For centuries, the dignity of mankind was evaluated by the disinterested quest for truth, the creation of beauty and the realisation of excellence. Yet, as humanity lurches back towards fanaticism and barbarity, we would do well to remember that we are all children of share values, either Biblical, Islamic, Christian or Buddhist, African or American which have shaped our traditions and modernities. And yet, today, in the second decade of the 21st century, we are caught in a spiderweb of meaninglessness and thoughtlessness, which has crossed the threshold of our democracies. So the question to ask is: in a world where the only values are money and celebrity, can such a society continue to survive and function and produce meaningful citizens?
It may be that the future of the democratic societies, if there is one, will depend less on financial banking and the pursuit of hedonistic individualism. Unfortunately, the universality of the internet has not promoted the universality of critical reasoning and Descartes was certainly wrong to think that “Good sense is the most evenly shared thing in the world”. For it is not enough to have a mind, one should know how to apply it. From Charlottesville to Barcelona, passing through Peshawar and Boko Haram, ethnic hatreds, chauvinistic nationalism and communal claims have become world’s nightmares. This vision is hardly one to rouse the human soul. Undoubtedly, it has diminished the empathic possibilities of humanity.
The tragic fragility of the human condition is now hostage of a new phenomenon, which is the nihilistic pursuit of death by the young militants of ISIS. From the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris to the recent attack in Barcelona, nearly all ISIS militants blew themselves up or got themselves killed by the police, without really trying to escape and without really caring who the victims were. The rule, at every tragic incident, has been to destroy human lives and diverse cultures, and to die. As a British convert to ISIS once said, “When we descend on the streets of London, Paris and Washington, the taste will be far bitterer, because not only will we spill your blood, but we will also demolish your statues, erase your history and, most painfully, convert your children who will then go on to champion our name and curse their forefathers.”
The connection between death and culture is not purely tactical, but more structural. The young radicalised militants of ISIS are the nihilistic products of a death of culture in our contemporary societies. Their approach to Islam is a process of fundamentalist rigidification due to the de-culturation of religion. As a result, their religious observance and fundamentalist intervention in the social network of our contemporary world is accompanied by a deep alienation toward the concepts of ‘culture’ and ‘civilisation’ to a point that has become the avant garde of a decivilising process. From that standpoint, ISIS’s social imaginary is the pursuit of death (death of oneself and death of modern civilisation) as the shortest route to an apocalyptic victory. As such, all foreign volunteers who go to Syria are chosen primarily for apocalyptic suicide attacks. But they are also handpicked in the European prisons and in the ghettos, because they are the social and cultural pariahs of Western liberal societies. For them, there is no such thing as an ‘idea of Europe’. In his majestic essay on the ‘Idea of Europe’, George Steiner enumerates five axioms that define Europe: “the coffee house; the landscape on a traversable and human scale; these streets and squares named after the statesmen, scientists, artists, writers of the past; our twofold descent from Athens and Jerusalem; and, lastly, that apprehension of a closing chapter, of that famous Hegelian sunset, which shadowed the idea and substance of Europe even in their noon hours.” In attacking the editorial board of Charlie Hebdo, the ISIS militants were confronting the very idea of freedom of opinion, a legacy of Athens and Jerusalem.
The Paris massacres of November 2015 were directed against modern public spheres and cafes, where spirits meet and exchange ideas. As Steiner puts it deliciously, “The café is a place for assignation and conspiracy, for intellectual debate and gossip, for the flâneur and the poet or metaphysician at his notebook. It is open to all, yet it is also a club, a freemasonry of political or artistic-literary recognition and programmatic presence. A cup of coffee, a glass of wine, a tea with rum secures a locale in which to work, to dream, to play chess or simply keep warm the whole day.”
And finally, the Barcelona terror attack took place at Las Ramblas, a street for pedestrians, a symbol of walking Europe. “Europe has been, is walked,” Steiner reminds us. “This is capital. The cartography of Europe arises from the capacities, the perceived horizons of human feet. European men and women have walked their maps, from hamlet to hamlet, from village to village, from city to city. More often than not, distances are on a human scale, they can be mastered by the traveller on foot, by the pilgrim to Compostela, by the promeneur, be he solitaire or gregarious.” So, why Barcelona?
Barcelona is said to be the arm and brain of Spain, while Seville is its heart. But one can say that Barcelona is also a humanly tempered city where there is an intellectual commitment to art and culture. When one walks down the streets of Barcelona, one really does walk in the footsteps of giants like Salvador Dali, Joan Miro, Antoni Gaudi, Isaac Albeniz and many others. This is a city where there has been a permanent process of learning through listening. As a matter of fact, listening to the pulse of a European city like Barcelona is learning from it and learning is also a way of making sense of life. What we learn from learning is that there are no certain answers in life. Life is nothing but a series of questions. And questions are realities that don’t exist for ISIS militants. For them, unlike Socrates, only an “unexamined life” is worth living.