Today's date:
Spring 2003


Anti-Americanism in the Old Europe

Bernard-Hénri Levy, France’s most prominent philosopher and public conscience, spoke with NPQ editor Nathan Gardels in Paris at the end of February. Levy, whose past works include the seminal Barbarism With a Human Face, is at present writing a book about Daniel Pearl and Pakistan titled, Who Killed Daniel Pearl?

NPQ | A kind of globalized anti-Americanism seems to have arisen. You just returned from Pakistan writing about Daniel Pearl, brutally killed by Islamic zealots because he was American. Günter Grass, for example, has called America a “threat to world peace.” In the “old Europe” of France and Germany, public opinion is very much against the United States, a sentiment even shared by the corporate leaders in Davos this year.

You have said you are not pro-American, but anti-anti-American. Are there good and bad reasons to be anti-American?

BERNARD-HÉNRI LEVY | You can protest a particular policy—such as the war in Iraq, which I oppose and think could be a real mistake. But there is no “good” anti-Americanism.

America does not threaten peace in the world. Peace in the world is threatened by North Korea, Osama bin Laden, by the Pakistani jihadist groups and maybe its secret services, by the terrorist organizations financed by Saudi Arabia.

No, you can’t say America threatens the peace of the world without a certain hatred that makes you completely blind and deaf to reality. This kind of anti-Americanism, particularly in Europe, is a grave danger. It is a warning signal of something deeper—a hatred of the very idea of America not as a geographic region but as a region of the soul.

What is this America they hate so much? An “unrooted” and “inorganic” country, built not around an historical culture with roots but around a constitution and the tolerance of diversity. Its democracy is a mixture of races. America is about the triumph of law, not ethnicity or community. It is thus seen in Europe as somehow a dirty mongrel, an inauthentic abstraction.

Yes, America often fails to live up to this ideal. But it is nonetheless built according to the “social contract” of Jean-Jacques Rousseau as a “community that assembles itself.”

For the French ideology—shared today by both the extreme right and extreme left—this is the enemy that must be killed because France, according to them, is a nation built on blood, race and culture.

Anti-Americanism in Europe is therefore linked to the other filthy genies we have known—fascism, anti-Semitism, nationalism and racism.

Certainly, America has its faults and has committed its share of tragic errors. But that is not the issue. What I fear is that the anti-American sentiment we see today, not only in Europe but in the world at large, hates not what is bad in America but what is good.

I have just come from Pakistan, where there is a very violent and mad anti-Americanism. But they hate what is best in America. They don’t hate the death penalty. They don’t hate the lack of gun control.

What they hate is democracy. They hate sexual freedom and the rights of women. They hate tolerance. They hate the separation of religion and state. They hate modernity.

And they hate it all in the name of their own purity. Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, the Taliban and the Pakistani jihadists who killed Daniel Pearl are nothing other than the kind of fascists with which we in Europe are all too familiar.

A hypothesis: In the recent history of humanity, the hatred of America has been one of the main structural links between the three totalitarianisms—fascism, communism and Islamism.

So, anti-Americanism is a structuring passion, not a mere surface feature, that shapes the worst perversities of our time. It is a deep current that must be resisted. Its appearance on a wide scale is very dangerous.

NPQ | The big criticism of the US as a superpower is that it acts unilaterally. Do you agree with Jean François Revel, though, that “American unilateralism is the consequence, not the cause, of power failures in the rest of the world,” most of all in the old Europe. America had to take the lead in stopping ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. And one can almost hear George Bush’s Texas twang saying today, “foie gras and haute couture are not going to stop Saddam and his weapons of mass destruction.”

LEVY | Just as I warn against anti-Americanism, let’s don’t fall into anti-Frenchism!

I don’t disagree with this statement by Revel, especially with respect to Bosnia. But this is beside the point concerning war with Iraq. If we don’t want this war to have tragic side effects, it must be waged multilaterally. The war against Iraq must have allies; it cannot also be a war against the rest of the world. If it is, it will only increase the hate and the deep Fascist current that already underlies anti-Americanism.

War is not metaphysics—good against evil as George Bush thinks—it is politics waged by other means, as Clausewitz said. Politics is wily, skilled and intelligent, not clumsy and ham-handed. Hitting Iraq not only misses the target of the real war on terror; but it will actually worsen the situation.

NPQ | Are you opposed, then, to war against Saddam?

LEVY | I am not opposed to war against Saddam. I am opposed to this war against Saddam. No one cries for Saddam. He is one of the worst leaders in the world, who has gassed his own people—a true attempt at genocide.

But today, we face a complex war against terrorism, Islamic fascism and the enemies of democracy and modernity. This war has to be conducted in the right way. In this war, Iraq is hardly the most urgent enemy to strike ?rst. And when the US consolidates its alliance with a state like Pakistan in order to pursue its agenda with Iraq, it is completely misguided.

Today, the real terrorist state is Pakistan. If terrorists obtain mass destruction weapons, it will be in Pakistan, not Iraq. This is because of the links—strengthened after the war in Afghanistan—between the Pakistani secret services, or ISI, and Al Qaeda. Yesterday Al Qaeda was in Afghanistan. Today they are in Pakistan. Karachi is the base of Al Qaeda today. Inside the secret service are those who may not wear the beards of the Islamists, but whose minds are bearded, so to speak. They even share the culture of suicide with them.

German and French Anti-Americanism

NPQ | In the “old Europe” there seems a difference between German and French anti-Americanism.

Lately, Germany appears to have supplanted France as the main anti-American political culture in Europe, welling up from some deep sentiment against the American way of life.

One could argue, perhaps, that Heidegger was the first anti-globalization thinker, opposing “American technological and consumer society” in the name of “organic community” back in the 1950s. And before that in the 18th century, (Johann Gottfried) Herder even opposed the Enlightenment universalists from France because he believed in the organic truths of time and place, not timeless, abstract principles.

In Germany today, such sentiments have been kept alive by the Green presence, which is there in every debate from globalization to global warming to genetic foods to the use of military force.

By contrast, French political culture is far from such Romantic sentiments. It is the birthplace of the reasoned Enlightenment of which, as you suggest, America is the logical extension as a nation built around a set of universal ideas. Unlike in Germany, there is no significant Green presence. Anti-Americanism in France today is, instead, more of a power posture in the Gaullist mold. The French veto in the UN Security Council is its post-Cold War force de frappe, its guarantor of independence.

LEVY | You have said it all very well. In Germany there remains this Romantic philosophy of politics against modernity and for “naturalism” and organic life. It is a deep current in German culture. Of course, there are those who fight against this in the name of reason, such as (Jürgen) Habermas. But it remains.

In “Essence of Technique” and other texts, Heidegger was one of the first to equate America and the Soviet Union as the twin faces of modernity that threatened what he viewed as Germany’s rooted, authentic way of life.

In France, though, you cannot say that anti-Americanism is only a political posture. It is that, of course, but also more. France is not just the birthplace of the Enlightenment but also a house of Romanticism with allegiance to “natural communities.” You see this not only with Jean-Marie Le Pen, but also on the part of José Bové and others.

Is Germany more anti-American than France? I don’t know. Germany has paid a high cost already for its hatreds and knows the catastrophe they can bring onto others and onto themselves. Still, there are flashing red warning lights. Joschka Fischer, the Green foreign minister of Germany, knows what anti-Americanism means. He knows it is very risky and very dangerous. We’ve spoken about this. Yet, he and the governing coalition to which he belongs continue to stoke the flames.

Postmodern Populism

NPQ | There is a new anti-Islamic anxiety in Europe—so-called “postmodern populism”—that is unlike the old intolerant xenophobia of “natural communities” against foreigners we associate with Joerg Haider or Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Rather, this new anxiety—associated with the likes of people from Pim Fortuyn to Oriana Fallaci to Michel Houllebecq—represents the resistance of tolerant “norms and values” of women’s rights or homosexuality against the presence of large, unintegrated Muslim communities who openly practice and promote the repressive values of their homelands.

This issue has already transformed the Netherlands and its “separate but equal” multicultural policies. Surely, don’t you think, this localized clash of civilizations will become an ever larger issue in the rest of Europe as well?

LEVY | There is this problem of lack of integration. But this new populism is also dangerous. One makes me just as anxious as the other. Both represent a breakdown of the social link.

You suggest that Le Pen is intolerant, but Oriana Fallaci is not. Untrue! She is not concerned with tolerance. Her last book after Sept. 11 (The Rage and the Pride in English) is a call for hatred of Muslims. She really thinks all Muslims are criminals or potential criminals, that terrorism is the “true face of,” the “inescapable consequence of” Islam. When you say things like that, it is the very definition of intolerance and fanaticism.

This populist intolerance in the name of tolerance is the mirror image of the intolerance Fallaci condemns. They need each other. They are the twin dangers of Europe today.

Neo-populism or postmodern populism of someone like Pim Fortuyn is not the same as that of Le Pen. It is a variation of the same pattern. During Vichy, you had the “archaicist” Fascist that wanted to “return to earth, to roots.” Then you also had those who said, no, “we don’t need roots, we need planning and look to the future, not the past.”

In Italian fascism, you had the futurists on one side and the archaicists as well. The question is whether the two faces of fascism had a common ground. They did then, and they do today.

NPQ | What do you do about the large unintegrated Muslim communities throughout Europe whose conservative values are at odds with the liberal societies where they live and work?

LEVY | Are they so large? In France, and even more so in Germany today, the majority are integrated, playing by the institutional rules. For the others, our institutions have to do their work by patiently bringing them in over time.

In France, for example, this is not the first time we’ve had this kind of problem. Peasants were integrated, and they didn’t even speak the language. In the 19th century we had the so-called “dangerous classes.” Later we had the revolutionary movements who wanted to destroy French society. But despite these threats to the state, they were integrated.

So, the challenge of European democracies today is to find the institutions—like the army and the schools in the past—that can socialize outsiders and bring them into the system. We have to find this answer, and we will.

NPQ | America, as you point out, is a mix of races and religions where, at least ideally, all are assimilated under an idea of universal rights, freedom and opportunity, whatever their origins. Isn’t that ultimately the answer in Europe as well for all these Muslim immigrants?

LEVY | Yes, assimilation is the answer. The idea that once held sway in the Netherlands—separate but equal multiculturalism—is the worst. That is an idea that arises from a pre-modern belief in natural communities that has caused war, Holocaust and disaster in Europe.

NPQ | Does that mean you also think Muslim Turkey should belong to the European Union?

LEVY | The problem of Turkey is not one of religion or race. It is politics. When Turkey respects human rights, including the treatment of the minority Kurds, and shows it doesn’t want to go backward regarding the status of women in society, then I have no problem with Turkey joining Europe.

Historically, Turkey belongs to Europe. An Islamic presence in Europe is something that ought to belong to our future. It will make Europe more solid and serve to counter the great danger today of Islamic fascism.