Mark Lilla’s Tragic Trilogy on Islam and France

Mark Lilla has done little to endear himself to Christians, specifically Catholics, over the past decade, but that doesn’t mean he should be ignored. The Stillborn God, Lilla’s less-than-complete account of the role of religion and politics in modernity which largely failed to include Catholic thinkers, earned him some chastising words from George Weigel: “[W]riting any part of the history of the Western debate over religion and politics without a serious wrestling with Catholic sources is a bit like writing the history of baseball without mentioning the National League.” More recently, Lilla’s polemical review of Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation was unsurprisingly ill-received despite having a few insightful words to offer on meta-narratives of spiritual-intellectual decline. Lilla, for reasons which remain foggy, hasn’t done much in the academic sphere since transferring from Chicago to Columbia. Happily, however, that has left him with sufficient time to keep running reviews and commentaries in various publications, including The New York Review of Books which just published Lilla’s three-part series covering, inter alia, France, Islam, and the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Comprised of two book reviews and an independent reflection, Lilla’s “trilogy” deserves to be read in full, not because everything he says is spot-on, but because unlike most commentators on “things political and religious,” Lilla has a surprising, even enchanting, way of detaching himself from secular-liberal commitments even if, at the end of the day, he appears dedicated to holding on to them.

The first article, “France on Fire,” provides a sobering account of the clash between France’s Muslim population and the country’s brand of republicanism which, according to Lilla, is “a very special kind of democratic ideal” that “guarantees rights but also envisages a strong state to provide for the public welfare and control the economy, and is proudly national—and therefore hostile to outside influences like Catholicism, international communism, the United States, and now the global economy and Islamism.” France is now taking steps to re-instill republican values in its Muslim ghettos, though Lilla doesn’t believe those actions alone will have much of an effect on France’s growing population of young, radical Muslims. There is, on Lilla’s part, a rather vague suggestion that France could find more “political space” to address Muslim poverty and marginalization; it’s uncertain that it would help all that much. For Lilla is right that wider trends in the Islamic world will affect, in profound and powerful ways, how French Muslims view themselves and their relationship to the French republican state. Lilla doesn’t want to come across as pessimistic, but it’s hard not to read him that way.

And speaking of pessimism, the subject of Lilla’s second piece, Eric Zemmour’s controversial Le Suicide Francais, is shot through with it. Offering what Lilla amusingly refers to as a “Stations of the French Cross,” Zemmour’s

list of catastrophes and especially betrayals is long: birth control, abandonment of the gold standard, speech codes, the Common Market, no-fault divorce, poststructuralism, denationalizing important industries, abortion, the euro, Muslim and Jewish communitarianism, gender studies, surrendering to American power in NATO, surrendering to German power in the EU, surrendering to Muslim power in the schools, banning smoking in restaurants, abolishing conscription, aggressive antiracism, laws defending illegal immigrants, and the introduction of halal food in schools. The list of traitors is shorter but just as various: feminists, left-wing journalists and professors, neoliberal businessmen, antineoliberal activists, cowardly politicians, the educational establishment, European bureaucrats, and even coaches of professional soccer teams who have lost control of their players.

Needless to say, Lilla doesn’t have much patience for Zemmour, a man Lilla sees as “less a journalist or thinker than a medium through whom the political passions of the moment pass and take on form.” Lilla, rightly or not, brings against Zemmour much of the same dismissive criticism and eye-rolling he previously leveled against various figures of contemporary American political conservatism, only with a wee bit more respect. Zemmour has contributed immensely to a new ideology of the French right, one which combines a series of disparate players (including traditional Catholics) whose policy preferences are, in Lilla’s estimation, incompatible. That may be true for now, but as we have seen in the United States, political conservatives are often willing to sacrifice certain policy goals on matters like abortion and same-sex marriage in favor of others such as security and economic liberalism. A similar tradeoff is likely to occur in France, assuming its version of the right can find a way to coalesce. One has to wonder if their tradeoff will prove as equally short-sighted and disastrous as ours.

Lilla’s series terminates with “Slouching Toward Mecca,” a detailed review of Michael Houellebecq’s Soumission. Released the same day as the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Houllebecq’s dystopian novel lays forth the non-violent, socio-political Islamization of French through the eyes of a spiritually distraught academic protagonist. But the novel is about far more than that, or so says Lilla. Soumission, rather than being an artless piece of reactionary fiction, continues forth its author’s larger project of examining the crisis of French decline, one “that was set off two centuries ago when Europeans made a wager on history: that the more they extended human freedom, the happier they would be.” The byproducts of this lost wager include rampant feelings of hopelessness, an absence of personal and social direction, the loss of authenticity, and a swelling sense of dread that the worst is yet to come—and afterwards there will be nothing to show for it. At some point during its history, Americans made a similar wager, one that looked less risky at the time given the nation’s ostensible attachment to religious pluralism and freedom. Now that bet is starting to look as bad as the European version. Lilla might disagree with that conclusion, but based on this review and his other writings, it’s unclear why.

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4 comments

    1. Gosh. That’s a tough one, mostly because I don’t think Lilla did that great of a job with his Protestant and, to a lesser extent, Jewish sources in SG. Though I have more reservations about it today than I did when I first read it nearly 10 years ago, Heinrich Rommen’s The State in Catholic Thought is an excellent place to start. However, used copies go for over $100. To this day I have no idea why it has never been reprinted.

      I think an alternative history to the one Lilla provides, albeit with a lot more historical detail, is the one supplied by Michael Burleigh. His two-part opus, Earthly Powers and Sacred Causes, give a far fuller account of the role of religion and politics since the time of the French Revolution up to 9/11 than Lilla provides. However, to be fair to Lilla, he starts at the advent of modernity at the time of Hobbes, and so he works with earlier material than Burleigh does. Still, if you haven’t read Burleigh’s work, you really ought to.

  1. The thing about the United States, and I might be totally off and need to read more about the pre-declaration society, is that it seemed to always have been mostly religiously pluralistic. The North American colonies were always a place for the undesirables of their Empires of Origin to be placed or flee to. Jansenism in Quebec, The Puritans in New England, Ruffians and jews to New Spain. New England’s climate appears to have alwyas been a smattering of Unitarians, Quakers, Puritans and Episcopalians– a climate that makes for Liberal Social Ordo easilt.

    France, I think, has had such dramatic issues specifically because it was a totally non religious movement that spurred the Revolution.

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