Paris, the myth of redemptive violence, and deep pluralism

This semester, I am teaching a course, "War and Terrorism." It's part of our program in peace and conflict studies—without a doubt an important course, but a difficult one to teach. I designed the course not long after September 11, 2001. The sad truth is that without fail, each time I teach the course, somewhere in the world there is a current war, or a terrorist attack, to illustrate the course content. No doubt on Monday the subject of my class will be the outrage committed on Friday November 13 in Paris. We will discuss the awful events, the response of the people of France, and the world in solidarity with the French. Like many people I changed my Facebook profile to the French Tricolor. It is a small gesture, but expresses grief and solidarity.
On Monday, too, I will talk with my students about the terrorist suicide bombers in Beirut just before Paris, with 41 killed and nearly 200 casualties. It was the same terrorist group, ISIS, that committed the attack. I will ask my students how many had heard about it, and will be surprised if it is more than one or two. Facebook profiles were not changed to the Lebanese flag. Is it that brown bodies count less than white bodies? Is it that Beirut is the sort of place that terrorism happens and Paris is not? Whatever the case, it is ironic, and salutary, that before the Lebanese civil war in 1975 Beirut was considered the Paris of the Middle East—a cosmopolitan, pluralist, touristy, economically-growing hub with enormous promise. The multiple violences done to Beirut over the last 40 years have all but erased that memory. Perhaps to our shame, now the world expects terrorism in Beirut, and we barely blink when it happens.
Yet, there is something ominously significant about suicide bombers in the heart of Europe, on an ordinary Friday evening, killing in Paris more innocents than at any time since the Second World War. Islamic State have moved to a new phase of international terrorism, goading the West and Russia—after destroying a plane over Sinai—to retaliate. And the West and Russia will doubtless oblige.
Naturally, emotions run high after a terrorist incident. The urge is retribution. But I hope cooler heads will prevail.
ISIS is convinced of what theologian Walter Wink termed "The Myth of Redemptive Violence." The myth assures us that violence is the way to achieve change, that violence is cleansing, that violence "saves." Though not alone in holding the myth, ISIS pursue the myth with a religious zeal that all but defies understanding. The violence of ISIS is not for some merely temporal political goal. Political goals can be negotiated, and compromised if need be. ISIS use their violence in the belief that it will play a large part in the coming apocalypse. There can be no negotiation, no political goal, no compromise. Compromise is defeat. Death, even suicide, is rewarded. This is a new phase of terrorism. It is different than the terrorism rooted in nationalism to end colonialism. It's different, too, than the terrorism that was based in Marxist ideology. It is no wonder that the world's leaders are struggling to know how to respond to it.
I am a deep pluralist. I believe that all have a place at the table. I am glad to live in a free and open and tolerant society. I am glad to share that freedom and toleration with others. The more people that share a vision of a deep and tolerant pluralism, so much the better for the world. All the Muslims I know share those aspirations. For the most part, it has been the openness, freedom, economic opportunity, and tolerance of the West that has drawn people to it.
Any monist religious vision—be it Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu—that asserts it is the one and only true path, to which all others owe obeisance, is a threat to a deeply pluralist society. But so too is any non-religious unitary vision—be it communist or secular. Deep pluralism welcomes all to the table, all to the feast. We rejoice in our differences and learn much from each other.
But, that brings us back to ISIS and its expanding rule by terror. Deep pluralism has its boundaries. Religions and ideologies who not only refuse to join the table, but seek violent means to destroy the table and those around it, cannot in the end be tolerated. And that is the dilemma that faces world leaders.
Are we to deny our most noble insights and resort to the same level as the terrorists? The myth of redemptive violence assures us that if we only use a bit—or a lot—more violence, this time we will defeat the enemy. But violence is like the contest between Fire and Water. Fire dries up Water. Water puts out Fire. Just a little more Fire will do the job. But not if Water increases. Ever more Fire. Ever more Water.
French social theorist René Girard helps us see that this spiral of mimetic—that is, imitative—violence is only ended by the utter annihilation of the Other, or else is temporality halted by finding a scapegoat on whom to wreak revenge.
The first option—to utterly destroy ISIS through violent means—is tempting, but unworkable as ISIS is too dispersed, and unthinkable, as it would mean denying too much of that which makes us who we are. The second option—to find a scapegoat—is likely. If ISIS cannot be destroyed, then someone else must suffer? We have already seen unthinking Islamophobia rise since the events in Paris. The crisis we face—and it is now a crisis—is not between the West and Islam. The clash is between an open and tolerant pluralism with a closed and intolerant monism. Finding a scapegoat works only temporarily to calm heated emotions. It makes matters worse. It is always unjust.
Therein lies the dilemma. I am glad that I am not a President or Prime Minister on this Sunday morning. None of the available options are good ones. My hope is that, when the high emotions are calmed, a reasonable way will be found to stop the madness of ISIS and other extremists. It will mean close attention to the way nations relate to each other. It will require the solidarity of all people of goodwill and compassion. It will require a fearless holding on to our shared common values of liberty, equality, and fraternity in the face of barbarity, cruelty and brutality.
+Ab. Andy