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Setting a New Course for the Twenty-first Century
Translated from the French by George Miller

F or M arlne and S alim N asr

A nd in memory of P aolo V ida (19482005)

M an has surv iv ed hitherto

because he w as too ignorant to know
how to realize his w ishes.
N ow that he can realize them,
he must either change them
or perish.
from O rchestra,
William C arlos Williams,
C ollected P oems (1954)

P reface to the E nglish E dition
P reface to the O riginal E dition
I M isleading V ictories
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II Lost Legitimacy
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III Imaginary C ertainties

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A fterw ord
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A N ote on the A uthor
A N ote on the Translator
By the S ame A uthor

Preface to the English Edition

I thought it useful to w rite a preface to this edition, because the thesis at the
heart of this book suddenly, and spectacularly, appeared at the v ery front of
the w orld stage in the early months of 2011 and seems likely to remain
there for some time to come.
In examining w hat I hav e called a disordered w orld, I came to the
conclusion that one of the roots of the problem w as that leaders of the A rab
w orld lacked legitimacy in the ey es of their people. Depriv ed of freedom,
dignity, a future and the rev enues their countries hav e earned from oil and
other natural resources w hich hav e been misappropriated by ruling families,
many A rabs had succumbed to despair, to the point of contemplating suicide.
There is scarcely any need to mention that extremists hav e profited from this
state of mind to recruit militants ready to become suicide bombers.
P aradoxically, the A rab spring also began w ith suicides. But in this case
they had a v ery different political and ethical meaning: they w ere not acts of
murder but self-sacrifice in the manner of the Buddhist monks w ho set fire to
themselv es in V ietnam in the 1960s. A man prepared to die for a cause
becomes a pow erful w eapon, and the A rabs hav e discov ered that this
w eapon is infinitely more effectiv e w hen it ceases to be destructiv e, hatefilled and murderous, and is instead put to the serv ice of univ ersally
recognised v alues liberty, democracy, integrity, transparency and the right
of ev ery human being to dignity and a decent life.
Yes, w e are desperate, countless A rab protesters said through their
actions. Yes, w e are ready to sacrifice ourselv es, but w e w ill die like saints,
like true marty rs, not like murderers. We w ill not kill and w e w ill not destroy.
S almiy ah! (We are peaceful!) the demonstrators chanted ev ery time anger
lev els rose, in order to calm their opponents and moderate their fellow
protesters. N o v iolence! We w ant only to liv e, to be able to express ourselv es
freely , to sing, and to connect w ith the rest of the w orld like y oung E uropeans
and A mericans and all other peoples. We are heirs to a great civ ilisation and
deserv e the best.
F rom the first uprisings, the crow d chanted famous lines by the Tunisian
poet A boul-Q acem E chebbi:
If the people one day desire life
It is inev itable that destiny grants it
It is inev itable that the darkness lifts . . .

The desire for life and preference for non-v iolent action w ere to remain a
deep inspiration to the mov ement. In this sense, the A rab spring of 2011
represents the most eloquent and in the long run the most effectiv e riposte
to the attacks of 11 S eptember 2001 and the jihadist ideology w hich inspired
Long before O sama bin Laden collapsed in a hail of U S commando bullets
in his compound in A bbottabad in M ay 2011, his strategy had already
collapsed in the streets of A rab tow ns. H e himself implicitly recognised this in
his last statement, w hich w as disseminated shortly after his death and differed
in both tone and content from his prev ious pronouncements: making no
mention of the armed struggle, he spoke bizarrely of representativ e
assemblies and research institutes, and concluded w ith a say ing of the P rophet
w hich states that the most v enerable of marty rs are those w ho stand up to
authority to accuse them and those w ho are killed for their courage in
speaking out.
O f course, terrorism such as w e hav e seen since the start of this century
w ill not disappear ov ernight; for some time to come it w ill retain its pow er to
do harm. But for the people in w hose name it claims to speak, it has now
been consigned to the past. In ov ercoming their fear of dictators, the A rabs
hav e ov ercome their indulgence tow ards terrorists.
U nder autocratic rule, militant extremists w ere sometimes like fish in
w ater. Their acts, how ev er absurd, seemed a plausible response to the
atmosphere of despair; and for lack of any alternativ e, many w ere w illing to
support them. Today, millions of men and w omen can hold their heads high
and say that they themselv es are heroes; they defied dictatorships, brav ed
police repression, stood directly in the line of fire and helped liberate their
people w ithout soiling their hands or blackening their souls.
U p until recently, the A rab w orld had been caught in the crossfire of tw o
groups of usurpers: those w ho seized pow er and w ealth in the name of the
nation or a dy nasty, or in the name of stability and the fight against
extremists; and those w ho inv oked the name of Islam to adv ance their ow n
intolerant, regressiv e political agenda.
What is more, these tw o ty pes of usurpation reinforced each other. U nder
the pretext of fighting terrorism, autocrats w on recognition, help and support;
w hen the lev el of this support sometimes flagged, some regimes had no
compunction about committing terrorist attacks themselv es, w hich they
attributed to the Islamists, so as to appear as a useful bulw ark to the
international community. The debate ov er w hether it w as religious fanatics or
state agents w ho bombed such and such a church, carried out a particular
massacre or assassinated a certain indiv idual w ill last a long time.

The w hole w orld seemed to believ e that this perv erse status quo w ould
last for ev er. H ow could it not, it w as said, since the people themselv es are
resigned to it? But the peoples patience w as not infinite.
The signal for the great uprising w as giv en by a y oung Tunisian street
v endor, M ohammed Bouazizi, w ho set fire to himself after a municipal official
slapped him in public and confiscated his v egetable cart. H e died after
eighteen day s of agony on 4 January 2011. H is act of despair w as seen by
his compatriots as a reflection of their ow n. But, they reasoned, if w e are
prepared to die, w hat is the sense of each of us dy ing in our ow n little corner?
Why not march against those w ho oppress and terrorise us? We may w ell be
arrested and beaten, ev en gunned dow n in our tens or hundreds, but at least
w e w ill hav e the satisfaction of dy ing w ith our heads held high, try ing to bring
dow n ty rants.
When, faced w ith this unexpected determination, the authorities seemed to
hesitate, retreat or w av er, it w as initially a marv ellous surprise and a terrific
incentiv e for the protesters to go all the w ay first in Tunisia, then in E gy pt
and then in other countries. M ore mass demonstrations sprang up, as did
clashes w ith the security forces. A nd established regimes, w hich w ere hated
by their people and had held on to their pow er for decades through
intimidation and terror, began to crumble one after the other like rotting
edifices: Zine-el-A bidine Ben A li left Tunis on 14 January, tw enty -three y ears
after the coup detat that brought him to pow er; H osni M ubarak left C airo on
11 F ebruary, in the thirtieth y ear of his presidency. The mov ement soon sent
shock w av es of v ary ing intensity through v arious A rab regimes.
A fter these first dazzling successes, there w as a feeling that peaceful
protest w as going to hav e an almost miraculous domino effect throughout the
entire region, linked in part to new means of communication F acebook,
Tw itter, YouTube, smartphones, etc. w hich w ould accelerate and amplify
the mov ement, giv ing it a resonance among both local populations and
international opinion. But subsequent ev ents soon tempered that initial
The turning point came first in Liby a. Demonstrations began in Benghazi
o n 15 F ebruary and rapidly spread throughout the country. U p until then,
C olonel M uammar G addafi, w ho had been in pow er for almost forty -tw o
y ears, seemed immov eable. S o it w as astonishing to see a scenario similar to
those in Tunisia and E gy pt beginning to be play ed out there, too. O f course,
from its earliest day s it w as v iolently repressed, creating hundreds of v ictims,
but the protests kept on grow ing and by the end of that w eek speculation had
begun as to the likely destination for the exile of the soon-to-be-ousted
dictator. There w ere persistent rumours that he w as already on his w ay to
V enezuela.

This w as premature. A t the critical point at w hich Ben A li and M ubarak

judged it futile to hang on and thought it better to go, G addafi dug his heels
in. O f course, he w as different from his neighbours in many w ay s his
personality, the structure of his regime, the topography of his country but
the most significant distinguishing feature at that crucial moment w as linked to
the nature of Liby as armed forces. In both Tunisia and E gy pt, the regular
army had not w anted to fire on civ ilians, leav ing that degrading task to the
police and special forces; in Liby a, the regular army carried little w eight and
the best-armed, most combat-hardened contingents reported directly to
G addafi and his sons; he decided therefore to use them to the limit and turn all
their fire pow er on the demonstrators. That allow ed him to retake Tripoli and
then launch a recov ery operation throughout the country. C onfronted w ith an
organised military offensiv e, peaceful marching in the streets and public
squares no longer made any sense. P rotesters seized w eapons they found in
the barracks in their tow ns, thereby becoming insurgents. A civ il w ar had
begun that w ould soon lead to international interv ention.
This escalation in the v iolence had repercussions elsew here in the region,
w here sev eral rulers felt that they could av oid being ov erthrow n by clinging
on to pow er, cracking dow n more sev erely, and ignoring the demands of their
people and the condemnation of the international community. There w ere, of
course, major differences betw een the Liby an situation and those of other
countries such as Yemen, Bahrain and S y ria, but it became clear from the first
w eeks of the y ear that peaceful protests w ould not be enough to bring dow n
A rab regimes, and that they w ould fight fiercely ev en sav agely to ensure
their surv iv al.
A s I w rite this preface, the initial rev olutionary w av e seems to hav e run
out of steam, and the pace of dramatic change, w hich w as gathering
momentum from w eek to w eek, or to be exact from one F riday to the next,
now seems to stretch ov er months and ev en y ears. Where the mov ement
has already w on v ictories, it has quickly reached the difficult and thankless
phase of reconstruction. N ew democratic institutions need to be established,
economies restarted, social tensions managed and all this in countries w here
the peoples expectations are huge and no leadership has emerged. This is
because w hat constitutes the rev olutionary mov ements strength their
spontaneity, the key role play ed by idealistic, imaginativ e and generally nonpartisan y oung people also constitutes their w eakness. Those w ho fought on
the internet, making good use of social netw orks and skilfully circumv enting
official censorship to put up v ideos show ing the security forces brutality,
succeeded as if by a miracle in sw eeping aw ay the regimes in pow er; but
they w ere not able to transform themselv es into gov ernments or
administrators. They had no option but to leav e pow er in the hands of the
military and experienced politicians w ho had distanced themselv es

sometimes v ery late in the day from the fallen despots, but w ho did not
necessarily share the ideals of the rebellious y oung people. A s a result, it is
hardly surprising that the transition is turning out to be long, faltering, troubled
and littered w ith pitfalls.
Will E gy pt, the most populous A rab country and the one w hich in the past
has often been their leader, especially at the time of G amal A bdel N asser, be
able to assume political, economic and social leadership once more? Will it be
able to construct a stable democracy, catch up in the field of education, define
the place of religion in public life, manage relations betw een different
communities, and giv e w omen full rights? A nd w ill Tunisia, w hich w as the
pioneer in the great uprising and w hich has alw ay s been at the v anguard of
social modernity in the A rab w orld, be able to come up w ith an adv anced
model that w ill inspire other countries?
O n this as on so many other scores, it w ould be presumptuous to make
predictions. If there is a lesson to be draw n from the ev ents of 2011, it is that
the future does not allow itself to be contained w ithin the limits of w hat is
foreseeable, plausible or probable. A nd it is precisely for that reason that it
contains hope.
While nations w hich hav e already freed themselv es get dow n to the
difficult task of transition, the struggle against dictatorial pow ers is proceeding
at different speeds in the rest of the M iddle E ast and N orth A frica. In some
countries, leaders seem irredeemably w eakened both domestically and
internationally, and it is conceiv able that w hen the protesters triumph, it w ill
giv e the w hole of the A rab uprising a new impetus. Because ev en if the
resilience of regimes has been strengthened, the peoples determination has
not been broken, despite bloody repression.
A ll the ingredients of the initial rev olt are still present, apart from the
element of surprise. The causes of unhappiness hav e not, of course,
disappeared quite the rev erse. F earful despots behav e w ith more ferocity
than ev er, thereby losing w hat little legitimacy they had retained in the ey es
of their subjects, w ho now regard them more as foreign occupiers than as
national leaders. A nd any mov es tow ards reform on the part of most of these
regimes remain timid, often no more than v ague promises intended to calm
the protesters passion w hile w aiting for the storm to pass so that business as
usual can be resumed.
A nd y et, in peoples minds, a great deal has changed, though those in
pow er often fail to realise how profoundly. A ll A rab societies hav e show n a
deep desire to liv e w ith dignity and a remarkable determination to fight to
achiev e it. It has often been said during this turbulent period that the A rabs
hav e put an end to the my th w hich suggests they are less hungry for

freedom than other peoples and less keen to liv e in representativ e

democracies. This my th has effectiv ely collapsed, but w hat has happened
goes much further than that. The A rabs hav e not just caught up; they hav e
not simply joined the group of democratic peoples: they hav e gone much
further. 2011 w ill not just go dow n in history as the A rab equiv alent of 1989
in C entral and E astern E urope. A t no point in recent history not ev en at the
fall of the Berlin Wall hav e w e seen tens of millions of people brav e death,
baring their chests to bullets, and grow ing neither tired nor discouraged, as w e
hav e seen in Taez, Zaw iy a, M anama or H oms, day after day, w eek after
w eek. N ow here in the w orld hav e w e seen such heroism. It is an exceptional,
unprecedented phenomenon, and perhaps the harbinger of a democratic
renew al w orldw ide.
The G erman poet H lderlin said: Where there is danger, some salv ation
grow s there too. The great uprising of the A rab people bears out his w ords.
F or my part, I w ould add: it is from those places w here the w orld has been
most disordered that in the next few decades the readjustment could come.
S o that a planet w hich is more peaceful, harmonious and human might be
born, and therefore one w hich is more capable of facing the common dangers
that lie ahead.
A min M aalouf
P aris, 31 M ay 2011

Rereading the pages that follow , I realised there w ere many things I w ould
hav e w ritten differently today, not so much at the lev el of fact, but certainly
of tone. F or w hile my diagnosis remains roughly the same, my state of mind
has undoubtedly changed. That A rab despair w hich I describe at length, I
w as experiencing it my self; I certainly did not relate to the suicidal and
regressiv e reactions w hich that despair had triggered; and although I hoped
for some kind of democratic uprising, I did not believ e it w ould come so
quickly . A fter pondering at length w hether I should alter the text in the light of
recent facts, I decided not to do so or only v ery little. It seemed to me that,
in both its analy sis and its tone, this essay represents a faithful image of the
state of mind w hich led to the spectacular ev ents w e hav e w itnessed, and
that it might prov ide a useful perspectiv e for understanding w hat happened
and w hat could still happen. I therefore chose not to make too many changes
and hav e limited any substantial additions to the P reface to the E nglish

E dition and the A fterw ord.

Preface to the Original Edition

We hav e embarked on this century w ithout a compass.
F rom its v ery first months, disturbing ev ents took place w hich created the
impression that the w orld had gone seriously off course in sev eral areas at
once it had gone off course intellectually, financially, env ironmentally,
geopolitically and ethically .
It is true that from time to time upheav als occur w hich bring unexpected
benefits. A t such times w e may begin to believ e that w hen humanity gets
itself into an impasse, it w ill inev itably find its w ay out by some miracle. But
soon after, other kinds of turbulence come along w hich rev eal quite different
human impulses darker, more familiar ones prompting one to w onder if
our species has reached its threshold of moral incompetence, and w hether
humanity is still adv ancing, or has in fact gone into rev erse, threatening to
undermine all that countless prev ious generations w orked to build.
To av oid any misunderstanding, let me emphasise that I am not one of
those people w ho w ant nothing to do w ith the modern w orld. I am fascinated
by w hat our age has to offer. I eagerly aw ait the latest inv entions and am
quick to adopt them. I am conscious of belonging to a generation that is highly
priv ileged compared to ev ery prev ious one, if only by dint of adv ances in
medicine and information technology. But I cannot calmly enjoy the benefits
of modernity if I am uncertain that generations to come w ill be able to enjoy
them just as much.
A re these fears disproportionate? S adly, I dont think so. In fact, they
strike me as fully justified, as I w ill try to show in this book. I shall do so not
in order to accumulate a mass of ev idence, nor to defend my belief out of
v anity but simply so that my cry of alarm is heard. M y main aim is to find a
w ay to persuade my contemporaries, my trav elling companions, that the ship
w e find ourselv es aboard has gone adrift. It is off course. It has no destination
and no compass, and it is hard to see the w ay ahead on a stormy sea.
E mergency action is required if w e are to av oid shipw reck. It is no longer
enough to stick to our current course, for better or w orse, somehow
nav igating by sight, av oiding obstacles as they rear up and leav ing it to time.
Time is not on our side; it is our judge, and a suspended sentence has already
been pronounced.
If maritime images come to mind spontaneously, perhaps I should first make
my fears explicit w ith this simple, clear assessment: at the present point in our
ev olution, humanity faces new dangers nev er before encountered in our
history. They call for unprecedented global solutions. If they are not found in

the near future, it w ill not be possible to sav e any of the things w hich giv e
our civ ilisation its greatness and beauty. Yet to date there are few indications
that prov ide reason to hope that humanity w ill be able to ov ercome its
differences, dev ise imaginativ e solutions and put them into effect. There are
many signs that suggest that the w orld is so sev erely out of joint that decline
w ill be hard to prev ent.
In the pages that follow , I shall not treat each different form of disorder
sy stematically or as a separate case study. M y approach w ill rather be that of
a nightw atchman in a garden in the small hours after a storm w hen another
more v iolent storm looms on the horizon. With his lantern, this man carefully
picks his w ay, shining its beam first on one flow er bed, then another,
exploring one path, then retracing his steps and bending ov er to inspect an old
uprooted tree. Then he makes for a promontory, puts out his light and tries to
take in the w hole scene.
H e is neither botanist, nor crop specialist, nor landscape gardener, and
nothing in the garden belongs to him personally. But this is w here he liv es
w ith people he cares about, and ev ery thing w hich might affect this land
matters greatly to him.

Misleading Victories

Chapter 1
When the Berlin Wall fell, a hopeful breeze blew across the w orld. The end of
the stand-off betw een the West and the S ov iet U nion remov ed the threat of a
nuclear catacly sm w hich had hung ov er our heads for forty y ears. We
believ ed that democracy w ould now gradually spread until it encompassed
the w hole planet; the barriers betw een countries w ould fall; the mov ement of
people, goods, images and ideas w ould dev elop unimpeded, ushering in an
era of progress and prosperity. O n each of these fronts there w ere some
remarkable adv ances to begin w ith. But the further w e w ent, the more
disorientated w e became.
A n example of this confusion is the E uropean U nion. F or the E U , the
disintegration of the S ov iet bloc w as a triumph. O ne of the tw o paths offered
to the continents peoples had turned out to be a dead end, w hile the other
opened onto new horizons. A ll the former countries of the E ast came knocking
at the E U s door, and those w hich w ere turned aw ay still dream of being
admitted. A nd y et, at the v ery moment of its triumph, w hen so many
peoples w ere grav itating tow ards it in a kind of dazed fascination as though it
w ere an earthly paradise, E urope lost its bearings. What w as it supposed to
be a union of ? A nd w hat w as its purpose? Who should it exclude and on w hat
grounds? N ow more than ev er, the E U is questioning its identity, its borders,
its future institutions, its place in the w orld. A nd it is not clear w hat the
answ ers are.
If the E U understands perfectly w ell how it came into being and is aw are
of the tragedies w hich conv inced its peoples of the need to unite, it is less
clear about the direction it should take from here. S hould it set itself up as a
federation akin to the U nited S tates of A merica, inspired by a continent-w ide
patriotism w hich w ill transcend and absorb those of its constituent nations?
S hould it possess not only economic and diplomatic pow er on the w orld stage,
but also political and military pow er? Would the E U be ready to take on such
a role, and the responsibilities and sacrifices that go along w ith it? O r should it
be content w ith being a flexible partnership betw een nations w hich jealously
guard their ow n sov ereignty and play ing a supporting role as a global pow er?
F or as long as the continent w as div ided into tw o riv al camps, dilemmas
such as these w ere irrelev ant. S ince then, they hav e become obsessiv e. O f
course, there w ill be no return to the era of E uropean w ars and no new Iron
C urtain. But it w ould be w rong to believ e that these questions are just
quarrels betw een politicians or among political scientists. The v ery destiny of
the continent is at stake.

I shall come back to this question in more detail later, as I believ e it is an

essential one and not just for the people of E urope. I w anted to mention it
here as an example of the loss of direction, the sense of disorientation and
disorder w hich affects humanity as a w hole and all of its constituent parts.
In truth, w hen I look at the v arious regions of the w orld, E urope w orries
me least, because it seems that more so than elsew here it has taken stock of
the scale of the challenges facing humanity ; because it has the necessary
people and institutions to debate them effectiv ely and w ork out solutions; and
because the E U prov ides a project to commit to and strong ethical concerns,
ev en if sometimes it seems to take them too readily for granted.
Regrettably there is nothing comparable elsew here. F or decades the A rabM uslim w orld had been sinking deeper and deeper into a historic pit from
w hich it seemed incapable of extricating itself. It felt rage against the w hole
w orld the West, the Russians, the C hinese, the H indus, the Jew s, and so on
and abov e all against itself. The countries of S ub-S aharan A frica, w ith rare
exceptions, are plagued by civ il w ars, epidemics, sordid trafficking,
w idespread corruption, disintegrating institutions, a fray ing social fabric, mass
unemploy ment and despair. Russia is struggling to recov er from sev enty
y ears of C ommunism and the chaotic w ay it ended; its leaders dream of
regaining their former pow er, w hile its people remain disillusioned. The U nited
S tates, meanw hile, hav ing defeated its principal global adv ersary, finds itself
engaged in a titanic enterprise w hich is w earing it dow n and leading it off
course: try ing to tame an untameable planet almost single-handed.
E v en C hina, w hich has experienced a spectacular rise, has reason to be
w orried. F or ev en if now , at the beginning of this century, its path seems
clear to relentlessly pursue economic dev elopment w hile carefully
preserv ing its cohesion as a society and a nation its future role as a political
and military pow er is beset w ith serious uncertainties, as much for C hina itself
as for its neighbours and the rest of the w orld. The A sian giant still possesses
a more or less reliable compass, but it is getting close to a point w here it w ill
no longer be of use.
In one w ay or another, all the people on earth are in the same storm.
Rich or poor, arrogant or dow ntrodden, occupiers or occupied, they are w e
are all aboard the same fragile raft and w e are all going dow n together. Yet
w e go on insulting and quarrelling w ith each other, w ithout heeding the rising
We might ev en cheer if a dev astating w av e heading tow ards us engulfed
our enemies first.

Chapter 2
There is another reason w hy I chose the E uropean U nion as my first
example: it prov ides a good demonstration of a phenomenon know n both to
historians and to each of us in our ow n liv es namely that failure may turn
out to be prov idential and success may turn to disaster. The end of the C old
War seems to me to be a deceptiv e ev ent of that sort.
The fact that E uropes triumph has caused it to lose its bearings is not the
only paradox of our times. O ne could argue in the same w ay that the Wests
strategic v ictory, w hich should hav e consolidated its supremacy, has
accelerated its decline; that the triumph of capitalism has precipitated the
w orst crisis in its history ; that the end of the balance of terror has created a
w orld obsessed w ith terror; and also that the defeat of a notoriously
repressiv e and anti-democratic S ov iet sy stem has greatly diminished the
quality of political debate all ov er the planet.
I w ant to focus on the last of these points first, to underline the fact that w ith
the end of bipolar confrontation w e w ent from a w orld in w hich div isions w ere
mainly ideological and the debate incessant to a w orld in w hich the div isions
are mainly on identity lines and leav e little room for debate. E v ery one asserts
his ow n allegiances in front of others, utters his curses, mobilises his ow n
people, demonises his enemies for w hat else is there to say ? A dv ersaries
today scarcely speak the same language.
That is not to say that I miss the intellectual climate of the C old War
(w hich w as not to begin w ith cold ev ery w here it splintered into numerous
side conflicts w hich cost millions of liv es, from Korea to A fghanistan, H ungary
to Indonesia, and V ietnam to C hile and A rgentina). It seems to me
nonetheless legitimate to deplore the fact that the w orld emerged from the
C old War at the low est lev el, by w hich I mean heading tow ards less
univ ersalism, rationality and secularism; tow ards a reinforcement of inherited
allegiances rather than acquired know ledge; and thus tow ards less open
During the ideological confrontation betw een M arxisms supporters and its
opponents, the w hole planet resembled a huge amphitheatre. In new spapers,
univ ersities, offices, factories, cafs and homes, most human societies w ere
buzzing w ith endless discussions of the pros and cons of this or that economic
sy stem, philosophy or w ay of organising society. S ince the defeat of
C ommunism, w hen it ceased to offer humanity a credible alternativ e, these
exchanges hav e lacked a subject. That may be w hy so many people hav e
turned their backs on their tattered utopias and sought shelter under the

reassuring roof of their community. It may also be the case that the political
and moral defeat of resolutely atheist M arxism has renew ed enthusiasm for
the beliefs and forms of solidarity w hich M arxism sought to root out.
The fact remains that, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, w e find ourselv es in
a w orld in w hich allegiances especially religious ones are stronger; in
w hich coexistence betw een different human communities is as a result a little
more difficult each day ; and in w hich democracy is constantly at the mercy of
identity politics and one-upmanship.
This slide from ideology to identity has had dev astating effects all across the
globe, but now here more so than in the A rab-M uslim w orld, w here religious
radicalism, long the preoccupation of a persecuted minority, has achiev ed
massiv e intellectual predominance w ithin most societies as w ell as in the
diaspora. In the course of its rise, this tendency began to adopt a v iolently
anti-Western stance.
This dev elopment, set in motion by the adv ent of A y atollah Khomeini in
1979, has become more pronounced since the end of the C old War. A s long as
the confrontation betw een the tw o blocs lasted, most Islamist mov ements
w ere markedly more hostile to communism than capitalism. They may nev er
hav e had any sy mpathy w ith the West, its politics, w ay of life or v alues, but
the M arxists militant atheism prov oked their hostility. A t the same time, the
Islamists local enemies, especially the A rab nationalists and left-w ing parties,
follow ed the opposite path, becoming allies or clients of the S ov iet U nion. This
alignment w as to hav e disastrous consequences for them, but it w as in a w ay
dictated by their history .
F or generations, the modernist elites of the A rab-M uslim w orld sought in
v ain to square the circle, that is to say, to E uropeanise w ithout giv ing in to
the hegemony of the E uropean pow ers w hich dominated countries from Jav a
to M orocco and w hich controlled their resources. Their independence struggles
had, after all, been fought against the British, F rench and Dutch, and each
time their countries tried to take control of key sectors of their economies, it
w as Western oil companies or in the case of E gy pt, the F ranco-British S uez
C anal C ompany that they came into conflict w ith. The emergence in
E astern E urope of a pow erful bloc w hich adv ocated rapid industrialisation,
touted the slogan friendship betw een peoples, and firmly opposed the
colonial pow ers struck many of them as a w ay out of this impasse.
In the aftermath of independence struggles, looking to the C ommunist
states seemed reasonable and promising. In hindsight, it turned out to be
disastrous. The elites of the A rab-M uslim w orld didnt achiev e dev elopment,
national liberation, democracy or social modernity ; all they got w as a local,

nationalistic brand of S talinism entirely lacking the attributes that had giv en
the S ov iet regime its international influence: its internationalist rhetoric, its
massiv e contribution to the defeat of N azism from 1941 to 1945, and its
ability to build a military pow er of the first order. Instead, all that the so-called
progressiv e A rab regimes w ere able to imitate w ere the S ov iet models
w orst defects: its tendency to xenophobia, police brutality, notoriously
ineffectiv e economic planning, as w ell as the confiscation of pow er by the
party, a clan or the leader. S addam H usseins secular regime w as a telling
example of this.
Deciding w hether to blame the age-old blindness of A rab societies or the ageold greed of Western pow ers matters little today. Both positions can be
defended and I shall return to them. What is certain and w hat w eighs
heav ily on the w orld today is that for sev eral decades the secular,
potentially modernising elements of the A rab-M uslim w orld fought against the
West, and in so doing headed dow n a dead end materially and morally, and
that the West fought back, often w ith dev astating effectiv eness, and
sometimes w ith the support of Islamic religious mov ements.
This w as not a true alliance, merely a tactical arrangement to confront a
pow erful common enemy. But it meant that at the end of the C old War the
Islamists w ere on the w inning side. Their influence on daily life became
v isible and far-reaching in all areas. N ow a large part of the population
identified w ith them, all the more strongly as they adopted all the social and
nationalist demands traditionally championed by the left and resistance
mov ements. While it remained based on the clear application of the precepts
of faith, often interpreted conserv ativ ely, Islamist discourse became politically
radical: more egalitarian, more supportiv e of the Third World, more
rev olutionary and more nationalistic and from the end of the tw entieth
century , resolutely hostile to the West and its protgs.
A comparison comes to mind in relation to this last point: in E urope, right-w ing
democrats and communists w ho had been allies against N azism during the
S econd World War found themselv es enemies in 1945. Likew ise, it w as
predictable that at the end of the C old War, the Islamists and the West w ould
become implacable foes. If somew here suitable for the touch paper to be lit
w as required, A fghanistan prov ided it. That w as w here these former allies
w ere last united in battle against the S ov iets; that w as w here, after their final
v ictory in the last decade of the tw entieth century, their breach became
definitiv e; and it w as from there that, on 11 S eptember 2001, a deadly attack
w as launched against the U S . The chain reaction w hich follow ed is w ell

know n inv asions, insurrections, executions, massacres, civ il w ars and

countless further terrorist attacks.

Chapter 3
The idea that the West is facing a handful of terrorists w ho take the name of
Islam in v ain and w hose actions are condemned by the v ast majority of
believ ers doesnt alw ay s match reality. It is true that monstrous acts of
carnage, such as the one perpetrated in M adrid in M arch 2004, arouse feelings
of disgust, aw kw ardness and sincere condemnation in the M uslim w orld. But if
y ou look closely at the different tribes w hich make up humanity today across
our planet, their reactions to terror attacks, like those to armed conflicts and
political show s of strength, are rarely the same: w hat causes some people to
feel outrage may be justified, excused or ev en applauded by others.
We are obv iously in the presence of tw o interpretations of history, w hich
cry stallise around different perceptions of the enemy . F or some, Islam has
show n itself incapable of adopting the univ ersal v alues adv ocated by the
West, w hile for others, the West abov e all possesses a w ill to univ ersal
domination, w hich M uslims hav e tried hard to resist w ith their limited
remaining resources.
F or someone able to listen to each tribe in its ow n language, as I hav e
done for many y ears, this spectacle is at once instructiv e, fascinating and
depressing. F or, as soon as y ou accept certain premises, ev ery thing can be
interpreted coherently w ithout needing to hear the other sides opinion.
If, for example, y ou accept the conjecture that the great calamity of our
time is the barbarity of the M uslim w orld, looking at Iraq w ill only confirm
y our v iew . You w ill see a bloody ty rant w hose reign of terror lasted a third of
a century ; w ho slaughtered his ow n people and squandered their oil w ealth on
luxuries and military spending; w ho inv aded his neighbours, defied the great
pow ers, became increasingly boastful, to the delight of the A rab masses,
before folding w ithout putting up a real fight. Then, after his fall, w atch as the
country sinks into chaos and see the different communities begin to massacre
each other, as if to say : You see, it took a dictator to keep a people like this
in line!
If, on the other hand, y ou take the cy nicism of the West for granted,
ev ents can be explained just as coherently : as a prelude there w ere sanctions,
w hich plunged a w hole nation into pov erty and cost the liv es of hundreds of
thousands of children but didnt ev er depriv e the dictator of his cigars. N ext
came an inv asion, justified on a false premise and carried out in contempt of
public opinion as w ell as international institutions, and motiv ated at least in
part by the desire to gain control of Iraqs oil resources. Then, follow ing the
U S v ictory, there w as the hasty and arbitrary dissolution of the Iraqi army
and machinery of state, the explicit implantation of communitarianism w ithin
its institutions as if it had been decided to plunge the country deliberately into

a state of permanent instability ; and for good measure, the barbaric acts of
A bu G hraib prison, sy stematic torture, endless humiliation, collateral damage,
innumerable blunders that hav e gone unpunished, looting, w aste . . .
To some, the case of Iraq demonstrates that the M uslim w orld is
imperv ious to democracy. To others, it rev eals the true face of Western
democratisation. E v en in the footage of the death of S addam H ussein, the
ferocity of the A mericans is as ev ident as that of the A rabs.
In my v iew , both positions are correct and both are w rong. E ach follow s its
ow n orbit around its public, w hich grasps its subtleties but doesnt hear the
opposing side. A s a result of my background and the course my life has
taken, I ought to belong w ithin each of these orbits at the same time, but I
feel my self grow ing daily more distant from them both.
This feeling of estrangement is not due to some desire to establish an
equiv alence of blame betw een these aspects of my identity. N or is it due
simply to my irritation at tw o ty pes of cultural obstinacy w hich are poisoning
the early y ears of this century and w hich, incidentally, are contributing to
destroy ing my nativ e land. M y criticism applies to the w ay both the West and
the A rab w orld hav e behav ed for many centuries and it ev en leads me to
question their raison dtre. The essence of my idea is that both hav e reached
the limits of w hat they could still achiev e as separate civ ilisations; that they
are both morally bankrupt, as are all the indiv idual civ ilisations that still div ide
humanity ; and that the moment has come to transcend them. E ither w e w ill
find a w ay this century to build a common civ ilisation w ith w hich ev ery one
can identify, bound together by the same univ ersal v alues, guided by a
pow erful faith in the human adv enture and enriched by all our cultural
div ersity , or else w e w ill descend together into a common barbarism.
What I resented most about the A rab w orld w as its lack of moral conscience,
and w hat I resented most about the West w as its propensity to turn its moral
conscience into an instrument of domination. A s a result, the Wests moral
credibility w as in perpetual decline and the A rabs moral credibility w as
practically non-existent.
N onetheless, I dont put the crises of my tw o civ ilisations on the same
lev el. C ompared to w hat it w as a thousand y ears ago, or three hundred, or
ev en fifty, the West has undeniably experienced great adv ances, w hich on
some lev els are still going on and ev en accelerating. M eanw hile, the A rab
w orld w as at its low est ebb, a cause of shame to its sons, its friends and its
history .

O ne highly rev ealing example has been and, unfortunately, still is its
ability to manage coexistence among its v arious religions and ethnic
components. When I w as y oung, relations betw een div erse M iddle E astern
communities w ere still, if not egalitarian and fraternal, at least civ il and
decent. S unni and S hia M uslims sometimes regarded each other w ith distrust,
but intermarriage w as common and the daily tit-for-tat massacres, w hich the
Iraqi tragedy has made commonplace, w ould hav e been unthinkable.
When it came to C hristian minorities, their situation w as nev er idy llic, but
they generally managed to surv iv e and prosper w hatev er the regime and
ev en prosper. A t no time since the birth of Islam hav e they felt themselv es
as marginalised, oppressed and ev en forced out as they do today in Iraq and
some other countries. H av ing become strangers in their ow n land, despite
liv ing there for centuries and sometimes ev en millennia, sev eral of these
communities w ill disappear in the course of the next tw enty y ears, w ithout it
causing much distress among their M uslim compatriots or their fellow
C hristians in the West.
A s for the Jew ish communities of the A rab w orld, their extinction is
already a fait accompli. There remain only here and there a few stoical
surv iv ors w hom the authorities and populace continually humiliate and
But, one might object, do Israel and the U S not bear some responsibility for
this state of affairs? Yes, probably, but that is a shabby excuse for the A rab
w orld to fall back on. Let us return to the example of Iraq. I believ e that the
erratic behav iour of the A merican occupier has contributed to plunging the
country into intercommunal v iolence. I am ev en ready to admit, ev en though
such cy nicism strikes me as monstrous, that a few sorcerers apprentices in
Washington and elsew here may hav e benefited from this bloodbath. But
w hen a S unni militant gets behind the w heel of a truck packed w ith
explosiv es and detonates it in a marketplace full of S hia families and this mass
murder is called resistance, and its perpetrator a hero or marty r by certain
fanatical clerics, there is no point in blaming others; it is the M uslim w orld itself
w hich needs to examine its conscience. What struggle is it engaged in? What
v alues is it defending? What meaning does it accord its beliefs?
The P rophet is reported to hav e said: The best of men is the one w ho is
most useful to his fellow men. It is a pow erful motto w hich sought to
prov oke some soul-searching among indiv iduals, leaders and peoples: w hat
are w e contributing to others and to ourselv es? In w hat w ay are w e useful
to our fellow men? A re w e guided by something other than suicidal despair,
w hich is the w orst form of sacrilege?

Chapter 4
The West, the other civ ilisation to w hich I belong, has a different predicament
from that of the A rab w orld, since it remains the model or at least the principal
point of reference for all of humanity. Yet it too finds itself in a historic
impasse today w hich is affecting its behav iour and contributing to a disordered
w orld.
If, at the beginning of this century, there is a nagging E astern question
w hich doesnt alw ay s seem as though it is progressing tow ards resolution,
there is also undeniably a Western question. A nd if the tragedy of the A rabs
is that they hav e lost their place among nations and feel unable to recov er it,
the tragedy of the West is to hav e assumed too large a global role, w hich it
can no longer entirely fulfil but from w hich it cannot extricate itself.
It goes w ithout say ing that the West has giv en humanity more than any
other civ ilisation. S ince the A thenian miracle tw o and a half thousand y ears
ago, and especially in the course of the last six hundred y ears, there is not a
field of know ledge, creativ ity, production or social organisation w hich for
better or for w orse does not bear the stamp of E urope or its N orth A merican
offshoot. Western science has become science tout court; Western medicine is
medicine, just as Western philosophy is sy nony mous w ith philosophy. Its
v arious doctrines, from the most liberating to the most totalitarian, hav e been
recreated under distant skies. E v en those w ho fight against Western
dominance do so w ith phy sical and intellectual tools w hich the West inv ented
and spread around the rest of the w orld.
With the end of the C old War, Western hegemony seemed to hav e
crossed a new threshold. Its economic, political and social sy stems had
demonstrated their superiority and appeared to be on the point of
encompassing the w hole w orld. There w as ev en some premature talk of the
E nd of H istory , since the w hole w orld w as now going to melt peacefully into
the mould of the v ictorious West.
But H istory is not the w ise and biddable v irgin of ideologues dreams.
A nd so in the field of economics, the triumph of the Western model has led
paradoxically to a w eakening of the West.
F reed from the shackles of central planning, C hina and then Indias
economies rapidly took off; these w ere tw o peaceful rev olutions w hich w ere
brought about quietly by unassuming people, but they are in the process of
permanently changing the balance of the w orld.
I n 1978, tw o y ears after the death of M ao Zedong, pow er fell to Deng

Xiaoping, a little 74-y ear-old man w ho had miraculously escaped the purges of
the C ultural Rev olution. H e immediately ordered the distribution of prev iously
collectiv ised land to some of the peasants and allow ed them to sell a
proportion of their harv est. The results w ere conv incing: productiv ity
increased tw o-, three- and in some cases fourfold. G oing further, the C hinese
leader decided that, rather than being told by the local authorities, the
peasants could henceforth choose for themselv es w hat to plant. P roduction
increased again. A nd so it began. By small steps and w ithout earth-shattering
declarations or mass demonstrations, the old unproductiv e sy stem w as
progressiv ely dismantled, progressiv ely and y et at the speed of light,
probably through the multiplier effect resulting from the size of the country s
population. F or example, w hen the authorities lifted the ban on small family
businesses in the country side such as grocers, stalls and repair shops
tw enty -tw o million of them sprang up, employ ing thirty -fiv e million people.
When it comes to C hina, one constantly has the impression of turning the
pages of a book of records: for example, the number of sky scrapers in
S hanghai in 1988 w as fifteen, but w ithin tw enty y ears it had risen to fiv e
thousand more than N ew York and Los A ngeles combined.
But there are phenomena w hich do not depend on a giant scale, and
w hich may ev en be made more difficult by it, such as the grow th in G DP,
w hich has hov ered around an av erage of 10 per cent for thirty y ears,
enabling the C hinese economy to ov ertake successiv ely those of F rance, the
U K, and then G ermany in the first decade of the tw enty -first century .
In India, the dismantling of the planned economy took place just as
calmly and w ith consequences that w ere equally astonishing. In July 1991,
the Indian gov ernment had to face a major financial crisis w hich threatened
imminent bankruptcy. In response, the finance minister M anmohan S ingh
decided to relax some of the restrictions w hich hampered business. U p to that
point, the country had had extremely restrictiv e law s w hich obliged businesses
to obtain a permit for ev ery transaction: import permits, foreign exchange
permits, inv estment permits, permits to increase production, and so on. A s
soon as the economy w as freed from these shackles, it took off.
What I hav e described in a few brief paragraphs constitutes a huge and
unexpected adv ance for the w hole of humanity, one of the most exciting in
history. The tw o most populous countries on the planet, accounting for half of
w hat w e used to call the Third World, are beginning to emerge from
underdev elopment. O ther countries in A sia and Latin A merica seem to be
follow ing suit. The traditional div ision of the w orld into the industrial N orth and
the impov erished S outh is gradually fading.

In retrospect, the economic rise of these great E astern nations w ill

probably appear the most spectacular consequence of the collapse of state
socialism. V iew ing it from the perspectiv e of humanity as a w hole, one can
only applaud. S een from a Western standpoint, the joy is mixed w ith
apprehension, for these new industrial giants are not only business partners;
they also represent formidable riv als and potential enemies.
We are no longer in the traditional scenario of the S outh offering cheap but
inefficient labour. If C hinese and Indian w orkers are still less demanding and
may remain so in the foreseeable future, they are better and better qualified
and highly motiv ated. A re they less inv entiv e, as is often claimed in the
West, sometimes w ith a heav y hint of cultural or ethnic prejudice? If that is
still the case today, the situation is likely to change as the men and w omen of
the S outh become more self-confident, freer and less hampered by social
hierarchies and intellectual conformity. Within a generation or tw o they could
go from imitation v ia adaptation to innov ation. The histories of these great
peoples rev eal that they are capable of it: porcelain, gunpow der, paper, the
rudder, the compass, v accination and the concept of zero are all testament to
that. What these A sian societies once lacked they hav e now acquired or are in
the process of acquiring under Western guidance. F reed from the caprices of
pow er and opposition to change, hav ing suffered the defeats, humiliations and
pov erty of the past, they seem at last ready to face the future.
The West has w on; it has imposed its model. But by its v ery v ictory, it has
P erhaps it w ould be useful to distinguish here betw een the univ ersal,
diffuse and implicit West, w hich has inv aded the souls of all the nations of the
earth, and the particular, geographic, political, ethnic West of the w hite nations
of E urope and N orth A merica. It is the latter w hich today finds itself at an
impasse, not because its civ ilisation has been ov ertaken by others, but
because it has been adopted by others, depriv ing it of w hat constituted its
specificity and superiority up to now .
With hindsight, perhaps w e shall say that the attraction exerted by the
S ov iet sy stem on the countries of the S outh paradoxically delay ed the decline
of the West. A s long as C hina, India and many other centrally planned
economies of the Third World remained prisoners of an economic model that
did not w ork, they did not represent a threat to the Wests economic
supremacy they in fact thought that they w ere fighting against it. They had
to free themselv es from that illusion and resolutely follow the dy namic path of
capitalism before beginning to challenge the w hite mans supremacy in

The Western nations experienced a golden age w ithout realising it w hen

they w ere the only ones w ho possessed an economic sy stem that w orked. In
the competitiv e global env ironment that they did all in their pow er to create,
they now seem condemned to dismantle entire sectors of their economy
almost all of industrial manufacturing has gone, along w ith a grow ing part of
the serv ice sector.
The situation is particularly acute for E urope, w hich, to put it simply, is
caught in the crossfire betw een A sia and the U S , by w hich I mean betw een
the commercial competition of the emerging nations and the strategic
competition of the U S , w hose effects are felt in cutting-edge industries such as
aeronautics and military technology. To that w e can add the further
considerable E uropean handicap: its lack of control ov er its gas and oil
supplies, most of w hich are concentrated in the M iddle E ast and Russia.
A nother important consequence of the economic take-off of the A sian giants is
that now millions of people hav e access to a sty le of consumption from w hich
they w ere prev iously excluded.
O ne can smile indulgently or become outraged at certain excesses, but no
one can legitimately deny these people the right to ow n w hat people in rich
nations hav e long ow ned fridges, w ashing machines, dishw ashers, and all
the products that go w ith them; hot w ater to w ash in, clean w ater to drink,
plentiful food; also medical care, education, leisure time, trav el, and so on.
U nless bloody and absurd ty rannies are established across the planet to
return these nations to pov erty and serv itude, I do not see how they can be
prev ented from doing w hat for decades they hav e been encouraged to do:
w ork harder, earn more, improv e their liv es, and consume more and more.
F or sev eral generations, including my ow n, and especially for those of us
w ho w ere born in the countries of the S outh, the struggle against
underdev elopment w as the logical extension of the struggle for independence.
Independence seemed the easier challenge; the hard battle against pov erty,
ignorance, incompetence, social apathy and epidemics seemed as though it
w ould take centuries. That the most populous nations hav e been able to take
off before our ey es represents a sort of miracle w hich nev er ceases to amaze
That said, I must add on a less subjectiv e note that the dizzy ing grow th
of the middle classes in C hina, India, Russia and Brazil and all ov er the
planet is a reality w hich the w orld as it currently w orks does not seem able
to accommodate. If in the near future three or four billion human beings w ere
to begin consuming per capita as much as E uropeans or Japanese by head of
population not to mention A mericans it goes w ithout say ing that w e

w ould see the w orld go ev en further off course, ecologically as w ell as

economically. I scarcely need add that Im not talking about some distant
future but the immediate one, perhaps ev en the present. The pressure on
natural resources especially oil, w ater, raw materials, meat, fish, cereals, etc
and the struggles ov er the regions w here they are produced; the
determination of those w ho hav e them to hold on to them, and of those w ho
do not to acquire them; all this prov ides enough fuel for innumerable deadly
There is no doubt that these tensions w ill be lessened in a period of global
economic recession in w hich w e w ill consume less, produce less and w orry
less about resources running out. But that relativ e lull w ill be more than
compensated for by the tensions produced by the crisis itself. H ow w ill nations
respond if their hopes of economic dev elopment are subject to a sudden brutal
interruption? What social upheav als, w hat ideological and political follies, w hat
military campaigns w ould such frustrations lead to? The only similar ev ent to
w hich w e can compare this is the G reat Depression of 1929. That led to social
catacly sm, to an unleashing of fanaticisms, to local conflicts, and to a
w orldw ide conflagration.
We can reasonably hope that the most extreme scenarios w ill not be
repeated. But there w ill inev itably be shocks and upheav als from w hich
humanity w ill emerge transformed; no doubt battered, bruised and
traumatised, but perhaps also more mature, more adult and more conscious
than before of sharing a common adv enture on its frail raft.

Chapter 5
The reduction of the Wests share of the w orld economy, w hich began
tow ards the end of the C old War, has been accompanied by serious
consequences w hich ev en now are not y et fully measurable.
O ne of the most w orry ing is that Western pow ers, especially the U nited
S tates, seemed tempted to preserv e through military superiority w hat they
could no longer preserv e through economic superiority or moral authority .
This may be the most paradoxical and perv erse consequence of the end of
the C old War: an ev ent that w as supposed to bring peace and reconciliation
has in fact been follow ed by a w hole sequence of conflicts, w ith A merica
going from one w ar to another w ithout pause as though that had become the
method of gov ernance for the w orlds only superpow er rather than a last
The deadly attacks of 11 S eptember 2001 do not fully explain this
tendency. They may hav e reinforced it and partially legitimised it, but by and
large it w as already under w ay .
In December 1989, six w eeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the U S
interv ened militarily in P anama against G eneral N oriega. This expedition
resembled a police raid and serv ed as a w arning: no one should be under any
illusion about w ho w as in charge of the planet and w ho had simply to obey.
I n 1991 there follow ed the first G ulf War; in 19923 the ill-fated mission in
S omalia; in 1994 the interv ention in H aiti to install Jean-Bertrand A ristide in
pow er; in 1995 the w ar in Bosnia; in December 1998 the massiv e bombing
campaign in Iraq dubbed O peration Desert F ox; in 1999 the Kosov o conflict;
from 2001 the w ar in A fghanistan and from 2003 the second G ulf War; in
2004 another interv ention in H aiti, this time to remov e P resident A ristide. A nd
that doesnt ev en include the punitiv e bombings or smaller-scale military
actions in C olombia, S udan, the P hilippines, P akistan and elsew here.
In each of these cases, a clear-sighted observ er might be able to detect
some legitimate motiv es along w ith others w hich are mere pretexts. But the
abundance of examples is in itself disconcerting, as if military interv ention had
become a method of planetary gov ernance is how I referred to it. M ore than
once since the beginning of this century, it has crossed my mind that the truth
may be y et more sinister and that these operations w ere carried out to set an
example, as w hen colonial pow ers in the past sought to instil fear in the hearts
of their indigenous subjects to quash any desire to rev olt.

S ome of the most dubious military interv entions w ill remain associated w ith
G eorge W. Bush, and it is in part because of the Iraq War that the U S
electorate v oted Barack O bama and the Democrats into office. It remains to
be seen how far the tendency tow ards interv entionism is linked to one
administrations political choices, and to w hat extent it is determined by
A mericas position in the w orld: that of a country w hose economic pow er is
inexorably slipping, w hich is clearly liv ing bey ond its means and getting ev er
deeper into debt, and y et w hich possesses indisputable military superiority.
H ow could it resist the temptation to play this trump card to compensate for
its w eakness in other areas?
Whatev er its presidents feelings or its political conv ictions, the U S can no
longer allow its grip on the w orld to w eaken, nor lose control of the resources
such as oil w hich are essential to its economy ; nor can it allow unimpeded
freedom of mov ement to the forces w hich w ould harm it or look on passiv ely
as riv al pow ers emerge w hich could one day challenge its supremacy. If
A merica gav e up its close and energetic management of w orld affairs, it
w ould probably be sucked into a spiral of declining pow er and declining
That does not mean that sy stematic interv entionism is the right answ er to
check decline; in fact, to judge by the first y ears of this century, it has
speeded it up. But w ould an alternativ e policy hav e the opposite effect? It
may be w orth try ing, but w hen a pow er loses its grip, the spontaneous
reaction of its enemies is to ov erw helm it and attack it rather than express
gratitude. The West w as much more respectful of Brezhnev s U S S R than
G orbachev s, w hich it humiliated, plundered and dismantled, creating a deep
feeling of resentment among the Russian people. A nd the leaders of the
Iranian rev olution w ere pitiless w ith P resident C arter, as he had had scruples
about conducting an aggressiv e policy .
What this means is that the Wests dilemma ov er its relations w ith the rest
of the w orld w ould not be miraculously resolv ed if Washington suddenly
altered its behav iour on the international stage. But such a change of attitude
on the part of the sole superpow er might prov e to be crucial if w e still hope
for an era of trust and solidarity among all nations.
S ome analy sts make a distinction betw een hard and soft pow er. By the latter
they mean the v arious w ay s in w hich a state can exercise its authority
w ithout alw ay s hav ing recourse to its armed forces. S talins inability to
understand this sort of pow er led him to ask how many div isions the P ope
possessed. M oreov er, the day the S ov iet U nion collapsed, from a strictly
military perspectiv e it still had the means to annihilate its enemies. But v ictory

and defeat are not decided by armoured div isions, megatonnage of bombs or
number of missile nose-cones. Those things are just one factor among many,
and w hile great quantities of deadly w eapons are undoubtedly necessary to
maintain a great pow er, they are by no means sufficient. In any confrontation
betw een indiv iduals, groups or states, numerous factors come into play w hich
may be a matter of phy sical pow er, economic capacity or moral influence. In
the case of the S ov iet U nion, it is clear that it w as morally discredited and
economically crippled, w hich made its formidable military might useless.
C onv ersely, at the end of the C old War, the West possessed
ov erw helming superiority in all three domains at once: military, thanks in
particular to A merican pow er; economic, as a result of the financial, industrial
and technological predominance of both E urope and the U S ; and moral, by
v irtue of its model of society, w hich had just defeated its most dangerous
riv al, C ommunism. This threefold superiority should hav e allow ed the West to
gov ern the w orld w ith subtlety, sometimes using the carrot and sometimes
the stick, firmly discouraging rebellious enemies but offering ev ery one else
substantial adv antages to allow them to escape underdev elopment and
ty ranny .
That being so, it seemed reasonable to predict that recourse to arms
w ould be v ery much the exception after the fall of C ommunism, and that it
w ould be enough for the West to highlight the superiority of its ow n economic
sy stem and model of society in order to preserv e its supremacy. M ore or less
the opposite has happened. The Wests economic supremacy has been eroded
by the rise of the A sian giants, not to mention Russia and Brazil, and recourse
to arms has become commonplace.
The Wests moral supremacy has also been eroded, w hich is paradoxical to
say the least, giv en that the Western model has no competitor and the appeal
of the E uropean and A merican lifesty le is stronger than ev er not only in
Warsaw and M anila, but also in Tehran, M oscow , C airo, S hanghai, C hennai,
H av ana and ev ery w here else. Yet there exists a real problem of trust
betw een the centre and the periphery. It is a problem w hich is rooted in the
unhealthy relationship that w as established in prev ious centuries betw een the
Western pow ers and the rest of the w orld, and w hich today contributes to
making people unable to manage their div ersity, formulate shared v alues or
env isage a common future. A nd that makes them incapable of facing today s
grow ing dangers.

Chapter 6
P art of the reason w hy the West has been unable to take full adv antage of its
v ictory ov er C ommunism is that it has not managed to share its prosperity
bey ond its cultural borders.
F or example, the spectacular effects of the E uropean project, w hich
enabled sev eral countries in the south and then the east of the continent to
catch up after centuries of being left behind, has nev er managed to cross the
narrow S trait of G ibraltar and reach the other side of the M editerranean.
There today there exists a high w all w hich may be inv isible but is none the
less as real, cruel and dangerous as the one w hich used to div ide E urope.
The millennial crisis in the M uslim w orld may be responsible in part; it
may ev en be the most significant factor. But it is certainly not the only one.
Because if y ou look at the N ew World a v ast territory w here Islam has
nev er taken root y ou w ill see a similar phenomenon: the U nited S tates has
been unable to extend its prosperity to its M exican neighbour south of the Rio
G rande, to the point that the A mericans felt the need to build their ow n
protectiv e w all (a real one in this case), w hich has caused distrust and
resentment throughout Latin A merica, a continent w hich is, of course, as
C hristian as E urope and N orth A merica.
This makes me think that the failings of the M uslim w orld, how ev er real
and tragic they may be, are not the w hole story. The Western w orld has its
ow n historical blind spots and moral failures. A nd it is often these blind spots
and moral failures that hav e coloured the experience of subjugated peoples
ov er the last few centuries. When the U nited S tates is mentioned in C hile or
N icaragua, or F rance in A lgeria or M adagascar, or G reat Britain in Iran, C hina
or the M iddle E ast, or H olland in Indonesia, the names that come to mind are
not Benjamin F ranklin, C ondorcet, H ume and E rasmus.
The Western reaction to this issue today is often an impatient one along the
lines of: S top blaming us! S top beating us up ov er this! N ot all the w orlds
troubles are the fault of colonialism. This is an understandable reaction, and
strikes a chord w ith many people w ho, like me, w ere born in countries of the
S outh and get irritated w hen they hear their compatriots blaming the colonial
period for all their w oes. That period did undoubtedly cause lasting traumas,
especially in A frica, but the period since independence has often prov en to be
y et more disastrous, and I for one hav e no time for the countless
incompetent, corrupt or ty rannical leaders w ho are alw ay s quick to offer the
conv enient excuse of colonialism.
I believ e that the period of the F rench mandate in my ow n country,

Lebanon, w hich lasted from 1918 to 1943, and also the final phase of the
O ttoman presence (18641914), w ere much less harmful than the v arious
regimes w hich hav e succeeded them since independence. It may be politically
incorrect to set it dow n in black and w hite, but this is how I read the facts. (A
similar pattern can be seen in sev eral other countries, but out of tact I shall
mention only my ow n.)
But if the excuse of colonialism is no longer acceptable to justify the failure
of leadership in the Third World, the issue of the unhealthy relationship
betw een the West and its former colonies remains crucial. It cant be shrugged
off w ith a quip or an irritated grumble.
F or my part, I remain conv inced that Western civ ilisation has contributed
more than any other to the creation of univ ersal v alues, but it has prov ed
unequal to the task of transmitting them effectiv ely. The w hole of humanity
is now pay ing the price for this failure.
The easy explanation is that other peoples are not ready for the
transplant. This is a tenacious idea w hich gets passed on unquestioningly from
generation to generation and century to century, so obv ious does it seem. Its
most recent outing came w ith the w ar in Iraq. The A mericans mistake, so it
is alleged, w as w anting to impose democracy on a people w ho didnt w ant
it. The statement is uttered like a judgement w hich admits of no appeal, and
ev ery one gets something out of it, both Washingtons detractors and its
supporters: the former mock the folly of such an undertaking and the latter
praise its naiv e nobility. S uch is the cunning of this receiv ed idea, w hich fits
ev ery shade of opinion and intellectual fashion. To those w ho are respectful of
other peoples, it seems respectful; but those w ho are contemptuous or ev en
racist also hav e their prejudices confirmed.
It is an assertion w ith the appearance of a realistic assessment; but from
my point of v iew it is quite simply the opposite of the truth. What really
happened in Iraq is that the U S w as unable to bring democracy to a people
w ho longed for it.
E v ery time the Iraqis hav e had the chance to v ote, they hav e flocked in
their millions, ev en at the risk of their liv es. Is there any other people on
earth w ho w ould hav e queued outside polling stations in the certain
know ledge that there w ould be suicide and car bombs? These are the people
w ho w e are told did not w ant democracy. This is repeated in the papers and
in debates on the radio and on TV, and almost no one takes the time to
examine it critically .

The other part of the assertion that the U S w anted to impose democracy
strikes me as equally dubious. It is possible to come up w ith more or less
credible reasons that may hav e influenced the U S decision to inv ade the
country in 2003: the fight against terrorism and regimes suspected of aiding
terrorists; the fear of a rogue state dev eloping w eapons of mass destruction;
the desire to get rid of a leader w ho threatened the monarchies of the G ulf
and w orried Israel; the w ish to control the oil fields; and so on. E xplanations
w ith psy choanaly tic ov ertones hav e ev en been put forw ard: for example,
that P resident Bush w ished to finish off the job that his father had left
incomplete. But no serious observ er, none of the w itnesses or researchers
w ho hav e combed through the accounts of meetings at w hich the decision to
go to w ar w as taken and w ho hav e produced a v oluminous literature in
recent y ears, has reported a shred of ev idence to suggest that the real motiv e
for the inv asion w as to install democracy in Iraq.
While it w ould be pointless to base a judgement on intent, it must be
conceded that from the v ery first w eeks of the occupation, the U S authorities
put in place a sy stem of political representation based on religious or ethnic
origin, w hich immediately triggered outbreaks of v iolence unprecedented in
the country s history. F rom my ow n firsthand experience in Lebanon and
elsew here, I can attest to the fact that communitarianism nev er causes
democracy to flourish, to put it mildly. C ommunitarianism is a negation of the
v ery idea of citizenship, and a civ ilised political sy stem cannot be built on such
a foundation. F or all that it is crucial to take account of the different
constituents that make up a nation (in a w ay that is subtle, flexible and
implicit, so that ev ery citizen feels he or she is represented), it is nonetheless
pernicious and ev en destructiv e to set up a quota sy stem w hich div ides the
nation permanently into riv al tribes.
That the great A merican democracy brought the Iraqi people this poisoned
gift of sacrosanct communitarianism is a shame and an indignity. If it w as
done out of ignorance, it is distressing; if it w as a cy nical calculation, it is
It is true that before the inv asion and throughout the conflict there w as much
talk of freedom and democracy. S uch utterances hav e been a matter of
course ev ery w here and alw ay s. Whatev er the objectiv es of a military
operation, it is preferable to say that it w as undertaken for justice, progress or
civ ilisation; for G od and his prophets; for w idow s and orphans; and also, of
course, for legitimate self-defence and out of a lov e of peace. N o leader
w ants people to say that his real motiv es w ere v engeance, greed, fanaticism,

intolerance, the w ill to dominate or the desire to silence his opponents. The
role of propagandists is to conceal the real aims behind noble disguises, and
the role of free citizens is to scrutinise their actions to strip aw ay the lies that
cloak them.
That said, in the w ake of the attacks of 11 S eptember 2001 there w as
undoubtedly in the U nited S tates a brief infatuation w ith spreading
democracy. When the nationalities of the members of the suicide squad
became know n, some officials expressed the opinion that A merica w ould be
safer if the A rab w orld w ere gov erned by democratic, modernising regimes,
and that the country had been w rong until then to support obscurantists and
autocrats w hose only v irtue had been their w illingness to be aligned w ith
Washington. S houldnt these clients hav e been required to share some of the
v alues rev ered by their protector?
This infatuation translated into high-flow n slogans such as the G reater
M iddle E ast or the N ew M iddle E ast misfired. I shall not dw ell therefore on
this episode, but perhaps I may express en passant my astonishment at this
spectacle: the leader of the Western democracies w ondering at the daw n of
the tw enty -first century if it might not be a good idea after all to support the
emergence of democratic regimes in E gy pt, A rabia, P akistan and the rest of
the M uslim w orld. H av ing encouraged almost ev ery w here pow ers w hose first
v irtue w as stability w ithout looking too closely at how they maintained it;
hav ing supported ultra-conserv ativ e leaders w ithout w orry ing about the
ideology upon w hich their conserv atism w as based; hav ing trained highly
repressiv e security and police forces, especially in A sia and Latin A merica,
now the great A merican democracy w ondered if it w ouldnt be a good idea
after all to play the democracy card.
But this fine idea w as soon forgotten: after three laps of the track, the
land of A braham Lincoln reached the conclusion that all this w as much too
risky ; that feelings w ere running so high that free elections w ould bring the
most radical elements to pow er almost ev ery w here; and that it w as better
therefore to stick to tried and tested solutions. Democracy w ould hav e to
w ait.

Chapter 7
In the months that led up to the inv asion of Iraq, S ecretary of S tate C olin
P ow ell often found himself in the most aw kw ard situation imaginable: hav ing
to conv ince the w hole w orld that the w ar absolutely had to go ahead, w hile
in priv ate making great efforts to persuade his president not to proceed.
In a one-to-one meeting at the White H ouse on 13 January 2003 he
reportedly w arned him: You break it, y ou ow n it. It is a policy that some
shops apply, according to w hich a customer w ho breaks an item has to pay
for it. P ow ell spelled it out to the president in the follow ing terms: You are
going to be the proud ow ner of tw enty -fiv e million people. You w ill ow n all
their hopes, aspirations, and problems. Youll ow n it all.
C olin P ow ells w arning did not just hold good for those w ho w ere about to
break Iraq. In a single sentence, this son of Jamaican immigrants, w ho had
become chief of the U S armed forces and then in charge of its foreign policy,
had defined the historical responsibility of v ictors and put his finger on the
perennial problem of Western pow ers: as soon as they had established their
hegemony ov er the w hole planet, demolishing the political, social and cultural
structures that used to prev ail, they became moral guardians of the future of
conquered peoples and should hav e thought seriously about the w ay in w hich
they behav ed tow ards them w hether they should w elcome them in
gradually like adopted children, apply ing the same law s to them as to
E uropeans, or simply tame them, subdue them and crush them.
A child can tell the difference betw een an adoptiv e mother and a
stepmother. A people can tell the difference betw een liberators and occupiers.
C ontrary to the receiv ed idea, the perennial fault of the E uropean pow ers is
not that they w anted to impose their v alues on the rest of the w orld, but
precisely the opposite: it is that they hav e constantly renounced their ow n
v alues in their dealings w ith the peoples they hav e dominated. A s long as this
misunderstanding remains, w e w ill run the risk of falling into the same error
The first of these v alues is univ ersality, the belief that humanity is one.
Div erse, but one. That being so, it is an unforgiv able error to compromise on
fundamental principles on the perennial pretext that others are not ready to
adopt them. There is not one set of human rights for E urope and another for
A frica, A sia and the M uslim w orld. N o people on earth is made for slav ery,
ty ranny, arbitrary pow er, ignorance, obscurantism or the subjugation of
w omen. E v ery time this fundamental truth is ov erlooked, w e betray
humanity and w e betray ourselv es.

I happened to be in P rague in December 1989, as the demonstrations against

C eausescu w ere beginning in Bucharest. Immediately there w as a
spontaneous expression of solidarity w ith the Romanian people in the C zech
capital, w hich had recently been liberated in the V elv et Rev olution. O n a
sign near the cathedral someone had w ritten in E nglish: C eausescu, y ou dont
belong in E urope! The anger of the anony mous sign-w riter w as
understandable, but his w ay of expressing it shocked me. I w anted to ask him
on w hat continent a dictator w ould belong.
S adly, w hat this person naiv ely expressed is a w idely held v iew . A
dictator w ho w ould not be tolerable in E urope becomes acceptable w hen he
plies his trade on the other side of the M editerranean. Does this constitute a
mark of respect for others? Respect for dictators, certainly, and therefore
contempt for the people w ho endure them and for the v alues that
democracies are supposed to promote.
But, some people may reply, isnt that the only realistic attitude? I dont
think so. N ot only is it w rong; it does not ev en make for a good bargain.
When the West compromises its moral credibility, it also compromises its
position in the w orld and ultimately its security, stability and prosperity. The
West used to believ e it could do so w ith impunity ; now w e know that
ev ery thing comes at a price and that ev en old debts fall due. The statute of
limitations is an inv ention of law makers; in peoples memories, it does not
exist. O r to be more precise, people w ho come through and manage to escape
pov erty, abasement and marginalisation, end up forgiv ing, w ithout alw ay s
abandoning their fears; those w ho do not come through dw ell on it for ev er.
This leads me to pose the crucial question again: hav e the Western pow ers
really tried to transplant their v alues in their former possessions?
U nfortunately not. Whether in India, A lgeria or elsew here, they hav e nev er
accepted that the indigenous peoples they gov ern should celebrate liberty,
equality, democracy, the spirit of enterprise or the rule of law ; indeed, they
hav e ev en constantly repressed them w henev er they hav e demanded these
S o much so that the elites in colonised countries hav e had no choice but to
seize those denied v alues themselv es, against the w ishes of their colonisers,
and turn them on their colonisers.
A detailed, dispassionate reading of the colonial era show s that there hav e
alw ay s been exceptional characters among the E uropeans: administrators,

soldiers, missionaries, intellectuals and some explorers such as S av orgnan de

Brazza, w hose behav iour w as generous, equitable, sometimes ev en heroic,
and certainly in keeping w ith the precepts of their faith and the ideals of their
civ ilisation. The colonised sometimes remember such characters; that is
probably w hy the C ongolese retained the name of Brazzav ille.
But they w ere the exceptions. A s a general rule, the policy of the Western
pow ers w as mainly dictated by greedy companies and colonists w ho
jealously guarded their priv ileges and feared nothing so much as the
adv ancement of the nativ es. When from time to time an administrator sent
from E urope adv ocated a different policy, they tried to influence him w ith
bribes or intimidation. If he prov ed stubborn, arrangements w ere made to get
him recalled. O nce in a w hile, a civ il serv ant deemed to be idealistic w as
my steriously killed, as probably happened to Brazza . . .
It is often said that the West ev en alienated the most modernist elites in the
countries of the S outh. This statement is so incomplete as to be misleading. It
seems to me that it w ould be more accurate to say that the West has
alienated ev en the modernist elites, w hile it has constantly found
accommodations, common ground and conv ergences of interests w ith
regressiv e forces.
The Wests tragedy, today as it has been for centuries, is that it is
perpetually torn betw een its desire to civ ilise the w orld and the w ill to
dominate it tw o irreconcilable impulses. E v ery w here it has enunciated the
most noble principles but it has carefully refrained from apply ing them in its
conquered territories.
This w as not a triv ial mismatch betw een political principles and their
application on the ground; it w as a sy stematic abandonment of the ideals that
had been proclaimed, w hich as a result aroused the lasting mistrust of the
elites in A sia, A frica, A rabia and Latin A merica, and especially among those
w ho believ ed most w holeheartedly in Western v alues, w ho had adopted the
principles of equality before the law , and freedom of speech and association.
It w as these modernist elites w ho formulated the boldest claims, finding
themselv es prey to inev itable disappointment and resentment, w hile
traditionalist elements put up w ith colonial authoritarianism more easily .
This missed opportunity turns out today to hav e been v ery costly. C ostly
for the West, because it finds itself w ithout its natural intermediaries in the
countries of the S outh; costly for the peoples of the E ast, because they find
themselv es w ithout their modernising minorities w ho could hav e constructed
democratic free societies; and costly, abov e all, for those minorities
themselv es, those frontier people, those hy brid nations, for all those w ho in

the countries of the S outh bear the mark of the West and also for those w ho
emigrated to the N orth and bear the mark of the S outh, the v ery people w ho
in better times could hav e play ed the role of go-betw eens and w ho are now
the first v ictims.

Chapter 8
A ny one w ho detects in my w ords the anger of a member of a minority group
from the M iddle E ast w ould be only half w rong. I in fact belong to a species
w hich is heading for extinction, and I w ill refuse to my dy ing breath to
consider as normal the emergence of a w orld in w hich communities w hich
hav e lasted for millennia, and w hich are guardians of the most ancient of
human societies, are forced to pack up and abandon their ancestral homes to
seek refuge in foreign lands.
It is natural that the v ictims should feel mov ed; its w orry ing that they
should be the only ones to feel mov ed. The problem of minorities is not just a
problem for the members of those minorities. What is at stake is not simply
the fate of a few million people, so to speak. What is at stake is the raison
dtre and purpose of our civ ilisation; if, at the end of a long process of
material and moral ev olution, it ends up w ith such ethnic and religious
cleansing, this is a clear sign that it has taken a w rong turn.
F or any society, just as for humanity as a w hole, the fate of minorities is
not just one issue among many ; it is, along w ith the treatment of w omen,
one of the surest indicators of moral progress, or decline. A w orld in w hich
human div ersity is respected a little more each day , in w hich ev ery one is able
to speak the language he chooses, profess his beliefs peacefully and come to
terms w ith his origins calmly w ithout encountering hostility or denigration from
the authorities or the population at large, is a w orld w hich is adv ancing,
progressing, on the up. O n the other hand, how can one not speak of decline
in a w orld in w hich identities are suppressed, as is the case today in the v ast
majority of countries in both the northern and southern hemispheres, and in
w hich it becomes more difficult each day to use ones ow n language or
practise ones faith?
I n 2007, I became particularly concerned about the dangers faced by the
M andaeans, a tiny community caught up in turmoil and threatened w ith
imminent extinction. The M andaeans, also know n as the S abaeans, are a
community so small, discreet and unassuming that few people outside Iraq
know of their existence.
I my self had not heard of them until 1988, w hen I w as doing some
research on M ani, the founder of M anichaeism, an astonishing character w ho
liv ed in M esopotamia in the third century C E . While looking for information on
his y outh and the origins of his doctrine, I discov ered that he spent his earliest
y ears w ith his father in an oasis on the banks of the Tigris, south of presentday Baghdad, in a gnostic community w hich v enerated S aint John the Baptist

and follow ed his example in practising baptism by immersion. I w as then

delighted to find out that this particular community, w hich one might hav e
imagined had disappeared centuries ago, had in fact surv iv ed in more or less
the same place and carried out the same sort of baptisms in the same riv er.
By w hat miracle this came about I do not know . The explanation is to be
found in part in the Q uran, w hich accords special status to people of the
Book, such as Jew s, C hristians and Zoroastrians, and also mentions the
S abaeans in A rabic, al-sabia, a name w hich seems to deriv e from a S emitic
root denoting the idea of immersion. A rmed w ith this protection, the
community somehow managed to surv iv e the past fourteen centuries. It w as
nev er easy : existing on the margins of tolerance, they had alw ay s to be selfeffacing, w hich nonetheless w as not enough to protect them from periodic
persecution and regular humiliation.
Throughout this w hole period, the community simultaneously laid claim to
the name S abaeans, w hich reminded their M uslim neighbours of their mention
in the Q uran, and M andaeans, w hich comes from another S emitic root
meaning know ledge, the equiv alent of gnosis in G reek. U nder these tw in
names, they managed to maintain their faith and the coherence of their
community ; moreov er, although they made a point of w riting and speaking
A rabic, they w ere able to preserv e their ow n language, w hich linguists call
M andaic, a v ariant of A ramaic, w hich apparently ev en includes some terms
deriv ed from S umerian. It is a language w hich, incidentally, possesses a littleknow n literature.
The fact that this last gnostic community has been able to surv iv e until
the present day has nev er ceased to fascinate and mov e me for the past
tw enty y ears. It is as if there w ere still a C athar community in some
inaccessible v alley in the south of F rance w hich had miraculously surv iv ed the
holy w ars, as w ell as ev ery day persecutions, and still practised its rites in the
langue dO c.
I didnt choose this example at random. When y ou look for the origins of
C atharism and other mov ements inspired by M anichaeism w hich spread
through E urope betw een the tenth and the thirteenth centuries, such as the
Bogomils in Bulgaria and Bosnia, and the P atarenes of Italy, y ou find the
original source in M esopotamia in the third century, in that oasis by the Tigris
w here M anis doctrine dev eloped.
M y anger on learning in early M arch 2007 that the M andaeans w ere now
threatened w ith extermination is not hard to imagine: they w ere suffering like
all Iraqis from the bloody madness that had afflicted the country and, in the
unprecedented outbreak of religious fanaticism, ev en their Q uranic
dispensation could no longer protect them. Zealous preachers now denied
them the status that the Islamic holy book had clearly granted them. In

F allujah, terrified families had been forcibly conv erted at knife-point; in

Baghdad and throughout the country, the M andaeans had been chased from
their jobs, expelled from their homes and had their shops looted. We hav e
suffered a thousand trials, one of their leaders w rote to me, but this one
could prov e fatal. We are threatened w ith imminent annihilation. Their
numbers, already low , had collapsed again: in 2002 there must hav e been
around thirty thousand of them in the w hole of Iraq; four y ears later only six
thousand remained. Their community had been pursued and scattered, and
w as now in a state of disarray. They could no longer assemble or w orship;
they no longer ev en knew w here to bury their dead.
S ome people ev entually rallied to their support, and a discreet operation
w as launched w hich enabled most families to find asy lum, mainly in S w eden.
But they hav e little chance of surv iv ing as a community. In a few y ears their
language w ill no longer be spoken, and their rituals w ill be reduced to a sham.
A culture that lasted ov er a thousand y ears w ill hav e disappeared as w e
looked on indifferently .
M y reason for mentioning the M andaeans is that their tragedy seems
rev ealing of how our civ ilisation has gone off course. The fact that such a
community w as able to surv iv e so many centuries only to be extinguished
before our ey es say s much about the barbarism of our times, and in particular
that of the tw o cultural spheres to w hich I belong, the A rab w orld and the
Today the A rabs seem unable to tolerate w hat they tolerated fifty, a
hundred or ev en a thousand y ears ago. Books published in C airo in the 1930s
are banned today on the grounds of impiety ; debates w hich took place in
Baghdad in the ninth century in the presence of the A bbasid caliph on the
nature of the Q uran w ould be unthinkable today in any M uslim city, ev en in
a univ ersity. To think that one of the greatest classical poets in the A rab
language is univ ersally know n by the name A l-M utanabbi, literally he w ho
calls himself prophet, because in his y outh he trav elled through Iraq and
A rabia making such claims! In his day in the tenth century, this prov oked
shrugs, frow ns and jokes, but it nev er prev ented believ ers from listening to
the poet and admiring his talent; today, he w ould get himself ly nched or
decapitated w ithout further ado.
In the West, barbarism does not take the form of intolerance or
obscurantism, so much as arrogance and insensitiv ity. The U S army charges
into ancient M esopotamia like a hippopotamus in a field of tulips. In the name
of freedom, democracy, self-defence and human rights, people hav e been
mistreated and killed, buildings demolished. S ev en hundred thousand deaths

later come a w ithdraw al and muttered excuses. N early a trillion dollars and
according to some estimates tw o or three times as much has been spent,
but the occupied country is poorer than before. The U S w anted to fight
terrorism, but it is flourishing more than ev er. P resident Bushs C hristian faith
w as pushed to the fore, and now ev ery church cross is suspected as a sign of
collaboration. They claimed they w ere establishing democracy, but w ent
about it in such a w ay that the v ery notion of democracy w ill remain
discredited for a long time to come.
A merica w ill get ov er its Iraqi trauma. Iraq w ill not get ov er its A merican
trauma. Its largest communities w ill hav e suffered hundreds of thousands of
deaths; its smaller communities w ill nev er recov er their place not just the
M andaeans or the Yazidis, but also the A ssy ro-C haldaeans, w hose v ery
name ev okes marv ellous episodes in our great human story. N ow the fate of
all these minorities is sealed: at best, they w ill end their progress through
history in some faraw ay place of exile; at w orst, they w ill be annihilated on
the spot, crushed betw een the tw in jaw s of today s barbarism.

Chapter 9
We contemplate earlier times w ith a condescension w hich, giv en our current
behav iour, is unjustified. The century w hich recently ended certainly saw
w onderful adv ances: many more of us liv e much longer and better; w e hav e
at our disposal tools and medicines w hich only a few centuries ago w ould
hav e seemed to belong to the domain of science fiction if they w ere
conceiv able at all. But the same century also w itnessed totalitarian regimes
much more terrible than the ty rannies of earlier centuries and produced
w eapons w hich for the first time in history w ere capable of destroy ing all
trace of civ ilisation on earth.
Does that mean that humanity progressed materially but not morally ?
That w ould not be quite true. We undeniably adv anced in the course of the
tw entieth century on all fronts simultaneously, but not at the same speed.
While in the acquisition of know ledge, in the dev elopment of science and its
technological adaptation for civ il and military ends, and in the production and
distribution of w ealth, change w as rapid and upw ard, that of human
behav iour w as in the main inadequate, and tragically so.
Inadequate is the term w hich best describes our response to our current
predicament. The relev ant question is not w hether our attitudes and
behav iour hav e progressed in comparison to those of our ancestors; it is
w hether they hav e changed enough to allow us to face the enormous
challenges of the contemporary w orld.
O ne example among many is that of the env ironment, atmospheric
pollution and climate change. There has been a remarkable realisation of the
importance of this prev iously neglected field, probably less marked in some
countries than in others, but real and ev en spectacular. In a few decades,
effectiv e measures hav e been taken and centuries-old habits hav e been
changed. When one recalls that in London in early December 1952, smog (a
mix of smoke and fog) caused the deaths of tw elv e thousand people in fiv e
day s, one can see how far w e hav e come. In most industrialised nations, the
authorities hav e taken steps to make factories less polluting and hav e banned
the construction of new ones near large population centres. This is a healthy
practice w hich has spread since the end of the C old War to the countries of the
former E astern bloc, w hich prev iously had a dreadful track record in this
This is progress w e can be pleased about, but it is not enough to sw eep
aw ay our current fears. S ince the planet is suffering a w arming that is
speeding up as a result of our carbon emissions and could prov e disastrous for
future generations, it isnt enough to ask ourselv es, Is our behav iour in this
area better than that of our parents and grandparents? The answ er to that

question is undoubtedly y es. The relev ant question is: Will our behav iour in
this area allow us to av oid the deadly threat w hich hangs ov er our children
and grandchildren?
It goes w ithout say ing that a positiv e answ er to the first question w ould
offer no reassurance if the answ er to the second question turns out to be no.
A s I w rite, this cannot be ruled out. F or if w e w ant to reduce the carbon
emissions in the atmosphere significantly, the w orlds richest and most
pow erful people, notably those in A merica, E urope and Japan, w ould hav e to
accept profound changes in their consumption habits; equally, the major
nations of the S outh, w hose economic take-off has only just begun, w ould
hav e to agree to limit their grow th.
In order to be able to impose such restrictiv e measures, w hich w ould
demand serious sacrifices from ev ery nation and ev ery indiv idual, there
w ould hav e to be a major global step-change. There are no signs that this is
A similar discrepancy is apparent w hen it comes to the challenges posed by
human div ersity .
Today, w ith ev ery culture daily confronting others and ev ery identity
experiencing the need for v irulent self-affirmation, and ev ery country and city
hav ing to organise a delicate coexistence, the question is not w hether our
religious, ethnic and cultural prejudices are stronger or w eaker than those of
prev ious generations; it is w hether w e w ill be capable of stopping our societies
from drifting tow ards v iolence, fanaticism and chaos.
That is the situation in numerous regions of the w orld. The case of
minorities in Iraq and the M iddle E ast is not unique, though it has offered the
most telling example in the first y ears of this century. If w e turn out to be
unable to ensure the surv iv al of communities that hav e existed for centuries,
the w ay w e handle human div ersity w ill hav e been prov en deficient and
That does not mean that in the past w e w ere w iser, more attentiv e,
tolerant, magnanimous or adept. A glance at a few history books is enough to
show that there hav e alw ay s been bloodthirsty rulers, greedy despots,
dev astating inv asions, pogroms, massacres and monstrous attempts at
extermination. If some communities nonetheless surv iv ed century after
century, it w as because their fate w as mainly linked to local v icissitudes and
w as not constantly affected by all the ev ents on the planet.
When a serious incident took place in a v illage, it often took w eeks for the
rest of the country to hear of it, w hich limited its repercussions. Today the

opposite is true: a clumsy pronouncement made at noon can serv e as the

pretext for slaughter that same ev ening ten thousand kilometres aw ay.
S ometimes it is a false rumour spread maliciously or through a
misunderstanding w hich sparks v iolence. By the time the truth comes out, it is
already too late: the bodies are piled up in the streets. I hav e in mind specific
ev ents that took place in the past few y ears, not just in Iraq but also in
Indonesia, E gy pt, Lebanon, India, N igeria, Rw anda and the former
Yugoslav ia.
S ome people may object that this is just a normal consequence of the
ev olution of the w orld. To w hich I w ould say, y es and no. The entanglement
of men and conflicts is indeed natural a consequence of progress in
communications. But w hat w e hav e the right to deplore and denounce is that
this technological adv ance has not been accompanied by an aw areness that
permits the preserv ation of peoples pitched against their w ill into the
maelstrom of history .
What is at issue is the gulf that is opening up betw een our rapid material
ev olution, w hich brings us closer together ev ery day, and our too slow moral
ev olution, w hich does not allow us to face the tragic consequences of our
shrinking w orld. O f course, material progress cannot and should not be
slow ed. It is our moral ev olution w hich must be considerably speeded up. It
urgently needs to be raised to the lev el of our technological ev olution, w hich
demands a real rev olution in attitudes.
I shall return later at greater length to the question of how w e manage
div ersity as w ell as to climate change and our dilemmas in this crucial area.
H ere, I w ould like to focus for a moment on the turbulence in the economic
and financial sector, in w hich w e can see the same disparity betw een the
scale of the problems w hich assail us and our feeble ability to resolv e them.
H ere, too, if it w ere a question of w orking out w hether w e w ill be able to
act and think together better than in the past to mobilise emergency funds,
the answ er w ould certainly be y es. A s soon as a crisis occurs, measures are
taken, and although one could question their effectiv eness and direction, they
often enable some semblance of order to be restored.
But how ev er much faith w e place in leaders w ho meet in groups of tw o,
sev en, eight or tw enty, w ith their hosts of competent adv isers and reassuring
press conferences, w e still hav e to admit that ev ery shock to the sy stem is
generally follow ed by another, more serious one. A nd this giv es the
impression that the prev ious response must hav e been inadequate.
A fter a certain number of slumps, one comes to the inev itable conclusion
that this disparity is due not to misjudgements, but to the fact that the global

economic sy stem is more and more imperv ious to control. This is a failing
w hich cannot be ascribed to a single cause, but it is certainly in part explained
by a characteristic of our time w hich can be seen in numerous other fields: the
fact that problems can only be solv ed by thinking globally, as though the
w orld w ere a single, plural nation, w hereas our political, legal and mental
structures constrain us to think and act according to our specific interests
those of our states, electorate, businesses and national finances. E v ery
gov ernment is inclined to think that w hat is good for it is good for ev ery one
else. A nd, ev en if it is sufficiently clear-sighted to realise that this is not
alw ay s the case, and ev en if some of its policies protectionism, quantitativ e
easing, discriminatory legislation and currency manipulation hav e a negativ e
impact on the rest of the w orld, it w ill nonetheless suit itself in its attempts to
escape from stagnation. The only limit on the sacrosanct selfishness of nations
is the necessity to av oid the collapse of the w hole sy stem.
This is a new kind of balance of terror w hich has been established,
notably betw een the C hinese and the A mericans If y ou try to ruin me, Ill
drag y ou dow n w ith me. It is a risky game that leav es the planet at the
mercy of a slip-up, and is no substitute for true solidarity .
E qually w orry ing is the fact that the economic turbulence that w e see today
has its origin in multiple ty pes of disorder w hich affect the w orld and w hich
come from both inside and outside the financial sector. Thus there are
alongside the data w hich allow the prediction that one y ear w ill see an
economic slow dow n and the next an upturn many other factors w hose
effects cannot be reasonably predicted.
F or example, extreme fluctuations in oil prices are due in part to
speculation, but they are also influenced by the grow ing needs of the great
nations of the S outh, and by political uncertainty in regions w here oil is
produced and across w hich it is transported such as the M iddle E ast, N igeria,
the S ahara, the Black S ea and the former S ov iet U nion as w ell as sev eral
other factors. In order to control these fluctuations and prev ent them from
destabilising the w ider economy, measures w ould probably hav e to be taken
to discourage speculation at a global lev el. But there w ould also hav e to be
concerted and equitable management of the planets resources, changes in
production and consumption methods, an end to the after-effects of the C old
War in improv ed relations betw een Russia and the West, and solutions found
to a range of regional conflicts. That giv es some indication of the scale of the
problem, w hich demands a high degree of activ e solidarity betw een nations
and w hich w ould take decades to achiev e. M eanw hile the turbulence is
affecting us today .

A s soon as a gov ernment tries to tackle a problem, it finds that this

problem is linked to a hundred others w hich belong to different areas and
escape its influence. Whether it is fighting against recession, inflation and
unemploy ment, or pollution, drugs, pandemics or urban v iolence, it inev itably
comes up against problems of all sorts geopolitical, sociological, sanitary,
cultural or moral w hich originate in all corners of the planet; problems w hich
absolutely hav e to be solv ed if it is to hav e any chance of success, but on
w hich it can get little or no purchase.
In economics it has long been acknow ledged as a matter of common sense
that if ev ery one acts according to his ow n interests, the sum of those actions
w ill be beneficial to the general good. S elfishness w ould thus be paradoxically
the truest form of altruism. A ccording to A dam S mith, ev ery indiv idual by
pursuing his ow n interest . . . frequently prov okes that of the society more
effectually then w hen he really intends to promote it. Writing in the
eighteenth century, he also talked of an inv isible hand w hich w ould
prov identially harmonise the economic machine w ithout the need for any
authority to interv ene. It is a highly controv ersial v ision, of course, but not
one that can be easily dismissed, giv en that it is at the heart of the most
successful economic sy stem in human history .
What w e do not y et know is w hether this inv isible hand is still capable of
operating today, if it is able to lubricate a global market economy, combining
societies w ith different law s and innumerable indiv iduals w orldw ide acting in
unforeseeable w ay s as it used to be able to do for a few countries in the
West. It is probable in any case that no inv isible hand could prev ent the
grow ing w ealth of nations w eighing heav ily on the resources of the planet or
polluting the atmosphere, but neither is it certain that the v isible hands of our
leaders are any better equipped to manage our global realities.
In the space of a few y ears w e hav e seen tw o opposing belief sy stems
thoroughly discredited. F irst, state pow er w as stigmatised. In the w ake of the
failure of the S ov iet sy stem, all forms of planned economy seemed like
heresy, ev en to some socialists. The law s of the market w ere deemed to be
w iser, more effectiv e and more rational. A lmost ev ery thing w as reckoned to
be ripe for priv atisation: health care, pensions, prisons and ev en, for the neoconserv ativ es in the White H ouse, defence. The idea that the state had a
duty to assure the w ell-being of its citizens w as challenged, often implicitly,
but sometimes explicitly. The principle of equality ev en came to be considered
obsolete, a relic of a by gone age. There w as felt to be no reason to be
ashamed of flaunting disparities in w ealth.

But the pendulum had sw ung too far and struck the w all, w hich sent it
back in the opposite direction. N ow belief in the infallibility of the market has
been stigmatised. The v irtues of the role of the state hav e been rediscov ered.
There hav e ev en been massiv e nationalisations, despite some distaste at
using that w ord. C ertainties w hich hav e been constantly trumpeted for three
decades hav e been shaken and a radical reappraisal is under w ay, w hich w ill
affect the political, social and economic spheres and w ill probably go far
bey ond that. H ow can a major financial crisis be resolv ed w ithout attacking
the crisis of confidence that accompanies it, the distortion in the scale of
v alues, the loss of moral credibility of leaders, states, companies, institutions
and those w ho are supposed to regulate them?
O ne of the most striking images from the first decade of this century w as
of A lan G reenspan, former director of the F ederal Reserv e Board, testify ing to
a congressional committee in O ctober 2008. Though he denied that the
decisions he had taken, or failed to take, in the course of his eighteen-y ear
reign could hav e been responsible for the catacly sm in the U S sub-prime
market and the ensuing global turbulence, he admitted that he w as in a state
of shocked disbelief. H e w as conv inced, he said, that lenders w ould nev er
act in a manner w hich w ould compromise the interests of their ow n
shareholders. This modern risk-management paradigm held sw ay for
decades. The w hole intellectual edifice, how ev er, collapsed in the summer of
last y ear.
I suppose that those w ho doubt the inherent w isdom of the mechanisms
of the market w ill hav e responded to these w ords w ith sarcasm. But w hat
G reenspan expressed w as not just the disappointment of a misguided
conserv ativ e. If his remorse strikes me as significant, ev en touching, it is
because it marks the end of a period in w hich the behav iour of economic
agents had coherence and decency and obey ed certain rules; in w hich bigspending, predatory and fraudulent leaders w ere rare; and in w hich one could
depend on certain v alues and instantly recognise healthy businesses.
Without seeing earlier times w hich had their share of malpractice and
crises through rose-tinted spectacles, it has to be admitted that there has
nev er been a period quite like our ow n in w hich those w ho are responsible for
national economies can no longer follow the acrobatic manipulations of the
financial w hizz kids, and in w hich operators w ho handle billions hav e no
know ledge of political economy or the least concern about the repercussions of
their actions on businesses, w orkers, or their ow n relativ es and friends,
w ithout ev en mentioning the collectiv e good.
It is easy to understand how old sages might become disenchanted.
Whether they incline tow ards interv entionism or laissez-faire, the doctors of
the economy report disappointing results for their tried and tested therapies, as

though they found themselv es in front of a different patient from the one they
treated the day before.

Chapter 10
But this economic malaise may be just one aspect of a bigger, more complex
phenomenon that affects all human societies w ithout exception, rich or poor,
w eak or pow erful, a phenomenon w e still refer to as the acceleration of
history but w hich goes far bey ond w hat that meant last century. P erhaps it
w ould be preferable to use another concept w hich better reflects the pace of
change today : instantaneity . F or, as so many examples show us ev ery day,
all w orld ev ents now unfold in real time before the ey es of the w hole of
humanity .
It is no longer simply a matter of the pattern that has been imprinted on
history for a long time the accelerating mov ement of peoples, goods,
images and ideas creating the impression of a shrinking w orld. We hav e got
used to that ov er time. But the tendency became considerably more
pronounced in the final y ears of the tw entieth century, to the extent that one
could say the phenomenon had changed its nature w ith the take-off of the
internet, the ubiquity of email and the construction of the w orldw ide w eb, as
w ith the dev elopment of some other means of instant communication such as
the mobile phone, w hich established instant links betw een people w herev er
they w ere, abolishing distance, reducing reaction times to nothing, amplify ing
the impact of ev ents; and as a result increasing the speed at w hich they
That probably explains how the considerable upheav als, w hich in other
centuries w ould hav e taken decades to unfold, now happen in the space of a
few y ears or ev en months for both better and w orse. The first example that
comes to mind is the uprooting in the space of a few y ears of cultures w hich
had surv iv ed for millennia; but one could also think of the collapse of the
S ov iet U nion, the expansion of the E uropean U nion, the grow th of India and
C hina, the rise of Barack O bama and a thousand other dramatic ev ents.
C learly the tw enty -first century has begun in a mental atmosphere
perceptibly different from any that humanity has know n prev iously. It is a
fascinating but dangerous change. To any one interested in progress, the w eb
today opens limitless perspectiv es: instead of just reading y our local daily
paper, y ou can look at the w hole w orlds press w hile drinking y our morning
coffee at home, and especially if y ou read E nglish, giv en that innumerable
papers in G ermany, Japan, C hina, Turkey, Israel, Iran, Kuw ait, Russia, etc
now publish an online edition in that language. F or my part, I could lose
my self in them for day s on end w ithout getting tired, in a state of amazement
and the feeling of fulfilling a dream.

In Lebanon in my childhood I used to read all of the local press ev ery

morning. M y father w as editor of a daily paper and out of courtesy w ould
send a copy of it to his colleagues on other papers, w ho w ould reciprocate by
sending him theirs. Which one should I believ e? I asked him one day,
pointing at the pile. Without interrupting his reading, he answ ered, N one of
them and all of them. N one of them w ill tell y ou the w hole truth, but each of
them w ill giv e y ou its ow n v ersion of it. If y ou read them all, and are able to
exercise discrimination, y oull understand the essential. M y father did the
same thing w ith radio stations: first the BBC , then Lebanese radio, then C airo,
follow ed by the A rabic-language broadcasts from Israeli radio; sometimes also
Radio Damascus, V oice of A merica, Radio A mman or Radio Baghdad. By the
time he had drained his coffee pot, he felt sufficiently w ell informed.
O ften I think of the joy he w ould hav e felt if he could hav e experienced
our era. There is no need to be the editor of a new spaper to receiv e all y our
country s media and that of the w hole w orld at home, much of it free of
charge. A ny one w ho w ants to hav e a relev ant, balanced, all-embracing v iew
of w hat is really going on in the w orld has all they need at their fingertips.
But not ev ery one makes such use of the tools at their disposal. N ot
ev ery one w ants to form a considered opinion. It is often the obstacle of
language w hich prev ents them from broadening the range of v oices they
listen to. But there is also an attitude of mind w hich is v ery common in all
nations, w hich means that only a small minority feels the desire to hear w hat
others are say ing; many people make do w ith the v ersion that flatters their
ow n v iew s.
F or ev ery person w ho nav igates from one cultural univ erse to another
w ith their ey es w ide open, for ev ery person w ho goes happily from the A lJazeera site to that of H aaretz, and from the Washington P ost to the Iranian
press agency, there are thousands w ho only v isit their compatriots and fellow
believ ers, w ho imbibe only from familiar sources, w ho only w ant to confirm
their certainties and justify their resentments in front of their screens.
S o much so that this amazing modern tool, w hich ought to encourage
harmonious mixing and exchange betw een cultures, becomes instead a rally ing
and mobilisation point for the w orlds tribes. N ot by dint of some conspiracy,
but because the internet, w hich accelerates and amplifies effects, took off at a
moment in history w hen identities w ere being unleashed, the clash of
civ ilisations w as being established and univ ersalism w as crumbling, the nature
of debates w as becoming corrupted, v iolence w as taking precedence in w ords
and deeds, and common reference points w ere becoming lost.
It is not w ithout significance in this context that this major technological

adv ance, w hich radically changed relations betw een people, coincided w ith a
strategic disaster of the first order, namely the end of the confrontation
betw een the tw o great planetary blocs, the disintegration of the S ov iet U nion
and the socialist camp, the emergence of a w orld in w hich differences of
identity hav e taken ov er from ideological differences, and the adv ent of a
single superpow er w hich unw illingly exerts de facto hegemony the length and
breadth of the planet.
I sometimes reread a dense little text published in 1973 by the British
historian A rnold Toy nbee shortly before his death. S urv ey ing the trajectory of
humanity, to w hich he had dev oted a magisterial study in tw elv e fat
v olumes, A S tudy of H istory , he distinguished three phases.
In the course of the first phase, w hich corresponds more or less to
prehistory, peoples liv es w ere the same because how ev er slow
communication w as, the pace of change w as ev en slow er. E v ery innov ation
had time to spread to all societies before another came along.
During the second phase, w hich according to Toy nbee lasted around four
and a half millennia from the end of prehistory to about 1500 C E , change
became more rapid than the speed of transmission, w ith the result that human
societies became markedly different. It w as during this phase that distinct
religions, ethnicities and civ ilisations came into being.
F inally, from the sixteenth century, because the speed of change has
been outstripped by the acceleration of the speed of communication, our
habitat has begun to unify, at least technologically and economically, but not
y et on the public lev el, Toy nbee observ ed.
This approach has the same v alue as all theories: each term, w hen
examined closely, can giv e rise to criticisms, but the v ision as a w hole is
thought-prov oking. E specially w hen considered in the light of the last few
decades. The acceleration has been dizzy ing, brutal and inev itably traumatic.
S ocieties w hich had follow ed different courses throughout their histories, w hich
had dev eloped their beliefs, languages, traditions, feelings of belonging, their
ow n sense of pride, found themselv es catapulted into a w orld in w hich their
autonomous identity w as jostled, eroded and seemed under threat.
Their reaction has sometimes been v iolent and disordered, like that of a
drow ning person w hose head is already under w ater and w ho struggles
w ithout hope or discrimination, ready to drag dow n w ith him any one his
hands grab hold of, w hether w ould-be rescuers or aggressors.
F rom the end of the C old War to the end of the 1980s, the ev olution
described by Toy nbee tow ards an integrated civ ilisation progressed at a quite

different pace and in an appreciably transformed strategic env ironment.

O ne gov ernment, that of the U nited S tates, found itself taking on the role
of de facto global authority ; its v alue sy stem became the univ ersal norm, its
army the planets police force, its allies v assals and its enemies outlaw s. It is
a situation w ithout historical precedent. C ertainly in the past there hav e been
pow ers w hich at their height achiev ed some sort of primacy ; w hich, like the
Roman E mpire, dominated the know n w orld or extended so far that it w as
said the sun nev er set on their territories, such as the S panish empire in the
sixteenth century or the British empire in the nineteenth. But none of them
possessed the technical means w hich w ould hav e allow ed them to interv ene
at w ill all across the globe or to thw art the emergence of riv al pow ers.
This process, w hich might hav e stretched out ov er sev eral generations,
w as astonishingly accomplished in the space of a few short y ears. The w hole
w orld is now a unified political space. Toy nbees third phase has come to an
abrupt, premature end and a fourth has begun w hich looks set to be stormy,
troubling and eminently dangerous.
A ll of a sudden, the question of pow er and legitimacy has arisen at global
lev el for the first time in history. If this essential fact is rarely expressly
mentioned, it is constantly present in w hat is not said, in recriminations and at
the heart of the most brutal conflicts.
In order for different peoples to accept the authority of a sort of global
gov ernment, that gov ernment has to possess a legitimacy in their ey es other
than that w hich stems from its economic and military pow er. A nd in order for
indiv idual identities to become part of a much larger identity and for particular
civ ilisations to integrate into a planetary civ ilisation, it is imperativ e that the
process take place in a context of equality, or at the v ery least of mutual
respect and shared dignity .
I deliberately mixed different aspects in my prev ious sentences. The
reality of today s w orld is only comprehensible if all these facets are
constantly borne in mind. F rom the moment at w hich one civ ilisation
predominates, carried by a single global superpow er, transcending civ ilisations
and nations can no longer happen in an atmosphere of serenity w hen a single
civ ilisation prev ails, led by a single global superpow er. P eoples w ho feel
themselv es threatened w ith cultural annihilation or political marginalisation
inev itably listen to those w ho call for resistance and v iolent action.
U nless and until the U nited S tates persuades the rest of the w orld that its
pre-eminence possesses moral legitimacy , humanity w ill remain under siege.

Lost Legitimacy

Chapter 1
A s I w rite, an image comes into my mind w hich is triv ial y et unforgettable:
that of a polling station in F lorida during the U S presidential election in
N ov ember 2000. A scrutineer is holding a ballot paper up to the light to w ork
out from the perforations and tw ists in the paper w hether A l G ore or G eorge
W. Bush should receiv e the v ote.
Like millions across the w orld, I w as hanging on the result of this count
and the legal quarrel that accompanied it. In part, I admit, it w as out of
curiosity at w atching an exciting political soap opera, but mainly it w as
because my ow n future and that of my nation w ere at stake in these
elections. Back then I had an inkling of it, and today I am certain: that v ote in
F lorida w as to change the course of history in my nativ e land, Lebanon.
I chose this spontaneously as my first example, as it closely affected me.
I could hav e begun w ith many other more prominent examples, w hose
implications for the w hole planet seem more obv ious. F or example, it is
reasonable to suppose that the attacks on 11 S eptember 2001 w ould still hav e
taken place if A l G ore had been in the White H ouse rather than G eorge W.
Bush. But it is also reasonable to suppose that Washingtons reaction w ould
not hav e been the same. There w ould inev itably hav e been a w ar on terror,
but w ith different priorities and slogans, and different methods and alliances.
There w ould probably hav e been less determination, but also few er mistakes.
The president w ould not hav e spoken of a crusade nor an axis of ev il, and
prisoners w ould not hav e been detained in G uantanamo. The w ar in Iraq
w ould probably not hav e taken place. That w ould hav e made life v ery
different for the people now caught up in it, as w ell as for U S relations w ith
the rest of the w orld. It is also probable that the S y rian army w ould not hav e
had to leav e Lebanon in 2005 and that the confrontations taking place in my
country w ould hav e taken a different turn.
If the Democrats had w on in N ov ember 2000, sev eral other important
issues might also hav e been handled differently climate change, for
example, or stem-cell research, or the role of the U nited N ations. This w ould
hav e had significant consequences for the future of the planet. But it w ould be
risky to take these hy potheses much further, and pointless to try to determine
w hether the w orld w ould now be in a better or w orse state. I hav e pondered
that famous v ote in F lorida ov er the y ears, and sometimes come to the
conclusion it w as disastrous and sometimes that it w as prov idential.
In any case, one thing is certain: w hat the v oters in Tampa and M iami
w ere v oting on in that sy mbolically significant first y ear of the new
millennium w as not just the future of the A merican nation; it w as in large
measure the future of ev ery other nation as w ell.

The same thing could also be said of the next tw o presidential elections, in
the course of w hich w e experienced extreme situations. In 2004, the w hole
w orld w anted P resident Bush to be beaten, but his fellow citizens chose to reelect him; the disaffection betw een A merica and the rest of the w orld w as
then at its height. C onv ersely, in 2008, all the nations on earth w ere in lov e
w ith S enator O bama and w hen the v ote w ent in his fav our there w as a
torrent of admiration entirely justified in my v iew for the U nited S tates,
its people, their political sy stem and their ability to manage ethnic div ersity.
S uch a conv ergence of opinion linked to O bamas rhetoric, his A frican origins
and the w orld being tired of the Republican administration w ill not recur any
time soon. O n the other hand, it is highly likely that ev ery U S election
henceforth w ill giv e rise to a global psy chodrama.
That clearly poses a problem. I w ould ev en go as far as to say that
beneath the anody ne, triv ial exterior, the repercussions of U S presidential
contests are one of the hidden aspects of the political and moral disorder w hich
characterises our times.
Before going any further, I should take account of tw o objections to w hich
these thoughts could giv e rise. It is true, one could argue, that the U S
president is pow erful today. H is political decisions affect the fate of the w hole
planet, and therefore those w ho elect him find themselv es in a role w hich is
not theirs by right, since the choices they make so often prov e decisiv e for
the future of the peoples of A sia, E urope, A frica and Latin A merica. In an
ideal w orld, it should not be thus. But w hy get w orked up ov er a problem
w ithout a solution? A fter all, the people of C olombia, U kraine, C hina and Iraq
cant be granted the right to v ote in U S presidential elections.
I agree that w ould be absurd and it is certainly not w hat I w ould
adv ocate. What other solution is there? A t this moment, I can see none. But
the fact that there is no realistic solution does not mean that the problem does
not exist. I am conv inced that it is entirely real and is already hav ing
dev astating effects, and that its seriousness w ill become more and more
apparent in the coming decades.
I shall explain my reasons for these concerns in w hat follow s. F irst I
w ould like to deal w ith another possible objection. If the first w as the
perennial Whats the point?, the second is the no less enduring It has alw ay s
been thus!
S ince the daw n of history, it w ill be objected, some nations hav e imposed
their w ill on others: the pow erful decide; the oppressed submit. F or
generations, the v ote of someone in N ew York, P aris or London has counted
for more than that of a v oter in Beirut, La P az, M anila or Kampala. If the

present day has brought changes, they hav e tended to be in a positiv e

direction, since hundreds of millions of people w ho hav e prev iously been
muzzled can now express themselv es freely ; this is notably the case
throughout most of Latin A merica and E astern E urope, and in some A frican
and A sian countries such as the P hilippines and Indonesia.
That may be so, but it is deceptiv e nonetheless. P ast empires may hav e
been v ast and pow erful, but their grip on the w orld remained w eak because
their w eapons and means of communication did not allow them to maintain
effectiv e control far from the centre, and also because they all had to contend
w ith riv al pow ers.
Today, extraordinary technological adv ances hav e made possible much
tighter control of the globe and contributed to the concentration of political
pow er in a small number of capitals, and in one in particular. This explains the
emergence for the first time in history of a gov ernment w hose jurisdiction
cov ers the w hole planet.
This unprecedented situation naturally generates equally unprecedented
disparities as w ell as new balances or rather imbalances. A nd suicidal
C learly something has changed radically in the fabric of the w orld,
something that has profoundly damaged relations betw een people, diminished
the significance of democracy and blurred the path of progress.
If w e w ant to examine this change more closely to try to understand its
origins and mechanisms and to grope our w ay out of the deadly laby rinth, the
concept w hich might serv e as a beacon is that of legitimacy. In some peoples
ey es today, it is a concept w hich is outdated, forgotten and ev en somew hat
suspect, but it is indispensable to any discussion of the question of pow er.

Chapter 2
Legitimacy is w hat enables people to accept, w ithout excessiv e constraint, the
authority of an institution, represented by indiv iduals and embody ing shared
v alues.
That is a broad definition capable of embracing v ery different situations: a
childs relationship w ith its parents, an activ ists w ith the leaders of his party or
his union, a citizens w ith his gov ernment, an employ ee or a shareholders
w ith the directors of a company, a students w ith his professors, a believ ers
w ith the leaders of his religious community, and so on. S ome forms of
legitimacy are more stable than others, but none of them is immutable;
legitimacy can be w on and lost according to ones talent or to circumstances.
The w hole history of human societies can ev en be told from the
v iew point of crises in legitimacy. F ollow ing dramatic change, a new source of
legitimacy emerges w hich replaces the one that has just collapsed. But how
long that new legitimacy lasts depends upon its successes. If it disappoints, it
w ill begin to fail fairly quickly , sometimes ev en before its supporters realise it.
F or example, at w hat point did the tsars stop appearing legitimate? A nd
how many decades did it take for the credit of the O ctober Rev olution to run
out in its turn? In recent times, Russia has been the scene of a spectacular loss
of legitimacy w hich has had w orldw ide repercussions. But it is just one case
among many. Legitimacy only appears unchanging; w hether it belongs to a
man, a dy nasty, a rev olution or a national mov ement, there comes a point at
w hich it no longer w orks. It is at that point that one pow er replaces another,
and a new legitimacy replaces the discredited one.
F or the w orld to function reasonably harmoniously and w ithout major
disturbances, most people should hav e legitimate leaders in charge; they in
turn w ould be answ erable to a global authority w hich is itself regarded as
C learly that is not the case today. In fact it is almost the opposite: many
of our fellow human beings liv e in states w hose rulers are not the w inners in
fair elections, nor inheritors of a respected dy nasty, nor continuing a successful
rev olution, nor architects of an economic miracle, and therefore do not hav e
any legitimacy. A nd they liv e under the control of a global pow er w hose
legitimacy people do not recognise either. This is particularly the case for the
v ast majority of A rab nations. Is it a coincidence that this is w here the men
w ho committed the most spectacular acts of v iolence at the start of this
century came from?

Q uestions of legitimacy hav e alw ay s play ed a major part in the history of the
M uslim w orld. The most significant example is probably that of religious
factionalism. While in C hristianity there hav e been constant div isions and
sometimes massacres ov er the nature of C hrist, the Trinity, the Immaculate
C onception and the form of pray ers, the conflicts in Islam hav e usually
centred on quarrels ov er succession.
The major schism betw een S unnis and S hiites did not come about for
theological reasons but for dy nastic ones. A t the death of the P rophet, a group
of the faithful declared their support for his y oung cousin and son-in-law , A li.
A li possessed a brilliant mind and had many unconditional supporters w ho
w ere called shi-a-A li, the party of A li, or simply shia. But he also had
many critics, w ho succeeded on three occasions in hav ing representativ es
from the opposing party named caliph or successor. When A li w as finally
chosen as the fourth caliph, his enemies rose against him immediately and he
w as nev er able to reign peacefully. H e w as assassinated four and a half
y ears later. Then his son H ussein w as killed at the battle of Karbala in 680 C E
an ev ent still commemorated w ith great ferv our by S hiites. M any of them
hope that a descendant of A li w ill soon appear among them: an imam hidden
from us today w ho w ill return pow er to its rightful ow ners. This belief is held
w ith a messianic zeal w hich the passing centuries hav e not diminished.
O nto this dy nastic quarrel hav e been grafted as w as the case w ith the
theological quarrels of C hristians considerations of a different order. When
Rome condemned as heresy the beliefs of the patriarch in A lexandria or
C onstantinople, w hen H enry V III of E ngland broke w ith the C atholic C hurch
or a G erman prince supported Luther, there w ere often political considerations
and ev en commercial riv alries conscious or otherw ise w hich play ed a
hidden role. In the same w ay, the tenets of S hiism hav e often been adopted
by peoples w ho w anted to mark their opposition to the pow ers that be. In the
sixteenth century, for example, w hen the O ttoman empire, w hich w as
implacably S unni, w as enjoy ing its greatest expansion and claimed to unite
the majority of M uslims under its authority, the S hah of P ersia transformed
his kingdom into a bastion of S hiism. It w as a w ay for him to preserv e his
empire and for his P ersian-speaking subjects to av oid liv ing under the
domination of a Turkish-speaking people. But just as the king of E ngland
show ed his independence by speaking of the E ucharist or P urgatory, so the
S hah marked his difference in affirming his attachment to the family of the
P rophet, as a guarantee of legitimacy .
Today, genealogical legitimacy retains a certain importance, but another form
of legitimacy has been added to it or sometimes replaced it w hich could be
called patriotic or combativ e legitimacy. In the ey es of some M uslims,

legitimacy belongs to w hoev er leads the fight against their enemies. This is
similar to the case of G eneral de G aulle in June 1940: he spoke for F rance not
because he had been elected or because he held effectiv e pow er, but because
he bore the torch in the struggle against the occupier.
This comparison is necessarily approximate. H ow ev er, it seems to me to
hold a useful key to decoding w hat has been happening in the A rab-M uslim
w orld for sev eral decades perhaps for far longer, but I prefer to stick to
w hat I my self hav e noticed as someone born in Lebanon into a family of
teachers and journalists, w ho then emigrated to F rance and w ho has nev er
tired of observ ing the region of his birth and try ing to understand and explain
F rom the moment I first opened my ey es, I hav e seen a procession of
different people w ho believ ed they possessed patriotic legitimacy, w ho spoke
in the name of their people, or of all A rabs, and sometimes ev en of all
M uslims. The most important of them all w as incontestably G amal A bdel
N asser, w ho ruled E gy pt from 1952 until his death in 1970. I am going to talk
at length about him his meteoric rise and equally spectacular fall and sudden
disappearance because it seems to me that the crisis of legitimacy that
A rabs are experiencing today dates from his time. It is a crisis w hich is
contributing to our disordered w orld and to the drift tow ards uncontrolled
v iolence and decline.
But before I go into N assers career in more detail, I w ould like to try to w ork
out this notion of patriotic legitimacy more fully using a particular case, a v ery
particular and perhaps ev en unique case in the modern history of the M uslim
w orld: that of a leader w ho w as able to lead his people out of collapse,
thereby meriting his legitimacy as a fighter, and w ho demonstrated in
remarkable w ay s the strength and uses of such an asset. I am talking of
A tatrk.
A fter the F irst World War, w hen the territory of present-day Turkey w as
div ided betw een v arious allied armies, and the great pow ers assembled at
V ersailles and S v res w ere dealing w ith peoples and lands w ithout
compunction, A tatrk, then an officer in the O ttoman army, dared to say no
to the v ictors. When so many others w ere bemoaning the unjust decisions
w hich had befallen them, Kemal P asha took up arms, drov e the foreign troops
from his country and forced the great pow ers to rev ise their plans.
This unusual approach both the audacity to resist adv ersaries w ho w ere
reputed to be inv incible and the ability to emerge as v ictor meant A tatrk
had earned his legitimacy. H av ing become father of the nation ov ernight, the
former army officer now had a long-term mandate to reshape Turkey and its

people as he w ished. H e undertook this task w ith gusto. H e brought an end to

the O ttoman dy nasty, abolished the caliphate, proclaimed the separation of
religion and state, established strict secularism, demanded that his people
E uropeanise, replaced the A rabic alphabet w ith the Roman one, obliged men
to shav e and w omen to take off their v eils, and exchanged his ow n traditional
headdress for an elegant Western-sty le hat.
A nd his people follow ed him. They let him shake up their behav iour and
their beliefs w ithout too much objection. Why ? Because he had giv en them
back their pride. S omeone w ho has restored a peoples dignity can get them
to accept many things. H e can impose sacrifices and restrictions on them and
can ev en behav e ty rannically. H e w ill still be listened to, defended and
obey ed. N ot for ev er, but for a long time. E v en w hen he takes on religion,
his fellow citizens still w ont abandon him. In politics, religion is not an end in
itself, but one consideration among many. Legitimacy is not accorded to the
most dev out, but to w hoev er fights the same fight as the people.
F ew people in the E ast saw any sort of contradiction in the fact that A tatrk
fought w ith great determination against the E uropeans w hile his dream w as to
E uropeanise Turkey. H e w as not fighting against this or that group; he w as
fighting in order to be treated w ith respect, as an equal, as a man, not as a
nativ e. A s soon as their dignity w as restored, Kemal and his people w ere
ready to go a long w ay dow n the road to modernity .
The legitimacy w hich A tatrk attained outliv ed him and present-day
Turkey is still gov erned in his name. E v en those w ho do not share his
conv ictions still feel the need to display a certain allegiance to him.
N onetheless, one might w onder how long the edifice w ill hold in the face of
grow ing religious radicalism and w ith E uropean nerv ousness. H ow can the
Kemalists conv ince their people to E uropeanise, if the E uropeans tell them
ov er and ov er that they are not E uropean and dont belong among them?
M any M uslim leaders dreamed of follow ing Turkey s example. In
A fghanistan, A manullah, a y oung king of tw enty -six, came to pow er in 1919
and w anted to follow in A tatrks footsteps. H is army launched an attack on
the occupy ing E nglish forces and succeeded in gaining recognition for his
country. S trengthened by the prestige he had w on, he embarked on
ambitious reforms, forbidding poly gamy and the v eil, opening modern schools
for boy s and girls, and encouraging the dev elopment of a free press. The
experiment lasted ten y ears, but in 1929 A manullah w as ousted in a
conspiracy by traditional chiefs w ho accused him of impiety. H e died in exile
in 1960.

Reza Khans experiment in P ersia prov ed more durable. H e w as a ferv ent

admirer of A tatrk and, like him, an army officer. H e w anted to reproduce the
same modernising programme in his country, but he turned out to be unable
to achiev e a clean break w ith the past and instead founded a new imperial
dy nasty , the P ahlav is, rather than a E uropean-sty le republic, and tried to play
on the differences betw een the great pow ers rather than impose a clearly
independent line. H e probably lacked A tatrks talent, though in his defence
the discov ery of oil meant there w as little chance of the great pow ers letting
Iran run its ow n affairs. In order to remain in pow er, the dy nasty w as forced
to ally itself first w ith the British and then w ith the A mericans; in other w ords,
w ith those nations w hom the Iranian people v iew ed as the enemies of their
prosperity and dignity .
This is a counter-example to that of A tatrk. A leader w ho appears to be
the protg of opposing pow ers w ill be denied legitimacy and ev ery thing he
attempts w ill be discredited. If he w ants to modernise the country, the people
w ill oppose modernisation. If he w ants to emancipate w omen, the streets w ill
be full of v eils in protest.
M any sensible reforms hav e failed because they bear the hallmark of a
hated pow er. A nd conv ersely, many senseless acts hav e been applauded
because they bear the seal of combativ e legitimacy. This holds good
regardless of w here the situation arises. When a proposal is put to the v ote,
the electorate v otes not so much on its content as on the confidence they do
or do not accord to the person w ho has put it forw ard. Regret and second
thoughts only come later.

Chapter 3
In A rab countries, the Turkish experiment receiv ed a more qualified w elcome
than elsew here in the M uslim w orld. A tatrks bold reforms w ere certainly a
source of inspiration for modernising elements of society, such as the Tunisian
leader H abib Bourguiba, but there w as also in Turkish nationalism a
predisposition to distrust the A rabs, w hich made them unreceptiv e to his
F or the w ish to make Turkey more E uropean w as also a w ish to make it
less A rab. The breakup of the O ttoman empire during the F irst World War had
begun to look like a div orce betw een the S ultans A rab and Turkish subjects.
When the H ashemites in M ecca raised the standard of rev olt in 1916,
encouraged by the E nglish, one of their declared objectiv es w as that the
dignity of the caliph, a title to w hich the O ttoman sov ereigns had laid claim
for four hundred y ears, should return to the A rabs. F reed from the Turkish
y oke, the people of the P rophet w ould at last be able to reconnect w ith their
past glories.
Turkish nationalists display ed similar resentments: if w e hav e not been
able to progress, they said in essence, it is because w e hav e been dragging
the A rabic millstone around for centuries; its high time w e got rid of that
complicated alphabet, those outmoded traditions, this archaic mentality ; and,
some added more quietly, that religion. The A rabs w ant to separate from us?
S o much the better! G ood riddance! Let them go!
They didnt stop at changing their alphabet; they undertook to purge the
Turkish language of v ocabulary of A rabic origin. These terms w ere v ery
numerous and w idespread, more so than in S panish, for example, w hich
borrow ed A rab w ords mainly for ev ery day things the landscape, trees,
food, clothes, instruments, furnitures, trades w hereas its intellectual and
spiritual v ocabulary is mainly deriv ed from Latin. C onv ersely, the Turkish
language mainly borrow ed abstract concepts from A rabic, such as faith,
progress, rev olution, republic, literature, poetry and lov e.
Which is to say that this acrimonious div orce w as a separation of both
body and soul.
Born at the same time, under the same roof so to speak, but w ith little mutual
sy mpathy, Turkish and A rab nationalism w ere to hav e extremely different
destinies. The first w as born an adult, the second w as nev er able to become
one. It is true that they did not come into the w orld w ith the same
adv antages or the same restrictions.

The Turks had long gov erned an immense empire w hich had gradually
slipped aw ay from them. S ome territories had been taken or reclaimed by
other pow ers Russia, F rance, E ngland, A ustria or Italy and others had had
to be ceded to renascent peoples: G reeks, Romanians, Bulgarians, S erbs,
A lbanians, M ontenegrins or, more recently, A rabs. A tatrk told his
compatriots that, rather than cry ing ov er the prov inces they had lost, they
should try to sav e w hat they could; make their ow n national territory w here
a majority spoke their language, principally A natolia and a narrow band of
land in E urope around Istanbul; consolidate their hegemony there, ev en if it
w as at the expense of other nationalities w ho liv ed alongside them; and
unceremoniously abandon the trappings of the O ttoman past in order to begin
a new life in new garb.
F or the A rabs, the creation of a national homeland w as on the agenda
too, but w as infinitely more difficult to realise than for the Turks. U niting in a
single state all the A rabic-speaking peoples w ho liv ed betw een the A tlantic
and the P ersian G ulf w as a H erculean undertaking. The H ashemites w ere
doomed to failure, as w ere N asser and all the A rab nationalists as w ould
A tatrk himself hav e been if he had set himself such an ambitious task.
With hindsight, it may seem as though the enterprise should nev er hav e
been attempted, but just after the F irst World War it did not seem so absurd.
The O ttoman period had only just come to an end, during w hich almost all
these countries had effectiv ely been united under the rule of the same Turkish
sultan: w hy could they not be united again under an A rabic monarch? In
addition, it matched the spirit of the times. Italian unification had been
achiev ed by C av our in 1861 and G ermany had been united by Bismarck in
1871. These ev ents w ere still relativ ely recent and the memory of them w as
still v iv id. Why should A rab unity hav e been impossible?
Today, the prospect of forging a single country from Iraq, S y ria, Lebanon,
Jordan, Liby a, A lgeria, S udan and S audi A rabia seems like pure fantasy. But
then, none of these countries existed. When their names appeared on maps,
they w ere geographical regions or administrativ e units, sometimes prov inces
of v anished empires; none of them constituted a separate state. A rab
countries w hich could claim a continuous history w ere rare: M orocco, though it
w as then under a F rench protectorate; E gy pt, though it w as under E nglish
control; and Yemen, w hose archaic monarchy kept it apart from the rest of
the w orld.
Therefore, if it w as madness to adv ocate A rab unity, it w as equal
madness not to adv ocate it. S ome historical dilemmas cannot be resolv ed,
ev en by the most exceptional characters. The A rab w orld w as destined to
fight w ith passion and ferocity to realise its dream of unity, and destined to

It is in the light of this insoluble dilemma that w e can try to understand

N assers tragedy and all the dramas that hav e stemmed from it dow n to the
present. Thirty -fiv e y ears before the adv ent of the E gy ptian leader, the
A rabs had been seduced by another character w ho, in some circles, has
remained legendary : the H ashemite prince F aisal (the same F aisal to w hom
Law rence of A rabia w as adv iser and to some extent mentor). The son of the
S harif of M ecca, he dreamed of an A rab kingdom w ith him as sov ereign
w hich w ould bring together in the first instance the w hole of the M iddle E ast
as w ell as the A rabian peninsula. The British promised it to him in return for
the A rab uprising against the O ttomans, just as they promised to recognise his
father as caliph; and at the end of the G reat War, he w ent to the P aris P eace
C onference along w ith C olonel Law rence to get the backing of the great
pow ers for his plans.
During his time in P aris, he met C haim Weizmann, an important figure in
the Zionist mov ement w ho w ould become the first president of the state of
Israel thirty y ears later. O n 3 January 1919, the tw o men signed an
astonishing document boasting of the blood ties and close historical links
betw een their tw o peoples and stipulating that if the great independent
kingdom desired by the A rabs w ere created, it w ould encourage the
settlement of the Jew s in P alestine.
But that kingdom nev er saw the light of day. The great pow ers judged
that the peoples of the region w ere not up to the task of gov erning
themselv es and decided to grant G reat Britain a mandate ov er P alestine, the
West Bank and Iraq, and F rance a mandate ov er S y ria and Lebanon. A
furious F aisal decided to follow A tatrks path in try ing to put a fait accompli
before the great pow ers. H av ing declared himself king of S y ria, he formed a
gov ernment in Damascus w hich the majority of A rab political mov ements
joined. But F rance had no intention of allow ing herself to be depriv ed of the
territory w hich she had been granted. S he immediately dispatched an
expeditionary force, w hich easily defeated F aisals w eak forces and seized his
capital in July 1920. The only battle took place near the v illage of M ay saloun,
a name that has remained in patriotic memory as a sy mbol of frustration,
impotence, betray al and mourning.
H av ing lost his short-liv ed S y rian kingdom, the H ashemite emir obtained
the Iraqi throne under British superv ision as a consolation prize, but his
prestige w as for ev er damaged. H e died at the age of fifty in 1933 during a
stay in S w itzerland. Law rence died tw o y ears later in a motorbike accident.
There w ould nev er again be an agreement betw een A rabs and Jew s like that

of 1919, a global one w hich took into account the aspirations of both peoples,
endeav ouring to reconcile and ev en unite them. The Jew ish colonisation of
P alestine w ould happen against the w ishes of the A rabs, w ho w ould continue
to oppose it w ith equal amounts of rage and impotence.
When the state of Israel w as born in M ay 1948, its neighbours refused to
recognise it and tried to smother it w hile it w as still in the cradle. Their armies
entered P alestine only to be beaten one after the other by Jew ish troops w ho
w ere less numerous but better trained, strongly motiv ated and commanded
by competent officers. Israels four neighbours had to sign armistice
agreements: E gy pt in F ebruary 1949, Lebanon in M arch, Jordan in A pril and
S y ria in July .
This unexpected defeat w as a major political shock for the A rab w orld.
P ublic opinion w as outraged, furious at the Israelis, the British and the F rench,
and to some extent the Russians and A mericans, w ho had been quick to
recognise Israel; but more than any thing, these people w ere angry w ith their
ow n leaders, as much for the w ay in w hich they had conducted the battle as
for their resigned acceptance of defeat. O n 14 A ugust 1949, less than a month
after signing the armistice, the S y rian president and prime minister w ere
ousted in a coup dtat and summarily executed. In Lebanon, the former prime
minister Riad el-S olh, w ho w as aw ay on business during the w ar and the
armistice, w as assassinated in July 1951 by nationalist militants. F iv e months
later, King A bdullah of Jordan fell in his turn to an assassins bullet. E gy pt also
experienced a w av e of attacks and v iolent demonstrations, w hich began w ith
the assassination of P rime M inister N okrashi P asha and ended w ith the coup
dtat of July 1952. In less than four y ears, all the A rab leaders w ho had
accepted the armistice had either lost pow er or lost their liv es.
In this context, the adv ent of N asser w as greeted w ith huge anticipation and
his nationalist rhetoric quickly w hipped up enthusiasm. The A rabs had been
dreaming for so long of a man w ho w ould emerge to lead them confidently
tow ards the realisation of their dreams unity, true independence, economic
dev elopment, social adv ancement, and abov e all restored dignity. They
w anted N asser to be that man; they believ ed in him, follow ed him, lov ed
him. H is failure w ould shake them profoundly, making them lose all
confidence in their leaders for a long time, and in their ow n future.

Chapter 4
Responsibility for N assers failure is w idely shared. It is true that he w as
v iolently opposed by the Western pow ers, Israel, the oil-producing
monarchies, the M uslim Brotherhood, liberals, and also at certain points by
A rab communists. But none of his enemies contributed as much to the
dow nfall of N asserism as N asser himself.
The man w as not a democrat, w hich is putting it v ery mildly indeed. H e
established a single-party sy stem w ith 99 per cent plebiscites, a ubiquitous
secret police, and internment camps w here Islamists rubbed shoulders w ith
M arxists, common criminals and unfortunate members of the public w ho had
spoken out ill-adv isedly. H is nationalism w as strongly coloured by
xenophobia, w hich caused the end of a fruitful, centuries-old coexistence
betw een countless M editerranean communities Italians, G reeks, M altese,
Jew s, S y ro-Lebanese C hristians especially in A lexandria. H is management
of the economy w as a model of absurdity and incompetence: one of his
regular practices w as to appoint as head of a nationalised industry some
military man he w anted to rew ard or mov e sidew ay s not the best w ay to
ensure it w as effectiv ely run. The army itself, w hich N asser had built up at
great cost w ith help from the S ov iets, and w hich appeared formidable,
collapsed in just a few hours on 5 June 1967 w hen faced w ith the Israelis.
The E gy ptian president had fallen into a trap set by his enemies w hich he had
been unable to av oid.
I think I hav e listed most of the charges that can be made against him,
but it is important to add that N asser w as more than just this. H is ascent w as
probably the most significant ev ent in A rab history for centuries. S o many
leaders since then hav e committed acts of folly in the hope of occupy ing the
place in A rab hearts that he once occupied. The megalomaniac adv entures of
S addam H ussein are incomprehensible unless one bears in mind that his
references to N ebuchadnezzar and S aladin w ere nothing but v ain, pompous
rhetoric his only real ambition w as to become a second N asser. M any others
besides him hav e dreamt the same thing; some still dream of it, ev en though
times hav e changed, and ev en though P an-A rabism, support for the Third
World and socialism hav e lost their appeal.
In the early 1950s, the A rab w orld w as just beginning to leav e the
colonial era behind: the M aghreb w as still under F rench authority ; the G ulf
emirates depended on the British crow n; and if some countries had obtained
their independence, it w as independence in name only for sev eral of them.
That w as especially the case in E gy pt, w here the E nglish made and unmade
gov ernments w ithout pay ing too much heed to King F aruk, w hose prestige in
the ey es of his people w as in perpetual decline. They w ere irritated by his

lifesty le, the corruption of his entourage, his supposed eagerness to please the
E nglish, and also, after 1948, on account of his army s humiliating defeat at
the hands of the Israelis.
The F ree O fficers w ho took pow er in C airo in July 1952 promised to
repair all these affronts at once: bringing an end to the old regime, completing
independence by doing aw ay w ith British influence and retaking P alestine
from the Jew s. These w ere objectiv es w hich corresponded to the aspirations
of the broad mass of E gy ptian people and of all A rabs.
S ince E gy pt w as, according to the phrase used at the time, the A rabs big
sister, her experience w as v ery closely observ ed.
The E gy ptian coup dtat passed off peacefully, and ev en w ith a certain
generosity. The deposed king w as escorted to his y acht w ith military honours
and is ev en said to hav e been allow ed to take his precious collection of
carv ed w alking sticks w ith him. H e spent the rest of his life betw een the C te
dA zur, S w itzerland and Italy, far from any political activ ity. F or a y ear the
monarchy w as not ev en abolished, since the crow n prince, w ho w as only a
few months old, remained the nominal head of state.
N o dignitary of the old regime w as killed or giv en a long prison sentence.
They w ere stripped of their property, titles and priv ileges, but their liv es w ere
spared. A nd w hile some of them chose to go into exile, most of them stay ed
at home and w ere barely ev en concerned. The famous singer O um Kalsoum,
guilty of hav ing sung in praise of the ousted king, w as taken off air the day
after the coup by zealous military men. S he complained to a journalist friend,
w ho immediately told N asser, and the ban w as lifted at once. It w as not long
before she w as the fav ourite singer of the new regime.
This good-natured aspect of the E gy ptian rev olution w arrants fav ourable
comparison w ith so many other ev ents of the same sort w hich hav e
happened throughout history and w hich w ere accompanied by a bloodbath
think of O liv er C romw ell in E ngland, the F rance of Robespierre, Lenins
Russia, or, closer in time and place, the ov erthrow of the monarchies in Iraq,
E thiopia and Iran.
But it is w orth qualify ing this assessment. If N asser w as not a bloody
ty rant, neither w as he a pacifist. While it is true that the pashas of the old
regime all died peacefully in their beds, other political enemies on the right and
left w hom he judged to be a threat to his pow er w ere hanged, shot or killed,
and many others died under torture. In addition, N assers brand of nationalism
alw ay s display ed, in his rhetoric as w ell as in his decisions, a sy stematic
hostility tow ards ev ery thing w hich w as non-nativ e to E gy ptian society .

M y intention here is not to pass an ethical judgement, ev en if I hav e one

and it strikes me as legitimate to form one. I am thinking especially of the
example that N asser could hav e set for those w ho came after him. H e w as a
model for the A rab w orld as w ell as for the w hole M uslim w orld and A frica.
A s a result, ev ery thing he said and did had an educational v alue for hundreds
of millions of people of all conditions across these countries. F ew leaders reach
such a summit, and only the best of them are conscious of the heav y
responsibility that comes w ith this priv ilege, especially w hen it is a case of
tracing the path for a new or renascent nation.
A n eloquent example from our ow n time is that of N elson M andela. Borne
on a pow erful w av e of support, w ith an aura of glamour conferred by his long
y ears of imprisonment, he w as in a position to call the shots. H is people
scrutinised his ev ery w ord and gesture. If he had v oiced bitterness, settled
scores w ith his jailers, punished ev ery one w ho supported or tolerated
apartheid, no one could hav e blamed him. If he had w anted to remain
president of his country until his dy ing breath and gov erned autocratically, no
one could hav e stopped him. But he w as careful to giv e v ery different signals
quite explicitly. H e did not just pardon his persecutors, he made a point of
v isiting the w idow of former prime minister V erw oerd, one of the architects of
segregation, to tell her that the past w as ov er and that she too had a place in
the new S outh A frica. The message w as clear: I, M andela, w ho suffered
persecution under a racist regime and w ho did more than any one else to put
an end to this abomination, made a point, ev en though I am president, of
going to sit under the roof of the man w ho had me throw n in prison, to drink
tea w ith his w ife. S o none of my supporters should feel they hav e a right to
raise the stakes for militancy or rev enge.
S y mbols are potent, and w hen they come from someone so eminent, so
respected and admired, they can sometimes alter the course of history .
F or a number of y ears, N asser found himself in such a position. If he had
w anted to, if his political culture and his temperament had inclined him in that
direction, he could hav e mov ed E gy pt and the w hole of his region tow ards
greater democracy and greater respect for indiv idual freedom, and doubtless
tow ards peace and dev elopment.
It is easy to forget today that in the early decades of the tw entieth
century, major A rab and M uslim countries had a liv ely parliamentary culture,
a free press and relativ ely open elections, enthusiastically supported by the
people. That w as the case not only in Turkey or Lebanon, but also in E gy pt,
S y ria, Iraq and Iran, so it w as not inev itable that they w ould all succumb to
ty rannical or authoritarian regimes.

When he came to pow er in a country w ith a v ery imperfect democratic

life, N asser could hav e reformed the sy stem, making it accessible to other
strata of society, establishing a state in w hich the rule of law prev ailed,
putting an end to corruption, nepotism and foreign interference. The
population, all classes and shades of opinion together, w ould probably hav e
follow ed him dow n that path. H e chose instead to abolish the sy stem entirely
and set up a single-party regime, on the pretext that the nation had to be
rallied round the objectiv es of the rev olution and that any dissent or div ision
w ould open a breach for his enemies to exploit.
O f course, history cannot be remade. H av ing come to pow er in a bold
surprise attack, the y oung E gy ptian colonel a dev oted patriot and an honest
man, gifted w ith intelligence and charisma but w ithout great historical or moral
sense follow ed his inclination, w hich matched the spirit of the times. In the
early 1950s, conv entional w isdom strongly urged him to act in the w ay he
did. E gy pt had for sev eral generations been haunted by E nglish machinations,
and N asser w as rightly conv inced that he had to be extremely firm and
v igilant, as otherw ise the British w ould not hesitate to contriv e a w ay to
reclaim the prize that had been taken from his people.
The spectacle of the w orld in the aftermath of the July 1952 coup dtat
w ould only hav e confirmed N asser in this v iew . E v ery one w as looking at
Iran, w here prime minister M ossadegh, a S w iss-trained law y er w ho w as as
patriotic as N asser but a supporter of pluralist democracy, w as tussling w ith
the A nglo-Iranian O il C ompany. This company paid tiny amounts to the
Iranian state, determining them itself as it saw fit. M ossadegh claimed half
their rev enues for his country. When he receiv ed a flat refusal, he got
parliament to v ote through the nationalisation of the company. The British
response w as dev astatingly effectiv e. They imposed a w orld embargo on
Iranian oil, w hich no one dared buy. V ery soon the country w as running out
of all resources and its economy w as suffocating. In the first y ear follow ing
the E gy ptian rev olution, the w orld w atched as M ossadegh w as brought to his
knees and finally fell from pow er in A ugust 1953. The shah, w ho had briefly
been in v oluntary exile, returned in force and stay ed for the next tw enty -fiv e
y ears.
It w as that same summer that E gy pts F ree O fficers decided to depose
the infant king, abandoning any desire to establish a constitutional monarchy
and creating an authoritarian republic instead.
In assessing the factors w hich could hav e influenced a decision or sparked a
conflict, it is nev er possible to draw a straight line from cause to effect. M any

different elements come into play in attempting to understand N assers

choices, determining the direction the E gy ptian rev olution took and also in
large measure the march of A rab nationalism tow ards the peaks and then
tow ards the precipice. Besides the far from negligible personal factor, w e
should also bear in mind v arious dev elopments w hich occurred during these
y ears, some directly linked to the C old War, others to the breakup of E uropes
old colonial empires and the emergence of a nationalistic support for the Third
World, w hich w as generally anti-Western and attracted to the S ov iet model of
a single party and a planned economy .
In theory, N asser could hav e decided to take a different course. In
reality, giv en the temper of the times and the balance of pow er, that w ould
hav e been difficult and risky .

Chapter 5
I n 1956, during the S uez C risis, N asser became the idol of the w ider A rab
w orld, because he dared to throw dow n the gauntlet to the colonial E uropean
pow ers and emerged v ictorious from the confrontation.
In July of that y ear, during a rally in A lexandria to celebrate the fourth
anniv ersary of the rev olution, he unexpectedly declared, in a speech
broadcast liv e, the nationalisation of the F ranco-British S uez C anal C ompany,
a sy mbol of the foreign stranglehold on his country. This speech left his
audience delirious, and the rest of the w orld reeling. London and P aris w ere
irate and spoke of piracy and acts of w ar, and w arned of the risks of
disturbing international trade.
O v ernight, the 38-y ear-old E gy ptian colonel w as propelled to the centre
of the international stage. The entire w orld seemed to div ide into his
supporters and critics. In one camp w ere the peoples of the Third World, the
N on-A ligned M ov ement, the S ov iet bloc, as w ell as the grow ing sector of
Western opinion that w ished to draw a line under the colonial era, either for
reasons of principle or of cost. In the other camp w ere G reat Britain, F rance
and Israel; so too, though more discreetly, w ere certain conserv ativ e A rab
leaders w ho feared the destabilising influence of N asser in their ow n countries;
among them w as the Iraqi prime minister, N uri es-S aid, w ho adv ised his
British counterpart, A nthony E den, to H it him! H it him now , and hit him
hard! F resh in ev ery ones memory w as the fate inflicted on M ossadegh. It
seemed inconceiv able that the E gy ptian leader w ould not be penalised in the
same w ay, so that the West w ould retain control of this important seaw ay
and at the same time set an example.
A decision w as indeed taken to hit him hard. A t the end of O ctober, a
tw o-part operation w as set in motion: the Israelis initiated a land offensiv e in
S inai, and British and F rench commandos parachuted into the zone around the
canal. M ilitarily, N asser w as beaten, but politically he w as about to score a
triumph, thanks in particular to a historic coincidence w hich neither he nor his
enemies had foreseen.
O n the v ery day on w hich P aris and London deliv ered an ultimatum to C airo
in adv ance of their attack, a new H ungarian gov ernment led by Imre N agy
declared its return to pluralist democracy, thereby openly rebelling against
M oscow s hegemony. That occurred on Tuesday, 30 O ctober 1956. In the
day s that follow ed, the tw o dramas unfolded in parallel: w hile the Roy al A ir
F orce w as bombing C airo A irport, and F rench and British parachutists w ere
dropping from the skies abov e P ort S aid, S ov iet tanks w ere bloodily try ing to

crush student demonstrators in Budapest.

N ow here w as there more fury ov er this coincidence than in Washington.
The fiercely anti-C ommunist administration of P resident E isenhow er and the
tw o Dulles brothers John F oster, the secretary of state, and A lan, the
director of the C IA saw in the ev ents in H ungary a major milestone in the
confrontation betw een the tw o w orld blocs. The S ov iet leadership w as clearly
in a state of disarray. The process of de-S talinisation w hich they had initiated
had turned against them. To maintain their domination of C entral and E astern
E urope, the only choice they had left w as brute force. The time w as ripe for
the U S to isolate the Russians, undermine their credibility on the international
stage, and inflict a major political defeat.
By launching a military campaign against E gy pt at this precise moment,
the British, F rench and Israelis w ere giv ing the S ov iets an unimagined
opportunity to deflect the w orlds attention aw ay from their ow n punitiv e
operation. The A mericans w ere incensed. Whereas in the summer they had
giv en their friends to believ e that they w ould let them get on w ith it, they
now begged them to stop, to cancel the operation and w ithdraw their troops.
S uez could w ait!
But the operation w as already under w ay, and E den neither could nor
w ould call it off. Insistent calls from Washington made no impression. H e
believ ed he knew his habitually reluctant allies v ery w ell. Initially, they
w ould drag their heels and find pretexts not to interv ene the E nglish alw ay s
had to go first, encouraging and prodding them but the A mericans w ould
ev entually get inv olv ed and fight better than any one, he thought. But w hat
efforts C hurchill had had to expend in order to drag them into the w ar against
H itler! H adnt G reat Britain had to hold on v irtually alone for tw o and a half
y ears before the U nited S tates joined the fray ? In the Iranian crisis, the same
scenario had repeated itself. Left to themselv es, the A mericans w ould hav e
put up w ith M ossadeghs gov ernment and their nationalisation of oil. They
had, moreov er, insisted that G reat Britain accept a compromise w hich took
into account the national aspirations of the Iranians. O nce again it had been
necessary for C hurchill, E den and many other representativ es to go to discuss
this at the White H ouse and the S tate Department, explaining and arguing
before the A mericans w ould agree to act. O nce again, U S interv ention had
prov ed decisiv e; indeed, it w as they w ho had so effectiv ely orchestrated the
ov erthrow of M ossadegh. E den predicted that in the S uez C risis the same
thing w ould happen. In the end, Washington w ould understand that the fight
against C ommunism is the same, w hether in E gy pt, H ungary, Iran, Korea or
elsew here.
The prime minister w as sorely mistaken. N ot only did the A mericans
hav e no intention of follow ing him in his adv enture, they w ere so irritated

that they intended to publicly humiliate him. S ince E den refused to understand
that his stupid little w ar w as play ing into the hands of the S ov iets, he w ould
be treated like an enemy unheard of in tw o centuries of A nglo-A merican
relations. The A merican Treasury began to sell huge quantities of sterling,
w hich led the currency to fall, and w hen some of the A rab countries decided
no longer to supply oil to F rance and G reat Britain out of solidarity w ith
E gy pt, the A mericans refused to make up the shortfall. A t the U N S ecurity
C ouncil, the U S delegation sponsored a resolution demanding the cessation of
military operations. When P aris and London exercised their v eto, the same
proposal w as submitted to the G eneral A ssembly, w hich v oted massiv ely in
fav our. E v en the large A nglo-S axon countries of the C ommonw ealth, such as
C anada and A ustralia, made clear to E den that he could no longer count on
their support.
In the end, the British leader and his F rench counterpart, G uy M ollet,
gav e in and recalled their troops. Despite their military success on the ground,
their political defeat w as complete. H av ing behav ed as though they still
possessed v ast w orld empires, the tw o E uropean pow ers had suffered a
dev astating blow . The S uez C risis sounded the death knell for the colonial
era; thereafter, the w orld entered a new age, w ith different pow ers and
different rules.
A s a result of rev ealing this seismic change and emerging v ictorious,
N asser became a major figure on the w orld stage ov ernight and for the
A rabs, one of the greatest heroes in their history .

Chapter 6
The N asser era did not last long: eighteen y ears at a generous estimate, from
his coup dtat in July 1952 to his death in S eptember 1970; and just elev en
y ears if y ou count only the period during w hich the majority of A rab people
believ ed in him, from the nationalisation of the S uez C anal in July 1956 until
the S ix Day War in June 1967.
Was it a golden age? C ertainly not if y ou judge him on his record. N asser
w as unable to raise his country out of underdev elopment, nor w as he able to
establish modern political institutions, and his plans for union w ith other states
ended only in failure. The w hole thing w as crow ned w ith a monumental
military disaster in the confrontation w ith Israel in 1967. H ow ev er, the abiding
impression of those y ears among A rabs is that they w ere for a time actors in
their ow n history, rather than pow erless, insignificant and despised bit-part
play ers, and that they had a leader in w hom they saw themselv es reflected.
A nd ev en if their adored president w as not a democrat, had come to pow er in
a military coup and had remained there by means of dubious elections, he
appeared legitimate far bey ond the borders of his ow n country, w hereas
leaders w ho opposed him appeared illegitimate, nev er mind that they w ere
the heirs of more ancient dy nasties or ev en the descendants of the P rophet.
U nder N asser, A rabs felt as though they had recov ered their dignity, and
w ere able to hold their heads high alongside other nations. U ntil that time, and
for generations and indeed centuries, all they had know n w ere defeats,
foreign occupations, unfair treaties, capitulation, humiliation and the shame of
hav ing sunk so low after hav ing conquered half the w orld.
E v ery A rab carries w ithin him the soul of a fallen hero, and the desire for
rev enge on all those w ho hav e treated him w ith contempt. If he is promised
rev enge, he listens w ith a combination of expectation and incredulity. If he is
offered rev enge, ev en in part, ev en in a sy mbolic form, he is transported.
N asser had asked his brothers to raise their heads. In their name, he had
defied the colonial pow ers; in their name, he had confronted the tripartite
aggression; in their name, he had triumphed. Joy w as immediate. Tens of
millions of A rabs thereafter could see only him, thought only of him, and
sw ore only by him. They w ere ready to support him against the entire w orld,
and sometimes ev en ready to die for him. A nd, of course, to applaud him
endlessly and chant his name w ith their ey es closed. When he w as successful,
they blessed him; w hen he suffered setbacks, they cursed his enemies.
In reality, there w ere both highs and low s. In hindsight, the N asser y ears
appear like a rapid game of chess in w hich the play ers w ould occupy a

square, mov e from it w hen they came under pressure, only to reoccupy it a
little later, then perhaps lose a major piece, then quickly take one of their
enemy s until the final confrontation ended in a surprising checkmate.
S o, in just this fashion, in F ebruary 1958, only fifteen months after the
Battle of S uez, N asser entered Damascus in triumph. S uch w as his popularity
in S y ria that its leaders had decided to hand pow er ov er to him. A U nited
A rab Republic w as declared, made up of a southern prov ince, E gy pt, and a
northern one, S y ria. The old dream of A rab unity seemed to be on the w ay
to becoming a reality. Better still, N assers great republic corresponded exactly
to the kingdom built eight centuries earlier by S aladin, w ho, in 1169, had
come to pow er in C airo, and in 1174 had conquered Damascus, taking the
free kingdom of Jerusalem in a pincer mov ement. (Incidentally , A l-N asser, he
w ho giv es v ictory , w as S aladins surname.)
In the months that follow ed the declaration of the U nited A rab Republic, a
rebellion broke out in Beirut against P resident C hamoun, w ho w as accused of
supporting the F rench and British during the S uez C risis. There w ere calls for
his resignation, and some N asser supporters ev en adv ocated that Lebanon
should become part of the E gy pto-S y rian state. S ev eral other countries began
to experience an intense ferment of nationalist activ ity .
In order to confront these challenges, the pro-Western kingdoms of Iraq
and Jordan w hich w ere both gov erned by y oung sov ereigns of the
H ashemite dy nasty aged just tw enty -three decided to declare in their turn a
united A rab kingdom. But this counter-union lasted only a few w eeks. O n 14
July 1958, a bloody coup ov erthrew the Iraqi monarchy and put an end to
the project. The w hole roy al family w as massacred and N assers old enemy,
N uri es-S aid, w as ly nched by the mob in the streets of Baghdad.
N assers nationalist tide seemed to be w ell on the w ay to ov erw helming
the entire A rab w orld from the ocean to the G ulf, and at high speed. N ev er
had the theory of the domino effect w orked so quickly. E v ery monarchy w as
shaken and on the point of falling, especially that of King H ussein, w ho
seemed to be facing an identical fate to that of his unfortunate Iraqi cousin.
Washington and London consulted each other on the morning of 14 July
and agreed on an immediate response. The v ery next day, A merican marines
landed on Lebanese beaches; tw o day s later, British commandos arriv ed in
Jordan. It w as a w ay of telling N asser that if he w ent one step further, he
w ould enter into direct military conflict w ith the West.
This response had the desired effect. The nationalist w av e ebbed. In
Lebanon, the rebellion lost momentum and P resident C hamoun w as able to
serv e the rest of his term. In Jordan, King H ussein w as not ousted; v arious

threats still lay ahead for him military rebellions, attacks on his person and
on those close to him but by surv iv ing this first attack, he w as able to sav e
his throne.
N asser w as to suffer tw o further serious rev ersals. In Iraq, an internal
struggle soon began among the architects of the coup, betw een those w ho
w anted to align themselv es w ith C airo and those w ho w anted to keep their
distance. N assers friends w ere beaten and ousted. Rather than joining the
U nited A rab Republic, the strong man of the new regime, G eneral A bdelKarim Kassem, presented himself as the champion of a specifically Iraqi
rev olution and clearly anchored on the left. H e thereby became N assers
sw orn enemy ov ernight and a struggle to the death betw een the tw o men
began. O n 7 O ctober 1959, in central Baghdad, Kassems armoured car w as
riddled w ith bullets. Kassem got aw ay w ith only scratches; his attacker, w ho
w as w ounded in the leg, managed to escape across the border to seek refuge
in S y ria. H e w as a 22-y ear-old militant nationalist by the name of S addam
H ussein.
N assers other failure w ould turn out to be y et more dev astating. A t daw n
o n 28 S eptember 1961, a military coup took place in Damascus. The
restoration of S y rian independence and the end of the union w ith C airo w ere
declared. A rab nationalists denounced this separatist act and accused those
inv olv ed in the putsch of being puppets of colonialism, Zionism, reactionary
forces and the oil-producing monarchies. But no one w as unaw are at the time
that the S y rian population w as finding it more and more difficult to tolerate
E gy ptian control, not least because it w as exercised through the secret
serv ices. Like Baghdad, Damascus is one of the historical capitals of the
M uslim w orld; Baghdad w as the seat of the A bassid caliphate, w hile
Damascus w as the seat of the U may y ad caliphate. Both w ere w illing to be a
sister to C airo, but not her serv ant. S uch feelings w ere w idespread throughout
the population, especially among the urban bourgeoisie and landow ners,
w hom N assers nationalisations had ruined.
The E gy ptian leaders star seemed irredeemably tarnished. H is popularity
might hav e remained intact among the masses in most A rab countries, but his
enemies, both in the region and in the West, breathed more easily, believ ing
that the initial nationalist w av e w as now no more than a memory .
But all of a sudden, the w av e broke again, this time stronger and w ider than
before. During the summer of 1962, an independent A lgeria elected as its
leader A hmed Ben Bella, a ferv ent admirer of N asser. In S eptember, F ree
O fficers, inspired by the example of E gy pt, ov erthrew the most reactionary
monarchy of all, that of the imams in Yemen. A Yemeni republic w as

declared, to w hich N asser promised ev ery assistance. S oon thousands of

E gy ptian soldiers w ere arriv ing in the south of the A rabic peninsula, causing
the oil-producing kingdoms to tremble.
O n 8 F ebruary 1963, A rab nationalist officers seized pow er in Baghdad.
Kassem w as summarily executed and his body display ed on telev ision. The
new head of state w as C olonel A bdessalam A ref, one of N assers faithful
allies. A month later, on 8 M arch, a similar coup dtat took place in
Damascus, in w hich the end of separatism w as declared, along w ith the aim
of recreating a union w ith E gy pt and Iraq, perhaps also Yemen and A lgeria,
and ev en, in the future, Lebanon, Liby a, Kuw ait, S udan, S audi A rabia, and so
S uddenly, w ithin a few months, N assers dream of A rabic unity seemed
rev iv ed, and more v igorous than ev er. Iraq and S y rias new leaders w ent to
C airo to negotiate the terms of a new union, a project w hich w as solemnly
announced on 17 A pril 1963. Thus, a pow erful A rab state w as about to be
born, uniting the three great imperial capitals, C airo, Baghdad and Damascus.
A rab nationalism seemed to be on the v erge of an unprecedented historical
triumph. Its supporters w ere delirious, and its enemies alarmed. N either group
could hav e imagined then how close the denouement w as.

Chapter 7
The new ebb in support for N asser turned out to be as rapid as the original
surge had been. In the w eeks follow ing the agreement about the new union,
it became know n that the C airo negotiations had in fact gone v ery badly . The
S y rian and Iraqi leaders, w ho all belonged to the pan-A rabic Baath
(resurrection) party, w anted a partnership in w hich N asser w as the head of
the new state, but w hich gav e them the real pow er on the ground.
Remembering the mistakes made during the first attempt at a union, they did
not w ant their countries to be gov erned by some v iceroy subserv ient to the
E gy ptian leader. N asser, for his part, had no desire to be the nominal
president of a state dominated by these Baathists for w hom he had neither
trust nor sy mpathy. They may hav e been the architects of the tw o coups,
but it w as N asser w ho w as the standard bearer of A rab unity ; it w as in him
that the people saw their aspirations reflected, and him alone w hom they
desired as their leader. It w as not long before this disagreement degenerated
into a v iolent trial of strength. In Baghdad, the confrontation w ent
prov isionally in fav our of the E gy ptian president, but w hen N assers
supporters in S y ria rose up against the Baathists, the rebellion w as v iolently
suppressed and the death toll ran into hundreds.
In Yemen, the roy alists, aided by S audi A rabia, furiously opposed the
new republican regime and succeeded in hampering the efforts of the
E gy ptian expeditionary force. Their mission turned to disaster militarily,
financially and also morally w hen some of the soldiers inv olv ed started
behav ing not as liberators but as occupiers, and ev en looters.
A nother blow for N asser came in June 1965, w hen his friend Ben Bella
w as ov erthrow n in a military coup; A lgerias new president, H ouari
Boumediene, w as quick to distance himself from C airo.
The backlash w as on a massiv e scale. E v en bey ond the A rab w orld, the
E gy ptian president lost some of his closest allies. The G hanaian Kw ame
N krumah, an adv ocate of A frican unity and a ferv ent admirer of N asser so
much so that he had giv en his son the first name G amal w as ov erthrow n in
F ebruary 1966 by a military coup. Then it w as the turn of the Indonesian
S ukarno, a standard-bearer in the N on-A ligned M ov ement; on 11 M arch 1966,
he w as forced to cede pow er to the pro-A merican G eneral S uharto.
F inally, as if to complete N assers isolation, his last faithful ally among the
A rab leaders, the Iraqi president A bdessalam A ref, died on 13 A pril 1966 in
circumstances w hich hav e nev er been fully explained. H e w as v isiting the
south of the country near Bassora w hen his helicopter malfunctioned and w ent

out of control. S uddenly the door opened and the president fell out; his head
hit the ground and he w as killed instantly .
This bizarre accident could not hav e come at a w orse moment for N asser,
w ho more than ev er needed trustw orthy allies, since the political landscape of
the region w as beginning to be populated w ith mov ements and indiv iduals
w hich w ere challenging his authority, such as the Baath party or F atah, a
new comer on the scene.
When on 1 January 1965 a communiqu announced the first military
operation by a prev iously unknow n P alestinian organisation, the E gy ptian
president knew at once that this action w as not solely aimed against Israel or
Jordan, but also against him. U p until that point, the P alestinians had been
N assers most enthusiastic supporters, because it w as they w ho had had to
leav e their homes w hen the state of Israel w as created, and w ho hoped to
return there through an A rab v ictory. In the meantime, most of them w ere
liv ing in refugee camps and had placed all their hopes in N asser.
N asser himself nev er missed an opportunity to lambast the Zionist
enemy , to bring up the setback suffered by Israel during the S uez C risis or to
promise fresh v ictories to come. The P alestinians had been persuaded that the
E gy ptian presidents nationalist mobilisation w as the only route w hich w ould
permit them to w in. But some of them w ere beginning to grow impatient.
They had had enough of their struggle constantly being sacrificed to other
priorities and constantly deferred. N asser w as clearly in no hurry to go to w ar
against Israel. F irst he had to achiev e A rab unity, driv e out colonialism,
consolidate the socialist economy, ov ercome reactionary regimes and so on.
The founders of F atah believ ed that the P alestinians ought to conduct their
ow n fight according to their ow n agenda. Their first communiqu amounted to
a declaration of independence and also one of defiance w ith regard to
other A rab leaders and in particular w ith regard to the most prominent of
them, N asser.
M ockery of N asser w as also grow ing in v arious quarters. H adnt he had
enough time since 1956 to prepare a w ar against Israel? H adnt he been
sufficiently w ell armed by the S ov iets? H adnt he acquired planes, tanks and
ev en submarines? Wasnt it strange that not a single shot had been fired
against the common enemy in ten y ears?
The E gy ptian president w as not insensitiv e to these criticisms. A fter all,
his accession to pow er had come about as a direct reaction to the A rabs
defeat in 1948 and he had arriv ed promising to repair that affront. This w as
the context in w hich he had become a hero. In 1956, he had giv en the crow ds
a foretaste of the promised v ictory, and in his speeches he constantly held up

the glittering prospect of other battles to come. The crow ds listened to him
and trusted him; they did not expect him to launch a battle before he w as
ready, but his credit had its limits. E specially if others w ere now taking up
arms against Israel.
A nd that is precisely w hat happened after 1 January 1965. O ne F atah
operation succeeded another and its press releases w ere reported in the
The most militant sector of A rab public opinion cheered; and in the
conserv ativ e monarchies too the exploits of the F eday een w ere admired, and
compared fav ourably to the duplicitous rhetoric of N asser, w ho prefers to
send his troops to fight in Yemen rather than in N egev , Jaffa or G alilee.
The E gy ptian presidents position became y et more aw kw ard w hen Israel
began to react v iolently to F atahs attacks. O n the night of 1112 N ov ember
1966, an Israeli border patrol encountered a landmine w hich w ent off, killing
three soldiers and injuring six others. Believ ing that the P alestinian
commandos w ho planted it came from the v illage of es-S amu in the West
Bank w hich then belonged to the kingdom of Jordan the Israelis launched
a massiv e reprisal attack on 13 N ov ember. But instead of encountering the
F eday een, they came face to face w ith a detachment of the H ashemite
army. A v iolent battle ensued, w hich at one point inv olv ed the air force.
S ixteen Jordanian soldiers w ere killed as w ell as the Israeli colonel directing
the operation. In the v illage, dozens of houses w ere destroy ed and three
civ ilians killed.
The Israeli reaction w as univ ersally condemned or at least strongly
criticised, not just by the A rabs, S ov iets and non-aligned countries, w hich
w ere in the habit of condemning ev ery thing that Israel did, but also by the
A mericans, w ho could not understand w hy any one w ould w ant to destabilise
one of the rare moderate regimes in the A rab w orld, w hich had alw ay s been
the least hostile to the Jew ish state.
In Israel itself, many people felt that the operation had been misguided
and also badly executed. M oshe Day an, the former chief of the armed forces
and future defence minister, asked w hy it w as Jordan that had been attacked
w hen ev ery one knew it w as S y ria that w as financing and arming the
F eday een. The idea that the w rong target had been hit w as quickly admitted
by most leaders, w ho promised that next time they w ould come knocking on
the right door.
In fact, attention w as turning more and more tow ards Damascus, as a
result of its support for P alestinian militants and also because of the
increasingly frequent engagements betw een S y rian artillery on the G olan

H eights and Israeli troops stationed in the G alilee settlements. O n 7 A pril

1967, a minor border skirmish escalated into an aerial combat in the skies
abov e Damascus. S ix S y rian planes w ere shot dow n.
A ll these ev ents rev erberated more and more in A rabic public opinion,
w here the same questions kept arising: w hat w as N asser doing? What w as
the E gy ptian army doing? When people didnt ask these questions
spontaneously, some sectors of the media took it upon themselv es to w hisper
them in their ears, w ith a reminder that N asser ran no risk of being attacked
himself, unlike the Jordanians and S y rians, since he w as hiding like a timid
little girl in the skirts of the U nited N ations an allusion to the fact that
international observ ers had been posted in G aza and all along the E gy ptian
Israeli border since the S uez C risis. This had been a condition of the Israeli
forces ev acuating S inai, and N asser had agreed after obtaining a guarantee
from the U N secretary general, the S w ede Dag H ammarskjld, that they
w ould be w ithdraw n as soon as C airo requested it.
The accusation of timidity had become a recurring refrain at this time for
all N assers enemies, on both the right and the left. The A rab media linked to
the Jordanian, S audi and Iranian monarchies now grouped in an Islamic
pact in opposition to the E gy ptian president nev er missed a chance to draw
attention to the disparity betw een his bellicose w ords and his actual
behav iour. But the official press in Damascus w as no less v irulent; it no longer
held back from describing N asser in language prev iously reserv ed for proWestern leaders. It spoke of cow ardice and capitulation, and accused him of
leav ing the E gy ptian army far from the battlefield w hile the S y rian army w as
currently at the front, ready to hav e it out w ith the enemy and to crush them.
N asser could not stand for this. If it had just been a matter of inv ectiv e
and tirades, then perhaps he could hav e brushed it off. But tension w as
mounting in the region, and there w as a persistent sound of marching boots.
Was military confrontation really on the horizon? H e knew that his enemies
w anted to catch him out, and he w as just as mistrustful of the intentions of
Damascus or of the armed P alestinian mov ements as he w as of Tel A v iv and
Washington, London, A mman and Riy adh. In priv ate, he told those close to
him that a trap w as clearly being set and that he w ould not allow himself to
be caught.
N onetheless, if tension continued to mount and did indeed lead to w ar,
how on earth could he stand idly by ? H ow could the standard-bearer of the
A rab nation leav e his army on the sidelines if other A rab armies w ere
engaged in fighting w ith the common enemy ?
O n 12 M ay, press agencies reported statements by a high-ranking Israeli

military official claiming that his country had decided to ov erthrow the S y rian
regime if it continued to support the F eday een. The follow ing day, an
E gy ptian figure w ho had hitherto play ed only a minor role, A nw ar S adat,
then president of the parliament, made a brief stop-off in M oscow on the w ay
back from a routine courtesy v isit to M ongolia and N orth Korea. H e w as
expecting to be politely greeted by some civ il serv ant, but in fact some of the
U S S Rs top leaders met him to tell him that, according to their sources, the
Israelis had amassed fifteen div isions on their northern border and an inv asion
of S y ria w as imminent ten day s aw ay at most. A s soon as he returned to
C airo, S adat w ent to see N asser, w ho had just been giv en the same
information by the S ov iet ambassador.
N asser decided that he had no option but to send his army to S inai, at the
same time requesting that the U N w ithdraw its contingent, w hich it did
w ithout objection. The E gy ptian forces took up position in G aza and especially
S harm el-S heikh, w hich controls the S traits of Tiran and access to the G ulf of
A qaba, through w hich the Israelis had been receiv ing deliv eries of Iranian oil
for y ears under a secret agreement w ith the S hah. While this route remained
in the hands of international forces, N asser left it alone, but as soon as his
ow n troops w ere in place, he could no longer turn a blind ey e. H e had either
to tolerate this traffic or put a stop to it.
The A rab masses w ho, tw o w eeks earlier, had nev er heard of the S traits
of Tiran, w ere now demanding that they be closed. The media both
N assers supporters and his enemies w ere also speaking w ith one v oice.
E v ery one w as aw are that closing the straits w ould inev itably lead to w ar
betw een E gy pt and Israel; but it w as a w ar w hich ev ery one w anted,
w hether to put an end to the state of Israel or to get rid of N asser.

Chapter 8
When he receiv ed the message about an imminent inv asion of S y ria, N asser
sent a man he could trust to Damascus: M ahmoud F aw zi, his chief of staff.
F aw zi had instructions to show solidarity and offer help, but also to check the
v eracity of the S ov iet intelligence.
O n his return, F aw zi summed up the situation in a common E gy ptian
expression: M a fich haga! (N othings happening!) H ow can that be? N asser
asked. The general replied, The Israelis are not massed along the border, and
the S y rians dont look as though they are expecting an imminent inv asion.
N asser w as more puzzled than ev er, but there w as no longer any turning
back. H is troops w ere already deploy ed in S inai, the blue helmets w ere
packing up and the temperature of public opinion w as rising all the time.
Like many great orators, N asser w as alw ay s sensitiv e to the mood of his
audience and, especially w hen it came to the A rabIsraeli issue, often
prisoner of his ow n rhetoric. In those torrid day s of 1967, it w as clear that
public opinion could no longer be controlled and that the mood of the crow d
w as dictating the actions of the man w hose name they chanted.
When on 22 M ay he declared that the S traits of Tiran w ere closed to
shipping, the rev erberations w ere greater than at any other moment in his
career. That v ery day, lines of demonstrators formed in A rab cities from the
M aghreb to Iraq. O ne slogan w as repeated ov er and ov er: Yesterday w e
nationalised the canal, and today w e hav e closed the straits. With hindsight,
this w e may prov oke a smile, but it translated a genuine feeling. The A rab
masses recognised themselv es instinctiv ely in N asser and felt ow nership of his
political decisions as though they had issued them themselv es. O n reflection,
this w as at once both perfectly illusory and profoundly true.
The E gy ptian president seemed during those day s to be at the peak of his
pow er. The support of the A rab peoples for the coming fight and for the
leader w ho w ould lead it w as so ov erw helming that no other leader w as able
to stand in his w ay. The most astonishing reaction w as that of King H ussein,
w ho had been N assers most determined enemy since the E gy ptian came to
pow er. U ntil that point, there had been a struggle w ithout mercy betw een the
tw o men. Then suddenly, at daw n on Tuesday 30 M ay, the H ashemite
monarchs priv ate plane took off for C airo, w here he told his old enemy that
he w ould put the full resources of his kingdom at his disposal in the coming
w ar. S urprised and still distrustful, N asser insisted that an officer of the
E gy ptian high command should be placed at the head of the Jordanian army.
King H ussein accepted w ithout protest.

This spectacular turnaround is w orth pondering for a moment. The little king
w as definitely not a demagogue, and he w as passionately dev oted to the
independence of his country. N or w as he a sw orn enemy of the Jew ish state
bent on military rev enge. Throughout his long reign, w hich lasted almost half
a century, he refused to y ield to A rab taboos concerning relations w ith the
Zionist enemy and he frequently met w ith Israeli leaders during his trav els
ov erseas. H e ev en w ent so far as to deliv er the funeral oration for Yitzhak
Rabin in Jerusalem in 1995, calling the man w ho had conquered the H oly C ity
at his expense my friend.
If in M ay 1967 he decided to join N asser, it w as because it w ould hav e
been suicidal to set himself against the patriotic legitimacy of the moment. N ot
taking part in the coming w ar w ould hav e been disastrous for the H ashemite
monarchy, w hatev er the outcome of the fighting. A n A rab v ictory w ould
hav e placed N asser in a position to destroy the Jordanian throne. A n A rab
defeat w ould hav e led to the finger of blame being pointed first at any nation
w hich had refused to fight. F rom the moment w ar had become inev itable,
King H ussein understood that he w ould hav e to fight alongside E gy pt, and
ev en under its command. That is how the instinct for legitimacy w orks.
Jordan stood to lose the West Bank, but it w as already as good as lost, either
to the Israelis or to A rab insurgents, as soon as w ar broke out. King H ussein
could not hav e continued to gov ern millions of P alestinians if he had refused
to take part in the fight for P alestine.
The king w ould behav e in the same w ay a quarter of a century later,
during the first G ulf War. While the w hole of the w orld joined forces against
S addam H ussein, the H ashemite king rallied to Iraqs support. Was this
because he w anted to see him w in? C ertainly not. Because he believ ed an
Iraqi v ictory w as possible? A bsolutely not. It w as simply because, at this
other crucial turning point in M iddle E astern history, the king preferred to be
w rong along w ith his people, rather than right in opposition to them.
King H usseins attitude in 1967 is easier to understand if y ou compare it w ith
that of another of Israels neighbours, Lebanon. Its leaders took a decision not
to participate in the w ar, w hich at the time seemed eminently reasonable. But
in so doing, they lost their patriotic legitimacy in the ey es of a good proportion
of the Lebanese people. A s a result, the country became bogged dow n in a
historical quagmire from w hich it still has not escaped forty y ears later.
F ro m 1968, armed P alestinian groups began to launch attacks from
Lebanon. When the Israelis responded v iolently and the authorities in Beirut,
w ho w ere incapable of repelling the attacks of their pow erful neighbour,
decided to clamp dow n on the F eday een, a section of public opinion sided

w ith the militants rather than their ow n gov ernment. The argument w hich
w as repeated endlessly w as that the Lebanese army, w hich hadnt fought
against the enemy , should at least not be fighting w ith those w ho w ere.
Lebanons w isest politicians repeated that the 1967 w ar w as one of the
most unthinking acts that the A rab countries had committed in their history ;
that if Lebanon had taken part alongside Israels three other neighbours, it
w ould hav e lost part of its territory, as E gy pt, S y ria and Jordan did; and that
its army w ould probably hav e been destroy ed w ithout changing the pow er
relations or the outcome of the fighting one iota. N o one could seriously take
issue w ith any of this. N onetheless, a significant proportion of the population
no longer recognised itself in its gov ernment or its army, and could not
tolerate seeing it clamp dow n on those w ho w ere activ ely engaged in
fighting. S ome Lebanese, especially those w ho belonged to M uslim
communities and left-w ing parties, came to consider the P alestinian fighters as
their army, and the regular army as belonging to the C hristian parties and the
right. That regular army began to fall apart and the state lost control of the
country .
The region w hich suffered most w as the south. That w as w here the
F eday een had gained a foothold; it w as from there that they launched their
attacks, and that w as w here the Israelis hit back. The local population, w ho
w ere mainly S hiite, felt as though they w ere despised and abandoned,
v ictims caught betw een the Dev il and the deep blue sea. They came in time
to curse the P alestinians just as much as the Israelis.
It w as from all these resentments that H ezbollah w as born. In 1982, the
Israeli army, follow ing a w ar w hich had seen it get as far as Beirut, decided
no longer to confine itself to limited punitiv e expeditions, but to occupy the
south of Lebanon outright in such a w ay as to firmly close the border. S hiite
militants, inspired, armed and financed by their fellow S hiites in Iran, threw
themselv es into a resistance mov ement w hich turned out to be highly
effectiv e from the start. Little by little, the Lebanese, w ho had long been
mocked by other A rabs for hav ing been the only ones not to take part in the
fighting, appeared as the only ones w ho knew how to fight, to the point that
they forced the Israeli army to ev acuate their country in M ay 2000, and then
held it in check during the w ar of the summer of 2006.
S o, in the y ears that follow ed the w ar of 1967, Israels three neighbours
that took part in the fighting managed to reach arrangements w hich made
their borders w ith the Jew ish state perfectly peaceful: w ith E gy pt and Jordan
there w ere treaties, and w ith S y ria, a modus v iv endi. O nly the fourth
neighbour, the one that had not w anted to go to w ar, w as unable to achiev e
peace. S ince then it has been in turmoil. In theory , its leaders in 1967 show ed
themselv es to be reasonable in remaining outside the conflict. In practice,

how ev er, the price paid by Lebanon for not taking part in the w ar w as a
thousand times more costly than if it had done.

Chapter 9
I shall close this long parenthesis on the w ay in w hich legitimacy functions
and return to those day s in M ay and June 1967 w hen N asser had taken up,
or reacquired, the reins of the A rab nation, promising to lead it tow ards the
hoped-for v ictory. H is armed forces and those of Israel w ere now face to
H av ing originally planned to attack first, N asser abandoned the idea,
conv inced that it w ould be politically disastrous as the A mericans w ould get
inv olv ed in force on the Israeli side and the S ov iets w ould be embarrassed.
If, by contrast, he allow ed himself to be attacked, he w ould immediately find
himself in an excellent diplomatic position: the w hole w orld w ould be w ith
him, not least G eneral de G aulles F rance; and the U nited S tates w ould find it
difficult to get fully inv olv ed on the side of the aggressor. In any case, he
thought the fighting w ould go on for w eeks, encompassing many fronts, and
that reinforcements w ould pour in from all ov er the A rab w orld, w hile the
Israelis w ould inev itably become exhausted. It w ould all end in a settlement,
he imagined, w hich w ould constitute a major political v ictory for E gy pt and
for him personally .
O f course, N asser knew this policy w ould come at a price. By letting the
Israelis strike first, he w as taking a risk. But, he believ ed, it w as a calculated
one. H is right-hand man, M arshal A bdel-H akim A mer, had assured him that
ev en if all of Israels bombers attacked at once, E gy pt w ould only lose
betw een 10 and 15 per cent of its planes. Within a few day s, the S ov iets
w ould hav e replaced them.
What N asser had completely failed to foresee w as that the first blow dealt
by the Israelis could w ipe out the E gy ptian air force. Yet that is w hat
happened on the morning of M onday , 5 June 1967.
F ly ing at v ery low altitude, the Israeli bombers attacked all of E gy pts
military airports simultaneously, putting runw ay s out of action and destroy ing
planes on the ground. The land army remained intact and could hav e fought
for a long time in S inai, giv ing the president the possibility of recov ering,
replacing his lost aircraft and ev en preparing a counter-offensiv e. But M arshal
A mer, in a state of panic and confusion, ordered a general retreat, w hich
turned into a rout.
H av ing put E gy pt out of action, the Israeli army turned tow ards
Jerusalem and the West Bank, w here it took control follow ing a short street
battle; then it turned tow ards S y ria, w hich retreated from the G olan H eights
w ithout much resistance. Within a w eek, the fighting w as ov er. The v ictors
w ould call the conflict the S ix Day War; for the defeated, it w ould be abov e

all al-anksa (the setback), then quite simply the June War.
These bland names scarcely conceal the extent of the trauma suffered by
the A rabs during these day s. It is no exaggeration to say that for them, this
short w ar remains the tragic reference point w hich colours their perception of
the w orld and influences their behav iour.
F ollow ing the defeat, one question obsessed all A rabs and many M uslims
throughout the w orld. E v ery one framed it in his ow n w ay and came up w ith
his ow n answ ers, but the substance w as the same: how had such a defeat
come about?
A t first, in order to excuse his failure, N asser had said that the attack had
not come from Israel alone, but in conjunction w ith the A mericans and the
British. If this w as not true, it w as useful in the short term in order to mitigate
the despair felt by the E gy ptians and the w ider A rab w orld. Being beaten by
a great pow er w as infuriating but it w as in the order of things, and much less
shameful than being beaten by a small state created tw enty y ears earlier,
w hich had a population a tenth the size of E gy pts and a smaller army .
The w ar of 1967 should hav e w ashed aw ay the stain of 1948, w hen the
new Jew ish state had stood up to a coalition of its neighbours. It w as
supposed to demonstrate that the A rabs had regained confidence, had
reconnected w ith their former glory, and that their national renaissance under
the aegis of N asser had at last giv en them back their rightful place among the
nations of the w orld. Instead of w hich, this lightning defeat had taken aw ay
their self-esteem and for y ears to come established a relationship of profound
distrust w ith the rest of the w orld, w hich they perceiv ed as a hostile place run
by their enemies in w hich they themselv es no longer belonged. They felt that
ev ery thing w hich made up their identity w as despised and scorned by the
rest of the w orld and more seriously still something w ithin them told them
that such hatred and scorn w ere not completely unjustified. This double hatred
of the w orld and of themselv es explains in large part the destructiv e and
suicidal behav iour w hich has characterised the past decade.
This behav iour has become such a frequent, ev en daily, occurrence in
Iraq and elsew here that it has ceased to be shocking. S o it seems to me
useful to remind ourselv es that nev er before in the history of humanity hav e
w e seen such a w idespread phenomenon, nev er hav e w e liv ed through a
period in w hich hundreds or thousands of men hav e show n such a propensity
to sacrifice their liv es. A ll of the historical parallels w hich are sometimes cited
to relativ ise this phenomenon are grossly inappropriate. The Japanese
kamikaze w ere, for example, members of a regular army and their attacks
w ere only common during the last y ear of the w ar in the P acific, and they

came to a definitiv e end w ith the capitulation of their gov ernment. A nd, in
M uslim history, members of the O rder of the A ssassins only attacked clearly
defined targets and nev er killed at random. They allow ed themselv es to be
taken prisoner and executed for their acts, but nev er took their ow n liv es. N or
did they commit more than a handful of attacks in the course of tw o centuries,
making them resemble Russian rev olutionaries of the tsarist period much more
closely than today s marty rs.
The despair w hich fires these marty rs does not date from 1967 or 1948, or
the end of the F irst World War. It is the culmination of a long historical process
w hich no single date or ev ent can adequately encapsulate. It is in the history
of a people w ho hav e know n a great moment of glory follow ed by a long
decline. F or tw o hundred y ears they hav e aspired to rise again, but each time
they fall back dow n. Defeats, disappointments and humiliations had follow ed
one after the other until the moment w hen N asser appeared. With him, they
believ ed it w ould once again be possible to get back on their feet, regain their
self-esteem and the admiration of others. When they collapsed again in such a
spectacular and degrading fashion, the A rabs, and the rest of the M uslim
w orld, had the feeling that they had lost ev ery thing irremediably .
S ince then, agonising self-examination has been going on, but in an
atmosphere of bitterness and fear, and w ith an excess of faith w hich poorly
masks infinite despair.
N assers defeat, follow ed by his death in S eptember 1970 at the age of fifty tw o, encouraged the emergence of v arious competing political projects that
claimed his legacy .
In E gy pt itself, pow er w as assumed by A nw ar S adat, a character
prev iously thought dull and timorous, but w ho in fact turned out to be bold
and flamboy ant. That w as not the strangest aspect of his career, how ev er;
pretenders w ho make themselv es inconspicuous w hile the master is still aliv e
only to rev eal themselv es as soon as they assume pow er are legion
throughout w orld history. S trong men lov e to be surrounded by people w ho
do not oppose them, w ho do not cast a shadow and w ho w ait for their
moment w ithout show ing signs of impatience. N or w as the strangest thing
about S adat that he managed in O ctober 1973 to dislodge the Israeli army s
positions through a surprise attack along the S uez C anal, w hich in Israel is
called the Yom Kippur War, and in E gy pt the O ctober War. The strangest
thing is that in succeeding w here N asser had failed, the new leader w as
unable to supplant his predecessor in the hearts of the A rab people. H e w as
ev en ridiculed and insulted, put in political quarantine and so demonised in
some quarters that he ended up being assassinated.

It is strange and also highly rev ealing for any one seeking to examine the
delicate question of legitimacy. A people still liv ing w ith the shock of a
traumatic defeat suddenly find themselv es w ith a new leader w ho attains, if
not an outright v ictory, at least a more than honourable semi-success. H e
should hav e been adulated, lionised, immediately crow ned among the great
heroes of the nation, y et the exact opposite happened. If S adat became an
icon, it w as for Western and not for A rabic opinion, w hich nev er identified
w ith him: not before his spectacular trip to Jerusalem in N ov ember 1977, and
certainly not after. The A rab people nev er accorded him that instinctiv e,
almost carnal, legitimacy in their hearts, w hich N asser, despite his setbacks,
faults and defeats, benefited from until his death.
There w as probably some unconscious resentment of S adat for hav ing
succeeded N asser, just as one may hate a mothers new partner simply
because he has taken the place of a belov ed father. In F rance, for example,
all those w ho held the reins of pow er after N apoleon suffered in comparison
w ith him, especially those w ho bore the same name. That the reign of the
great emperor had been ruinous and ended in defeat and foreign occupation
did not matter. P eople are grateful to w hoev er offers them an epic, a dream,
the admiration of others, and a scrap of pride. The N apoleonic period w as the
last during w hich F rance occupied first rank among the nations of the earth,
and during w hich it tried to unite E urope around it through the combined force
of its arms and ideas. N assers moment w as less ambitious, but by the
y ardstick of w hat still seemed possible for the A rabs, it play ed a similar role,
and it remains in peoples memories as a moment of glory .

Chapter 10
E v ery one w ill draw their ow n lessons from the failure of this v enture. S adat
conceiv ed a profound distrust of the A rab lands w here his predecessor had
constantly got bogged dow n: the Yemenis, Jordanians, P alestinians,
Lebanese, S y rians, Liby ans and the rest w ere all ready to fight, he w ould
mutter to those close to him, right to the last E gy ptian soldier.
Reckoning that his country had endured enough w ithout any recompense,
he w ished to w ithdraw once and for all from the A rabIsraeli conflict w hich
had exhausted him, and w hich w as damaging his relations w ith the prosperous
West. H e w ould come to think of the A rabs as them rather than us. P erhaps
he w ould not say it ov ertly, but those w ith an interest picked up on it. A s a
result, w hen S adat took a decision, the A rabs did not v iew it as theirs. A nd if
he remained legitimate as E gy ptian president, he w as not perceiv ed as nor
did he seek to be the natural leader of the A rab nation.
A t the end of his life, many A rabs ev en placed S adat firmly among the
enemies and the traitors not just A rabs of nationalist and Islamist
persuasion, w ho w ere outraged at his reconciliation w ith the Jew ish state, but
also a significant proportion of moderate, pro-Western leaders, w ho resented
the fact that he had made any regional peace impossible by w ithdraw ing
Israels principal A rab neighbour from the conflict. Their reasoning w ent like
this: the pow er relations in the M iddle E ast w ere already unfav ourable to the
A rabs. If, in addition, E gy pt disengaged from the conflict, the imbalance
w ould be such that Israel w ould no longer be w illing to cede any thing at all;
not only w ould the A rabs no longer be able to make w ar, but they could not
ev en secure an honourable peace. By choosing the path of a separate peace,
S adat made a true regional peace impossible and consigned the A rab w orld to
a permanent state of instability .
It w ill take historians sev eral more decades to determine w ith certainty
w hether the bold initiativ e by N assers successor w hen he w ent to Jerusalem,
shook hands w ith M enachim Begin and M oshe Day an, and addressed the
Knesset marked the beginning of a bumpy ride tow ards a real peace betw een
Israelis and A rabs, or rather the burial of all hope of it.
A bandoned by S adat, N assers pan-A rabic heritage w as cov eted by many
others, especially those to w hom the new oil w ealth had giv en the means to
realise grand ambitions. A mong them w ere men such as the Liby an leader,
M uammar G addafi, w ho came up w ith numerous projects for union before
getting tired of A rab quarrels and turning resolutely to A frica. A nd men such
as the militant Baathist S addam H ussein, w ho managed to make himself

leader of a country that had a large population, great natural riches and a
historical stature comparable w ith that of E gy pt, since it w as the cradle of
sev eral ancient civ ilisations the S umerian, A kkadian, A ssy rian and
Baby lonian and seat of the most prestigious of the A rab empires, that of the
A bbasids. H e too nurtured the ambition to replace N asser but he failed, and
w e know the disastrous ending to that story .
Both these candidates for the role of pan-A rabic leader had come to pow er
in the w ake of the 1967 debacle. The Liby an F ree O fficer presented himself
as the E gy ptian F ree O fficers spiritual heir and promised to help repair the
affront; the Iraqi activ ist meanw hile mocked N asser and his army s failures,
promising to eclipse him w ith his ow n military exploits.
S addam, how ev er, w as nev er v iew ed by the A rabs as a new N asser
and he nev er benefited from genuine popular support, either in his ow n
country or in the w ider region. A nd ev en if many rallied to his support on the
tw o occasions w hen he w as at w ar w ith the U nited S tates, it w as not
because they had confidence in him but because they did not w ant to w itness
another A rab defeat or experience y et again the shame, humiliation and
destruction, nor suffer the w hole w orlds mockery .
The consequence of S addam H usseins tw o defeats w as to seal the fate of
the political ideology w hich had dominated the M iddle E ast for almost a
century : pan-A rabic nationalism.
It is true that this doctrine had for a time already been holed below the
w ater line. N asser had taken it to its zenith, and his defeat could only discredit
the idea. S adat w as not alone in decreeing that henceforth his ow n country s
national interests w ould come before those of the w ider A rab w orld. O ther
leaders of the Iraqis, P alestinians, S y rians, Jordanians or w hoev er w ho
criticised him nonetheless acted in the same w ay. E ach of them had their ow n
country s interests at heart, or those of their regime, clan or simply
themselv es. In any case, all attempts at union had failed; all that remained of
the pan-A rabic idea w ere hollow slogans w hich some politicians still used and
some die-hards believ ed in, but they had little influence on real behav iour.
F or a time, after the defeat of 1967, salv ation w as sought in M arxism.
This w as the time of C he G uev ara, the V ietnam War and the export v ersion
of M aoism. The A rabs drew comparisons and blamed themselv es. O ne story
w hich did the rounds follow ing the 1967 disaster w as about a senior E gy ptian
official w ho w as furious about w hat had happened and exploded in front of
the S ov iet ambassador: A ll the arms y ou sold us w ere w orthless! The
diplomat simply replied: They w ere the same as w e gav e to the
V ietnamese.

Whether it is apocry phal or not, the joke sums up the problem w ell. H ow
come that, w ith similar arms, one people managed to stand up to the most
pow erful army in the w orld, w hile another w as beaten by its tiny neighbour?
F or some people, the answ er w as blindingly obv ious: traditional nationalism,
w hether bourgeois or petit-bourgeois, had to be got rid of and replaced w ith a
coherent rev olutionary ideology, that of peoples w ho came out on top. The
A rab N ationalist M ov ement, led by Dr G eorge H abash, officially adopted
M arxist-Leninism and the armed struggle, and w ent on to form the P opular
F ront for the Liberation of P alestine, a name w hich contains neither the
adjectiv e A rab nor any explicit reference to nationalism. A branch of the
same mov ement managed to gain pow er in Yemen in 1969 and declare a
popular democracy . A lmost ev ery w here throughout the A rab w orld, from
the G ulf to M orocco, intellectuals and political organisations Leninised their
credos, their alliances and sometimes simply their language. S ome did it out of
opportunism, others from sincere conv iction because they saw in it a response
to A rab defeat and progress in thought bey ond social conformism and narrow
nationalism. They also saw an alternativ e future at least as it w as imagined
at that time. In fact this brief flirtation w ith M arxist-Leninism w ould just be a
transitory stage betw een the era of nationalism and that of the Islamists, a
historical parenthesis w hose end w ould leav e a bitter after-taste and for many
people w ould contribute to increasing their feelings of discouragement, rage
and impotence.
If C ommunism had simply been defeated by the forces it w as fighting, it
w ould probably hav e secretly spread thereafter as a pow erful form of secular
messianism. O f course, that w as not how things turned out. Before it could be
struck dow n by the class enemy , it w as already w idely discredited. Its
approach to the arts w as one of sev ere censorship, its concept of freedom of
thought resembled that of the Inquisition, and its exercise of pow er sometimes
brought to mind those O ttoman sultans w ho, on coming to pow er, assiduously
massacred their brothers and nephew s for fear that they might think of
challenging them for the throne.
The examples I hav e in mind are not just of S talinist purges. I hav e much
more recent memories from the only tw o countries to hav e been gov erned by
explicitly M arxist-Leninist mov ements: S outh Yemen from 1969 to 1990 and
A fghanistan from 1978 to 1992. In both cases, scores w ere settled betw een
riv al factions w ith sub-machine guns in the middle of politburo meetings. Was
this just a coincidence? S imilar ev ents happened in the 1930s, 40s, 50s and
60s, not just in M oscow but also in P rague, Belgrade, Tirana, and in Beijing
during the C ultural Rev olution, and later in A ddis A baba w hen E thiopia w as
ruled by a communist military junta know n as the Derg not to mention the

Khmer Rouge. S o w as it a coincidence? N o, it w as routine, a modus operandi,

a w ay of doing things.
I w rite this w ith sadness, as in these mov ements, good people lost their
w ay, people w ho sincerely w anted to modernise their societies, w ho
adv ocated the spread of know ledge, education of girls, equality of
opportunity, liberation of minds, w eakening of tribalism and the end of feudal
priv ileges. A mong the ruins of their betray ed hopes in Kabul and elsew here,
plants of quite a different sort w ere soon to take root.

Chapter 11
The desire to be fair and concern for historical truth oblige me to add to these
charges some others, w ith different accused.
The S ov iets bear the main responsibility for A fghanistans descent into
disorder, but it w as the A mericans w ho organised the massacre of the
modernising elite in Indonesia. U ntil the mid-1960s, the w orlds most populous
M uslim nation w as home to a C ommunist P arty w hose membership
numbered nearly one and a half million and w hich participated in gov ernment
under the aegis of the nationalist president, A hmed S ukarno, the architect of
independence. S ukarno had established a regime w hich w as secular and
authoritarian w ithout being brutal, and he play ed a prominent role on the
international stage; in A pril 1955, he hosted the Bandung C onference for
A frican and A sian nations, w hich w as the start of the N on-A ligned
M ov ement.
A ngered by the nationalisation of Indonesias mines and Jakartas links
w ith Beijing and M oscow , the U S , w hich w as beginning to get bogged dow n
in the V ietnam War, decided to resort to drastic measures. Its success w as
total. A s a result of a remarkable operation, the details of w hich only became
know n decades later, the C ommunists and the left-w ing nationalists w ere
outlaw ed, rounded up and massacred in large numbers in the univ ersities, civ il
serv ice, in districts of the capital and ev en in the remotest v illages. The most
serious estimates talk of 600,000 deaths betw een O ctober 1965 and summer
1966. P ow er w as then giv en to G eneral S uharto, w ho for ov er tw enty y ears
maintained a dictatorship w hich w as corrupt and obscurantist but resolutely
anti-C ommunist. When the country emerged from that tunnel, the Indonesian
v ision of Islam, once reputed to be the most tolerant in the w orld, w as
tolerant no longer. The prospects of secularising society had been destroy ed
collateral damage in the struggle against the C ommunist peril.
S ome w ill point out that this happened during the C old War. M ay be so.
But if that excuse is not admissible for C ommunist crimes in Budapest in 1956,
neither is it admissible for anti-C ommunist crimes in Jakarta in 1966. A crime
is a crime, a massacre is a massacre, and the extermination of elites promotes
M oreov er, Indonesia is not the only M uslim country in w hich the leaders
w ho adv ocated political independence and state control of their principal
natural resources w ere countered w ith ferocious efficiency by the West.
S ometimes this w as because they w ere the allies of the S ov iet U nion. But
the process also happened in rev erse. S ome countries turned tow ards M oscow
because they had to face the animosity of the Western pow ers, w hich w ould
not countenance any one touching their oil, their mines, their sugar or fruit

plantations, their S uez or P anama canals, their military bases or their

concessions in other w ords, their global supremacy .
In the case of Iran, w hich I hav e already mentioned, there is no doubt
that Dr M ossadegh dreamt only of establishing a modernising pluralist
democracy on the Western model. H e had no intention of setting up a M arxistLeninist dictatorship, nor an ultra-nationalist regime, nor any sort of despotism.
H e w as an upright, self-effacing, depressiv e man, constantly on the point of
quitting public life to go and shut himself aw ay in his library, but he w as
profoundly motiv ated by injustice and pov erty and only w anted the resources
of his country to be used for the adv ancement of his people. It w as for that
reason alone that he w as forced out of pow er in 1953 in a coup dtat planned
and executed by the U S and British secret serv ices, as numerous accounts
attest (some of them in the form of subsequently published confessions).
It w as no coincidence that this betray al of its ow n principles by the West
resulted a quarter of a century later in the Iranian rev olution w hich founded
contemporary political Islam.
In N assers day, militant Islamist mov ements, especially the M uslim
Brotherhood, w ere forced to remain in the shadow s on account of the
repression they suffered, and also because the E gy ptian presidents popularity
in the A rab w orld made all his opponents seem like supporters of colonialism
and imperialism.
O n the ev e of the E gy ptian rev olution, the Brotherhood w as w ell
established in v arious echelons of society, especially the army. They w ere
conducting a bitter struggle against King F aruk, British interference and the
Western presence in general. Their influence spread so rapidly that w hen the
F ree O fficers seized pow er in July 1952, many observ ers imagined that this
organisation, w hich had been unknow n up to that point, w as just a
manifestation of the Brotherhood, a faade, perhaps ev en simply their military
w ing. We know today that sev eral participants in the coup w ere indeed linked
to the Islamist mov ement, some intimately and others more informally .
But the principal architect of the coup, N asser, v ery soon came to v iew
the Brotherhood as riv als. They w ere too pow erful to be used as a mere
instrument in the hands of the F ree O fficers, and he had no desire to be their
puppet. H e came into conflict w ith them, sought w ay s to undermine their
influence, and after they tried to assassinate him in 1954, he had some of
their leaders executed and others imprisoned. Those w ho managed to escape
the crack-dow n fled to Western E urope, the U S or A rab countries w hich
opposed N asser, such as Jordan or S audi A rabia.
When the E gy ptian president nationalised the S uez C anal in 1956 and

emerged v ictorious from his confrontation w ith the British, F rench and Israelis,
thereby immediately becoming the hero of the A rab masses, the Brotherhood
could no longer oppose him openly. E ach time they tried to raise their heads,
there w as another crack-dow n, as for example in 1966, w hen their most
brilliant intellectual S ay y id Q utb w as condemned to death and hanged after a
summary trial. A rab public opinion at the time w as not much affected because
it associated the Islamists w ith the reactionary monarchies and the Western
countries w here they had sought refuge.
A fter the defeat of N asserism and the painful self-examination w hich
follow ed, the Islamists w ere once again able to get a hearing. We told y ou
that y ou shouldnt trust that charmer! Though their v oice w as at first hesitant,
w hispering, half-hidden, it w ould grow more and more confident, until it
became dominant, ev en deafening.
E v ery thing that had happened in the w orld during the prev ious decades
helped the Islamists arguments to prev ail in A rab societies. The successiv e
failures of regimes w hich called themselv es A rab nationalist w ould end up
totally discrediting this ideology and giv ing credibility to those w ho had
alw ay s said that the v ery idea of an A rab nation w as a Western import and
that the only nation w orthy of the name w as the nation of Islam. The
acceleration of globalisation w ould increase the need for and credibility of a
global ideology w hich sw ept aside borders and w ent bey ond local allegiances.
F or a small fraction of the population that w as M arxism; for the v ast majority
it could only be religion. A nd in any case the collapse of the S ov iet camp
w ould conclude this debate once and for all in fav our of the Islamist
mov ements, but w ithout them transforming themselv es into parties of
gov ernment, and w ithout the dilemma of lost legitimacy being resolv ed.
F or one of the major consequences of the successiv e defeats of N asser,
S addam and others is that the v ery idea of an A rab head of state w ho can
stand up to the West, as w as the case in the 1950s and 60s, has ceased to be
credible. A ny one w ishing to remain in pow er has to make himself acceptable
to the superpow er, ev en if, in order to do so, he has to go against the w ishes
of his people. Those w ho are radically opposed to the U S , w hether by arms
or v iolent rhetoric, generally hav e an interest in stay ing in the shadow s.
A nd so tw o parallel political univ erses dev eloped, one v isible but lacking
popular support, and the other hidden and possessing a certain popularity, but
unable to assume the responsibility of pow er long-term. Those w ho represent
the former are perceiv ed as nativ e lackey s in the pay of the enemy ; those
w ho represent the latter are mere outlaw s. N either of them has true
legitimacy ; one because they gov ern w ithout the people, and the other

because they are manifestly incapable of gov erning, as much due to

international hostility as to their ow n political culture, w hich predisposes them
to radical opposition, doctrinal intransigence and the issuing of fatw as, rather
than the inev itable compromises required to gov ern a state. This is a dead
end w hich the Islamists in E gy pt, S udan, A lgeria, M orocco and Jordan
became aw are of and w hich w as made abundantly apparent w hen H amas
w on the P alestinian elections.
F or any human society, the absence of legitimacy is a form of
w eightlessness w hich disturbs all forms of behav iour. When no authority,
institution or indiv idual is able to boast true moral credibility, w hen people
come to believ e that the w orld is a jungle in w hich the surv iv al of the fittest is
the univ ersal law , and w here any action is permissible, then a drift tow ards
deadly v iolence, ty ranny and chaos becomes inev itable.
A s a result, the erosion of legitimacy in the A rab w orld cannot be treated
as a v ague topic to be pondered by specialists. O ne of the lessons of 11
S eptember 2001 is that in this era of globalisation, no ty pe of disorder remains
strictly local, and w hen it affects the emotions, self-image and daily life of
hundreds of millions of people, its effects are felt all ov er the planet.

Chapter 12
A fter this long dev elopment on the loss of legitimacy in A rab countries, I
w ant to return for a moment to the other crisis of legitimacy w hich contributes
to the disorder of the w orld: the global role of the U nited S tates. I w ant to
underline that the pertinent question for me is not w hether U S democracy
functions properly ; I dont know many w hich function better. But ev en if it
w ere the most perfect sy stem, ev en if all citizens of v oting age exercised their
right to v ote in ideal conditions, the problem w ould remain the same: from the
moment at w hich the v otes of U S citizens, w ho make up 5 per cent of the
w orlds population, become more significant for the future of the w hole of
humanity than those of the remaining 95 per cent, there is something
dy sfunctional in the w ay global politics w orks.
It is as though someone decreed that the inhabitants of F lorida alone w ere
going to choose the U S president, and the electorate in all the other states of
the union w ould only elect state gov ernors and local authorities. I hav e again
taken F lorida as an example as its population happens to represent exactly 5
per cent of the U S population.
It is true that there is not too much indignation w hen the preferences of
those w ho hav e the priv ilege of v oting elect someone w e might hav e chosen
ourselv es. But that only masks the anomaly ; it does not remov e it.
A t the beginning of this second part, I w rote that the jurisdiction of the U S
administration now cov ered the w hole planet. The w ord w as in quotation
marks, giv en that the authority exercised by Washington does not result from
a mandate bestow ed on it by the w orlds people. Within the U S , it is a de jure
mandate. In the rest of the w orld it is a de facto gov ernment, w ith
questionable legitimacy .
It is not easy to discuss this question and at the same time firmly reject
the sy stematic anti-A mericanism w hich reached its zenith in the first y ears of
this century. H ow ev er, that is the line I am sticking to; first out of conv iction,
giv en that I feel neither serv ility nor rancour tow ards our global suzerain; and
also because it is the only w ay to understand the dramas of our times and
seek solutions. I shall therefore set aside the question of w hether the U S has
show n expansionist and hegemonic tendencies since its inception. It is not that
this question does not interest me, but it seems superfluous to spend time on
it, giv en all the other countries that hav e used and abused their pow er
w henev er history has granted them the opportunity to do so. Indeed, if the
Russians, Japanese, G ermans, British or F rench to mention only those
nations w hich hav e dreamed of global hegemony in the course of the past

tw o centuries had been able to attain a global status comparable to that of

the U nited S tates, their behav iour w ould hav e been ev en more high-handed.
I suspect that it w ill be the same in the future w ith C hina and India.
The U nited S tates is undoubtedly the beneficiary of the disorder w hich is
v isible in the political management of the w orlds affairs. But it is also a v ictim
of it. U nless it manages to recov er, its unhealthy relations w ith the rest of the
w orld may cause more lasting and far-reaching traumas than those w hich
follow ed its engagement in V ietnam.
The position it attained at the end of the C old War that of the w orlds
only superpow er has been a mixed blessing. E v ery entity w hether
phy sical or moral has need of fixed limits. E v ery pow er needs a counterpow er, to protect others from its excesses, and also to protect it from itself.
This is an elementary rule of politics and one of the foundations of A merican
democracy the intangible principle of checks and balances, by v irtue of
w hich no institution can exercise its priv ileges w ithout hav ing to answ er to
another institution w hich serv es as a safeguard. A nd it is also, one might say,
a law of nature. Writing this, I am thinking of those children w ho are born
w ith an insensitiv ity to pain. A s a result of this condition, they are constantly
in danger, because they run the risk of injuring themselv es v ery seriously
w ithout realising; perhaps they sometimes feel an intoxicating sense of
inv ulnerability , but it is a feeling w hich leads them to ill-adv ised behav iour.
P recisely because it has had the feeling of being able to do more or less
w hatev er it w ants on the international stage, the w orlds only superpow er has
committed errors w hich it w ould hav e av oided during the C old War.
A t the start, the U S display ed a desire to conv ince others that it w as right. If
it w anted to interv ene militarily any w here other than C entral A merica, it tried
to form credible coalitions; w hen the U nited N ations demurred, it appealed to
N ato, as in the case of the Kosov o conflict, or to significant regional forces, as
in the case of the first G ulf War.
The last largely consensual mission w as A fghanistan in the autumn of
2001. Thanks to univ ersal antipathy to the Taliban, w hose inv olv ement in the
attacks of 11 S eptember w as obv ious, the A mericans had no trouble finding
allies. But w hen, fifteen months later, they tried to muster similar support for
inv ading Iraq, they w ere confronted w ith a global diplomatic rev olt, in w hich
F rance w as the most heeded spokesman, and in w hich G ermany, Russia,
C hina and the v ast majority of the other countries in the w orld took part. This
rebellion can in large measure be put dow n to the behav iour of the Republican
administration, w hich on v arious issues, notably global w arming and the

international criminal court, gav e the impression of ignoring or sometimes

scorning the opinions of the w orlds other nations. This w as an attitude that
w as already perceptible before the Tw in Tow ers attacks, but it became more
pronounced afterw ards, as though the aggression w hich the U S had just
suffered remov ed any obligation tow ards the international community.
M oreov er, the administration disregarded the reluctance of the U N S ecurity
C ouncil and the stormy opposition of w orld opinion. It concocted a clutch of
pretexts and inv aded Iraq in M arch 2003 w ith its group of remaining allies.
U nsurprisingly, the U S army quickly defeated the Iraqis, but its military
v ictory turned immediately into a political and moral defeat w hose
consequences are unfathomable. The U S , w ith its culture of transparency
w hich is w ithout equal in the w orld ceaselessly dissects this misadv enture in
order to perform its autopsy, to understand how it got there and how to av oid
the same thing happening again. It now understands better the risks inherent
in the solitary exercise of pow er in such a complex, v ariegated w orld as ours.
It know s that y ou must stay attentiv e to others, listen to all opinions, those of
enemies as w ell as allies, and that y ou can av oid the hazards and stop
y ourself before y ou leap ov er the final guardrail.
O ne might also w onder if the same insensitiv ity to pain w hich has disordered
the behav iour of our sole global suzerain and greatly harmed it in the end has
not also damaged our global economic sy stem.
It is true that the market economy has demonstrated its superiority
compared to bureaucratic and centrally planned economies, w hich no one
w ants to return to, especially the former C ommunist states. H ow ev er, in
becoming the only model, capitalism has lost a useful and probably
irreplaceable critic w hich used to take it to task for its social failings, and
prodded it ov er w orkers rights and inequalities. A nd ev en if those rights w ere
less respected in C ommunist countries than in most capitalist ones, and ev en if
unions w ere more tightly muzzled, ev en if the pernicious nomenklatura
sy stem made any reference to the principle of equality hollow , the simple fact
of hav ing this challenge, these attacks, this rhetoric, this permanent pressure
w ithin ev ery society and at global lev el, obliged capitalism to be more social,
less unequal, more attentiv e to w orkers and their representativ es. This w as a
correctiv e necessary on the ethical and political lev el and ev en ultimately for
the efficient and rational running of the market economy .
Without this correctiv e, the sy stem rapidly degenerated, like a shrub that
w as no longer pruned and returned to a w ild state. Its relation to money and
the w ay in w hich it is earned became obscene.
I agree that there is no shame in making money. N or, I believ e, is there

any shame in enjoy ing the fruits of prosperity. O ur age offers us so many
good and beautiful things that it w ould be an insult to life to refuse to enjoy
them. But should money be completely disconnected from all production, from
all phy sical and intellectual effort, all socially useful activ ity ? S hould our stock
exchanges turn into giant casinos in w hich the fate of millions of people, both
rich and poor, are decided on the throw of a dice? S hould our most v enerable
financial institutions end up behav ing like drunken louts? S hould the sav ings of
a lifetimes effort be w iped out, or multiplied by thirty, in a matter of seconds
according to esoteric processes w hich the bankers themselv es do not
understand at all?
These are serious disturbances, the implications of w hich go far bey ond
the w orld of finance and the economy. Because one can legitimately ask,
giv en w hat is going on, w hy people still lead liv es of honest w ork, w hy a
y oung person w ould still w ant to become a teacher rather than a drug dealer;
and how , in such an env ironment, ideals and know ledge can be transmitted,
how a minimum of the social fabric can be preserv ed so that fragile and
essential things such as freedom, democracy, happiness, progress and
civ ilisation surv iv e.
Is there any need to spell out that this financial disorder is also and
perhaps abov e all a sy mptom of the disorder in our scale of v alues?

Imaginary Certainties

Chapter 1
The moral crisis of our time is sometimes discussed in terms of a loss of
bearings or a loss of meaning. These phrases do not ring true to me, because
they giv e the impression that w e hav e to rediscov er those lost bearings,
along w ith forgotten forms of solidarity and discredited ty pes of legitimacy. In
my v iew , it is not a matter of rediscov ering but of inv enting anew . We cannot
face the challenges of a new era by promoting the fantasy of a return to how
w e used to behav e. We shall hav e w oken up to this fact w hen w e recognise
that our times are unlike any other: particular relationships exist betw een
people and betw een human societies; specific tools are at our disposal; and
specific challenges hav e to be confronted.
A s far as relations betw een nations and the management of the planets
resources are concerned, history s record is far from exemplary, littered as it is
w ith dev astating w ars, crimes against human dignity, massiv e w aste and
tragic mistakes all of w hich hav e brought us to our present pass. Rather
than embellishing and idealising the past, w e need to ditch the reflexes it has
taught us, since they hav e turned out to be disastrous in the modern w orld.
We need to jettison all our prejudices and outdated, atav istic behav iour to
embark squarely on a new phase of the human adv enture, a phase in w hich
ev ery thing must be created from scratch forms of solidarity, legitimacy,
identity , v alues and reference points.
In order to av oid misunderstanding, let me hasten to make clear that if,
from my point of v iew , the solution does not lie in some outdated return to
traditional morals or old forms of legitimacy, nor does it lie in moral relativ ism,
w hich, in the name of a lazy, v ulgar form of modernity, sanctifies supreme
selfishness and w orships all forms of negation. It w allow s in an attitude of
ev ery man for himself and ends up w ith the w orst of precepts: A prs moi, le
dluge! to w hich climate change could giv e a literal meaning.
Both these opposing attitudes lead by conv ergent paths to the same
disorder. We need something quite different today. If w e must leav e old
forms of legitimacy behind, it must be for better forms, not w orse. A new
scale of v alues needs to be w orked out w hich w ill enable us to manage
ev ery thing better than w e hav e done in the past: our div ersity, our
env ironment, our resources, our know ledge, our tools, our pow er, our
balances in other w ords, our common future and our capacity for surv iv al.
What w e do not need is a rejection of ev ery scale of v alues.
V alues is a w ord w hich is both v ersatile and debased. It nav igates easily
betw een the financial and spiritual spheres, and in the field of beliefs it can be

a sy nony m for progress or conformism, for moral liberation or submission. A nd

so I need to make clear the sense in w hich I am using it and the beliefs I
attach to it, not in order to rally any one at all to my standard I do not hav e
one and I keep my distance from parties, factions and cliques, since nothing is
more precious to me than freedom of thought but because it seems honest
in setting out my v ision to say unambiguously w hat I believ e and how I
w ould like things to end up.
F rom my point of v iew , leav ing behind the disorder that affects the w orld
for something better requires adopting a scale of v alues based on the primacy
of culture. I w ould go so far as to say based on salv ation through culture.
A ndr M alraux has often had a quotation attributed to him w hich he
probably nev er said: the tw enty -first century w ill be religious or it w ill not be
at all. I suppose that those final w ords or it w ill not be at all mean that
w e w ill not be able to get our bearings in the maze of modern life w ithout
some spiritual compass.
This century is still y oung, but w e already know that religion can lead
humanity astray just as easily as its absence can.
That the absence of religion can cause suffering w as amply demonstrated in
S ov iet society. But its abusiv e presence can also cause suffering; that much
w as clear in the time of C icero, or of A v erroes, S pinoza or V oltaire, and if the
excesses of the F rench and Russian rev olutions, N azism and some secular
ty rannies hav e tended to make us forget that fact in the last tw o centuries,
there hav e been plenty of ev ents since then to serv e as a reminder. E v ents
w hich, I hope, hav e giv en us a better appreciation of the role religion ought to
play in our liv es.
I am tempted to say the same thing about M ammon. Inv eighing against
material w ealth and blaming those w ho striv e to acquire it is a futile pursuit
w hich has alw ay s serv ed as a pretext for the w orst sort of demagoguery. But
making money the touchstone of all respectability, the basis for all pow er and
all hierarchies, results in the social fabric unrav elling.
H umanity has experienced so many contradictory trends in the space of
tw o or three generations: communism/capitalism; atheism/religion. S hould w e
resign ourselv es to these pendulum sw ings and the disorder w hich results from
them? O nce bitten, should w e not try to learn from our experiences and w ant
in the end to escape these demoralising dilemmas?
It may seem a little too predictable for a w riter, or indeed any one in the
cultural sphere, to adv ocate a scale of v alues based on culture. It may ev en

prov oke a smile. But that is because of a misunderstanding of the term.

The v iew of culture as just one field among many or a w ay of making life
more pleasurable for a certain sort of person is a century or ev en a millennium
out of date. Today the role of culture is nothing less than to prov ide us w ith
the intellectual and moral tools for surv iv al.
H ow are w e to fill the extra decades that modern medicine has giv en us?
M ore and more of us are liv ing longer and better liv es, but are inev itably prey
to boredom, haunted by a sense of emptiness, and inev itably tempted to
escape by indulging in an orgy of consumerism. If w e do not w ant to exhaust
the planets resources v ery quickly, w e shall hav e to prioritise other forms of
satisfaction as soon as possible, other sources of pleasure, in particular the
acquisition of know ledge and the dev elopment of a flourishing inner life.
This is not a matter of imposing self-denial or becoming an ascetic. I for
one am a ferv ent epicurean and prohibitions of any kind irritate me. We w ill
continue v ery happily to use the fruits of the earth and often to abuse them
and I w ill not be the one to cast the first stone. But if w e w ant to benefit
fully in the long term from w hat life can offer, w e are going to hav e to alter
our behav iour. N ot to reduce our range of sensations, but on the contrary to
enlarge and enhance it and to look for other satisfactions w hich may turn out
to be y et more intense.
We already distinguish w hen it comes to energy sources betw een fossil
fuels, w hich are finite and polluting, and renew able sources, such as solar,
w ind and geothermal, w hich are not. We could introduce a similar distinction
w hen it comes to our lifesty les. We could seek to satisfy our needs and
desires through consuming more, w hich w ould take its toll on the planets
resources and cause destructiv e tensions. But equally, w e could satisfy them
in other w ay s, by giv ing priority to lifelong learning and by encouraging
people to study languages, to become passionate about artistic disciplines, to
become familiar w ith v arious sciences so that they are able to appreciate the
significance of discov eries in biology or astrophy sics. Know ledge is a univ erse
w ithout limits; all of us can draw upon it unrestrainedly throughout our liv es
and it w ill nev er run out. A nd ev en better, the more w e draw on know ledge,
the less w e w ill deplete the planet.
This is already reason enough to consider the primacy of culture as a discipline
for surv iv al. But that is not the only reason. There is another, just as
fundamental and w hich w ould in itself justify putting culture at the heart of
our scale of v alues: it is the w ay in w hich it can help us handle human
div ersity .
Will people from div erse backgrounds w ho liv e side by side in the w orlds

cities and countries forev er look at each other through the distorting lenses of
receiv ed opinion, age-old prejudice and crude stereoty pes? It strikes me that
the time has come to change our habits and priorities, and to listen more
seriously to the w orld w e share because there are no longer any strangers
in this century ; there are only trav elling companions. Whether our fellow
humans liv e across the street or on the other side of the w orld, they are only
a short step aw ay ; our behav iour affects them intimately as their behav iour
affects us.
If w e w ish to preserv e peace in our societies, tow ns and neighbourhoods
and all ov er the planet, if w e w ant human div ersity to translate into
harmonious coexistence rather than tensions w hich breed v iolence, it is no
longer enough to know others in an approximate, superficial, crude w ay. We
need to know them subtly, up close; I w ould go as far as to say intimately.
A nd that can only be achiev ed through their culture. The heart of a people is
its literature. That is w here it rev eals its passions, aspirations, dreams,
frustrations, beliefs, its v ision of the w orld around, its perceptions of itself and
others including us. Because w hen w e speak of others w e must nev er lose
sight of the fact that, w hoev er and w herev er w e may be, w e are also
others for the rest of the w orld.
O f course, no one can know all they w ould like or ought to know about
others. There are so many peoples, cultures, languages, and v isual, musical,
choreographic, theatrical, artisanal and culinary traditions. But if ev ery one
w ere encouraged to become passionate from childhood and remain so
throughout their life about a culture other than their ow n, for a language freely
chosen through personal affinity and if they studied it more intensiv ely ev en
than they studied the indispensable E nglish language the result w ould be a
closely w ov en cultural w eb cov ering the w hole planet, encouraging
threatened identities, reducing hatred, gradually reinforcing belief in the unity
of the human adv enture and as a result making possible the step change that
might sav e us.
I can see no more crucial objectiv e for this century and it is clear that, in
order to achiev e it, w e must giv e culture and education the prime place w hich
is their due.
In the U S and elsew here, a sinister era in w hich it w as thought good form to
despise culture and to make a lack of culture a proof of authenticity may be
coming to an end. This populist attitude paradoxically has something in
common w ith elitism, since both accept that the general public hav e limited
capacities, that y ou must not make too great intellectual demands of them,
that it is enough to giv e them full shopping trolley s, simplistic slogans and

facile amusements in order for them to remain blissfully happy, docile and
This attitude is contemptuous of democracy and therefore dangerous.
Because it is not possible to be fully a citizen or a responsible v oter if y ou
passiv ely allow y ourself to be manipulated by propagandists, or to be stirred
up or calmed dow n according to the w him of y our leaders, or let y ourself be
docilely led into w ar. In order to make properly informed decisions, especially
in a country w hose direction largely determines the fate of the planet, a
citizen needs to know the w orld around him in depth and in detail. To make
do w ith ignorance is a denial of democracy and reduces it to a sham.
F or all of these reasons and some others, I believ e that our scale of v alues
today can only be based on the primacy of culture and education. A nd that
the tw enty -first century to echo the quotation I cited earlier w ill be sav ed
by culture or it w ill not be at all.
M y conv iction is not based on any pre-existing doctrine, just on my
reading of the ev ents of my time. But I am not insensitiv e to the fact that the
great religious traditions w ith w hich I come into contact contain similar
exhortations. The ink of the sage is w orth more than the blood of the marty r,
said the P rophet of Islam. H e is also reported as say ing: The sages are the
heirs of the P rophet; S eek know ledge, ev en in C hina if y ou must; and,
S tudy from the cradle to the grav e!
In the Talmud, there is this strong, mov ing idea: The w orld is only
supported by the breath of children study ing.
The struggle to support the w orld w ill be hard, but the deluge is not a
foregone conclusion. The future is not w ritten in adv ance; it is up to us to
w rite it, to conceiv e and build it and build it w ith boldness, because w e must
dare to break w ith centuries-old habits; w ith generosity of spirit, because w e
must assemble, reassure, listen, include and share; abov e all w ith w isdom.
This is the task w hich is incumbent on all of us, men and w omen of all origins;
there is no choice but to take it on.
When a country is plunged into chaos, emigration is alw ay s an option.
When the w hole planet is threatened, w e cannot go and liv e elsew here. If w e
do not w ish to resign ourselv es to decline, for ourselv es and the generations
to come, w e must try to influence the outcome of things.

Chapter 2
Will it be possible in the y ears ahead to construct a new form of solidarity
among people w hich goes bey ond all borders one that is univ ersal, complex,
subtle, thoughtful and adult? O ne that is independent of religion w ithout in
any w ay being anti-religious or insensitiv e to peoples spiritual needs, w hich
are as real as their phy sical ones? A solidarity that can transcend nations,
communities, ethnicities, w ithout abolishing the abundance of cultures? Which
is able to bring people together in the face of the dangers that threaten them,
w ithout indulging in apocaly ptic rhetoric?
In other w ords, w ill w e see the emergence in the course of this century of
a new , mobilising form of humanism w hich w ill not be hostage to any
tradition, nor fall into the errors of M arxism, nor appear as the political or
ideological tool of the West? F or the moment I can see no sign of it. What I do
detect is the extraordinary mobilising force of hereditary allegiances w hich
accompany humans from cradle to grav e; w hich they sometimes lose but
almost alw ay s end up regaining as though they had constantly been held on
the end of an inv isible leash; w hich cross the centuries, adapting somehow or
other to the changing w orld, but w ithout ev er losing their hold. A nd
conv ersely I also see the fragile, transitory, superficial character of the forms
of solidarity w hich try to transcend these allegiances.
When M arx referred to religion as the opium of the people, he did not do
so w ith mockery or disdain as his disciples often did. It is perhaps useful to
quote the phrase in context: Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the
heart of a heartless w orld, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium
of the people. F rom his point of v iew , this illusory happiness had to be
abolished so that people w ould w ork to build genuine happiness. F rom this
one might reasonably deduce w ith hindsight that if the promised happiness
turned out to be y et more illusory, people w ould return to their consoling
C onsequently, it seems to me that if M arx had been able to w itness this
resurgence of religion in the political and social spheres, it w ould hav e pained
him but not really surprised him.
P olitical Islamism prev ailed in A rab and M uslim societies at the expense of
nationalism and M arxism, but it w as not content to defeat these doctrines; it
assimilated and appropriated them.
The most eloquent example of this w as the Iranian rev olution of 1979 a
religious ev ent certainly, but also a nationalist, anti-monarchist, anti-Western,
anti-Israeli one, launched in the name of the impov erished masses. It w as a

heady brew w hich exerted a determining influence on the w hole M uslim

w orld.
S ome M uslim leaders had already attempted to w eav e together the three
strands national, religious and social. A mong them w as P resident S ukarno of
Indonesia, w ho declared the principle of N asacom, an acrony m in the local
language for nationalismreligioncommunism. But all it amounted to w as an
artificial amalgam w hich quickly came unstuck.
E v en w hen communism w as replaced by socialism, to av oid too obv ious
a contradiction w ith Islam, the combination did not w ork. N ow here in the
M uslim w orld did nationalism succeed in assimilating religion the w ay that
religion w ould assimilate nationalism. When the Turks and the A rabs, after
four centuries of coexistence in the O ttoman empire, w ent their separate
w ay s during the F irst World War, each of them dev eloping their ow n brand of
nationalism, they w ere both unmarked by the Islam that united them in
Turkey this w as radical under A tatrks aegis, out of a desire to set a new
course, w hile in the A rab w orld it w as less clear cut, but in the rhetoric, the
phrase M uslim nation w as discreetly but sy stematically replaced by the A rab
nation. Their respectiv e sty les w ere v ery different, but the basic assumption
w as the same: nationalism, w hich w as a new idea, could not use religion as a
crutch w ithout losing out.
O f course, ambiguities hav e alw ay s existed. In the ey es of the masses,
N asser w as alw ay s a hero of Islam. But he av oided making explicit reference
to religion, and w as careful not to justify his political actions w ith quotations
from the Q uran because he knew that w ould mean entering territory w here
his political enemies, the M uslim Brotherhood, had the upper hand. H e nev er
boasted of being a religious president, as his successor S adat did. S adat w as
much less prudent in this regard. In order to free himself from the grip of the
N asserists and tackle the progress made by the left, he sought the support of
the Islamists and tried to appropriate their language. But he could not handle
the forces he had unleashed for long before they turned on him ferociously .
If religion has nev er been dissolv ed in nationalism and still less socialism, the
opposite is not the case. G iv en that nationalist struggles by the E gy ptians,
A lgerians, Iranians, C hechens and P alestinians hav e essentially pitted
M uslims against C hristian or Jew ish adv ersaries, they could be conducted
more easily in the name of a religious community than a linguistic one. A nd
giv en that the attraction of socialism for the masses resides in its promise to
reduce the gulf betw een the rich and poor, such an objectiv e translates
perfectly into religious terms. Islam, like C hristianity, has alw ay s know n how
to speak to the poor and draw them in. E v ery thing in nationalism and

socialism that w as specific, irreducible and indissoluble w ould be pushed aside

or else fall by the w ay side by itself; ev ery thing that w as permanent and
substantial w ould be integrated into a sort of total ideology, at once nationalist
and globalist, w hich claimed to respond to all of humanity s needs, w hether
spiritual, material or concerned w ith identity. It became a combat ideology
w hich attracted all those w ho a few decades earlier w ould hav e grav itated
tow ards N asserism or ev en communism.
With the exception of the C hristian community, w hich w as able to identify
w ith A rab nationalism and M arxism in the past but cannot now identify w ith
an Islamism w hich excludes them, all those w ho held defeated doctrines hav e
been able to make their political conv ersion w ithout too strong a feeling of
self-betray al. Their struggle remains the same against the perennial enemy
w ith the ideological arms of the moment.
Why w ould someone hav e declared himself a M aoist, G uev arist or
Leninist in the past? Because he w anted to fight effectiv ely against A merican
imperialism. Today, he pursues the same objectiv e in the name of Islam;
w hats more, he is in step w ith the people of his neighbourhood, w hereas in
the past he felt isolated w ith his leaflets translated from Russian or Little Red
Books w hich no one w anted to read. H adnt he shouted himself hoarse
repeating to y oung recruits that a rev olutionary had to be like a fish in
w ater? S ince he started attending the mosque, that is exactly how he feels.
H e is no longer looked upon as a heathen try ing to sell suspect goods
manufactured w ho know s w here. N ow he speaks a language that ev ery one
understands. E v ery one w ho liv es around him, y oung and old, know s the
same v erses from the same book.
It used to be v ery difficult getting people to accept the ability to quote
from Lenin, E ngels, Lin Biao, P lekhanov, G ramsci or A lthusser as a sign of
w orth. H ow comforting it now is to be able to tell them that nothing that has
been w ritten or thought or inv ented ov er the centuries has as much
importance as w hat they themselv es already memorised in childhood.
What could be more pow erful than a doctrine w hich also functions as a
form of belonging? There is no need ev en to apply to join belonging is a
birthright, by the grace of the C reator, for ev er and ev er.
What is true of Islam also holds good for other religions. F or sev eral decades,
Russia gav e the impression that C ommunism w as deep-rooted and the
O rthodox faith just a frail surv iv or. But before the end of the last century,
C ommunism w as discarded like an unsuccessful graft and the country s new
leaders began going to church again.

Whether this is a cause for rejoicing or regret and I w ill not conceal the
fact that I do not find it particularly reassuring it must be admitted that
religious allegiances, w hich are passed on spontaneously from one generation
to the next w ithout the need to belong or ev en to believ e, are much more
durable than acquired beliefs. F rance may hav e stopped thinking of itself as a
C atholic country a long time ago, and in fact, faith, religious practice and
moral precepts it could hardly be said to be one. But it remains so in its
cultural identity, just as S talins Russia remained O rthodox and A tatrks
Turkey M uslim.
This paradox is illustrated by an old Jew ish story about a father w ho w as
an atheist and w anted to giv e his son the best possible education, and
therefore sent him to the Jesuits. Despite his background, the child had to
attend catechism classes in w hich he w as taught the C atholic doctrine of the
Trinity. When he got home, he asked his father if it w as true that there are
three G ods. H is father frow ned and said: Listen to me, son. There is only one
G od and w e dont believ e in him.
A major lesson from the last century is that ideologies come and go but
religions remain. N ot so much the beliefs but the sense of belonging; although
beliefs can be reconstructed on the foundation of that sense of belonging.
What makes religions v irtually indestructible is that they offer their
members a durable anchor for their identity. A t other times in history, other
new er, more modern ty pes of solidarity, such as class and nation, hav e
seemed to be in the ascendant. But up to now it is religion w hich has had the
last w ord. It w as thought that it could be banished from the public sphere and
confined w ithin the borders of w orship. It turned out to be difficult to confine
and tame, and impossible to uproot. Those w ho consigned it to the history
museums found themselv es prematurely relegated there. M eanw hile, religion
rev ealed itself as prosperous, and capable of conquering and often ev en of
inv ading ev ery w here, and especially in Islamic countries.

Chapter 3
The v ery close proximity betw een Islam and politics is w orth pondering, as it
is one of the most troubling and puzzling aspects of the contemporary w orld.
S trangely, this phenomenon is explained in the same w ay by both
supporters of religious radicalism and critics of Islam; the former because it is
their creed and the latter because it fits w ith their prejudices. A ll agree that
Islam and politics are inseparable, that it has alw ay s been thus, that it is
w ritten in the holy texts, and that it is futile to w ant to change it. This opinion,
w hich is sometimes loudly proclaimed and is alw ay s implicit, is the subject of
such a consensus that it possesses all the trappings of truth.
I hav e my doubts. If it w ere just a matter of the critical ev aluation of a
religion, its practices and beliefs, I w ould not spend much time on it. A lthough
I hav e alw ay s liv ed in close proximity to Islam, I am not a specialist on the
M uslim w orld, still less an Islamic scholar. I cannot be counted on if y ou are
seeking to know w hat Islam really say s. N or should I be counted on to w rite
that all religions preach harmony. M y profound belief is that all doctrines,
w hether religious or secular, hav e w ithin them the seeds of dogmatism and
intolerance. In some indiv iduals these seeds germinate, and in others they
remain dormant.
I readily admit that I hav e no more idea than the next man about w hat
C hristianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism really say . I believ e that ev ery
faith is open to an infinite number of interpretations, w hich depend much more
on the historical trajectory of human societies than holy texts. A t ev ery stage
of history, the texts say w hat people w ant to hear. S ome w ords are suddenly
illuminated w hich w ere y esterday inv isible. O thers, w hich once seemed
essential, fall into obliv ion. The same scriptures w hich used to justify the
div ine right of kings now accommodate democracy . A nd just ten lines on from
a v erse in praise of peace it is easy to find another w hich celebrates w ar.
E v ery passage in the O ld and N ew Testaments and in the Q uran has giv en
rise to countless readings, and it w ould be absurd for any one to assert after so
many centuries of interpretation and controv ersy that each has only one
possible meaning.
I understand w hy the zealots do assert this; it is their role. It is difficult to
stick to a particular reading of the text if y ou think that other interpretations
are equally v alid. But the observ er of history, w hether a believ er or not,
cannot take that position. F rom his point of v iew , it is not a matter of
determining w hich interpretation of the S criptures is compatible w ith the
teaching of the faith, but of ev aluating the influence of doctrines on the course
of the w orld; and also conv ersely the influence of the course of the w orld on

I find the current opinion on the relationship betw een Islam and politics
w orry ing because it constitutes the mental foundation of the clash of
civ ilisations w hich has made the w orld a v iolent place and threatens all our
futures. F rom the point at w hich religion and politics in Islam are deemed to
be indissolubly linked and it is accepted that this constitutes an immutable
giv en w ritten in the holy texts, the idea that this clash w ill nev er end not in
thirty y ears, nor in fifty, nor a hundred and fifty, nor a thousand becomes
established, as does the notion that w e are in the presence of tw o distinct
forms of humanity. This is an idea that I find demoralising, of course, and
destructiv e, but abov e all simplistic, inexact and ill-considered.
When the acts of v iolence committed by the U S military in A bu G hraib w ere
rev ealed, one of the published photos show ed a naked detainee forced to
w alk on all fours w ith a rope around his neck, held on a leash by a
triumphantly smiling female soldier. Inv ited to comment on a U S telev ision
channel, a M iddle E ast specialist explained to v iew ers that in order to
understand the horror aroused by these images in the M uslim w orld, y ou had
to know that in Islam the dog is considered an unclean animal.
I w as speechless. Did that mean that if an Irish or A ustralian detainee had
been forced onto all fours w ith a rope around his neck and made to w alk
naked in the corridors of the prison, he w ouldnt hav e had any thing to object
to as dogs are not considered unclean in Ireland or A ustralia?
Whats more, this opinion w as expressed by a brav e, honest academic
w ho has constantly campaigned against the w ar in Iraq. In this interv iew , he
w as ingenuously try ing to denounce the acts of v iolence committed by some
of his compatriots. S o w hat is at issue here is not his intention, but the w ay of
thinking w hich he unconsciously transmitted and w hich consists in treating
Islam as though it came from a different planet.
I do not doubt that there are important specific characteristics in
journey the M uslim w orld has taken, and especially in the relationship it
established betw een religion and politics. But they v ary greatly from
country to another and from one era to another; they result from
complicated history of peoples rather than the application of a doctrine;
they are not alw ay s to be found w here w e expect them.


A nd so, contrary to appearances, one of the tragedies of the M uslim w orld,

both in the past and today, is that politics has constantly impinged upon the
religious domain and not the other w ay round. F rom my point of v iew , this
is due not to the content of the faith but to factors w hich could be termed
institutional, and principally to the fact that Islam has not fav oured the

emergence of a centralised church. It strikes me that if an institution similar to

the papacy had been able to prev ail, things w ould probably hav e happened
differently .
I suppose that no one w ould claim that the popes hav e historically been
promoters of freedom of thought, social adv ancement or political rights. A nd
y et they hav e been indirectly and by reaction against them, but
nev ertheless in a pow erful w ay. By being a counterw eight to holders of
temporal pow er, they constantly limited the arbitrary exercise of roy al pow er
and quashed imperial arrogance, and in so doing preserv ed a sort of breathing
space. It w as in the gaps betw een tw o forms of absolutism papal and roy al
that the embry onic modernity of the future slow ly took shape, a modernity
w hich w ould one day shake the thrones of E urope and the authority of
sov ereign popes.
M oreov er, the C hristian and M uslim w orlds sometimes experienced
comparable phenomena at the same moment. Just as there w as a duality
betw een emperors and popes, so too w as there a duality betw een sultans
and caliphs. In both cases, rulers w ith political authority and military pow er
presented themselv es as protectors of the faith, w hile pontiffs w ith spiritual
authority tried hard to preserv e their autonomy, their sphere of influence and
the dignity of their office. In both cases, conflicts w ere frequent, and similar
incidents occurred in Rome and Baghdad betw een the tenth and thirteenth
centuries, w hen pow erful monarchs feigned humble repentance at the feet of
the man of G od, but all the w hile w ere preparing rev enge.
The difference is that S aint P eters successors managed to hold on to their
throne w hile the P rophets did not. C onfronted w ith the political and military
pow er of the sultans, the caliphs faced one defeat after another, w ere stripped
of their prerogativ es and ev entually lost all autonomy of action. O ne day in
the sixteenth century, the O ttoman sultan quite simply appropriated the title
of caliph, w hich he added to his other pompous titles and retained until Kemal
A tatrk decided to separate the tw o roles again in N ov ember 1922. S ixteen
months later, he abolished the institution of caliph w ith a stroke of his pen.
The last caliph, A bdul M ejid, a talented painter w ho exhibited his w ork in
v arious E uropean capitals, died in exile in P aris in 1944.
Within Western C hristianity, meanw hile, the popes remained pow erful. In
F rance, the fight to prev ent the encroachment of religious authority in the
political sphere w as intense; until the early tw entieth century, in fact, Rome
condemned the v ery idea of the republic. M any C atholics v iew ed it as an
impious regime, and w hen the opportunity presented itself in 1940, some of
M arshal P tains supporters w ere eager to do aw ay w ith the strumpet.
In Islam, the problem w as alw ay s the opposite: not the encroachment of

religious authority on the political sphere, but the stifling of religious authority
by political authority. A nd paradoxically, it is because of this, and because of
the crushing predominance of the political, that religion spread through the
body politic.

Chapter 4
What ensured that the papacy endured and w hat the caliphate so
desperately lacked w as a church and a clergy .
Rome w as alw ay s able to mobilise its tight netw ork of bishops, priests
and monks, w hich cov ered ev ery kingdom and prov ince right dow n to the
v ery smallest hamlet on C hristian soil. They formed a pow erful force, albeit
soft pow er, w hich no monarch could ov erlook. The ruling pontiff also had the
pow er to excommunicate or to threaten to do so, w hich in the M iddle A ges
w as a formidable instrument that made emperors tremble just as much as the
simple faithful. Islam had none of these things no church, no clergy and no
threat of excommunication. F rom the start, Islam dev eloped a great distrust of
intermediaries, w hether saints or confessors. M an is supposed to be in direct
dialogue w ith his C reator, speak only to H im, and be judged by H im alone.
S ome historians hav e compared this attitude to Luthers Reformation and there
are certainly similarities. Logically, this stance should hav e encouraged the
early emergence of lay societies in the Islamic w orld. But history nev er
adv ances in a predictable direction. N o one could hav e foreseen that the
enormous pow er of the papacy w ould one day end w ith the reduction of the
place of religion in C atholic societies, w hile the distinctly anti-clerical sensibility
of Islam, by prev enting the emergence of a strong ecclesiastical institution,
w ould fav our an explosion of religion w ithin M uslim societies.
C onfronted w ith sultans, v iziers and military commanders, the caliphs
found themselv es utterly helpless. They w ere unable to maintain the religious
counter-pow er w hich w as so useful to popes. A s a result, princes exercised
arbitrary pow er w ithout restraint. The relativ ely free space in w hich
embry onic modernity could grow nev er existed, or certainly not for long
enough to allow cities and citizens to flourish.
But the papacy did not limit its influence to that of a counterw eight to secular
pow er. A s official guardian of orthodoxy, it contributed to maintaining the
intellectual stability of C atholic societies and ev en their ov erall stability. The
lack of a similar institution in the M uslim w orld w as conspicuous ev ery time it
w as necessary to confront a rebellion that claimed religious legitimacy .
When radical ideas like those of the monk S av onarola in fifteenth-century
F lorence began to spread, Rome opposed them and its authority allow ed it to
put an end to them once and for all: the unfortunate S av onarola ended up
being burned at the stake. C loser to our ow n time, and in a different v ein,
w hen C atholics in Latin A merica w ere tempted in the 1960s by liberation
theology and some C olombian priests such as C amilo Torres found

themselv es under arms alongside M arxists, the church firmly stamped this out.
I am not going to discuss the content of this theology, any more than I am
going to consider S av onarolas; w hat strikes me as significant is how
efficiently the papacy cut short any such excesses.
In the M uslim w orld, a w ould-be S av onarola or C amilo Torres could not
hav e been checked in the same w ay. In the absence of a muscular
ecclesiastical authority w ith recognised legitimacy, the most radical ideas
regularly spread among the faithful and could not be contained. Today as in
the past, any social or political challenge can make free use of religion to
attack the established order. Religious leaders in different M uslim countries are
generally unable to oppose it, since they are appointed by those in pow er and
are therefore literally in their pay, and consequently hav e only limited moral
credibility .
In my v iew , it is the absence of a papal-sty le institution capable of
draw ing a line betw een the political and religious w hich explains the drift that
affects the M uslim w orld, rather than a div ine directiv e creating confusion
betw een the tw o spheres.
O ne might w onder if it doesnt come to the same thing, but I dont think so.
A t least not if w e still hav e hopes of a future for humanity .
It is not unimportant to understand w hether this lack of separation
betw een politics and religion results from unchanging dogma or the
contingencies of history. F or those, like me, w ho persist in try ing to find a
w ay out of the global impasse w e hav e got ourselv es stuck in today, it is
important to underline that the difference betw een the trajectories of the tw o
riv al civ ilisations w as determined not by an immutable celestial injunction but
by human behav iour w hich can change, and by the historical course of human
A ll these institutions are human (I use that adjectiv e purely descriptiv ely,
w ithout making any assumptions about their spiritual function). The papacy
w as not established by the G ospels: there is no mention in them of a
sov ereign pontiff, of course, giv en that the title belonged to a pagan dignitary .
Likew ise, the caliphate w as not established by the Q uran, in w hich just tw o
men are explicitly referred to by the term caliph (meaning heir or
successor). The first of these w as A dam, to w hom G od announced that he
w as giv ing the earth and it is clear from the context that the w orld w as thus
being entrusted to the w hole of humanity. The second w as a historical figure
to w hom the C reator addressed these sev ere w ords: I hav e named y ou
caliph on this earth so that y ou gov ern w ith justice; do not allow y ourself to
be guided by y our passions, w hich w ill lead y ou from the w ay of G od. Those

w ho depart from it w ill suffer a terrible punishment for hav ing forgotten
Judgement Day. The caliph addressed thus w as none other than King
Dav id.
A nother paradoxical aspect of the papacy is that this eminently conserv ativ e
institution has allow ed progress to be maintained.
I shall illustrate this w ith an example w hich may appear triv ial: w hen I
w as a child, a C atholic w oman could not go to mass w ithout cov ering her
head and shoulders. Things had alw ay s been thus, and no believ er, w hether
a serv ing girl or a queen, w as allow ed to transgress the rule, w hich the priests
applied w ith zeal and sometimes humour. That makes me recall the priest
w ho approached one of his flock and gav e her an apple. When the y oung
w oman expressed surprise, he told her that it w as only after tasting the apple
that E v e realised that she w as naked.
The poor w oman w as certainly not naked; all she had done w as w ear her
long hair dow n, but clothing requirements could not be broken until the
moment in the early 1960s w hen the V atican decided that henceforth w omen
w ere allow ed to attend church w ithout a v eil. I suppose that some people
must hav e been irritated or ev en outraged by a decision that ran counter to
an ancient tradition dating all the w ay back to S aint P aul. H e had after all
w ritten in his first epistle to the C orinthians:
F or a man indeed ought not to cov er his head, forasmuch as he is the
image and glory of G od; but the w oman is the glory of the man. F or
the man is not of the w oman; but the w oman of the man. N either
w as the man created for the w oman; but the w oman for the man. F or
this cause ought the w oman to hav e pow er on her head because of
the angels.
N onetheless, ov ernight these w ords from another age w ere deemed obsolete;
no one tried to insist that C atholic w omen cov er their heads, and it is
reasonable to suppose that this adv ance w ill not be called into question.
Let me repeat because this is the point I w ant to make: the popes may
hav e restrained any relaxation of the rule on clothing for nineteen centuries,
but from the moment w hen they judged that this position no longer had any
justification, from the moment w hen they finally took stock of how attitudes
had changed, they proceeded to v alidate the change, so to speak, rendering it
v irtually irrev ersible.

In the history of the West, the institution of the church has often
functioned in this w ay, contributing to the material and moral adv ance of
E uropean civ ilisation, and y et all the w hile attempting to restrain it. Whether
in the domain of science, economics, politics or social behav iour, and
especially in matters of sexuality, the papacy s attitude has follow ed the same
course. A t the start, the church digs in, applies the brakes, fulminates,
threatens, condemns and forbids. Then, after time (sometimes centuries) has
passed, it rev iew s, re-examines and moderates its position. N ext, w ith some
reluctance, it accommodates itself to the v erdict of human societies. The
change is v alidated codified, in a manner of speaking, on the register of
permitted behav iour. F rom that moment on, there is no further tolerance of
zealots w ho might w ish to rev erse things.
F or centuries, the C atholic church refused to believ e that the earth w as
round and orbited the sun. A nd, w hen it came to the origin of species, it
initially condemned Darw in and ev olution. Today, it w ould crack dow n on
any of its bishops w ho interpreted the holy texts in too literal a manner, as
some A rabic ulemas and A merican ev angelists do.
The prev ailing mistrust in the M uslim tradition, as in the P rotestant one, of a
centralising religious authority is perfectly legitimate and thoroughly
democratic in its inspiration, but it has a disastrous side-effect: w ithout that
intolerable centralising authority , no progress can be irrev ocably recorded.
E v en w hen believ ers hav e liv ed their faith for decades in the most
generous, enlightened, tolerant fashion possible, they are nev er completely
bey ond risk of a relapse, nev er shielded from some zealous interpretation
coming along to sw eep aw ay their gains. A gain w hether in the domain of
science, economics, politics or social behav iour something a benev olent
fatw a authorised y esterday, a mean-spirited fatw a can forbid today w ith
extreme rigour. The same controv ersies come up again and again ov er w hat
is and is not permitted, and w hat is pious and w hat impious. Without a
supreme authority, no adv ance is definitiv ely v alidated, and no opinion
expressed in past centuries is definitiv ely marked as obsolete. F or ev ery step
forw ard there is a step back, so much so that it becomes impossible to tell
w hat is forw ard and w hat is back. The door is perpetually open to all forms of
escalation, extremism and regression.
Regression is also the w ord that comes to mind w hen I read that some
U S schools w hich used to offer a rational education hav e suddenly begun to
teach the next generation that the w orld w as created six thousand y ears ago
on 22 O ctober 4004 BC E , to be precise and that if fossils are found on earth
w hich seem to date from hundreds of millions of y ears ago, that is because

G od aged them through some miracle and placed them there to test the
strength of our faith.
In general, strange and w orry ing beliefs are on the rise, w hich blithely
announce the end of the w orld and ev en w ork to hasten it. These trends
probably only affect a small proportion of C hristians, some tens of millions of
people. But the influence of that minority is not insignificant, giv en that it is
situated in the U nited S tates and its members assiduously frequent the
corridors of pow er, sometimes managing to influence the behav iour of the
w orlds sole superpow er.
There are a thousand other things I could say, a thousand eloquent examples,
to illustrate the impact of institutional, cultural, national or more generally
historical factors on the comparativ e ev olution of the tw o civ ilisations to w hich
I belong and the lack of impact of properly doctrinal differences.
M y profound conv iction is that too much w eight is placed on the influence
of religion on people, and too little on the influence of people on religion. F rom
the moment in the fourth century w hen the Roman empire became C hristian,
C hristianity became Roman abundantly so. It is this historical circumstance
w hich explains the emergence of a sov ereign papacy. Taking a w ider v iew , if
C hristianity contributed to making E urope w hat it became, E urope also
contributed to making C hristianity w hat it became. The tw o pillars of Western
civ ilisation Roman law and A thenian democracy both pre-date
C hristianity .
S imilar observ ations could be made about Islam and also about nonreligious doctrines. If C ommunism influenced the history of Russia and C hina,
those tw o countries also determined the history of C ommunism, w hose
destiny w ould hav e been v ery different if it had instead triumphed in
G ermany or E ngland. F oundational texts, w hether they are sacred or profane,
lend themselv es to the most contradictory readings. H earing Deng Xiaoping
claim that priv atisation w as in direct line w ith M arxist thought and that the
successes of his economic reform demonstrated the superiority of socialism
ov er capitalism may prov oke smiles. But this interpretation is no more
laughable than any other. In fact, it is certainly more in keeping w ith the
dreams of the author of Das Kapital than the delirium of a S talin, Kim Il-S ung,
P ol P ot or M ao Tse-tung.
N o one can deny, in any case, seeing the C hinese experiment unfold, that
one of the most surprising successes in the history of global capitalism has
happened under the aegis of a C ommunist P arty. Is that not a pow erful
illustration of the malleability of doctrines and the infinite ability of people to
interpret them any w ay they like?

To return to the M uslim w orld: if w e try to understand the political behav iour
of those w ho claim religious legitimacy and w ish to change it, w e w ill not
identify the problem by searching holy texts, nor w ill the texts prov ide an
answ er. H astily explaining ev ery thing that happens in different M uslim
societies through the particularity of Islam is to indulge in platitudes and
condemn oneself to ignorance and impotence.

Chapter 5
F or any one attempting to understand contemporary reality, the notion that
religions, ethnic identities and cultures are unique is a useful one, but it
requires careful handling. If y ou disregard it, y ou w ill miss its subtleties; if y ou
accord it too much importance, y ou w ill fail to grasp the essential.
Today, uniqueness is also an ambiguous notion. Was apartheid not
expressly founded on respect for the uniqueness of the blacks? E ach of S outh
A fricas populations w as supposed to follow the path its ow n culture destined
it for, according to w hether it w as of E uropean or A frican origin. S ome w ere
supposed to adv ance tow ards modernity, w hile others w ere supposed to be
limited to their ancestral traditions.
The example of S outh A frica may appear outdated and caricatured.
U nfortunately it isnt. The spirit of apartheid is ubiquitous in the w orld today
and is spreading all the time. S ometimes it is spread maliciously and
sometimes w ith the best of intentions.
P erhaps I can illustrate this by recounting an incident w hich happened in
A msterdam at the beginning of this century. A y oung w oman of A lgerian
origin w ent to the tow n hall w ith a project that w as close to her heart: a club
for immigrant w omen in her neighbourhood, w hich w ould enable them to
meet each other, get out of the close family env ironment for a w hile, relax in
a hamam and talk openly about their problems. A council official met her,
listened and took notes. S he asked her to come back a few w eeks later to
find out w hether the council could help her. The y oung w omen w ent off
feeling confident. When she returned on the specified date, she w as told that
unfortunately the project could not go ahead. We consulted y our local imam
and he said that it w ouldnt be a good idea. S orry !
I believ e that the civ il serv ant w ho said this w ould not hav e thought she
w as promoting segregation, but rather w as being eminently respectful. Was it
not appropriate to leav e it up to the tribal chief to decide w hat should happen
in an ethnic community ? A n ingenuous question comes to mind: if the y oung
w oman w ho presented the project had been E uropean, w ould they hav e left
the decision in the hands of her parish priest or pastor? O f course not. A nd
w hy not?, one might ask equally ingenuously. The responses w ill inev itably
be aw kw ard. The answ er lies in w hat is unspoken but understood, and in
preconceptions about ethnicity. To put it bluntly, w e act like this because
those people are not like us. You w ould hav e to be completely insensitiv e
not to grasp that this respect for the O ther is a form of contempt and a sign
of hatred. That at least is how those w ho are respected experience it.
A ll human societies since the daw n of time hav e been affected by the

tendency to consider others only in terms of their religious or ethnic

differences. It is a w ay of thinking that sends people from elsew here back to
their traditional allegiances, a mental failing w hich prev ents seeing bey ond
someones colour, their accent or their name. But in today s global v illage,
such an attitude is no longer tolerable because it compromises the chances of
coexistence in ev ery tow n and ev ery country, and leads to irreparable rifts
and a v iolent future for the w hole of humanity .
S o w hat should be done? P retend not to see differences? A ct as if
ev ery one is the same colour and has the same culture and beliefs?
These are reasonable questions and w orth pondering for a moment.
We liv e in a period in w hich ev ery one feels obliged to fly a flag declaring their
allegiances and to show that they hav e seen the flags of those they
encounter. I do not know if this constitutes a liberation or an abnegation of the
self, a form of contemporary politeness or bad manners. It probably depends
on the circumstances and the w ay it is done. But the dilemma is real
nonetheless. P retending not to notice differences betw een the sexes, in skin
colour, accents and the sound of a name, sometimes amounts to concealing
and perpetuating centuries-old injustices. O n the other hand, sy stematically
and explicitly taking account of distinctiv e characteristics contributes to locking
people into their inherited allegiances and confining them to their respectiv e
A w iser response seems to me to lie in a subtler, more acute and less lazy
approach. It is not a matter of ignoring the differences there might be
betw een a Dutch and an A lgerian person to stay w ith the same example
but, hav ing noted them, of taking time to go bey ond these differences,
remembering that not all Dutch people are the same, nor all A lgerians. A
Dutch person may be a believ er or an agnostic, enlightened or foolish, on the
right or the left, cultiv ated or uncultiv ated, hard-w orking or lazy, honest or a
scoundrel, miserable or fun-lov ing, generous or mean and the same goes for
an A lgerian.
P retending to ignore phy sical or cultural differences w ould be absurd, but it
w ould be missing something essential if one limited oneself to the most
obv ious differences instead of going further tow ards the person himself as an
indiv idual.
Respecting someone means addressing him or her as a w hole human
being, as a free adult, not as a dependent being w ho belongs to his
community like a serf to the land.
Respecting the A lgerian w oman w ould hav e meant respecting the

indiv idual w ho had dev ised a project and had the courage to go and present it
to the authorities. Rather than dragging her back under the rule of her
community leader.
I chose something w hich happened in A msterdam as an example on purpose.
E v er since the sev enteenth century, A msterdam has been a city w hich has
play ed a pioneering role in E uropes slow march tow ards religious tolerance.
A nd I believ e that the tow n hall official w ho consulted the local imam thought
she w as acting in complete accord w ith the spirit of openness w hich has
alw ay s characterised the city .
That, after all, w as the w ay that tolerance w orked four centuries ago.
Religious minorities w ere authorised to practise their faith freely. A nd if a
member of one of these communities behav ed in a reprehensible w ay, he
w as firmly brought back into line by his ow n community leaders. That is how
S pinoza came to be excommunicated by his fellow Jew s in 1656, w hen his
supposed atheism threatened to compromise relations w ith their C hristian
fellow citizens. The question w as made all the more sensitiv e as many Jew s,
including S pinozas ow n father, had arriv ed in A msterdam relativ ely recently
after their expulsion from the Iberian peninsula, and did not w ant to be
suspected of behav ing disloy ally to their hosts, w ho, giv en the period, had
behav ed w ith unusual magnanimity .
Today s realities are different and infinitely more complex, and attitudes
do not hav e the same meaning. In our epoch, w hich is menaced by a drift
tow ards global communitarianism, y oking men and w omen to their religious
communities makes problems w orse rather than better. Yet that is w hat
numerous E uropean countries do w hen they encourage immigrants to organise
themselv es on a religious basis and w hen they fav our the emergence of
community spokesmen.
The West has often made this mistake in its dealings w ith the rest of the
w orld. F or centuries it w as incapable of apply ing to other people especially
those w hose destinies it controlled the same principles it applied to its ow n,
principles that w ere the source of its greatness. That is w hy F rance as a
colonial pow er, for example, in order to av oid granting the inhabitants of its
A lgerian dpartements full citizenship, restricted them to the status of F rench
M uslims, a rather anomalous designation in a secular republic.
It is important to remember the mistakes of the past in order to av oid
repeating them. In colonial times, relations betw een the dominant and the
dominated could not hav e been any thing but unhealthy, since the genuine
desire to civ ilise the O ther w as constantly in conflict w ith the cy nical desire
to subjugate him. It must be acknow ledged, as H annah A rendt say s in The

O rigins of Totalitarianism , that nation states make v ery poor empire-builders,

since empire-building needs to be accompanied by a certain respect for the
peoples y ou w ant to gather together. A lexander the G reat dreamed of mass
marriages betw een H ellenes and P ersians; Rome cherished A thens and
A lexandria and ended up granting Roman citizenship to all the subjects of its
empire, from C eltic Druids to the Bedouins of A rabia. C loser to our ow n time,
the A ustro-H ungarian and O ttoman empires sought to be inclusiv e, w ith
v ary ing degrees of success. But the colonial empires built by E uropean nations
in the nineteenth and tw entieth centuries w ere nev er more than extensions of
themselv es, schools of applied racism and moral transgression that prepared
the w ay for the w ars, genocides and totalitarianism that w ere to steep E urope
in blood.
O ur period offers the West the chance to restore its moral credibility, not
by donning sackcloth and ashes, nor in opening itself up to all the w orlds
w oes, nor in compromising w ith v alues imported from elsew here, but rather in
show ing itself at last to be true to its ow n v alues respectful of democracy
and human rights, concerned about equity, indiv idual freedom and secularism
in its relations w ith the rest of the planet, and abov e all w ith the men and
w omen w ho hav e chosen to liv e under its roof.

Chapter 6
The attitude of Western countries tow ards their immigrants is not just one
issue among many. In my v iew and not just because I am an immigrant
my self it is a crucial question.
If the w orld is div ided today betw een riv al civ ilisations, it is principally in
the minds of immigrants, both men and w omen, that a clash of civ ilisations
occurs. It w as no accident that the most bloody and spectacular terrorist
attacks of recent y ears in N ew York, M adrid, London and elsew here w ere
carried out by immigrants, some from the Indian subcontinent, others from
N orth A frica or E gy pt, such as the Islamist militant w ho directed the attack on
the Tw in Tow ers of the World Trade C enter and w ho had just completed his
doctorate in urbanism at a G erman univ ersity. A t the same time, many
migrants take part peacefully and generously in the intellectual, artistic, social,
economic and political life of their new countries, contributing new ideas, rare
skills, different sounds, tastes and sensibilities, allow ing those societies to be in
tune w ith the w orld, giv ing them the ability to know it intimately in all its
div ersity and complexity .
S o I say unambiguously, choosing my w ords w ith care: it is abov e all
among immigrants that the great battle of our time, a battle for hearts and
minds, w ill hav e to be w aged, and it is among them that it w ill be w on or
lost. E ither the West w ill manage to w in them back, to regain their confidence,
to rally them to the v alues it espouses, making them into eloquent adv ocates
in its relations w ith the rest of the w orld. O r they w ill become its biggest
The battle w ill be tough and the West is no longer in a v ery good position
to w in it. In the past, the only things hindering its room for manoeuv re w ere
economic constraints and its ow n cultural prejudices. Today, it has a
formidable adv ersary to deal w ith: all those people w hose identities hav e
been crushed for so long and w hose thoughts hav e turned murderous. A ll that
immigrants in the past, like colonial peoples, asked for w as that the ruling
pow er behav e more like a mother than a stepmother. Their children, w hether
out of bitter disappointment, pride, w eariness or impatience, no longer w ant
that sort of relationship. They brandish the sy mbols of their origins and
sometimes act as though their adoptiv e homes w ere enemy territory. The
integration machine, w hich used to w ork, albeit rather slow ly, has ground to a
halt, sometimes as a result of deliberate sabotage.
F or someone like me, w ho has liv ed in E urope for ov er thirty y ears and
observ ed the coexistence of different ethnic communities slow ly breaking

dow n in numerous countries despite the fact that they practise quite different
immigration policies, there is a strong temptation to throw up ones hands. I
cannot be the only one to hav e had the depressing feeling that no approach
brings the desired result neither the strictest nor the most permissiv e; neither
the ambitious republican model, w hich is supposed to make ev ery immigrant
to F rance entirely F rench, nor the pragmatic model from across the C hannel,
w hich accepts each community s uniqueness w ithout try ing to make it E nglish.
E qually distressing, for the concerned observ er such as my self, hav e been
the murder of the Dutch film-maker Theo v an G ogh, the demonstrations
linked to the Danish cartoons, and dozens, hundreds of other w orry ing
sy mptoms w hich hav e happened in almost ev ery country and are replete
w ith phy sical or moral v iolence.
It is just a short step from this to the conclusion that there is no point
try ing to integrate immigrants from the M uslim w orld or A frica. It is a step
w hich many people hav e already taken silently, ev en if they still feel obliged
to deny it. I, how ev er, continue to believ e that harmonious coexistence is
possible and is in fact indispensable if w e w ish to forge solid links betw een the
members of different cultures rather than resign ourselv es to div isions
betw een them w hich breed conflict, hatred and v iolence. Immigrants w ho
fully embrace a sense of belonging to tw o cultures are more likely than
any one to break dow n div isions.
That said, I am conscious of the fact that successful integration today is
arduous and w ill only become more so in the decades to come, and that
thoughtful, subtle, patient and ev en resolutely w illed action w ill be required to
av oid looming disaster.
In F rance, generous spirits explain w ith v ary ing degrees of conv iction that
successiv e w av es of immigrants Italians, P oles, or refugees from the
S panish C iv il War hav e had to cope w ith hostility and prejudice before
becoming fully integrated and that immigrants from the M uslim w orld w ill
ev entually follow a similar path. A n admirable sentiment, but scarcely
credible. The truth is that it w ill be hard for any E uropean country to resolv e
its integration problems w hile the global atmosphere remains charged w ith
mistrust and resentment, as it is today .
What happens in each country depends in part on the policies it
implements, but it also depends in large measure on factors it cannot control.
When someone from N orth A frica emigrates to the N etherlands, he arriv es
w ith an image of that country that has been conv ey ed by friends and family
w ho hav e already gone there; but also w ith an image of the West as a
w hole, an image w hich is much more linked to U S policy, or the memory of

F rench colonialism, than the history of the N etherlands itself. This perception
includes both positiv e aspects otherw ise he w ould not hav e come to liv e
there and negativ e ones, w hich today occupy a much bigger place than
they did thirty y ears ago.
N ew immigrants observ e the behav iour of their hosts w ith intense
attention. They are constantly on the lookout for glances, gestures, w ords,
w hispers and silences that confirm that they are in a hostile or contemptuous
env ironment. O f course, immigrants do not all react in the same w ay. S ome
are embittered and interpret ev ery thing that emanates from the O ther
negativ ely, w hile others are blissfully happy and only notice things w hich
seem to show that they are accepted, v alued or lov ed. S ometimes the same
person w ill go from one feeling to another: a friendly smile makes him
respond w ith ov erw helming gratitude; an instant later, a w ord or gesture
suggestiv e of hostility, contempt or simply a certain condescension and he
feels a desire to lash out, break things and also to destroy himself. Because he
hates his ow n image as much as the mirror w hich reflects it.
What makes relations fragile betw een immigrants and the societies w hich
accept them and as a result makes coexistence fragile too is that the
w ound is alw ay s there. The skin that has formed on the surface has nev er
been able to toughen. A ny thing at all can reaw aken the pain, sometimes just
a scratch or ev en a clumsy caress. In the West, many people shrug their
shoulders at such hy persensitiv ity. S houldnt w e let by gones be by gones and
forget colonialism, segregation, the treatment of the blacks, the extermination
of the bushmen, the Tanos, or the A ztecs, the O pium Wars and the crusades?
But the past does not occupy the same mental space for ev ery one, nor for
ev ery society .

Chapter 7
F or the past truly to become the past, it is not enough simply for time to go
by. F or a society to be able to draw a line betw een its past and its present, it
needs something on this side of the hy pothetical border on w hich to base its
dignity, self-respect and identity. It needs among its attributes recent scientific
inv entions, conv incing economic successes, cultural creations w hich are
admired by others, or military v ictories.
Western nations do not hav e to look to distant centuries for reasons to be
proud. Their contributions to medicine, mathematics or astronomy can be
found in the morning papers. They do not need to inv oke the contemporaries
of A v icenna, or endlessly bring up the origins of terms such as zero, zenith,
algebra or algorithm. Their most recent military v ictory dates from 2003, or
2001 or 1999; there is no need to go back to the ages of S aladin, H annibal or
A shurbanipal. A s a result, w esterners do not feel the need to keep harking
back to their past. If they do study it, it is to get a better v iew of their
journey, to rev eal trends, to understand, speculate or extrapolate. But this is
not v ital nor a requirement of their identity. The present is enough to confirm
their self-esteem.
C onv ersely, people w hose present offers only examples of failure, defeat,
frustration and humiliation inev itably scour their past for reasons to keep
believ ing in themselv es. The A rabs feel like exiles in the contemporary w orld,
strangers ev ery w here, scarcely less in their ow n countries than in the
diaspora. They feel defeated, discredited and humiliated. They express it,
shout it, lament it, and w onder constantly explicitly or implicitly how they
might rev erse the direction of history .
A ll oriental peoples in the past few centuries hav e felt the same. A ll of
them hav e had to measure themselv es against the West at some point; all
hav e borne the brunt of its extraordinary energy, its formidable economic and
military effectiv eness, and its spirit of conquest. A ll hav e admired, feared,
detested and fought it w ith different outcomes the C hinese, Indians,
Japanese, Iranians, Turks, V ietnamese, A fghans, Koreans and Indonesians,
as w ell as the A rabs.
N one of these peoples could recount their history w ithout a thousand
references to their encounter w ith the West, w hich sometimes lasted centuries.
The w hole modern history of a great country like C hina could be expressed
around one central question: how to respond to the formidable challenge
posed by the w hite man. A ll their major upheav als w hether the Boxer
Rebellion, the rise of M ao, the G reat Leap F orw ard, the C ultural Rev olution
or the new economic policy initiated by Deng Xiaoping could in large
measure be interpreted as the search for a response to that question. The

question could also be reformulated like this: in order to be able to join the
modern w orld w ithout losing our dignity, w hat should w e preserv e of our past
and w hat should w e reject?
This is a question w hich nev er totally disappears from the consciousness
of any human society, but it is not asked w ith the same intensity in all times
and places.
When a nation achiev es success, others look on it differently, w hich influences
its self-image. I am thinking in particular of the attitude of the rest of the
w orld to Japan and later C hina. C riticised, feared, but respected for their
ability to fight, and in particular admired for their economic miracles, these
countries hav e seen respect rise for ev ery thing their culture does: their
languages, their art, their ancient and modern literature, their ancient
medicine, their spiritual disciplines, their culinary traditions, their ritual dances,
their martial arts and ev en their superstitions hav e attracted enthusiastic
attention. A s soon as a people acquires the image of being a w inner, ev ery
aspect of its civ ilisation is looked at w ith interest and automatic respect by the
rest of the w orld. The country itself may thereafter allow itself the luxury of
becoming detached and critical. Indeed, the C hinese today often behav e
indifferently tow ards their past and feign amusement and incomprehension
w hen Western v isitors marv el at a civ ilisation dating back millennia.

Will the A rabs soon be in a similar position, thanks to the renaissance w hich
began in 2011? Will they be able to regain the w orlds respect for themselv es
and also for their civ ilisation? O ne can hope, though it w ill take time to restore
an image w hich has been deteriorating for decades, or indeed centuries. A s
they had suffered defeat after defeat, ev ery thing that constituted their
civ ilisation w as looked dow n on by the rest of the w orld. Their language w as
disparaged, their literature little read, their faith aroused mistrust, the spiritual
masters they v enerate w ere ridiculed. They themselv es felt w ithin their v ery
souls the scorn of others and in the end they internalised and adopted it. The
destructiv e feeling of self-hatred spread w ithin many of them. I hav e w ritten
them but I could hav e w ritten us; I feel my self an equal distance from both
pronouns, just as near or far, and it may be that the additional tragedy of my
people is reflected in this uncertainty .
There is no need to launch into w ild psy choanaly sis to see that such as
attitude giv es rise to contradictory impulses: the desire to take it out on a cruel
w orld and to do aw ay w ith oneself; the desire to shed ones identity and y et
assert it before the w orld; a loss of confidence in ones past, w hich one

nonetheless clings on to because w hen ones identity has been scorned, it

represents a lifeline, a refuge and a place of asy lum.
What is true of the past is also true of religion. Islam is a place of refuge for
identity as w ell as dignity. The conv iction that one belongs to the true faith
and has been promised a better w orld, w hile w esterners hav e gone astray,
lessens the shame and hurt of being a pariah, a loser, eternally defeated in
this w orld. Indeed, it w as until the uprisings of 2011, perhaps the only one in
w hich M uslims still had a sense of being blessed among nations, of being
chosen by the C reator rather than cursed and rejected.
A s the lot of the A rabs progressiv ely deteriorated on the ground, and as
their armies w ere beaten and their lands occupied, and as their people w ere
persecuted and humiliated and their enemies behav ed arrogantly as though
they w ere all-pow erful, the religion w hich they hav e giv en the w orld became
the last refuge of their self-respect. To abandon it w ould be to renounce their
main contribution to univ ersal history ; in a sense, it w ould be to renounce the
v ery purpose of their existence.
A s a result, the question w hich arose and still arises in M uslim societies in
this age of pain is not so much about the relationship betw een religion and
politics as betw een religion and history, religion and identity, and religion and
dignity. The w ay in w hich religion is liv ed in Islamic countries reflects the
historical dead end in w hich these people found themselv es trapped until
recently, and from w hich they are only just beginning to emerge; if they
succeed in freeing themselv es from depotism, subjugation and humiliation,
they w ill find v erses w hich accord w ith democracy, modernity, secularism,
coexistence, the primacy of know ledge and the glorification of life; their
relation to the scriptures w ould become less nit-picking, less sensitiv e and less
rigid. F orgiv e me repeating once again: the problem does not lie in the texts;
nor does the solution.

There is no doubt that since the beginning of the tw enty -first century the
M uslim w orlds historical impasse has been one of the most obv ious
sy mptoms of the decline tow ards w hich a blindfold w orld seemed inev itably
to be heading. Was it the fault of the A rabs, the M uslims, the w ay they liv e
their religion? In part, y es. Is it not equally the fault of the West and the w ay
it has for centuries managed its relations w ith other peoples? Yes, in part. A nd
in the course of the past few decades, hav e the A mericans and Israelis not
borne a more specific responsibility ? P robably. A ll these protagonists must
radically change their behav iour if w e are to see an end to a situation w hich

starts from the open w ound of the contemporary M iddle E ast and is beginning
to spread its gangrene to the w hole planet, threatening to undermine all our
civ ilisations achiev ements.
That is a statement of the obv ious w hich sounds like a pious w ish, but it
cannot be dismissed w ith a shrug. Is it already too late to put in place a
historical compromise w hich at the same time takes into account the tragedy
of the Jew ish people and of the P alestinians, the M uslim w orld, the E astern
C hristians, and also the impasse that the West has got into?
E v en w hen if the horizon seems dark and the protagonists demands seem
irreconcilable, w e must keep looking for traces of a solution.
O ne such, w hich could be promising, w ould be if the Jew ish and A rab
diasporas, instead of replicating the exhausting, sterile conflict w hich debilitates
the M iddle E ast, took the initiativ e to create a healthy rapprochement w ith
the support of international diplomatic efforts.
Is it not much easier for an A rab and a Jew to meet and talk calmly, to
share a meal and socialise, if they liv e in P aris, Rome, G lasgow , Barcelona,
C hicago, S tockholm, S o P aulo or S y dney, rather than in Beirut, A lgiers,
Jerusalem or A lexandria? In the w ide w orld w here diasporas coexist, couldnt
they sit dow n side by side, begin to forge links and reflect together on an
alternativ e future for the people they hold dear in the M iddle E ast?
That is happening already, one might reply. P erhaps, but much less than
it ought to. O n this crucial subject, I shall say w hat I hav e already said about
sev eral others: the question is not w hether the A rabs and Jew s talk to each
other a bit more than they used to, or w hether links are being made betw een
people. The question is w hether they w ill be able to resolv e an endless
conflict w hich is poisoning their liv es and contributing to a disordered w orld.

Chapter 8
The w ish I hav e just expressed about the role of diasporas is linked to a w ider
hope that concerns all migrant populations, w herev er they are, w herev er
they are from and w hatev er their history has been.
They all hav e pow erful ties w ith tw o w orlds at once, and they hav e
authority to be communication channels, interfaces in both directions. If it is
natural for a migrant to defend an attitude w hich comes from his home
country in his new one, it should be just as natural for him to defend an
attitude he acquired in his new country in his homeland.
It is sometimes said that if the A rab-M uslim immigrants of E urope formed
a nation, it w ould be bigger than most member states of the E U , y ounger
than all of them, and certainly the fastest-grow ing. What this ov erlooks is that
if this population w ere an E astern nation, it w ould not be negligible in terms of
its size either, and it w ould be right at the top of the scale of all qualitativ e
measures: its lev el of education, its spirit of enterprise, its experience of
freedom, its activ e familiarity w ith the material and intellectual tools of
modernity, its daily practice of coexistence, its ability to know w idely v aried
cultures intimately, and so on. A ll of this giv es these migrants a potential
influence possessed by no other population in the E ast or the West.
It is an influence that they should exercise much more than they do w ith
confidence, pride and in both directions at once.
It is too readily forgotten that an immigrant is first of all an emigrant. This is
not just a banal shade of meaning; the person really is double and liv es as
such. H e belongs to tw o different societies, w ith a different status in each.
Take the graduate w ho does a menial job in the city w here he is an exile, y et
w ho in the v illage he comes from may be a person of note. O r take the
M oroccan w orker w ho on the building sites in the N orth speaks only timidly
w ith his ey es low ered, y et turns out to be a confident, v oluble story teller w ho
makes expansiv e gestures w hen he is w ith his ow n people and is at last able
to speak his language proudly. O r the Keny an nurse w ho spends her nights in
a suburban hospital and makes do w ith lukew arm soup and a piece of bread
for her meals, but is rev ered in her home prov ince because each month she
sends back enough money to feed tw elv e family members.
I could go on quoting examples indefinitely. What I am try ing to say is
that w e miss something essential w hen w e fail to see the emigrant behind the
immigrant. A nd w e commit a major strategic error w hen w e calculate the
status of immigrants according to the place they occupy in Western societies,
w hich is often at the bottom of the social ladder, rather than the role they

play and w hich they could play much more effectiv ely in the societies
they come from, that of v ectors of modernisation, social progress, intellectual
liberation, dev elopment and reconciliation.
Because, I repeat, this influence can be exercised in both directions. You
can liv e in E urope and endlessly dw ell on the conflicts in A lgeria, Bosnia or
the M iddle E ast, but equally y ou can conv ey to the M iddle E ast, Bosnia or
A lgeria the E uropean experience of the past sixty y ears: that of F rancoG erman reconciliation; the building of the U nion; the fall of the Wall; the
miraculous, definitiv e end to the era of dictatorship and colonial expeditions;
the era of bloody butchery, massacres, genocide, centuries-old hatreds,
leading tow ards an era of peace, harmony , freedom and prosperity .
What w ould hav e to happen for such a change in the w ay influence flow s to
come about? M igrants w ould hav e to w ant to transmit a constructiv e message
to the societies they came from. That is easy to say, but difficult to put into
practice, because it demands a radical change in our habits of mind and our
behav iour.
S o, for immigrants to w ant to become adv ocates for the E uropean
experience, they w ould hav e to fully identify w ith it; they w ould hav e to
cease to be the targets of discrimination, humiliation, paternalism and
condescension ev ery time they show their ty pical faces, utter their names or
speak their language. They w ould hav e to identify spontaneously w ith their
adoptiv e society and feel inv ited to immerse themselv es in it body and soul.
But it is not enough for a migrant to identify w ith his adoptiv e country ; in
order for him to influence the society he comes from, it too has to continue to
recognise him and recognise itself in him. Which entails that he w ill be able to
assume his double identity w ith equanimity as fully as possible. Today that is
not the case, neither in the F rench nor in the British approach to the question,
to return to these tw o illustrativ e examples.
In F rance, the idea that gov erns the treatment of the immigrant question,
as formerly w ith colonial peoples, is that ev ery human being is capable of
becoming F rench and must be helped to achiev e it. A generous idea, born in
the E nlightenment era, and one w hich w ould hav e changed the face of the
w orld if it had been honestly applied in territories as div erse as Indochina,
A lgeria and M adagascar. It is an idea w hich more than ev er remains
respectable in its essence and ev en indispensable. F rom the moment w hen
someone decides to liv e in a country other than the one he w as born in, it is
important that he is absolutely clear that he and his children w ill shortly be
able to belong fully to the host nation. This aspect of the F rench approach

consequently strikes me as hav ing univ ersal v alue; I certainly personally

prefer this message to the British one, w hich tells the immigrant that he can
keep his culture and customs, and that he w ill benefit from the protection of
the law , but w ill remain an outsider in the nation w hich receiv es him.
In practice, how ev er, neither of these approaches seems to me to suit our
century ; neither seems to me capable of assuring harmonious coexistence in
the long term. Because in spite of their differences, these tw o policies start
from the same supposition, namely that a person cannot belong fully to tw o
cultures at once.
The immigrant in this new century needs to hear an entirely different
message. H e needs to be told in w ords and through attitudes and political
decisions, You can become fully one of us w ithout ceasing to be y ourself.
That means, for example: You hav e the right and the duty to study our
language in depth. But y ou also hav e the right and the duty not to forget
y our ow n language, because w e, y our adoptiv e nation, need people among
us w ho share our v alues, understand our preoccupations and can speak
Turkish perfectly , or V ietnamese, Russian, A rabic, A rmenian, S w ahili or U rdu,
all the languages of E urope, A sia and A frica, ev ery single one of them, so
that w e can make ourselv es understood to all the people on the planet. You
w ill be an inv aluable intermediary betw een them and us in all domains
culture, politics and business.
What an immigrant hungers for abov e all is dignity. A nd to be ev en more
precise, cultural dignity. Religion is one element of this and it is legitimate for
believ ers to w ant to practise their faith peacefully. But the most v ital element
of cultural identity is language. It is often because a language is neglected,
including by an immigrant himself, and his culture discredited, including by
himself, that an immigrant feels the need to show signs of his belief.
E v ery thing pushes him in this direction: the global atmosphere, the action of
radical activ ists and also the behav iour of his new country w here the
authorities, obsessed w ith the immigrants religious allegiances, fail to take
account of their hunger for cultural recognition.
S ometimes it is ev en w orse, since there is more mistrust tow ards linguistic
pluralism, w hich is usually benign, than tow ards religious communitarianism,
w hich for all pluralistic societies has constantly turned out to be a contributory
factor to fanaticism, ty ranny and disintegration.
I use the term communitarianism deliberately. F or me, it has a negativ e
connotation, w hereas pluralism has a positiv e one. Because there is in fact a
difference of kind betw een these tw o pow erful identity factors, religion and
language. Religious identity is exclusiv e; linguistic identity is not. E v ery

human being is entitled to assemble w ithin him- or herself sev eral linguistic
and cultural traditions.
I w ill not deny that my instinctiv e mistrust of religious communitarianism is
linked in part to my origins. The Lebanon of my birth is probably the most
emblematic example of a country dislocated by confessionalism, and as a
result I feel no sy mpathy for this pernicious sy stem. P erhaps it once w as the
answ er to an ill, but in the long term it has turned out to be more harmful than
the malady itself, like a drug that w as administered to a patient to calm his
suffering, but w hich created an irrev ersible addiction, w hich debilitated his
body and mind a little more each day, to the point w here it repaid him a
hundredfold for all the pain it had temporarily spared him.
When I w as y oung, I w ould hav e been more reticent about dw elling on
this point, giv en that communitarianism seemed to be nothing more than a
curious Lev antine relic. Today, the phenomenon is global and sadly no longer
looks like just a relic. The future of all humanity may w ell hav e its odious
F or one of the most harmful consequences of globalisation is that it has
globalised communitarianism. The rise in religious affiliations at the same time
as the globalisation of communications encouraged the regrouping of people
into global tribes an expression w hich, though it may seem like a
contradiction in terms, is nonetheless a faithful reflection of reality. This is
especially the case in the M uslim w orld, w here there has been an
unprecedented w av e of communitarian particularism, w hich found its most
bloody outlet in the conflict betw een S unnis and S hiites in Iraq. But there has
also been a sort of internationalism, w hich means an A lgerian goes w illingly to
fight and die in A fghanistan, a Tunisian in Bosnia, an E gy ptian in P akistan, a
Jordanian in C hechny a or an Indonesian in S omalia. This double mov ement
of compartmentalisation and decompartmentalisation is not the least of the
paradoxes of our times.
This is a w orry ing change, w hich it seems to me is explicable by the
combined effect of major upheav als such as the failure of ideologies, w hich
fav oured the rise of assertions of identity and of those w ho adv ocated them;
the computer rev olution, w hich enabled solid and immediate links bey ond all
borders to be forged across seas, deserts and mountain ranges; and the
rupture in the balance betw een pow er blocs, w hich posed a sharp question
about pow er and its legitimacy at global lev el. In addition, the emergence of
one dominant superpow er, long seen as the champion of a single tribe,
probably contributed to giv ing strategic riv alries a strongly identity -based

It is in the light of all of these factors that I can say, thinking in anguish of
Lebanon, my homeland: ultimately, communitarianism w as a dead end. O ur
fathers generation should nev er hav e got sw allow ed up in it. Then I add in
the same breath, this time thinking of F rance, my adoptiv e country, and of all
of E urope, w hich is today the land of my last hopes: it is not in
communitarianising immigrants that y ou w ill facilitate their integration and
escape the clashes w hich are looming, but by restoring social dignity, cultural
dignity, linguistic dignity to each person, and by encouraging him to adopt his
dual identity and his role as a link w ith equanimity .

Chapter 9
M ore than once w ithout dw elling on it I hav e criticised the notion of a clash of
civ ilisations. P erhaps I should now pause a moment for a fairer, more
balanced assessment.
What is problematic in this theory w hich has had so much media attention
is not its clinical diagnosis. Its interpretativ e framew ork does allow greater
understanding of ev ents since the fall of the Berlin Wall. S ince identity politics
gained the upper hand ov er ideologies, human societies hav e often reacted to
political ev ents according to their religious affiliations: Russia has become
openly O rthodox; the E U sees itself implicitly as a group of C hristian nations;
the same appeals to combat rev erberate in all M uslim countries.
C onsequently, it is not unreasonable to describe the contemporary w orld w ith
reference to spheres of civ ilisation w hich are in conflict.
In my v iew , w here supporters of this theory go w rong is in departing
from their observ ations of the present to construct a general theory of history.
To explain to us, for example, that the current predominance of religious
affiliations is the normal state of the human species, to w hich it has returned
after a long detour through a series of univ ersalist utopias; or that the clash
betw een civ ilisations is the key w hich allow s us to decipher the past and
predict the future.
E v ery theory of history is the child of its time. It is highly instructiv e as a
tool for understanding the present. When applied to the past, it rev eals itself to
be approximate and partial. P rojected on to the future, it becomes risky and
sometimes destructiv e.
To see in today s conflicts a clash betw een six or sev en great civ ilisations
Western, O rthodox, C hinese, M uslim, Indian, A frican, Latin-A merican is
enlightening and intellectually stimulating, as is ev idenced by the number of
debates it has giv en rise to. But this key does not help us much to understand
the great conflicts of human history : think only of the F irst and S econd World
Wars, w hich w ere principally quarrels among w esterners and w hich
nonetheless shaped the w orld w e all liv e in. A nd it does not help us to explain
monstrous phenomena w hich hav e w eighed on our contemporary moral
consciousness, such as totalitarianisms of the left as w ell as the right, or the
H olocaust; and that is not ev en to mention the great global confrontation
betw een capitalism and communism w hich from S pain to the S udan, and
C hina to G reece, C hile and Indonesia has profoundly div ided societies
belonging to all civ ilisations.
M ore generally, w hen y ou look at v arious episodes of the recent or
distant past, y ou find in ev ery period ev ents such as the crusades, w hich do

indeed seem to reflect a clash of civ ilisations. But y ou also find that many
others w hich are just as significant and just as deadly occur w ithin the
Western cultural sphere, or the A rab-M uslim, A frican or C hinese one.
E v en in our ow n era, w hich seems by and large to conform to the
academic schema of a clash of civ ilisations, an ev ent like the Iraq War clearly
has sev eral different facets: that of a bloody conflict betw een the West and
Islam; that of a y et more bloody conflict w ithin the M uslim w orld itself,
betw een S unnis, S hiites and Kurds; and that of a clash betw een great pow ers
around the question of global hegemony .
H istory, being composed of an infinity of indiv idual ev ents, fits badly w ith
generalisations. In order to find y our w ay, y ou need a large bunch of key s;
and if it is legitimate for a researcher to w ant to add the key he has forged
himself, it is unw ise to w ant to replace the w hole bunch w ith a single key, a
passkey w hich is supposed to open ev ery door.
The tw entieth century made abundant use of the key offered by M arx
and w e now know w hat excesses that w as capable of leading to. C lass
struggle doesnt explain ev ery thing, and neither does the clash of civ ilisations.
N ot least because the w ords themselv es are ambiguous and deceptiv e. If
ev ery one has a feeling of social belonging w hich brings about class solidarity
and also certain class hatreds, the contours of this notion are fuzzy. A t the
time of the industrial rev olution, it w as reasonable to think that the emerging
proletariat w ould become conscious of its identity, w hich w ould function as a
distinct identity, as a class, and play a determining role in history until the
end of time.
C ould one say exactly the same of the new key prov ided by the clash of
civ ilisations. If ev ery one has a feeling of religious or ethnic belonging w hich
brings about certain feelings of solidarity tow ards a civ ilisation, as w ell as the
hatreds that go along w ith it, the contours of this notion are no less fuzzy than
those of class. Today the zeitgeist leads us to believ e that civ ilisations are
defined entities, more and more conscious of their uniqueness, and that they
w ill play a determining role in human history .
There is of course an element of truth here. Who could deny that Western
civ ilisation is not to be confused w ith C hinese or A rab-M uslim civ ilisation? But
no civ ilisation is w atertight, none is immutable, and today the borders are
more porous than in the past.
F or millennia, our civ ilisations hav e been coming into being, dev eloping,
changing; they hav e come into contact and opposition w ith each other,
imitated each other, differentiated themselv es, allow ed themselv es to be
copied; then, slow ly or abruptly, they disappear or merge w ith others. Roman

civ ilisation joined that of G reece one day. E ach of them retained its character,
but they also achiev ed an original sy nthesis w hich became a major element in
E uropean civ ilisation. Then C hristianity came along, born in quite a different
civ ilisation principally Jew ish, w ith E gy ptian, M esopotamian and more
general Lev antine influences and became in turn an essential constituent of
Western civ ilisation. Then the so-called barbarian peoples arriv ed from A sia
the F ranks, A lamans, H uns, V andals, G oths, all the G ermanic peoples, the
A ltaics and the S lav s w ho mixed w ith the Latins and C elts to form the
nations of E urope.
A rab-M uslim civ ilisation w as shaped in the same w ay. When the A rab
tribes, including that of my ancestors, left their barren desert peninsula, their
civ ilisation w as schooled by P ersia, India, E gy pt, Rome and C onstantinople.
Then from the borders of C hina the Turkic tribes arriv ed, w hose leaders
remained our sultans and caliphs until after the birth of my ow n father, before
being ov erthrow n by a modernist nationalist mov ement w hich w anted to
anchor its people firmly to E uropean civ ilisation.
I say this by w ay of a reminder of the obv ious fact that our civ ilisations hav e
alw ay s been composite, shifting and permeable. A nd to express my surprise
that today, w hen civ ilisations are more intermingled than ev er, w e are told
that they are mutually implacable and destined to stay that w ay .
A nd w hat of today, now that thousands of C hinese party w orkers are
trained in C alifornia and thousands of C alifornians dream of mov ing to C hina?
N ow that w e hav e to make an effort as w e trav el the w orld to remember
w hether w e hav e w oken up in C hicago, S hanghai, Dubai, Bergen or Kuala
Lumpur? N ow that w e are being told, on the strength of some examples of
puzzling behav iour, that civ ilisations w ill remain distinct and that clashes
betw een them w ill alw ay s be the driv ing force of history ?
If our civ ilisations feel the need to affirm their uniqueness so stridently, it
is precisely because their uniqueness is becoming indistinct.
What w e are w itnessing today is the tw ilight of distinct civ ilisations, not
their adv ent or apotheosis. They hav e had their day and the time has come
to transcend them all: to capture their benefits and extend to the w hole w orld
the adv antages of each, and to reduce their capacity for harm; to build a
common civ ilisation little by little, based on tw o intangible and inseparable
principles: the univ ersality of essential v alues and the div ersity of cultural
To av oid any misunderstanding, let me add this: in my v iew , respecting a
culture means encouraging the teaching of the language through w hich it is
expressed, and promoting know ledge of its literature, theatre and cinema, and

its other manifestations in art, architecture, craftsmanship, cuisine and so on.

C onv ersely, being indulgent tow ards ty ranny, oppression, intolerance or the
caste sy stem, or tow ards forced marriage, female genital mutilation, honour
crimes or the subjugation of w omen, tow ards incompetence, negligence,
nepotism, w idespread corruption, tow ards xenophobia or racism on the
grounds that they emanate from a different culture, does not constitute
respect in my v iew , but disguised contempt. It is the behav iour of apartheid,
ev en if it is done w ith the best of intentions. I hav e said this already, but I
am keen to repeat it in these final pages so that there is no ambiguity about
w hat I believ e cultural div ersity is and is not.
I shall continue to use the broad term civ ilisation in the singular and the
plural. It seems perfectly legitimate to speak sometimes of human
civ ilisations, and sometimes of human civ ilisation. N ations, ethnic groups,
religions and empires all hav e their ow n particular courses. But the human
race has its ow n adv enture in w hich all of us, indiv iduals and groups, are
It is only if w e believ e in this common adv enture that w e can make
sense of our ow n specific journey s. A nd it is only if w e believ e that cultures
possess equal dignity that w e hav e the right to ev aluate and ev en judge
them, in accordance of course w ith v alues w hich are part of our common
destiny and w hich are abov e all our civ ilisations, traditions and beliefs. F or
there is nothing more sacred than respect for human beings, the preserv ation
of their phy sical and moral integrity, the preserv ation of their capacity to think
and express themselv es; and also the preserv ation of the planet on w hich
they stand.
If w e w ant this fascinating adv enture to continue, w e hav e to go bey ond
our tribal idea of civ ilisations and religions, free the former from the iron grip of
ethnicity, rid the latter of the identity -based poison w hich distorts and corrupts
them and turns them aw ay from their spiritual and ethical v ocation.
In this century, w e shall hav e to choose betw een tw o v isions of the
In the first, humanity is div ided into global tribes w hich fight and detest
one another but, as a result of globalisation, feed more ev ery day on the
same bland cultural broth.
In the second, humanity is aw are of its common destiny and as a result is
united around the same essential v alues, but continues to dev elop more than
ev er the richest, most div erse expressions of culture, preserv ing all its
languages, artistic traditions, crafts, sensibility, memory, know ledge and so
O n the one hand, then, w e hav e sev eral civ ilisations w hich clash, but

w hich imitate each other culturally and become homogeneous, and on the
other a single human civ ilisation, but one w hich display s an infinite div ersity .
To follow the first of these courses, all w e need do is continue to drift
along lazily, buffeted by shocks, as w e do today. C hoosing the second course
w ill require a life-sav ing step change on our part. A re w e up to it?

Chapter 10
O n this subject as on others, I am perpetually torn betw een extreme w orry
and hope. A t times, I tell my self that in its darkest hours humanity alw ay s
know s how to find the resources necessary to extricate itself, ev en at the cost
of v ery heav y sacrifices. A nd at others, I tell my self it w ould be irresponsible
alw ay s to expect a miracle.
M y belief at the moment is that the paths to a solution are undeniably
diminishing but that they are not y et closed off. What needs to be promoted is
not despair but urgency. That is indeed the sole reason for this books
existence, from its first page to its last. To say that it is late, but not too late.
To point out that it w ould be suicidal and criminal not to mobilise all our
energies to prev ent collapse and decline. To suggest that w e can still take
action, but that w e must be bold and imaginativ e rather than w eak-w illed,
timorous and conv entional; that w e must dare to ov erturn our usual thought
patterns and w ay s of behav ing, upset our imaginary certainties and rebuild
our scale of priorities.
O f all the threats aw aiting us in this century, the most perceptible today, as
w ell as the best-studied and documented, is climate change. There is ev ery
reason to believ e that in the decades ahead it w ill prov oke catacly smic
disturbances w hose extent w e are not y et able to measure. S ea lev els may
rise by sev eral metres, engulfing many coastal cities and other maritime zones
inhabited by hundreds of millions of people. Because of the disappearance of
glaciers and changes to rainfall patterns, major riv ers could dry up,
condemning entire countries to desertification. O ne can imagine the tragedies
massiv e displacements of people, deadly struggles w hich could result from
such a trend.
This dev elopment does not belong to a v ague and distant future. We
already know that it w ill dramatically affect the existence of our children and
grandchildren; it is probable that the generations born in the second half of the
tw entieth century w ill still hav e time, I dare say , to suffer from it themselv es.
I am a sceptic by temperament. When I hear alarm bells, I bridle, take
my self to one side, and try to ascertain calmly w hether w e are being
manipulated. We hav e often been told that apocaly ptic disasters are coming,
only to find a few months or ev en w eeks later that they hav e v anished,
thank G od, leav ing no trace. Will it not be just the same w ith climate change?
Were w e not told just a few decades ago that the w orld w as in fact heading
for a new ice age? Writers and film-makers seized upon this theme w ith
v ary ing degrees of success.

S o w hen I started hearing w arnings about a global w arming rather than

cooling, the new s naturally aroused my curiosity w ithout greatly diminishing
my scepticism.
When scientific studies became more numerous and insistent and w hen their
results began to agree, I w anted to learn more.
Lacking a scientific education w orthy of the name, I had first to plunge
into the most elementary books in order to understand w hat w as being said
and to understand the much-discussed greenhouse effect, how it w orks and
w hy it has been causing so much concern for some time. To understand w hat
the increase in C O 2 in the atmosphere means, and w hat its causes and
consequences could be. To understand also w hy there is such fear about the
G reenland and A ntarctic ice sheets melting, but less about the melting of the
A rctic O cean, w hich it is now possible to cross in a boat from one side to the
other during the summer months for the first time in millennia.
A m I going to say that at the end of my inv estigation I can v erify that
this phenomenon is serious and that it constitutes a threat to human
civ ilisation? That is indeed the deep conv iction I came to; but and I say this
in all sincerity my judgement in this matter does not count for v ery much.
In matters of science, the opinion of a lay person such as me does not merit
being taken into consideration. To use a term w hich keeps coming up in my
analy sis, I hav e no intellectual legitimacy in this field. H ow ev er, as a man
w ho cares about the w ell-being of those w ho are dear to him, as a responsible
citizen, w orried by the excesses of the human adv enture, and as a w riter w ho
is attentiv e to the debates w hich animate his contemporaries, I cannot shrug
and make do w ith the conclusion that only the future w ill tell us w hether w e
hav e been too alarmist or too disbeliev ing, too pusillanimous, and that w e w ill
find out in thirty y ears w ho w as right and w ho w as w rong.
Waiting for the judgement of the future means running a terrible risk. If it
is true that in thirty y ears the damage caused by climate change has become
irreparable, and if it is true that planet earth w ill already hav e gone out of
control, that it w ill function erratically and ultimately uncontrollably, it w ould
be absurd, suicidal and ev en criminal to w ait for the futures v erdict.
S o w hat should w e do? A ct before w e are certain that the threat is real?
A ct ev en if w e w ere to discov er in thirty y ears that the C assandras w ere
w rong? M y answ er though I admit it is paradoxical is y es, w e must act,
and ev en if w e hav e remaining doubts, w e must behav e as if w e do not.
This attitude may seem irrational. But for once I w ould ow n up to it
w ithout a hint of hesitation. N ot based on my deep conv iction, w hich, though
informed, concerns no one but my self. N or simply because an ov erw helming

majority of scientists are conv inced of the reality of global w arming, and that
its causes are linked to human activ ity, and also that this change poses a
deadly threat to the future of the planet and its inhabitants. This nearunanimous consensus cannot be disregarded and I of course take it into
account, but it does not constitute the last w ord in my v iew . The majority is
not alw ay s right, and scientists hav e been w rong before. H ow ev er, I believ e
that w e ought to heed them in matters of climate change and as a
consequence w e must act, ev en before w e are certain they are right.
To clarify my position, I shall formulate a w ager, inspired by the one dev ised
in the past and in a quite different context by the incomparable Blaise P ascal.
With, how ev er, a difference of scale: the result of P ascals w ager could only
be checked in the afterlife, w hereas it w ill be possible to check our w ager here
on earth relativ ely soon, since the v ast majority of those w ho currently
inhabit our planet w ill still be aliv e.
I shall therefore consider the tw o principal reactions to climate change
the inadequate and then the adequate one and try to imagine the
consequences each of them w ould entail.
The first hy pothesis is that no major step change occurs. S ome countries
make efforts to limit their greenhouse gas emissions; others react more halfheartedly w ith no more than cosmetic measures, so as to av oid appearing to
be bottom of the class. S till others do nothing at all, for fear of harming their
economic activ ity or upsetting their consumption patterns, and therefore
continue to pollute quite happily. A s a result, the concentration of carbon
dioxide in earths atmosphere keeps rising.
O n this reckoning, w here w ill the w orld be in thirty y ears? If w e believ e
the majority of scientists, as w ell as the U nited N ations and all the
international organisations w hich keep sounding the alarm, w e w ill be on the
brink of apocaly pse, because w e w ill hav e passed the point at w hich w e can
prev ent our planet from running totally out of control. Without going into too
much detail, I shall limit my self to signalling tw o pieces of ev aluation data
w hich strike me as particularly w orry ing.
The first is that the rise in the planets temperature, w hich is a
consequence of the greenhouse effect, w ill cause the ev aporation of w ater
from the oceans, w hich in turn w ill increase the greenhouse effect. In other
w ords, w e could enter a v icious circle of w arming w hich w ill no longer be
dependent on anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, but w ill accelerate by
itself and become v irtually impossible to stop. When do w e risk reaching this
tipping point? O pinions v ary, but some think that it could kick in as early as
the first quarter of this century. What is certain is that the longer w e take to

react, the more painful and costly the efforts w e shall hav e to make.
The second piece of data, w hich points in the same direction, is that
dramatic climate ev ents may happen v ery suddenly, much more so than is
currently thought. By w ay of example, it is thought today that the last sw ing
from a glacial to a temperate period, w hich took place around 11,500 y ears
ago, happened not by a slow process ov er centuries or millennia, but
suddenly, in no more than a decade. M oreov er, numerous scientists w ho
hav e been study ing climate-related phenomena for decades hav e been
constantly surprised by the rapidity of changes, w hich often go far bey ond the
forecasts of w hat w as thought plausible. A ll of w hich means that w e must not
imagine that ev ery thing w e are talking about w ill not hav e consequences
before the end of this century or into the follow ing ones. We really cannot tell,
and it w ould be w ise to start preparing immediately for the w orst-case
In thirty y ears I am sticking to this figure so as to remain w ithin the
framew ork of a period w hich is meaningful in terms of a human lifespan, and
w hich allow s my generation still to speak of us w e may not hav e
w itnessed all the changes w hich loom on the horizon, but w e w ill already
hav e had some dev astating examples. A nd more seriously, the w hole of
humanity w ill hav e to endure a state of emergency for decades and the
imposition of heav y sacrifices w hich w ill be difficult to bear w ithout ev en the
assurance that w e can still prev ent our descent into the aby ss.
What if the majority w ere w rong? What if the future v indicated the dissenting
minority w hich rejects the catacly smic forecasts, mocks their alarmism and
questions any link betw een our gas emissions and global w arming; and w hich
sometimes does not ev en believ e in the reality of global w arming, reckoning
rather that w e are w itnessing natural temperature cy cles w hich oscillate dow n
then up, then dow n again, for all sorts of reasons w hich depend much more
on the suns activ ity than humans?
O nce again, I am not qualified to refute these arguments and I w ant to
suppose here that they could turn out to be true. If that is the case, w e could
not but rejoice. M any people w ould hav e to eat their hats w ith w hatev er
grace they can muster: scientists, political leaders, international officials and
ev ery one w ho believ ed them and relay ed their fears including me, if I am
still around.
A nd now for the second hy pothesis: humanity takes action. Benefiting from
the political changes in the U S , w e see a major step change. Draconian
measures are taken to reduce significantly fossil fuel consumption and carbon

concentrations in the atmosphere. The rate of global w arming slow s, sea

lev els do not rise and no major drama linked to climate change takes place.
A t this prospect, I imagine a debate betw een tw o scientists thirty y ears
from now . O ne belongs to the majority consensus and supports the v iew that
it w as thanks to this step change that humanity escaped a global catastrophe
w hich w ould hav e threatened its surv iv al. The other belongs to the dissenting
minority and continues stubbornly to insist that the dangers w ere grossly
exaggerated and ev en simply an illusion. It is unlikely there w ould be
agreement betw een them. S ince the patient is still aliv e, how can it be
conclusiv ely show n that he w as in mortal danger? The tw o doctors by his
bedside could debate indefinitely .
H ow ev er, at one point in their discussion, the first scientist might say to
the other: Lets forget our past quarrels and simply ask ourselv es: isnt our
planet much healthier as a result of the course of treatment it follow ed? I w ill
continue to maintain that it w as in mortal danger and y ou w ill continue to
doubt it, but w erent our countries right to reduce their consumption of fossil
fuels and their pollution from factories and pow er stations?
A nd that is the basis of the w ager I hav e formulated about climate
change: if w e prov ed incapable of altering our behav iour and the threat turned
out to be real, w e w ould hav e lost ev ery thing. If w e did manage to change
our behav iour radically, and the threat turned out to be illusory, w e w ould not
hav e lost any thing at all. Because the measures w hich w ould allow us to face
the threat of climate change are in reality, w hen y ou think about it, measures
w hich are w orth taking in any case in order to reduce pollution and its
harmful effects for public health; in order to reduce the threat of pov erty and
social upheav als w hich climate change could prov oke; in order to av oid
sav age conflicts for control of oil fields, mining regions and w ater supplies; and
in order for humanity to progress in greater serenity .
C onsequently, it is not up to the majority of scientists to show that the
threat is real. It is, rather, up to the dissenting minority to show irrefutably
that the danger is completely illusory. The burden of proof is rev ersed, as a
law y er might put it. It is only if w e are absolutely sure that this mortal danger
does not exist that w e w ould hav e the moral right to drop our guard and
continue on our w ay w ithout changing any of our habits.
O f course, such certainty is out of the question. The stakes are so high
that no one no researcher, industrialist, economist, political leader,
intellectual, no sensible being could take the responsibility for asserting,
against the v iew of the v ast majority of scientists, that risks linked to climate
change do not exist and that w e should simply ignore them.

In this field more than the others, all w e can do is anxiously w onder w hich
path humanity w ill take that of a step change or that of business as usual.
The times w e are liv ing in giv e contradictory signs. O n the one hand, our
aw areness is real and the w eight of the U S , w hich too long pushed dow n on
the w rong side of the scales, should now tip the balance in the opposite
direction. H ow ev er, the hoped-for step change requires a lev el of solidarity
and ev en a profound bond betw een nations w hich is not easy to achiev e.
A nd it demands sacrifices.
A re the countries of the N orth prepared to disrupt their w ay of life? A re
emerging nations, especially C hina and India, ready to put at risk their
economic take-off, the first chance they hav e had in centuries to escape
underdev elopment? That supposes at the v ery least v ast concerted global
action, from w hich ev ery one gets something and no one feels hard done by .
I w ant to believ e that such an effort is possible, but I cannot easily
ov ercome my w orries w hen I look at our w orld: a w orld characterised by
profound asy mmetry in international relations; a w orld in the grip of identity based tribalism and supreme selfishness, in w hich moral credibility remains a
rare commodity ; a w orld in w hich great crises generally push nations, social
groups, companies and indiv iduals to protect their ow n interests fiercely rather
than demonstrate solidarity or generosity .

A f t erwo rd

Chapter 1
What w e see unfolding at the start of this century is no ordinary kind of
turbulence. F or the globalised w orld born out of the ruins of the C old War, it
may be that this turbulence w ill shake us out of a too lengthy prehistory both
morally and intellectually, and help found a new w orld. But equally, it may
turn out to cause destruction and disintegration and be the prelude to painful
Will a w ay be found for the w orlds populations w hich ev olution has
forced into permanent contact w ith each other despite all their differences of
religion, colour, language, history and traditions to coexist in peace and
harmony ? The question is a real one in ev ery country and ev ery city, as w ell
as on a global lev el. A nd at present, the reply remains uncertain. Whether w e
think of countries w here different communities hav e coexisted for centuries, or
those w hich hav e accepted significant numbers of immigrants w ithin recent
decades, it is clear that mistrust and incomprehension are grow ing to the point
w here all integration policies are compromised, as is simple coexistence. M any
elections and debates today are w eighed dow n by this thorny issue, w hich
encourages identity tensions and xenophobia, especially in E urope, w here
some of the most tolerant societies hav e become irritated, embittered and
entrenched ov er it. But at the same time, w e hav e seen surprising rev ersals
in the perception of the O ther, stemming from less v isible dev elopments in
peoples attitudes, the most rev ealing and spectacular example being the
adv ent of Barack O bama.
The global debate on coexistence is not going to go aw ay. V iolent or muted,
explicit or implicit, it w ill remain w ith us throughout this century and for
centuries to come. O ur planet is a closely w ov en w eb of different populations,
all of w hich are conscious of their identity and of the regard in w hich they are
held by others; they are also aw are of the rights they w ant to w in or hold on
to, and believ e that they both need others and need to protect themselv es
from them. There is no point in w aiting for the tensions betw een them to lose
their edge simply w ith the passage of time. There are, after all, peoples w ho
hav e liv ed side by side for centuries w ithout ev er achiev ing mutual respect or
peaceful coexistence. O v ercoming prejudices and hatred is not innate to
human nature. A cceptance of others is no more or less natural than rejection.
Reconciliation, uniting, adopting, taming and pacify ing are acts of w ill, acts of
civ ilisation w hich demand lucidity and persev erance; acts w hich need to be
acquired, taught and cultiv ated. Teaching people to liv e together is a long
struggle w hich is nev er completely w on. It requires calm reflection, skilful
teaching, appropriate legislation and effectiv e institutions. Liv ing in the Lev ant

before emigrating to E urope, I often had occasion to observ e the difference it

made to a society w hen such a battle w as fought w ith determination and
subtlety as opposed to being neglected, or clumsily and incoherently executed.
Today that battle needs to be w aged on a global scale for the w hole of
humanity, and also w ithin each population. C learly that is not y et happening,
at least not enough. We talk constantly of the global v illage, and it is true that
thanks to progress in communications, our planet has become a single
economic space, as w ell as a single political and media space. But that makes
mutual hatreds all the more apparent.
In particular, the rift betw een the West and the A rab-M uslim w orld has
continued to grow in recent y ears, to the point w here it now seems almost
bey ond repair. I am one of those w ho feel sorrow at this ev ery day, but
there are many w ho hav e got used to it and some w ho ev en relish it,
ignoring the huge potential for v iolence that this clash may harbour, w hich
casts a dark shadow ov er our common future. The deadly terrorist attacks
w hich hav e blighted the past few y ears are examples of this potential. Those
of 11 S eptember 2001 hav e already entered our new century s history as a
monstrous atrocity. A cts similarly inspired hav e taken place on ev ery
continent, from N airobi to M adrid, Bali to London, v ia Djerba, A lgiers,
C asablanca, Beirut, A mman, Taba, Jerusalem, Istanbul, Beslan or M umbai,
not to mention Baghdad.
It is true that such attacks, how ev er v iolent they may be, do not threaten
to annihilate the w orld as the S ov iet and A merican thermonuclear arsenals did
during the C old War. They could nonetheless turn out to be extremely deadly,
especially if in the future they inv olv e so-called non-conv entional w eapons
chemical, biological, atomic or something else. M oreov er the resultant social,
political and economic disruption they could cause w ould be dev astating.
But I prefer to think that another major attack can be av oided, w hich
fortunately remains plausible. In the countries under the greatest threat, the
authorities hav e reacted firmly and effectiv ely. S o as not to be caught out,
they are try ing to anticipate and detect the smallest risk. It w ould be
irresponsible to reproach them for this. H ow ev er, it goes w ithout say ing that a
society w hich feels the need to protect itself permanently from unscrupulous
enemies inev itably mov es aw ay from strict respect for law s and principles. A s
a result, an enduring terrorist threat cannot but disrupt the functioning of
democracy in the long term.
O ne day w e w ill remember these cursed y ears as those w hen the most
civ ilised police force in the w orld pinned a y oung Brazilian commuter to the
floor in the London U nderground; he w as entirely innocent but his skin w as

somew hat sw arthy . H e w as summarily killed w ith sev en bullets to the head.
The clash of civ ilisations is not a debate about the respectiv e merits of
E rasmus v ersus A v icenna, alcohol or the v eil, or ov er sacred texts. It is a
global drift tow ards xenophobia, discrimination, ethnic humiliation, massacres
and reprisals. In other w ords, the erosion of all that giv es human civ ilisation
its moral dignity .
In such an atmosphere, ev en those w ho are persuaded to fight barbarism
ev entually succumb to it in their turn. Terrorist v iolence begets anti-terrorist
v iolence, w hich feeds resentment, facilitating the task of those w ho recruit
extremists and pav ing the w ay for future attacks. Is a giv en population
regarded w ith suspicion because it plants bombs, or does it plant bombs
because it is regarded w ith suspicion? It is the old story of the chicken and the
egg, and there is no point in seeking an answ er, for there is none. E v ery one
w ill hav e their ow n answ er, dictated by their fears, prejudices, origins and
suffering. The v icious circle needs to be broken, but from the moment the
mechanism is set in motion, it is hard to w ithdraw y our hand.
H ow can one not fear decline in such a context? If the current hostility
betw een the planets v arious tribes w ere to persist, and the disorder in all
fields go on, the w orld w ould experience an erosion of democracy, the rule of
law and all social norms in the course of this century .
I for one refuse to consider this inev itable, but it is clear that w e shall
hav e to deploy the full range of our ingenuity, v ision and determination to
stand any chance of av oiding it.

Chapter 2
S ince I began w ork on this book, an allegorical image has haunted me: a
group of climbers is scaling a cliff and, because of some sudden shock, they
hav e begun to lose their footing. I hav e been try ing to understand w hy these
men risk coming unstuck and how they could reattach themselv es to the rock
face in order to resume their ascent, w ithout dw elling too much on imagining
w hat w ould happen if they fell into the aby ss.
I speak of it in terms of a mountaineering accident, as that is rather how it
seems w hen I reflect on the course of the w orld. I am not unaw are that, in
history , the notion of an accident is often deceptiv e. H ow ev er, I am not going
to abandon it entirely. Whatev er contemporary and past moralists hav e said,
humanity does not deserv e the punishment that the coming decades might
inflict. N or shall I plead innocence, or put it dow n to bad luck or the quirks of
fate. H ow ev er, I believ e that w hat is happening to us, rather than being the
consequence of our failures and ov ersights, is in fact the consequence of our
successes, our accomplishments, our legitimate ambitions, our equally
legitimate freedom and the incomparable genius of our species.
In spite of the things that irritate and w orry me, I remain fascinated by
the human adv enture; I cherish and v enerate it and nothing in the w orld
w ould persuade me to exchange it for the life of an angel or a beast. We are
P rometheuss children; C reation has been entrusted to us and w e must
continue it. We hav e undertaken the task of reshaping the univ erse and if
there is a supreme C reator abov e, w e merit H is pride as much as H is w rath.
A re w e not now pay ing the price for this P romethean boldness and the frantic
race to the summit? P robably, but w e hav e no reason to be repentant not
for our inv entions, ev en the craziest, nor for the freedoms w e hav e w on. A nd
if the moment has come to w onder much more seriously than in the past and
w ith greater urgency, Where are w e rushing to?, the question should be
asked not in a spirit of contrition or denigration, nor w ith an implication that
w e are going too fast, departing from the path or losing our bearings, but as a
genuine question.
This century resounds w ith the most backw ard-looking rhetoric. It could
mark the moment of rev enge for all those w ho hav e alw ay s hated mans
liberation and ev en more so that of w oman; for those w ho distrust science,
art, literature and philosophy ; for those w ho w ould like to return the mass of
humanity like docile sheep to the reassuring fold of age-old moral ty rannies.
But if w e hav e stray ed from the path, it is not from the path our fathers beat,
but from the one w e should be beating for our children, a path w hich no

generation before us has had the chance to glimpse and w hich no other has so
v itally needed.
I w ant to underline this here as I did in the books opening pages, because
reactions to the turbulence of our times may take v ery different forms. I shall
distinguish three, w hich, to remain w ith the mountaineering metaphor, I shall
call the temptations of the precipice, the rock face and the summit.
The temptation of the precipice is characteristic of our age. E v ery day, men
leap into the v oid hoping to take the w hole climbing party w ith them. This is
a phenomenon w ithout any real precedent in history. These people, how ev er
numerous they may be, represent only the burning fuse of a giant pow der
keg of despair. H undreds of millions of their fellow human beings in the
M uslim w orld and elsew here feel the same temptation, w hich the
ov erw helming majority fortunately resist.
It is not so much the sting of pov erty w hich causes their distress as that of
humiliation and insignificance, the feeling of not belonging in the w orld they
liv e in, of being only losers, dow ntrodden and excluded. A nd so they dream
of ruining the feast to w hich they hav e not been inv ited.
The temptation of the rock face is much less characteristic of our age, but it
has taken on a new meaning. What I hav e in mind here is the attitude w hich
consists of bracing oneself, taking shelter and protecting oneself w hile w aiting
for the storm to pass. In other circumstances it w ould be the w isest option.
But the tragedy for our and future generations is that this storm is not going to
pass. The w ind of history w ill continue to blow more and more strongly, and
at ev er greater speed, and nothing and no one w ill be able to calm or slow it.
I shall not speak of those w ho hold this attitude as a section of humanity,
since the temptation exists in all of us. It is hard for us to accept that the w orld
has to be entirely reconceiv ed, that the road to the future needs to be
sketched by our ow n hands, that our ordinary, peaceful, insignificant
behav iour could trigger a major climate disaster and turn out to be just as
suicidal as hurling ourselv es into the v oid. A nd it is hard to accept that our
age-old attachments based on identity could compromise the adv ance of the
human species. A nd so w e try to persuade ourselv es that there is nothing
fundamentally new under the sun and continue to cling to our familiar
footholds, our inherited allegiances, recurrent quarrels and flimsy certainties.
The temptation of the summit is based on the opposite idea, namely that
humanity has reached a dramatically new phase of its ev olution in w hich the

old formulas no longer w ork. It is not the end of history, as w as prematurely

declared w hen C ommunism fell, but it is probably the tw ilight of a certain
ty pe of history and also I dare to believ e and hope the daw n of another.
What has had its day and now must end is the tribal phase of human
history, the history of struggles betw een nations, states, ethnic and religious
communities and civ ilisations. What w e are w itnessing coming to an end is the
prehistory of mankind. It has been too long a prehistory, made up of all our
identity -based tensions, all our blinding ethnocentricity, and a selfishness
w hich is held to be sacred, w hether based on country, community, culture,
ideology or something else.
It is not my intention here to pass ethical judgement on the time-w orn
mechanisms of history as w e know it, but to note that new realities mean w e
must leav e them behind as soon as possible in order to embark on a
completely new phase of the human adv enture, a phase in w hich w e shall
not fight against the O ther the enemy nation, civ ilisation, religion or
community but against much more considerable, redoubtable enemies that
threaten the w hole of humanity .
When w e set aside the debilitating habits w e hav e acquired during our
prehistory, it is abundantly clear that the only battles truly w orth fighting for
our species in the centuries ahead are scientific and ethical. O v ercoming all
illness; slow ing the ageing process; making natural death retreat by sev eral
decades and perhaps one day by sev eral centuries; freeing people from need
as w ell as ignorance; giv ing them through art, know ledge and culture the
inner richness w hich might furnish their ev er-longer liv es; conquering the v ast
univ erse, and all the w hile not damaging the ground on w hich w e stand
those are the only conquests w hich should mobilise the energies of our
children and theirs. I for one find those much more inspiring than any patriotic
w ar, and as mentally stimulating as any my stical experience. It is tow ards
such ambitions that w e should now turn.
A pious w ish, y ou may say. N o, a necessity for surv iv al and
consequently the only realistic option. H av ing reached this adv anced stage of
its ev olution, characterised by such a high degree of global integration, the
only options for humanity are to collapse or change.

Chapter 3
The phase of ev olution I hav e just referred to is not an abstract concept.
N ev er has humanity had such a need for effectiv e solidarity and collectiv e
action to face the many dangers w hich assail it. They are huge dangers born
of adv ances in science, technology and demographics, as w ell as the
economy, and they threaten to destroy w ithin a century ev ery thing that has
been built ov er millennia. I am thinking of the proliferation of atomic w eapons
and other instruments of death. I am thinking of the exhaustion of natural
resources and the return of great pandemics. N or am I forgetting climate
change, of course, w hich is perhaps the grav est danger humanity has had to
face since the birth of the earliest civ ilisations.
But all these threats could also constitute an opportunity, if they allow us
finally to open our ey es, to understand the scale of the challenges w e hav e to
face and the mortal risk w e run if w e do not change our behav iour, and do
not rise mentally and especially morally to the lev el w hich our current
stage of ev olution demands.
I w ould be ly ing if I said that I hav e complete faith in our collectiv e
surv iv al instinct. If such an instinct exists in indiv iduals, it remains hy pothetical
for the species as a w hole. A t any rate, as a result of the v arious crises
affecting us directly, it is now time to make up our minds. E ither this century
w ill be the one in w hich humanity goes into decline, or else it w ill be the
century of a step change and beneficial transformation. If w e needed a state
of emergency to shake us up and mobilise w hat is best in us, w ev e got one.
I remain in a state of w orried anticipation, but I also see some good reasons
for hope. They are not all of the same sort and they do not all respond to the
same lev ers, but, taken as a w hole, they make it possible to imagine a
different future.
The first reason for hope is that, in spite of the tensions, crises, conflicts
and shocks, scientific progress continues at an increasing pace. It may seem
out of place to mention among the positiv e signs today a tendency w hich has
been going on for sev eral generations. If I mention it nonetheless it is because
the consistency of science may help us ov ercome the turbulence of this
century . I shall not go so far as to say that scientific progress is the antidote to
decline, but it is certainly one of its ingredients on condition that w e use it
w isely , of course.
We can reasonably imagine, for example, that scientists w ill giv e us a
w hole range of clean technologies in the decades ahead,w hich w ill enable us
to limit carbon emissions in the atmosphere so that w e can escape the v icious

circle of global w arming. We must not imagine, how ev er, that w e can simply
hand this problem ov er to them and continue in our current w ay s w ith a clear
conscience. O ur scientists probably do not hav e enough time to enable us to
av oid the climate disturbances w hich could affect the planet in the first half of
this century. We shall hav e to nav igate round that difficult cape w ith the
equipment w e hav e on board; only afterw ards w ill science be able to offer us
long-term solutions.
M y confidence in science is simultaneously limitless and cautious. To
questions w hich are w ithin its purv iew , I think it is capable in time of bringing
complete answ ers and thereby giv ing us the means to realise our w ildest
dreams. This is simultaneously exciting and frightening, because mans dreams
contain ev ery thing, both the best and the w orst, and w e cannot count on
science to distinguish betw een them. S cience is morally neutral, at the serv ice
of human w isdom and human folly. In the future, just as in the past and the
present, it runs the risk of being led astray, turned to the profit of ty ranny,
greed or archaism.
M y second reason for hope is not free from w orries either. I hav e already
spoken of it: it is the fact that the most populous nations on the planet are
resolutely on the w ay to emerging from pov erty. It is possible that in the
y ears ahead w e shall w itness a slow ing of this process, serious disturbances
and ev en armed conflict. N onetheless, w e now know that underdev elopment
is not a giv en and that the eradication of centuries-old blights such as pov erty,
hunger, endemic diseases and illiteracy cannot be considered a naiv e dream.
What has been show n to be possible for three or four billion people ought to
be possible for six, sev en or eight billion in a few decades.
F rom the v iew point of human solidarity, open to the future, this clearly is
a major milestone.
M y third reason for hope has its source in the experience of contemporary
E urope. It sy mbolises to me an outline of w hat the end of prehistory could
mean in concrete terms: gradually putting behind us accumulated hatreds,
territorial quarrels and ancient riv alries; allow ing the sons and daughters of
those w ho killed each other to join hands and conceiv e the future together;
organising a shared life for six nations, then nine, tw elv e or fifteen, then
thirty ; transcending the div ersity of cultures w ithout ev er seeking to eradicate
them; all of this so that one day one ethical homeland w ill be created out of
many .
Throughout history, ev ery time someone has spoken up to say that the
different nations of the planet should be reconciled, draw closer to each other,

jointly manage their shared liv ing space and think of their common future,
they hav e been called naiv e for preaching utopianism. The E uropean U nion,
in fact, offers us the example of a utopia in the process of being created. A s
such it constitutes a pioneering experiment, a plausible foretaste of w hat
humanity, hav ing achiev ed reconciliation, may be in the future and proof that
the most ambitious v isions are not necessarily naiv e.
That said, the E uropean endeav our is not w ithout its flaw s. E v ery one
inv olv ed in it sometimes expresses doubts. I feel some impatience w ith it
my self. I w ould like E urope to set an example of coexistence among both its
founding peoples and the immigrants it has taken in. I w ish it w ould focus
much more on its cultural dimension and manage its linguistic div ersity much
better. I w ish it w ould resist much more strongly the temptation to be a club
of rich w hite C hristian nations and dare to see itself as a model for the rest of
humanity. A nd on an institutional lev el I w ould like it to dare to build a single
democratic unit, the E uropean equiv alent of the U nited S tates of A merica, in
w hich states are endow ed w ith a greater cultural specificity and take pains to
defend and promote them, but w ith federal leaders w hose authority is
univ ersally recognised, elected on the same day throughout the w hole
continent. I am also w orried about examples of timidity I see and a certain
moral short-sightedness.
But these reserv ations do not in any w ay diminish my faith in the
exemplary v alue of the laboratory that the creation of E urope represents for
humanity at this crucial stage.
A fourth reason for hope occurred in the N ew World at the start of the
amazing y ear of 2008: the rise of Barack O bama, as a sy mbol and as a man;
the return of a forgotten A merica, that of A braham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson
and Benjamin F ranklin; in other w ords, the sudden reaw akening of a great
nation as a result of its economic crisis and military entanglements.
In response to the only other crisis of similar scale, w hich began in 1929,
F ranklin D. Roosev elt launched the N ew Deal, and it is indeed a new deal
w hich the U nited S tates and the w hole w orld need today. But it w ill hav e to
be broader still and much more ambitious than that of the 1930s. This time it
is not just a matter of relaunching the economy and restoring the importance
of certain social questions. It is a matter of rebuilding a new global reality,
new relations betw een nations and a new w ay of w orking for the planet
w hich w ill put an end to the disorder in strategy, finance, ethics and climate;
and in order for a superpow er to commit itself to such a task, it must first
recov er the legitimacy of its global role.
I hav e said before that a people recognises itself in leaders w ho espouse

its struggles. I w ould say the same thing applies at global lev el. F or the
w orlds nations to accept the primacy of one of their number, they hav e to be
persuaded that that legitimacy is being exercised to their adv antage and not at
their expense.
O f course, the U nited S tates w ill alw ay s hav e enemies, riv als and ev en
implacable foes w ho w ill fight it w ith all the greater determination if they see
the rest of the w orld rally w illingly around it. But the majority of people and
leaders in E urope, A frica, A sia and Latin A merica w ill judge it on its actions. If
it acts on the international stage w ith subtlety and fairness, if it forces itself to
consult other nations respectfully rather than handing dow n diktats, if it makes
it a point of honour to apply to itself first w hat it demands of others, if it
clearly distances itself from immoral practices w hich hav e too often sullied its
record throughout the w orld, and if it leads the global mobilisation against the
economic crisis, global w arming, epidemics, endemic disease, pov erty,
injustice and discrimination, then its role as first pow er w ill be accepted and
applauded. E v en the use of its military pow er w ill not prov oke the same
reactions of rejection, as long as it does not become a reflex action but
remains exceptional and abides by recognisable principles, and is not
accompanied w ith a string of bloody blunders.
M ore than ev er, the w orld needs A merica, but an A merica w hich is
reconciled w ith the w orld as w ell as w ith itself, an A merica w hich exercises its
global role w ith respect for its ow n v alues as w ell as others w ith integrity,
fairness and generosity . I w ould ev en add w ith elegance and grace.
We shall hav e to w ait many y ears for an adequate ev aluation of the true
impact of Barack H ussein O bama on the U nited S tates and the rest of the
w orld. H ow ev er, it seems to me that his presence in the White H ouse is not
unconnected w ith the dramatic changes w hich began in the A rab w orld in
2011. The fact that these huge protests hav e, for the first time in decades,
been dev oid of the least hostility to the U nited S tates is due at least in part to
the fact that the y oung president, his personality , A frican origins, middle name
and his subtle choice of the w ords he uses and av oids using, made the
traditional anti-A merican rhetoric that usually resounds in A rab streets
irrelev ant and ev en anachronistic. A nd it may be that it w as the
disappearance of this outdated alibi w hich led the people to attack their ow n
gov ernments, w hom they now saw as being truly responsible for their
debasement and the first obstacles to demolish on the path to renew al.
I hav e mentioned some factors that enable us to keep hope aliv e. But the
task to be accomplished is huge and cannot be entrusted to a single leader,
how ev er clear-sighted and persuasiv e he may be, nor to a single nation,

how ev er pow erful, nor to a single continent.

Because it is not simply a matter of putting in place a new economic and
financial model, a new sy stem of international relations, nor only a matter of
correcting some obv ious ty pes of disorder. It is rather an urgent matter of
conceiv ing an entirely new v ision of politics, the economy, w ork,
consumption, science, technology, progress, identity, culture, religion and
history, and implanting it in peoples minds; it needs to be an adult v ision of
w hat w e are, w hat others are, and the fate of the planet w hich w e all share.
In a nutshell, w e need to inv ent a conception of the w orld w hich is not just
the modern v ersion of our ancestral prejudices and w hich w ill allow us to
w ard off the decline that is on the horizon.
A ll of us w ho are liv ing through these strange early y ears of the tw enty first century hav e the duty and, more than any preceding generation, the
means to contribute to this rescue effort; w ith w isdom and lucidity, but also
w ith passion and sometimes ev en w ith anger.
Yes, w ith the burning anger of the righteous.

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A N ote on the A uthor

Amin Maalouf was born in Lebanon in 1949. A journalist and director of the daily
newspaper An-Nahar, he lived in Beirut until the start of the civil war in 1975,
when he left for Paris with his family. His life straddles East and West he
reads and writes in Arabic, but chooses to publish in French. He refuses to be
limited to one identity, either Arab or French, but chooses to be both
simultaneously. A novelist, essayist and memoirist, he has won prestigious
prizes, including the 1993 Prix Goncourt and the 2010 Asturias Prize, and was
nominated for the 2011 International Man Booker. His novels include Leo
Africanus, The Rock of Tanios, Samarkand and Balthasars Odyssey, which
together with The Crusades through Arab Eyes, On Identity and Origins: A
Memoir have been translated into more than forty languages. He lives in Paris.

A N o t e o n t h e Tra n s l a t o r
George Miller is the translator of No and Me and Underground Time by Delphine
de Vigan. He is also a regular translator for Le Monde diplomatiques Englishlanguage edition, and the translator of Conversations with My Gardener by Henri
Cueco and Inside Al-Qaeda by Mohammed Sifaoui.

B y the S a m e A uthor
F iction
Leo A fricanus
S amarkand
The F irst C entury after Beatrice
The Rock of Tanios
The G ardens of Light
P orts of C all
Balthasars O dy ssey
N on-fiction
The C rusades Through A rab E y es
O n Identity : V iolence and the N eed to Belong
O rigins: A M emoir

First published in Great Britain 2011

This electronic edition published in 2011 by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc
Copyright Editions Grasset & Fasquelle 2009
English translation copyright George Miller 2011
The Orchestra by William Carlos Williams, from The Collected Poems:
Volume II, 19391962, copyright 1948, 1962 by William Carlos Williams.
Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.
The moral right of the author has been asserted
All rights reserved
You may not copy, distribute, transmit, reproduce or otherwise
make available this publication (or any part of it) in any form, or by any means
(including without limitation electronic, digital, optical, mechanical, photocopying,
printing, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of the
publisher. Any person who does any unauthorised act in relation to this publication
may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages
Bloomsbury Publishing Plc
50 Bedford Square
Bloomsbury Publishing, London, Berlin, New York and Sydney
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
ISBN 9781408822678
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