Paris: The Death of Truth and the Murder of Innocence

Uthman Ibrahim-Morrison and Abdassamad Clarke

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم وصلى الله على سيدنا محمد وعلى ءاله وصحبه وسلم تسليما

In reflecting on the unconscionable massacre in Paris and reactions to it in the press and social media, one is forcefully reminded of the overworked, but nonetheless insightful, truism that truth is the first casualty of war. That said, with the advent of ‘total war’ and the warfare of terror and revenge, we now come to the recognition that ‘innocence’ must be added to this insight as the second casualty. One is tempted to imagine that even in this moment of civil upheaval and emotional consternation, the archetypically cultivated Parisian, before turning to acts of bloodthirsty retribution, is just as capable of turning in philosophical contemplation to the wisdom of his rich literary legacy, such as that contained here in the words of Racine:

“L’innocence enfin n’a rien à redouter.” (Hippolyte, act III, scene VI.)
Innocence has nothing to dread.

Also:

“Ainsi que la vertu, le crime a ses degrés;
Et jamais on n’a vu la timide innocence
Passer subitement à l’extrême licence.” (Hippolyte, act IV, scene II.)
Crime, like virtue, has its degrees;
And timid innocence was never known
To blossom suddenly into extreme licence.


Even the most cursory reflection upon the meanings conveyed in these verses confronts us with the difficult, but necessary, demand for sincere self-examination with respect to this most recent nightmare of indiscriminate bloodshed in Paris, which has so violently seized our entire attention. The poet leads us to consider whether such extraordinary acts of villainy ever suddenly appear out of nowhere, without being preceded by a phase of escalation? Does the volcano erupt without perceptible signs of warning? Is the earthquake triggered without the prior build-up of tensions in the earth’s crust with attendant cracks, slides and smaller tremors? Can faultless innocence ever give rise so suddenly to such monstrous explosions of malice?

Quite clearly, to have been able to execute their murderous missions with such sangfroid, not being natural-born killers, these men, as part of their mental preparation, will first have had to vacate their minds of any such notion as the ‘faultless innocence’ of their victims as human individuals, guilty of nothing more than their limited and routine preoccupation with personal matters related to work, leisure, shopping, sexual relationships and family, that largely represent the fullest extent of freedom permitted to the average European citizen as the civilised outcome of those historically hard won, proudly defended and violently imposed values so essential to the very definition of liberal democracies across the western world: ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité, ou la mort’. 

As our governments and corporations go about the world protecting and promoting these values on our behalf, and presumably at our behest, by the relentless deployment of a merciless military-industrial machinery, whose inexorable logic is the despoilment of the earth and everything on it and underneath it, does our reading of Racine not enable us to contemplate the death of innocence in the awful convergence of opposites presented to us by the unthinkable Hegelian reciprocity of identity between the evacuated mind of the terrorist and the moral and cerebral vacuity of our own much vaunted values, reduced as they are, in practice, to the mindless and costly pursuit of superfluous and exclusive privileges, to be enjoyed at the expense of a shared planet? Wherefore then, our presumption of innocence? Essentially, such an innocence can only be legal in character, which leaves us with some explaining to do! In which case we should be allowed, in mitigation, to plead the childlike mentality to which we have been condemned, having never been allowed to assume the collective responsibilities of freedom. Who would slaughter a child? Nobody in their right mind, of course. Does this mean that the terrorist should be allowed a plea of insanity or diminished responsibility to match and balance our own plea of pathological infantilism? Wherefore then, our presumption of the terrorist’s guilt? 

Meanwhile, as they stand courageously upon the unimpeachable legality of our timid innocence, our politicians, bellowing from the rear, cry havoc on our behalf, so that with nothing more in our hands by way of moral defence, than the puerile ‘innocence’ of our determination to continue with our routine pursuits and the expensive amusements of the exclusive Northern pleasure-domes that our governments and corporations have built for us to play in, we are left face to face with our demented counterparts across the natural barrier of the Mediterranean as we cower behind the buffer zones of Sicily, Greece and the Balkans as they crumble under the weight of the teeming hordes of the global south who threaten to ruin everything!

As to the poor victims of this latest massacre, the truth is that for a population more or less shielded from the wisdom of coming to terms with death at all, let alone the realities of sudden, violent or even accidental death, the first sentiment is one of pure shock, closely followed by bewilderment at the sheer unfairness and senseless arbitrariness of it all… this kind of thing isn’t supposed to happen to the likes of us! How could it come so close? Then, once we fully realise that it was close enough to claim a friend or neighbour we begin to cry because, but for the incomprehensible grace of God, it was them rather than us who found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time! The overwhelming combination of shock, guilt-stained relief and an amorphous fear serve to maintain the trembling flow of tears… This is something very different from tears of grief. 

Sincere introspection will also reveal to us that even though the fear remains genuine, the anticipation of relief at being able to avoid the open challenge to our scant reserves of more altruistic and empathetic sentiments, by being carried along with the new formal, public rituals of regular collective silences, processions to make new-age offerings and postmodern genuflections at any number of spontaneously materialised street-side flower and photo shrines, the singing of popular anthems and the robotic chanting of emotionally uplifting Twitter-generated hashtag slogans. We know that the hangover is wearing off and that we’re returning to our default entertainment setting when the almost imperceptible hint of a smile begins to play at the corner of our lips as the realisation dawns that we have just survived the most God-Almighty adrenaline rush ever, what a night!! 

One fears that a generation of Millennials, accustomed to fear as the ultimate source of fun and stimulation, and irony as the highest form of expression, are ready to meet the prospect of terror with the only defence that is logically capable of confronting it, as the respective insanities are neutralised in the mutual embrace of complementary extremes. As we are being so frank with ourselves, this is a glimpse of the almost unimaginable depths of horror to which we know we are capable of descending, but this fate is for a younger generation. For the Baby-boomers and Generation X, by contrast, the ongoing attempt to fight a war on terror, simply results in a brutal symmetry of increasing destruction in the rather dated forms of genocide, homicide and suicide!

Perhaps we find Racine too far removed from our own times to be accessible to our ways of thinking and learning, or possibly his expression is too laconic, too elliptical and too lacking in irony and sarcasm for current tastes, despite being intended in part, for entertainment, albeit of a higher form than we are now accustomed to! Are we any better equipped to look instead, to the wealth of reflections generated by Jean-Paul Sartre and Frantz Fanon for much needed examples of the calibre of intellectual questioning and searching so obviously absent from contemporary discourse, as they came to grips with all of the same issues of terrorism, psychosis, racism, immigration, the state, freedom, oppression, humanity and identity that preoccupy us today, but as prefigured in the context of the Algerian War of Independence from France and the more general movement across Africa towards independence from European colonialism. The rich encounter between the privileged white, northern philosopher (therefore, possessed of the confidence required to be entertaining), and the aroused self-awareness of the colonised dark-skinned ‘Southerner’ from the Antilles (hence, less given to offering entertainment) is sustained by a sincere mutual respect, good will and a shared determination to understand that is wholly lacking from the public discourse of contemporary opinion formers, where we have to make do instead with hysterical propaganda, cheap sloganeering, poisonous soundbites, political grandstanding, character assassination, self-censoring platitudes and political correctness; all taking place against a journalistic backdrop that amounts to little more than the peddling of speculative gossip, rumour mongering and panic; scant heat and no light! Dare we go any further?... Yes, of course. Having risked a hanging for the sheep (Racine), why stop at the lamb (Fanon)? To continue, then:

At the end of his great essay, ‘The Wretched of the Earth’ in which he offers both heat and light, sometimes in the manner of the medical psychiatrist he was, and sometimes in the manner of the 1960's political theorist and firebrand he had become, Fanon, after having carried out a sustained and unprecedented exploration and dissection of the mentality and political condition of the dark-skinned colonised subject as well as that of the European coloniser, opens his conclusions with an announcement which might well have been written yesterday. The English translation is good, but the original French, if only it could be heard above the orchestrated mass hysteria of La Marseillaise, would have been utterly undeniable to the Gallic ear and conscience, now more than ever:

“We must shake off the great mantle of night which has enveloped us, and reach for the light. The new day which is dawning must find us determined, enlightened and resolute.
We must abandon our dreams and say farewell to our old beliefs and former friendships. Let us not lose time in useless laments or sickening mimicry. Let us leave this Europe which never stops talking of man yet massacres him at every one of its street corners, at every corner of the world.
For centuries Europe has brought the progress of other men to a halt and enslaved them for its own purposes and glory; for centuries it has stifled virtually the whole of humanity in the name of a so-called ‘spiritual adventure.’ Look at it now teetering between atomic destruction and spiritual disintegration.
And yet nobody can deny its achievements at home have not been crowned with success.
Europe has taken over leadership of the world with fervour, cynicism, and violence. And look how the shadow of its monuments spreads and multiplies. Every movement Europe makes bursts the boundaries of space and thought. Europe has denied itself not only humility and modesty but also solicitude and tenderness.
Its only show of miserliness has been toward man, only toward man has it shown itself to be niggardly and murderously carnivorous.
So, my brothers, how could we fail to understand that we have better things to do than follow in that Europe’s footsteps?
This Europe, which never stopped talking of man, which never stopped proclaiming its sole concern was man, we now know the price of suffering humanity has paid for every one of its spiritual victories.” (The Wretched of the Earth, 1961)

As to the actual perpetrators of the Paris outrage, the Muslims have always recognised this nihilistic group for what they are, since their emergence in the early days. They were foretold by the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, and recognised and fought by his Companions. They are known to history as the Khawārij or Kharijites, literally ‘those who have gone out’ of the Muslim community. Muslims withheld passing judgement on them as being entirely outside the pale of Islam, but saw the over-riding importance of meeting them with cogent arguments as to the error of their ways and, if they failed to respond to those arguments, meeting them in battle.

That said, it is almost beyond belief that the dominant world order has been feeding the contemporary manifestations of this sect for its own geopolitical ends: it did so in Afghanistan where Bin Laden’s small coterie first saw the light of day, ultimately fatally undermining the Afghanis’ own legitimate struggle, then enlisted the same forces for its service in the Balkans during the break-up of Yugoslavia; it used them to plunge Libya over the edge into the abyss; it has been exploiting them in Syria in the seemingly interminable civil war; and the Americans and their allies broke up the brutal dictatorship in Iraq which, for all its faults, had been a bulwark against them but now serves as their springboard globally.

At the seething heart of this group, if such a group can be said to have a heart, sits the Saudi regime which, due to the inherent instabilities of its own aberrant form of Islam, as is well documented by Adam Curtis in his “Bitter Lake” and Yaroslav Trofimov in his Siege of Mecca, transformed its state and educational and charitable institutions into a factory for the export of this ideology to the rest of the world both in support of mosques and ideologues, and in support of the countless insurgencies that have raged all over the Muslim world. As Curtis shows, the Americans made a deal to leave untouched the Saudis’ ‘religion’, which he quite rightly sees as a modern Kharijism, in exchange for a steady supply of oil. We have all paid a heavy price for this bargain. 

It is indeed time for the Muslims to clean out the Augean stables. It is, however, also time for the Americans, British and French to reconsider their deals with the most retrograde and malevolent of nihilists and to have a care for the fate of their own Millennial generation. For that, they will have to reconsider Islam itself and move away from the default settings of hostility, subversion and entertainment to acknowledging and accepting that Islam is a world nomos and civilisation whose removal and subversion is costing us all far more than we are able to calculate. 

The absolute refusal of an Islam that is being projected as the embodiment of everything that is most backwards and uncivilised is one thing; but it is quite another matter, when what this constant exercise in misrepresentation, subversion, suppression and rejection really conceals is a reflexive stiffening and tightening of static political structures against the general prospect of any kind of substantive change or improvement (be it slow, sudden, progressive, radical or reformist) from any source or direction whatsoever in the situation of the citizen and our inescapable subjugation to the nefarious modalities of the modern state. 

A new day cannot dawn before we cease to be in thrall to the illusory myth of freedom in the modern city and begin to awaken and recover from the deformed and degenerate inner form by which we are reduced to hypnotically driven and mechanistically repetitive creatures who bear the outward appearance of human beings, but who remain incapable of the spontaneity and autonomous freedom required to discriminate, to decide, to resist and to act. If we find this attenuated version of the human soul tolerable, then there is no reason why we would not continue to tolerate, nay, even to defend, the spiritually destructive, anti-human, antisocial life patterns imposed upon us within the close confinement of our expensive urban lives. We have to learn to think again if we are ever to realise that it is exactly a new nomos and civilisation that we are all in need of.