WITH charming Gallic pride – yet undoubted conviction – Moroccan-born Phillipe-Joseph Salazar refers to the French way of being, their values and habits of mind, not as a “culture” but a “civilisation”. If at first glance this seems a claim to an imperious or unwarranted exclusivity – and he does assert a special case for a nation that achieved a supremacy of secular reason in the convulsive events of 1789 – it is less self-congratulatory than testing.
And the testing challenge is that the French especially – and the rest of us, should we aspire to enlightened intelligence – have a responsibility to weigh the troubled world with clear-headed and respectful rationality.
The Distinguished Professor of Rhetoric at UCT and former director in Rhetoric and Democracy at Jacques Derrida’s foundation, College International de Philosophie in Paris, argues that this quality is no more urgently required than in the appraisal of – and what he believes is the necessary engagement with – the Islamic State.
Reason, he says, has been signally absent in the West’s woefully misguided appreciation of what is routinely regarded as the aberrant psychosis, or arch-radical religious apostasy, of Syria’s fearsome Islamic rebellion.
If Salazar’s pedigree as a thinker is undoubted – he studied under luminaries of the stature of Emmanuel Levinas, Roland Barthes, Marc Fumaroli and Louis Althusser – it is his more recent intensive, and dispassionate, engagement with masses of primary material that informs his probing examination of the IS.
The result is the book, Paroles Armées, Comprendre et Combatte la Propagande Terroriste (Armed Lyrics, Understanding and Combatting Terrorist Propaganda) which, on November 12, won France’s prestigious Prix Bristol des Lumières.
It is described as an accurate, richly documented work that “deconstructs the new challenges of the argumentative power of jihadism”, highlighting “collective and institutional weaknesses in the evaluation of violent persuasion strategies”.
In the immediate shadow of the Paris attacks, Salazar’s work represents a sobering dose of reason. It has been acknowledged in France as a gust of fresh air in an invariably hysterical debate in which most people – including commentators, journalists, politicians, state functionaries, intelligence agencies, even clerics – have been satisfied with poor analysis, sentimental anxiety and intellectual cliché.
For starters, he urges with almost unnerving matter-of-factness, the world ought to get over itself and call the IS the caliphate, as it calls itself, rather than resort to terms such as Daesh in the hope that they can be demeaned or wished away.
On French radio a month ago, the interviewer put it to Salazar: “You are far too pessimistic.”
“I replied: ‘Mark my words, we are in for 30 years,’” he said this week.
Salazar, who is intensely private and, in addition, scrupulous in keeping his own opinions, political or otherwise, out of his analytical work, takes no pleasure in the implied perspicacity of the timing of his book. Pessimism didn’t enter into it.
At the heart of his enterprise, he said, was the need for a considered, respectful, appraisal.
“I have looked at the caliphate in full disagreement, but with respect, and that allows me to see things others don’t see.”
In contrast, most conventional thinking amounted to “a refusal to face up to reality”.
Ten years ago, in the wake of having written a book, Mahomet, about France’s “long acquaintance” with Islam dating back to the 8th century, and subsequent discussions with friends and colleagues – including Abdelwahab Meddeb, author of The Malady of Islam – about the rise of radicalism, Salazar began amassing an archive of material on the jihad and subjecting it to rhetorical analysis.
“This is not a study of literature or stylistics, but of the patterns of persuasion.”
He recalled the emergence of the caliphate and the founding homily of the new caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as a “moment of intellectual awakening”.
“But then I read the media, and all I found was sarcasm – ‘look at his Rolex watch, look how ridiculous he looks’. And yet, poring over a translation, I realised this was probably Islamic homily at its very best, a speech of real grandeur.”
He laughed: “I have been accused of being too even-handed, or that in fact I admire them… but when I see a beautiful speech, I see a beautiful speech.”
Salazar amassed more material – including tweets from converts, the copious written materials put out by the caliphate, declarations and speeches. “I have a sound knowledge of the Arabic rhetorical tradition… and I began to see just how misplaced the sarcasm and derision was. I thought, even if this is the enemy, let us not deride it… we must take it seriously.”
His intellectual anxiety was heightened by the reaction of friends whom he asked, experimentally, to look at video material of grim executions by the caliphate. Most said they “couldn’t take it”.
“I realised there was a tendency to confuse two things… I was not asking them to enjoy it, as if it were something gross, like pornography. I was asking them to bear witness, to face the reality. So there was this, coupled with the sarcasm, and, finally, the fact that the only response was bombing.”
Furthermore, most analysis of the rise of support for the caliphate in the West, he believed, relied on false or untrustworthy premises – that new recruits were “marginalised” and therefore disaffected (not borne out by their often good education or class status); that they were mentally deranged (when, in fact, their response could be understood in terms of rational conviction); or that they had been radicalised or even “self-radicalised” (when it was clearer that many were responding to a high-minded idealism and were converting, or rediscovering their faith ideals, particularly in the setting of France’s dogged secularism.)
In a recent conversation with a senior French intelligence officer, the man asked Salazar: “What about our common humanity?”
“Our common humanity is undoubted, but what we have in common is language… and it is language that can derail our commonality, it can divide us... and this is what is at the heart of my book.”
He said he made a point of urging his students that, when confronting an argument that is “scandalous or monstrous to you, your first mental reaction must be to open your mind, and agree – the person is making a point, and the likelihood that she is right and you are wrong is 50/50. There would be no argument otherwise. And so you mould yourself into the frame of the argument, with respect… in the Latin it means to look from a distance.”
And, in applying such attention to the material and analysis, the personal accounts, it was plain, he said, that “we are not dealing with idiots”.
“And the point is, you can talk to intelligent people…
“Needless to say, what the caliphate is waging on us is a radical war… they want to eradicate us, it is very clear – which is why I advocate again and again that, rather than saying they do not exist, we should start talking to the caliphate, not to try to convince them, but to understand how to manoeuvre. And talking to them does not mean you cannot hit them.”
Salazar draws on the ancient Justinian principle of “jus terrendi” – the “right to terrify in order to inspire a salvatory reaction” or a state’s right to “terrify away from its territory those who want to change its laws” – as a way of understanding the caliphate’s objectives.
“It has seized on jus terrendi, linking territory to terror, in three ways: to terrorise away from the Middle East those who refuse to convert, hence the wave of refugees; to bring salvatory terror to those countries that were Islamic at some stage, so that they can reconstitute themselves as Islamic territories (and that’s basically the whole of southern Europe); and to draw to themselves adherents in parts of the world where – and this is especially true of women – they feel defiled by living among non-believers and ‘terrorised’ by secular laws.
“We need to think about these things – because unless you read and reflect rhetorically, looking at the patterns of persuasion, you fall quickly into denunciation or ideology… or apology.”
Where much of the emphasis of post-1945 thinking was on world peace, the objective reality was really “bellicose peace”.
“I keep telling politician friends that we lived with the Turk about to invade us for 600 years, and we can live with the caliphate for 600 years. They want everyone to live in peace, but there are different kinds of peace, and to sustain a bellicose peace, you have to know how the others are thinking and arguing.”
What’s more, he points out wryly, France is no stranger to terror.
“We had 1789… we killed 40 000 priests. So, when it comes to terror, we know what it means. This is what makes French civilisation different. It is deeply secular and I am a good example of it. But I am respectful of other opinions, I look at arguments. Voltaire’s principle is paramount – toleration above all, but reasoned toleration.”