What comes as recognition out of the blue is often mistaken for a major juncture. The shock of revelation can usually be dampened if it is possible to say that one lacked the requisite historical experience to understand the moment. With the phenomenon we are going to look at, however, this is not the case.
This past summer, the endless procession of migrants plodding through sun- drenched fields amid gently rolling hills meandered like a flooding stream, hemmed by the interminable flotsam and jetsam of discarded charity items – clothes, blankets, leftover food, and packaging.
Some time had to pass for one to recognise this vast march of people called migration for what it was: something unprecedented and unimaginable, the veritable end of an era; and to discern the disquieting mass behind the faces of the migrants – fatigued, desperate or jaded, as the case may be –, behind the harrowing individual destinies, behind the misery of the next man. Indeed, it took some time to remember that humans are more than just sovereign personalities and individuals: they tend to live and move about in masses. There is a certain limit inside of which, our instincts tell us, a throng can still be comprehended and perceived as somehow intimate; with a limit up to which we still feel able to relate to each stranger and empathise with, if not directly experience, his individual fate and distress, even if we do not personally connect with everyone in that crowd. In the name of Christian compassion and self-sacrifice one has a moral obligation to help and, obeying the call of liberalism to protect the freedom and dignity of the individual, to extend that help equally to all refugees.
Yet this human flood was unprecedented in its scale for more than a few generations. How can someone faithful to Christian or liberal ideals possibly act charitably vis- à-vis such a multitude? Depending on one’s disposition, the recognition of this difficulty drives members of a swelling majority to contemplation, fear, anger or renunciation, while the voices of altruism and humanism grow feeble and uncertain. It is as if we had no experience to lean on in this situation.
The killings in Paris in January and recently in November this year shocked us with another recognition by giving us to understand that the success and very essence of terrorism hinge on suicide. Nobody in our part of the world can comprehend this culture of death. We are at a loss to deal with such extremities of violence. The targets and victims of the terrorists think of life as value – a view alien to the walking human bomb who is always ready for martyrdom, in a sense different from what we in Europe attribute to that concept.
An ordinary mortal until the moment of his death, the terrorist believes that his self- annihilation will make him a martyr, and that he will reap the benefits of that lofty status in the afterlife. This belief is incomprehensible to us, for it has nothing to do with the Christian concept of heroism or martyrdom. A Christian martyr becomes a martyr by virtue of his life. His death, unjust and ruthless though it may be, is not the beginning of something new but a closure that is practically inconsequential to how his life is viewed by posterity. By contrast, the terrorist-martyr becomes the example to be emulated by virtue of his death. His suicide presents a horrific menace because it is indecipherable and never subject to negotiation and bargaining any more than the terms of releasing hostages. Indeed, even the nature of war must change when the foe is terrorism, for it must be a total war.
As we speak, countries in Central and Southern Europe grow increasingly restless about the interminable inflow of migrants, while the West is reeling from the anxiety caused by the unprecedented fierceness of the Paris attacks in November. These two kinds of trepidation share the same roots and a long past.
Early November also saw the death, at the age of 92, of René Girard, one of the great thinkers of our age. Girard’s entire oeuvre revolves around the single hypothesis that human desire is rooted in mimesis or imitation, which is the main driving force behind all learning and ambition. Imitation, according to Girard, is only possible when one follows a pre-existing example. It is only through imitation that one can recognise and articulate one’s own desire. Girard concedes the diverse forms of desire, and identifies mimetic desire as a principal source of violence. The rivalry arising from the drive to possess something that belongs to someone else helps illuminate the process whereby desire engenders myths and leads to the spiralling of resentment and fury into violence, which Girard contends plays a cardinal role in our lives. Girard makes a firm distinction between imitation and mimesis, identifying the former as the positive force and the latter as the negative force of rivalry. The second cornerstone of his theory, concerning the “scapegoating mechanism”, is explained in his most famous book, entitled Violence and the Sacred (La Violence et le sacré, 1972). His train of thought will come in handy for a better understanding of what I am going to say here.
Girard argues that the escalation of rivalry intensifies violence and the tension caused by violence in society, potentially to the point of jeopardising the very existence of the community. Such an extreme situation brings about a bizarre psychological and social reversal whereby collective violence is projected unto the individual or a smaller community. Hitherto vying parties now make a truce and unite their forces to turn against the individual or group they blame for their woes. Girard calls this the scapegoat. Scapegoating is a phenomenon that transcends period boundaries and includes such diverse abominations as the pogroms sparked by the plague in the 13th and 14th centuries, the recurrent witch hunts, or the Srebrenica massacre, to cite a more recent example. A polyptych panel painting by the Van Eyck brothers known as the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (Ghent, Saint Bavo Cathedral, 1432) depicts a sacrifice – the blood of the lamb standing on an altar gushes from a wound on its breast into a golden chalice – as a token of restoring peace. A work comprising ten panels, the altarpiece is the pinnacle of Christian iconography. The point to be made here is that, according to Girard, Christianity is the only religion which views sacrifice from the perspective of the innocent victim, and as such it is incapable of producing a scapegoat.
The title of a famous book has inspired much political commentary that identifies terrorism and migration as the outcome of the conflict between civilisations, as a result of the method that seeks to explain everything by the various categories of difference. Yet our subject here is better viewed from the angle of rivalry or competition. The essence of rivalry, as we have seen, is rooted in the instinctive drive to emulate others, which in turn engenders a desire to possess something that belongs to someone else, through violence if this is what it takes. It is an unassailable fact that the migrants, and the occasional terrorists mingling among them, come from a world very different from ours. Yet stressing cultural differences will inevitably increase the distance of perspective and hinder understanding. These days one can read a great number of accounts and comparative analyses, but none of them really addresses the core of the drama. For cultural differences are certainly important for a proper grasp of the conflict, if less relevant than the fact that those coming here from there are motivated by imitation. What is new is that imitation, desire, and the objects of rivalry have all gone global in our day and age of information technology and communications, and announced their virtual presence in every corner of the planet. A game between Barcelona and Real Madrid (“El Clásico”) will be broadcast on every continent, and even migrants can be seen donning a Messi or Ronaldo jersey as they kick the ball in a camp. When, eleven years ago, Bin Laden cited the American nuclear attack on Japan as an analogy for 9/11, he obviously abandoned Islam as his point of reference. Indeed, his vengeance on a global scale was meant to speak on behalf of all mimetic yearners of the world. This is how America became the object of violence; this is how Europe is being victimised today.
Those, then, who are heading for Europe in droves as we speak, whether with the aim of wreaking havoc or not, and whether they say so or not, imitate something in the sense explained by Girard: they long for something that belongs to us. The object of their desire which they seek to possess is the context in which they are desperate to fit even by dint of violence: it is our world.
In its many guises, violence born of longing has always been part of every civilisation, including the European. The real novelty today has nothing to do with terrorists camouflaged as migrants to infiltrate our ranks. This is just the tip of the iceberg. Nor is it really about the clash between two civilisations, Islam and Christianity. The crux of the problem lies elsewhere. It has to do with violence itself, which in turn defines the essence of the desire and ambition to compete with us of those who hail from worlds other than our own.
History will no doubt reveal whether what is transpiring around us was truly a watershed, but the times are certainly changing. Today, the question arises whether politics can make any sense compared to politics as we knew it up to the end of the Cold War. Today, one must adopt a fundamentally different stance in order to interpret the events. Because of the newfangled radicalism of violence, it no longer suffices to simply bring the reason of the Enlightenment to bear. The violence of migration and terrorism calls for a different kind of reason in response to events obeying a different kind of rationality. This is the subject of much debate around the world, especially in Europe, and the last word has not been spoken by any reckoning. In any event, the consequences are directly apparent already, for instance in the deep division over the issue of whether Europe is obliged to protect the borders of the Schengen Area, and if it is, how it should go about that task.
The rallying call of Workers of the world, unite! was once sounded by Communists. These days, a similar slogan is embraced by what may be termed Islamist extremism or, more accurately, Salafi jihadism. The proponents of both schools of thought see themselves everywhere as the underdogs of the world order based on consumerism – one spearheading the proletariat exploited by free market capitalism, the other leading the faithful who seek renewal in reaching back to the deepest roots of Islam. The latter-day sacred war is indeed a global project to turn up a scapegoat, overseen by a religious-political movement on the platform of a special dogma that advocates a return to the beginnings of the creed. Jihadists are those Salafists who consider armed action to be essential to the movement. They affirm that they wage war against errant Muslim states and the Western powers controlling them, with the aim of creating an Islamic state by main force. For them, peace will not prevail until they have won their sacred war. The main target of this campaign of planetary proportions is America and the West, the object of the violence engendered by the mimetic rivalry that is no doubt present among the migrants as well. And the mass is predisposed to embrace such considerations in articulating its desires. The humanism of the western world fails to realise how far violence can go when people feel frustrated in their efforts to compete for something that does not belong to them.
René Girard has exposed the fallacy that apocalypse arises from the wrath of God upon seeing the violence among people spiralling out of control, and proposed that the challenge of a radically new situation can only be met by a rationality that makes room for man’s religious dimension.
It is readily apparent that we cannot rid ourselves of this new brand of violence unless we manage to distance ourselves from the vicious circle of vengeance and retaliation. Pacifism and stubborn compromise-seeking will only bring partial results. To go all the way, we will have to put up a fight for that goal if we must, and a tough fight it will be.
Translation by Péter Balikó Lengyel