The Fear of Barbarians

Michael King sees flaws in this rhetorical critique of the West's moral response to Islamist terrorism

November 11, 2010

Barbarians, for philosopher Tzvetan Todorov, are those who do not acknowledge that others are human beings like themselves. "A civilised person," by contrast, "is one who is able...to recognise the humanity of others fully". He sees this distinction as central to the ongoing debate over what the West's moral response should be to the threat to "civilisation" from acts of terrorism perpetrated in the name of Islam. Yet Todorov also views anti-Islamic sentiments and Islamophobia as irrational and unjustifiable; they clash directly with and challenge the civilised values of tolerance and empathy.

He sees barbarity and civilisation as two moral categories on the same axis that allow us to evaluate particular human acts, and not just those of Muslim extremists and fundamentalists.

This leaves him free to apply to the actions, statements and policies of Western governments the same labels of barbarism and extremism which the political Right, and defenders of what Todorov calls "the High European tradition", have been so keen to attach to anything relating to the Muslim world.

True, each side depicts the other in stark, Manichaeistic terms, but the West should know better than to descend to an arrogant dismissal of Muslim (and, in particular, Arab) culture, beliefs and lifestyles, or regard them with supercilious amusement - witness the cartoons in the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten.

In doing so, it turns its back on the Enlightenment and abandons the very values that allowed it to reach such heights of civilisation.

The message that emerges from Todorov's selective itinerary through historical epochs and intellectual disciplines - suppressing our irrational individual and collective fears of Islamic "barbarism" and returning to the genuine (and not hijacked) principles of the European Enlightenment for instruction on how to relate to "the other" - is disarmingly attractive. It is also disarmingly simple.

Unfortunately, the only way he is able to draw such a morally impeccable conclusion from such a mishmash of ideas is by leaving the fundamental concepts of his theory unacceptably vague. Most worrying is that, despite several attempts to define his key notions of "culture" and "identity", they remain elusive and tend to change their meaning whenever they appear in the book, which is on almost every page.

Todorov is clearly a gifted communicator, and displays a writing style that allows him to make his points with considerable charm and humour, even in translation. He also has a wicked sense of irony, wryly making fun of the US government's use of torture as part of a moral crusade for the dissemination of human rights.

Unfortunately, intellectual gymnastics combined with eloquent and entertaining prose are, in the end, no substitute for the hard graft of research and for a theory that offers both the depth and width of vision that is needed if we are to make any sense of the highly complex interfaces between religion and politics in all their forms and guises.

Moreover, if you strip away the rhetoric, Todorov offers little here that is original. More than 50 years ago, Frantz Fanon was writing powerfully about the divisive and destructive effects of nationalism on individual identities and arguing for the benefits of universalism. As for Todorov's strategy of resorting to Enlightenment rationalism to tackle both Muslim fundamentalism and the Right-wing backlash against Islam, I would agree with the late Ernest Gellner that using Enlightenment principles as a practical faith to guide policy becomes, alas, too abstract to be intelligible to anyone but intellectuals with a penchant for this kind of theorising.

The Fear of Barbarians

By Tzvetan Todorov

Translated by Andrew Brown

Polity, 200pp, £50.00 and £15.99

ISBN 9780745647098 and 47104

Published 16 July 2010

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