A couple of weeks back I linked to a New York Review of Books article by Mark Lilla on France’s decline. He has now returned with a follow-up piece, “How the French Face Terror,” which is actually a review of four recent publications on the problem of Islam and terrorism in France. (For what it is worth, I also offered a few remarks on Lilla’s forthcoming book on political reaction here.) One of the books under review, Pierre Manent’s Situation de la France, comes under fire from Lilla for its apparent nostalgia and schadenfreude. Here are the relevant paragraphs:
Had Manent simply wanted to convince readers of the prudence of adaptation, France’s Situation would have been a powerful pamphlet. Unfortunately it is collated with what seems like a second tract focused on the past, a bitter rumination on the decline of France from a virile republic undergirded with Catholic moeurs into a depoliticized, individualistic secular society intent on disappearing into the formless morass of the European Union. Since Islam arose in a Europe that had psychologically “emptied itself of its old nations and religion,” according to Manent, Europeans assumed that Muslims would abandon their moeurs, too, and gratefully embrace the modern ideology of human rights.
Nothing of the kind took place because, in Manent’s view, Muslims understand something secular Europe doesn’t: strong moeurs binding a community trump abstract political principles held by unconnected individuals. (This was also the fundamental thesis of Houellebecq’s Submission.) Had France retained a sense of itself as a sovereign nation-state with a Christian moral legacy and common political purpose, assimilation might have been easier, paradoxically, since then Muslims would have been trading one sense of deep belonging for another. But in a vacuum it was inevitable that the side offering meaning, collective attachment, even global ambition would dominate. That is why “an islamicization by default is now the hidden truth of our condition.” The scent of schadenfreude wafts through these pages, as if Manent is straining not to say openly that contemporary Europe had it coming.
Manent has written some thoughtful books on the rise of modern individualism and the fate of Europe. But France’s Situation is a very moody and in the end incoherent book. On one page the author is the engaged spectator trying, as [Raymond] Aron did in his wise writings on the Algerian War, to offer a realistic assessment of the present crisis and a way forward. On the next, he falls into the reactionary rhetoric of cultural war, resistance, reanimation, and national reawakening. The reader comes away thinking that the problems of Muslim integration and jihadism are for Manent . . . mainly occasions for settling old scores.
Lilla, with his secular-liberal sensibilities, clearly wants nothing to do with Manent’s deep desire for the re-Christinaization of Europe (or at least France). No doubt Lilla would have some harsh words in store for Manent’s latest First Things article, “Repurposing Europe.” Consider Manent’s closing paragraphs:
The history of Europe, as I have emphasized, is animated by a very different notion, one elaborated by ancient Israel, reconfigured by Christianity, and then lost when the arc of European history was broken in the great wars of the twentieth century. This notion, without which the history of Europe is unintelligible, has become unintelligible to contemporary Europeans. I am speaking, of course, of the Covenant, the confidence that the Highest Good oversees and perfects the common good of our nations. This is not a simple rational notion, to be sure, but it is not exactly a religious dogma. It is a certain way of understanding human action in the world, of understanding at once the greatness of what we can accomplish and its precariousness. God is here the one who gives victory, but who also chastises lack of measure. He confers on actions an excess of good that makes them truly good, allowing us to venture collective ambitions that exceed a sober assessment of our powers. And he prevents the bad from taking the evil they bear to the limit, thereby saving us from despair in our times of collective trial.
It is up to Christians to renew the meaning and the credibility of the political community ennobled by the Covenant. We will not do this by inviting Islam to join a vague fraternity of the children of Abraham. We will renew the meaning and credibility of the Covenant only by renewing the meaning and credibility of the distinctively European association that bore the Covenant until only recently—that is, the nation. Now that the Jewish people have taken the form of a nation in Israel, the nations of Christian Europe cannot break with the national form without fatally wounding the legitimacy of Israel. So long as the walls of the Arab-Muslim world are crumbling and Muslims seem to have more and more difficulty producing a political form from their own resources, to admit them into, or rather to abandon them in, a Europe without either political form or gathered collective action for the sake of the common good would be to take away their best chance for a civic life. It does not suffice to bring men together to declare or even to guarantee their rights. They need a form of common life. In France, a nation of the Christian mark is the only form that can bring us all together.
Now, far be it for me to take an overly critical stand against either nostalgia or a fresh call to arms or re-evangalization. But I have to wonder if casting Christianity in utilitarian terms is the best strategy here. There are good reasons to doubt that Christian France (or majority-Christian France) could successfully create civic space for Muslims hell-bent on fulfilling their theologico-political destiny. Moreover, with the exception of limited humanitarian justifications, is there any reason for an authentically Christian polity to open its doors to Muslims in the first place? Error has no rights, as the old saying goes. As such, it seems neither prudent nor wise for a state oriented toward the common good to consciously release error (and the violence which often accompanies it) into its population. Manent seems blind to this truth (as blind as Lilla, in fact), which is one reason why his calls for re-Christianization cannot be equated with more robust calls for the restoration of Christendom. No doubt such calls would horrify Lilla as well — and rightly so.