This interview of Rémi Brague, professor emeritus at the Sorbonne and Romano Guardini Chair at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, was conducted by the magazine Valeurs actuelles in the wake of the ISIS murder of Fr. Jacques Hamel.

Valeurs actuelles

A few days after the attack in Nice, the prime minister, Manuel Valls, asserted that we had “changed epochs,” adding: “The terrorist threat is henceforth a central, lasting question.” Do you also think that we have entered into a new period?

Rémi Brague

I don’t like this apocalyptic tone very much. To be sure, it can serve to shake us, and hence to wake us. But it loses its value quickly if it is used constantly. And especially if acts do not follow words, which in that case will remain, as others have said, mere “verbal words.” If a change of epoch is upon us, it did not wait for Nice to occur.

Valeurs actuelles

After more than seventy years promoting peace, and a demilitarized society, the idea of “war” seems to have become foreign to us, even to frighten us. Do we have the means to rearm intellectually in order to conduct and win this war?

Rémi Brague

It is true that Europe in the narrow sense of the European Union has known an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity. War has been something for others, be they far off, as in Africa, or closer, for example, the horrors of the former Yugoslavia. In the first instance, rearmament ought to be material; however, in the past several decades we have cut back on military budgets. In the long term, though, it must above all be “intellectual,” as you put it so well. Even more than “moral,” as at the beginning of the Cold War. The great difficulty consists in understanding the enemy as he understands himself, without applying prefabricated frameworks. As always, the worst enemies of the intellect are the sophisticates who tell us: All that, it’s nothing more than economics, or geopolitics, or whatever.

Valeurs actuelles

Especially in reaction to the attack in the church at Saint Étienne du Rouvray, should we expect a lasting return of patriotism in our country?

Rémi Brague

I am currently in the countryside, and I left my crystal ball in Paris. In any event, I am not sure that it is the French homeland as such that is in danger. The new and interesting fact is that for the first time in Europe, after the failed attack in Villejuif,[1] and modeled on the decapitations of Christians, Coptic and other, by the Islamic State, it was Christianity that was attacked. And not only by the desecration of churches, which did not begin yesterday, but by a murder, pure and simple. Fr. Hamel was not killed because he was French, but because he was a Christian, and a priest. To find economic or political reasons for his assassination is rather difficult.

However, there could be, perhaps, a connection between this attack and the idea of the homeland, if one enlarged it to the ensemble of the West. If Christianity is aimed at, it is because the criminals somehow sense that it constitutes the very foundation of this civilization, at whose heart they wished to strike. What they perceive confusedly, we should try to think distinctly, and draw the consequences.

Valeurs actuelles

How can one explain the amplitude, grown so rapidly, of jihadist Islamism and its success in France?

Rémi Brague

First of all, one should take care not to reduce all of that to a single element. There are several current theories, all of which contain some part of the truth. There are social and urban factors such as marginalization and the construction of ghettos, psychological ones such as the sentiment of frustration, long-term political ones such as the after-effects of colonization, medium-term ones like the Israeli-Palestianian conflict , and short-term ones like Iraq, Syria, Libya, etc. Finally, there is Islam, which allows for the marshaling of everything, and to crown it with an ideology which justifies violence and exonerates, even sanctifies, the killers.

Valeurs actuelles

In your essay Le Propre de l’homme: Sur une légitimité menacée (Flammarion, 2013; forthcoming from St. Augustine Press as The Legitimation of the Human), you underscored the failure of modern thought to justify the existence of men. Atheism has failed. Has Islamism become for some the means of approaching transcendence?

Rémi Brague

My thesis on the failure of atheism over the long term was proposed as early as 2011 in Les Ancres dans le ciel (Seuil, 2011; forthcoming from St. Augustine Press as Anchors in the Sky) then in Modérément moderne (Flammarion, 2014; forthcoming from St. Augustine Press as Moderately Modern), and finally, Le Règne de l’homme (Gallimard, 2015). However, to be fair, one should begin by saying that a healthy methodological agnosticism has two undeniable successes to its credit, one theoretical, the other practical. On one hand, a description of the world such as modern science’s does not need to have recourse to the God-“hypothesis”; on the other, it can claim credit for a modern State that founds the legitimacy of its norms without invoking God and thus aims to be “secular.” Conversely, though, the project of the auto-foundation of man is incapable of providing good reasons for the very existence of the human race.

Islam, and not only the radical form called “Islamism,” certainly proposes a form of transcendence. But is it a transcendence that respects what makes man human, i.e., reason and freedom? As for myself, a thousand years after the defeat of the Mutazilites [an early “rationalizing” school of theology in Islam, originating in the eighth century, famous for endeavoring to reconcile reason and faith], I doubt it. But that’s another story.

Valeurs actuelles

Today, what identity does France propose to her children?

Rémi Brague

Almost none, and that’s the problem. “Republican values”? I wonder if even those who regurgitate the phrase believe it anymore. The nation’s story—to be distinguished from the national legend, which is largely fictive—would allow for integration in a common history, one open to the future. But is it still told?

Valeurs actuelles

How can one reconstruct it? According to you, on what institutions should we lean? The public school, the family, the army … ?

Rémi Brague

I sometimes have the impression that the army is one of the rare institutions that has remained pretty much intact. And for an objective reason: to make a career in the army is at once dangerous and not very lucrative. If one joins, it’s not to maximize one’s IRA. The family? Public school? Yes, to be sure, but still the State—in this it is the accomplice of the Market—must stop trying to destroy them. The State does so in order to obtain isolated citizens it can directly control, the market to have docile consumers, hopefully cretinized. I wonder if the imperceptible and gradual collapse of the public school (and let me say in passing that I, along with the majority of my family, was once its servant and, before that, its beneficiary) would not be over the long term a more serious matter than these episodic albeit spectacular events.

Apropos of the family, I will allow myself to note that “sexual equality” laws are a good way of shooting oneself in the foot with a large caliber bullet. Many immigrants from Islamic countries accommodate themselves well enough to living in non-Muslim countries, in which a certain basic morality is observed that renders them at least respectable. But “gay marriage” is a weighty argument in Islamist propaganda to convince moderates of the irredeemably decadent character of our societies, and to move undecideds to side with the proponents of sharia.

Valeurs actuelles

The idea of a concordat with Islam has been proposed by politicians the past several weeks. To what extent is it relevant, knowing that Islam lacks a hierarchical organization?

Rémi Brague

“Concordat” is a legal term with a very precise meaning. I would prefer vaguer words, such as “deal,” “accord,” etc. I see three difficulties with the idea of a true concordat. First, the one you indicated: A contract presupposes two well defined partners. The Concordat of 1801 was concluded between Bonaparte and a Catholic church that had acknowledged representatives. This is not the case, and cannot be, for Islam. The second difficulty is that one would wonder, why reserve the advantages of a concordat to Islam alone? Why not, then, generalize the exception of Alsace-Lorraine to the entirety of the Catholic church? In that case, bye-bye 1905! [1905 is the date of the law which established France as a “lay” or secular State.] The third is that Islam has a long tradition, one that goes back to Mohammed, of concluding truces with “unbelievers” that it breaks when they cease to be in its interest. In my opinion, therefore, it is not a good idea.

This interview was translated from the French by Paul Seaton, assistant professor of philosophy at St. Mary's Seminary and University in Baltimore, MD.

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[1] A foiled attack by an Algerian jihadist against two churches in Villejuif, a commune in the southern suburbs of Paris, in April 2015. The would-be terrorist murdered a thirty-two year old woman.

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