In a packed event at New York’s 92d Street Y on Thursday, Bernard-Henri Lévy, one of France’s top public intellectuals, called for forces of the liberal Left to unite in confronting the growing threat of violent jihad. In particular, he criticized those who have abandoned internationalist liberalism in favor of opposition to America and Israel, or who draw a distinction between ISIS’s attacks in France and Palestinian attacks against Israelis.
Daily stabbings are a form, or cousin, of beheadings. Beheading without the big weapon. Beheading with the weapon you find. But it is the same thing. Those who stab in Tel Aviv have seen, definitely, the propaganda of ISIS, praising beheading, praising the spilling of blood of Jews because they are Jews. And they have read how the propaganda of ISIS declares a total war on the spirit of cities. And Tel Aviv is like New York, like Paris.
Much of the Western Left has, in his view, abandoned the liberalism that he has been advocated for decades, in favor of simple opposition to Israel and the U.S. While he sympathized with protests against the deaths of civilians in Gaza, at the same time “they never go to the streets to protest” far greater carnage in Syria, or Rwanda, or Darfur—”This is the real scandal.” Lévy recalled his experience at the 2001 World Conference on Racism in Durban, South Africa, which deteriorated into a forum for attacking Israel. Many oppressed groups that had traveled there to have their voices heard were not given the opportunity, he said, because they did not fit the organizers’ radical agenda. “The meeting ended with a crowd of Leftist NGOs shouting against Israel, with the motto, ‘One Jew, One Bullet, One Jew, One Bullet.'” At this point, he understood the profound link between criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism.
Citing the example of Winston Churchill in World War II, Lévy insisted that democracy can fight Islamic fascism without sacrificing civil liberties. “You have to hold the two ropes at the same time,” referring to simultaneously fighting fascism while preserving our liberal internationalism, such as by providing shelter for refugees: “We have to avoid the trap of Mr. Trump and Mrs. Le Pen.” He called for intensified surveillance of people suspected of involvement in terror. In France, Lévy added, it has meant accepting some limits, for example, on preaching Salafism in French mosques. “When it happens, it is stopped immediately,” he said. “And this is a great thing.”
You have the First Amendment, and I love that, I am an advocate of free speech. But sometimes you have free speech that is criminal. Words that are more like bombs. Some opinions that are an appeal to murder, how do you have to consider that?
The event, which was a co-production of the 92d Street Y and the Forum on Law, Culture, and Society of NYU Law School, was presented in conversational format hosted by the Forum’s director (and Tower contributor) Thane Rosenbaum.
Rosenbaum asked Lévy about an op-ed of his published in the Toronto Globe and Mail, where he wrote that the fight against ISIS was a “war that the America of Barack Obama, at least for the moment, seems not to really want to win.” When asked to elaborate, Lévy sharply criticized the Western powers’ reluctance to work with the Kurds in retaking land captured by ISIS. Describing a recent trip he took to the front lines in Iraq, he declared that “it is not an unwinnable war.” In battles he witnessed, ISIS fighters retreated in the face of much more professional and coordinated Kurdish forces. “They are very brave terrorists, but they are cowardly soldiers,” he added. “What I realized,” he said, referring to the current coalition’s aerial campaign, “is that there is not a real will to defeat ISIS.” A more serious effort, he said, would involve empowering Kurdish forces with arms, instruction, and special forces.
Lévy also implicitly criticized the Obama administration’s reluctance to name the enemy in a way that invokes its connection to Islam. “Language is important because it is the only way to draw the line inside Islam… between those who embrace a peaceful and democratic Islam and those who use Islam to justify crime.” He dismissed efforts to either blame Islam inherently for terror, on the one hand, or disassociate Islam from terror, on the other, as forms of “stupidity.”
The key to fighting, he said, is to identify the form of fascism that has become powerful in parts of the Muslim world, and to understand its origins in European fascism.
Jihadism did not fall from the sky. It came from the past. And you cannot explain the fame of Jihadism today if you do not go back to the 1920s. Fascism enflamed Europe, Japan, and the Arab world. You had a wing of Nazism in the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in the late 1920s as a part of this fascist movement. The big difference between Europe and Iran, Syria, Egypt and Palestine, is that in Europe, after the defeat of Nazism, there was work of mourning, and memory and action to eradicate this plague. One of the problems of the Arab world is that the work was not only not done, it was not even begun. It remains in Hamas, it remains in the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Nusra, and al-Qaeda. The last pearl dropped by the oyster of fascism is ISIS.