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March 6, 2021

European humanism

Two images persist in the Euro-Atlantic awareness. The first one is the shocking execution of prisoners (Western or local) by the executioners of the ‘caliphate’. Heads cut off as one can only see in slaughterhouses, some impaled, mass summary executions, deaths programmatically accompanied by humiliation. The second image is the humiliating treatment of Ukrainian prisoners (or sympathisers) by the pro-Russia rebels.
Among other things, a woman was exposed to flout and ‘public’ beating, and received blows even from other women. Which resembles similar scenes occurring twenty years ago in Transdniester, the making of other philorussian rebels. Before taking place geopolitical conflicts, relations with Russia and the Islamist ‘caliphate’ tell about a competition of civilisations. Samuel Huntington’s view is, in fact, not at all as far-fetched as his detractors insinuated, but what has to be nuanced is the interest of the concept of civilisation.

The new ‘civilisations’ are more fluctuating, more heterogeneous and even more improvised realities. Their reference is a combination of claimed conservationism and hyper-modern practices, of old secular tradition and marginal trends, of religion and ideology. Let’s take the Russian case. Imperial nostalgia, authoritarianism, temptation of the unique party, a very special form of ‘state-directed’ capitalism, a political-religious mechanism – Russia as the saviour of old Christian values – , the privileged condition of Orthodoxy, sovereign democracy. At a political stage, all this translates to unscrupulous astuteness and bloody conceit. The ideologically claimed ‘humanism’ vanishes without a trace when it comes to resolving a conflict. The Russians’ last ‘hot’ conflicts – in Afghanistan and Chechnya -, because of their daily realities impregnated with atrocity, were also a school of dehumanisation. One doubled, domestically, by the drifting of a criminality of the society that escaped all controls for far too long, and eventually only contained at the price of the hypertrophy of state authority. Meanwhile, the cultivation of a rhetoric of ‘national’ virtues of the Russian culture covered eventual issues of conscience. And this is how we ended up with the threatening Russia of today. In the case of the ‘caliphate’, contemporary Islam’s identity crises gave the perfect conditions for political derailment, for religion has always been the most perfidious exoneration of crime. Killing in the name of God not only permits a slight legitimacy, but also blows a redoubtable enthusiasm. Naturally, religion alone can only explain a criminal range in part. Poverty, the frustrations of economic retardation, the inadequacy to the democracy of the Western type, the inability of a lay culture to put out Islamic extremism – they all bring their respective contribution to the chronic weakness of those societies. Most certainly, the Western policies concerning them do not lack bad strategies doomed to fail. However, beyond all this, we should stick to the ‘essential’. In his last novel that was never finished – ‘The First Man’ – , Albert Camus speaks exactly of this ‘essential’: there are things a man should not do if he wants to continue to be a man: the murderous atrocities in the name of a war of theories. Theory as a weapon of war is not foreign to Europeans, but on the contrary. The Yugoslav wars are the most recent example.
But, in the European culture and public of the last centuries there has been a progressive departure from its legitimisation, to be avoided as much as possible and, if ever used, to be morally condemned and legally punished. It’s true that, as Helmuth Plessner was noting a century ago, this ideological ‘pacification’ was doubled by a ‘savagery’ of military practice. Realism and acceptance of the exercise of legitimate violence are needed. However, the deep contempt of the human being that we can see in the war behaviours mentioned before suggests a different type of ‘civilisations’, that are far from the European meaning of humanism. That humanism needs defending.

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