchhandels on 18 October 2015.[2] In his address, Kermani describes the way in which Islamic cultures in many Arabic states have hardened into non-interpretative modernist fundamentalisms that break away from the interpretative traditions of cultural, aesthetic and textual engagement with the Koran that informed earlier Islamic cultures. Kermani stresses that this turn in the thinking of Islam is not restricted to a “sectarian” understanding of Islam that informs the ISIS movement. It is much more pervasive in the Arabic world than we might want to believe. His argument in this regard would seem to corroborate the point I make in “The Literary Exception” regarding the need in Islamic theology for something equivalent to the Pauline suspension of apocalyptic religious inclinations that threaten to derail constructive institutionalisations of forceful religious sentiments. The argument in “The Literary Exception” stresses the need to turn religious concerns with ultimate truth into interpretative concerns with an indefinitely postponed truth or “truth.” It is the indefinite postponement of the moment of “truth” that allows, in the meantime (in the time that remains, as Agamben calls it so beautifully), for the constructive enculturation of both religion and politics, that is, of interpretive religious traditions, on the one hand, and truly secular governments, on the other. No doubt, religion, just like all significant poetry, always also resists its own enculturation and the hermeneutic practices on which this enculturation turns (this is an essential element of my argument regarding the “literary exception”), but as long as it remains sufficiently enlightened about its own contingent and historical textuality, and the inevitability of its textual status, it can play a significant role in the secular resistance to all yearnings – be they religious, be they ideological – for ultimate moments of truth such as is evident in the bizarre fundamentalist conviction regarding a final battle between the army of Mohammed and the  infidel armies of the rest of the world that is a core element of the ISIS movement.[3]

It is, however, not with the de-hermeneuticization of Islamic cultures that I wish to take issue in what follows. I would like to look, instead, at the vast and increasing de-hermeneuticization that has taken root in European societies. This de-hermeneuticization of European societies, I will suggest, provides one with a key insight into the way in which de-hermeneuticized conceptions of Islam have found their way deep enough into the hearts and minds of startling numbers of European citizens to move them to jihadism. Let us begin the short journey into European de-hermeneuticization with the disastrous and bloody confluence of the two de-hermeneuticizations at stake here, the European and the Arabic-Islamic, in Paris, January and November 2015.

François Hollande immediately ordered increased bombing of ISIS in Syria after the massacre in Paris on 13 November. This response evidently suggested the crisis that France is facing has its origins elsewhere. But, Hollande himself could not ignore for long the reality that the problem is not a distant one, but one that comes from within France itself. He was candid enough to observe expressly that the massacres had been committed between French citizens in France: “Nous le savons et c’est cruel de le dire, ce sont des français qui ont tué des autres français.”[4] And, as if this paradox was just too hard to stomach, he did not lose much time to turn to solutions that might make the situations less paradoxical and less contradictory, less indicative of the deep crack that is running through France, namely, the idea of withdrawing French citizenship from anyone with two passports who is convicted of an act of terrorism, even from French citizens born in France.[5] This suggestion allowed him to find some comfort, it seems, in the idea that the problem is after all, related to foreign elements in France that can feasibly be expelled so as to render France more adequately and univocally French again. The move is a symbolic one, but its desperation is glaringly evident for the world to see. The removal of a couple of (or a couple of hundred, if you wish) second passports is surely not going to make any significant dent on the reality of scores of young French citizens who get drawn into radical Islamic fundamentalism today.

France has to square up to the reality of scores of young and no longer so young French citizens who do not feel French and never had a reason to feel French. It has to face the fact of hundreds and thousands or hundreds of thousands of young and old people who have in fact been expelled from France, not by forcing them out of the country, but into ghetto communities that effectively constitute foreign countries in an around the major cities of France, from where they have no hope whatsoever of actually emerging again one day. It is in these communities that Islamic de-hermeneuticization mostly takes root in France today (and in similar communities elsewhere in Europe, notably Belgium; do we not all know the name Molenbeek by now?). These communities happen to be in France and in Europe, but they are surely not part of France or Europe. The response of French politics to what we have come to know as the banlieue-problem from several notorious uprisings over the years has always been to simply contain the problem and preventing it from spreading further. The question of actually integrating these communities into France has often been mooted, also among political elites, but the discussion has never gone anywhere. It is with regard to the evident resignation of French politics in the face of the split between the banlieue and the rest of France that I wish to underline the twofold de-hermeneuticization that ultimately explains the paradox of “des français qui [tuent] des autres français,” the paradox which Hollande believes might be addressed meaningfully by withdrawing a couple of passports.

The one side of this twofold de-hermeneuticization consists in the cynical acceptance of social splits such as the one that increasingly divides France into relatively affluent neighbourhoods, on the one hand, and dismally poor ones, on the other. Hermeneutics does not only concern the faculty of interpretation and re-interpretation, but also the faculty of reinterpretation that might overcome splits and bridge gaps. Societies that simply accept the kind of social disintegration that is conspicuous in so many cities of Europe today, have evidently given up on the imaginative faculty of reinterpreting themselves in the hope of overcoming at least some of their most destructive divisions.

The other side of this de-hermeneuticization takes us to the root of the first. The inability of European societies to reinterpret themselves with the aspiration to overcome their most destructive divisions (divisions that have now evidently become murderous: “ils sont des français qui [tuent] des autres français”) should prompt one to ask serious questions about the Ordo-Liberal economic thinking that has practically reduced European politics to the structural maintenance of a Europe-wide free market economy. Ordo-Liberalism concerns a strand of economic philosophy that emerged in Weimar Germany and largely aimed at reducing the role of the state to the sustenance of fair competition in a free market economic order. One nevertheless fails to come to grips with Ordo-Liberal thinking when one neglects to pay attention to the strict protestant theological moralism on which it pivots. The Ordo-Liberal worldview understands free market competition as the testing ground on which moral integrity will become manifest and rewarded.[6] This order of free competition between virtuous individuals is ordained by God, the Ordo-Liberals believe. They are not interested in the historical circumstances and structural conditions that exclude millions of people from ever entering this order. They are evidently also not bothered by the disastrous anti-social consequences of this exclusion. That, they would seem to think, is just a matter of a sinful and immoral reality for the police to contain as harshly as might be required. A crude religious fundamentalism is at work in this thinking, one that evinces the worst elements of the unforgiving and repressive predestination-doctrine that John Calvin introduced into Christian thinking.

So rampant has this Protestant moralism become in Europe in recent years that it has managed to impose on European governments austerity demands that require them to function like perfectly-sanitized businesses. European Union austerity demands, propagated by Germany and other northern European countries, tell the story of how the moralistic spirit of Ordo-Liberalism came to impose itself on the predominantly Catholic countries of southern Europe. The latter countries have long traditions of relying on morally and politically quite acceptable combinations of state debt and inflationary measures to sustain socio-economic coherence and minimum levels of social equality. The functional synthesis of Protestant Ordo-Liberal competition and Catholic social welfare concerns that took place in Germany after the Second World War and gave rise to a highly efficient social market economy (soziale Marktwirtschaft) [7] never took root in these southern European countries, hence the disastrous impact of the EU imposition of hard Protestant austerity on peoples for whom austerity never constituted a significant virtue and non-austerity (the willingness of the state to incur debt and take inflationary measures) remained a quite functional and morally less vindictive version of sustaining social cohesion.

This is the background of the woes that plagued the French economy in recent years. Against this background of imposed austerity on an economy not suited for it, the huge investments that would have to be made if France would want to reinterpret itself so as to respond constructively and imaginatively to its festering exclusions, divisions and splits, are evidently unthinkable. But, the events of the last weeks have shown that this Ordo-Liberal imposition may itself be beginning to crack up under the weight of its own extremism. For it has suddenly come to light that the raised policing levels required to contain and fence off the festering pits of God-ordained damnation around its major cities cannot be reconciled with the austerity demands that Ordo-Liberal economic thinking has imposed on European Member States. The massacre in Paris on the evening of 13 November suddenly brought Hollande to confront the fact that his security forces are hopelessly understaffed and he was quick to announce the appointment of almost 10 000 police and other security personnel.[8] Equally quick was Jean-Luc Mélenchon to observe astutely that it took a massacre to move Holland to admit to the mistake of the debilitating austerity demands imposed on France by Brussels.[9]

Is it ironic, or just to be expected, that the extremism of one religious de-hermeneuticization would finally come to unmask the extremism of another? For it is surely an extremist and fundamentalist economic theology that would not allow its holy free market and fair competition principles to be re-interpreted in view of the glaring social disintegration that is taking place right under its nose. And, this extremist and fundamentalist economic theology evidently becomes a suicidal extremism when it goes so far as to undermine the very police force on which it has to rely so heavily to prevent this social-disintegration from blowing up in its face.

State of Emergency – a Design for Cheap Policing?
This mutation of Ordo-Liberalism from an extremist fundamentalism into a suicidal extremism may have taken place by some design. For if you let things deteriorate to the point where “des français [tuent] des autres français,” and can be expected to do so again, you have created a justification for the cheap method of policing that goes by the name of “state of emergency.” For this is what a state of emergency means after all, to return to the question that I asked myself in Reims on 14 November. It effectively licences a relatively small number of police officers to do fast and cheaply what a much bigger police force would have had to do painstakingly and at a much higher cost, were they bound to the regular fundamental rights provisions of a constitutional state. This is indeed why pacts between extreme forms of market liberalism and totalitarian political regimes are so common, as Agamben also notes well in the Telerama interview. It is understandable and surely justifiable that Hollande called a state of emergency after the terrorist attacks in Paris on 13 November. It may even be justifiable to have extended this state of emergency from two weeks to three months (although some justifiable doubt already raises its head here). The question is only whether he is going to use this state of emergency as an exceptional measure that will allow him to commence with the process of rebuilding an adequate regular police force that can cope with the high policing demands of his socially-disintegrating cities under regular rule of law conditions, or whether this is indeed just the beginning of a permanent (non-exceptional) state of emergency and the end of constitutional democracy in France. Whether he might not only restore constitutional democracy but also use this break from the European “stability pact” as the beginning of a more incisive reconstruction of social democracy in France is a question that one cannot even dream to ask here.

The Ordo-Liberal Distortion of Pauline theology
The story of Germany’s post-war social market economy reflects a phase of Ordo-Liberal thinking that could reinterpret itself in view of pressing socio-historical exigencies. In this respect, German post-war Ordo-Liberalism had certainly not completely lost its hermeneutic capacity for understanding itself differently in the course of time (a core hermeneutic capacity according to Gadamer, for whom human understanding always consists in understanding differently – “Es genügt zu sagen, dass man anders versteht, wenn man überhaupt versteht.[10] The filtered Ordo-Liberalism that emerged from the ideology of European market integration has evidently lost this capacity for renewed contextual self-understanding; hence its historically blind exportation of austerity demands to countries for which these demands are ill-suited. The result of this loss of hermeneutic capacity is a peculiar mutation of the Pauline message to the early Christian communities that salvation should not be sought in this world, and, consequently, of the Augustinian theology that postponed God’s final judgment and the ultimate separation of good and evil to the end of time. It effectively brought that judgment forward by endorsing a world in which the separate destinies of the blessed and the damned have already become glaringly visible. Ordo-Liberalism would seem to have taken a short cut to the end of time that bypassed “the time that remains.” They seem to have turned divine destination – incomprehensible and unknown to all mortals and for this reason the guarantee for an irreducible equality and horizontality among them (to invoke here Nancy’s beautiful phrase “l’horizontalité des morts”)[11] into a hierarchical pre-destination. Thus would the early Christian ethic of living under the law as if not living under the law – the ὡς μὴ that Agamben explores so brilliantly in The Time that Remains – turn into an ethic in which the law, understood as an already established system of vested patrimonial rights and entitlements, becomes the telling measure of salvation and damnation.

Re-hermeneuticization and the Return of the Political
My engagement with Agamben’s thought in “The Literary Exception” is guided by the concern with the possibility of returning to the world and the return of the world that his contemplation of Pauline theology in The Time that Remains offers us. Pauline theology may appear to have contemplated a religious withdrawal from the world, but Agamben’s reading of this theology shows that it quite to the contrary – and perhaps quite paradoxically – allowed for the sustenance of the world. As the interview with Telerama also shows clearly, Agamben evidently endorses this Pauline theology from the perspective of an Arendtian understanding of political liberty as the fundamental human capacity to liberate itself from the necessity of economic need for the sake of the freedom to invent and create new worlds. The reduction of politics to technocratic government, that is, to the governance of consequences and not of causes, as Agamben puts, is the sure sign of an age that has lost its political liberty. It is the sure sign of the reduction of political imagination to the management of currently dominant conceptions of material need and necessity. The question that Agamben prompts us to ask is whether Europe can still step back from the apocalyptic age of technocracy that it seems to be entering.

The technocratic reduction of the political evidently considers existing socio-economic arrangements predestined realities that cannot be reinterpreted, re-imagined and changed. They can at best be managed, controlled and repressed until the end of time, if needs be, by resorting to and sustaining the notion of permanent emergency. Extended states of emergency are indeed the ultimate technocratic governmental response and the hallmark of de-hermeneuticized societies that no longer endeavour to understand and reinterpret themselves. A future that might be different is no longer possible under these conditions. That is why the technocratic management of things until the end of time already constitutes that end of time. And that is why one can plausibly talk about entering an age of apocalyptic technocracy, as I do above, without at all having to invoke the pending end of life on planet earth. To the contrary, a not too distant century may well come to induce prayer that some turn of fate may still prevent us from exporting this ugly brutality to all corners of the universe.

It is against this bleak background that the three phases of the demise of constitutional democracy in our time must be understood: the rise of explosive levels of democratic inequality that call for mass surveillance; the demise of privacy guarantees consequent to raised levels of surveillance; and the demise of civil liberty guarantees concomitant to the market demand for the cheapest possible policing. These are the extremes to which an extremist conception of economic liberty have lead Europe. This whole constellation of extremist economic libertarianism justifies itself today in view of the religious extremism that it has to combat. Let us nevertheless not remain oblivious to the way in which the former extremism wittingly or unwittingly invited the latter and can now rely on it as its permanent justification.

Johan van der Walt is Professor of Philosophy of Law at the University of Luxembourg. I wish to thank Sibylle van der Walt and Clémentine Boulanger for respectively bringing to my attention the address of Navid Kermani and the Telerama interview with Agamben on which this piece relies heavily. Many thanks are also due to Benjamin Tallis and Mike Wilkenson for poignant comments on a previous draft which prompted me to rewrite some parts incisively. Remaining failures of understanding and reasoning I of course take strictly for my account.

[1] See http://www.telerama.fr/medias/les-francais-doivent-se-battre-contre-le-projet-d-une-enieme-loi-contre-le-terrorisme-giorgio-agamben,121729.php#TbWTBwIAgdr1RKbw.01

[2] See http://www.faz.net/aktuell/feuilleton/debatten/kermanis-friedenspreis-rede-jacques-mourad-und-die-liebe-in-syrien-13863150.html

[3] See the observations in this regard of the French journalist Nicolas Hénin in “I was held hostage by Isis. They fear our unity more than our airstrikes,” The Guardian, 16 November 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/nov/16/isis-bombs-hostage-syria-islamic-state-paris-attacks, as well as the poignant comment by Frankie Boyle “Isis wants an insane, medieval race war – and we’ve decided to give them one,” The Guardian, 4 December 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/dec/04/isis-wants-an-insane-medieval-race-war-and-weve-decided-to-give-them-one

[4] See “L’Ere de la Guerre,” Libération, 17 November, p 2

[5] See “Nationalité: les déchus de Holland”, Libération, 18 November, p 12-13

[6] See Philip Manow, “Ordoliberalismus als Ökonomische Ordnungstheologie,” Leviathan 29, no. 2 (2001): 179–198; Oles Andriychuk, “Rediscovering the Spirit of Competition – On the Normative Value of the Competitive Process”, European Competition Journal, 6, no. 3, 2010: 575-610

[7] See in this regard Christian Joerges “Europa nach dem Ordoliberalismus: Eine Philippika.” Postneoliberale Rechtsordnung? Suchprozesse in der Krise 43, no. 4 (2010): 394–406.

[8] See “Démesure d’urgence à Versailles” Libération 17 November, 4-5.

[9] See his blog “Reconstruire l’État”, 24 November 2015, http://melenchon.fr/2015/11/24/reconstruire-letat/

[10] See Gadamer Wahrheit und Methode (1975) 280

[11] See Nancy Corpus 1992, 49

  • See also Johan van der Walt’s article The Literary Exception: Reflections on Agamben’s “Liberal Democratic” Political Theology and the Religious Destabilisation of the Political in our Time (full pdf article) published in New Perspectives 1/2015.