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The dream of an apocalypticist

Timothy Garton Ash has just been taken to task by John Gray for distancing himself from the term "Enlightenment fundamentalism". Perlentaucher's Thierry Chervel is baffled by Gray's twisted pessimism.

Timothy Garton Ash does something in his latest book that intellectuals of his calibre seldom do: he retracts a term. In an article in the New York Review of Books he had casually dropped the term "Enlightenment fundamentalist" to describe the Dutch women's rights activist, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who now lives in the USA. It constructed a symmetry between Islamism and a particular strain of the western thinking and in doing so kicked off a debate which raged at, with intellectuals such as Pascal Bruckner and Necla Kelek entering the fray. The debate then rumbled on in the international press. Now in a footnote to the aforementioned article in a new collection of essays, "Facts are Subversive", Garton Ash distances himself from this term (without mentioning where the debate took place and who else was involved.)

No sooner had TGA made his move than up stood John Gray, the dark prince of new British philosophy, and took him to task for backing off: "If Garton Ash is reluctant to talk of Enlightenment fundamentalism, this may be in part because it suggests that we are at risk of drifting into an intractable conflict. Yet clearly the danger of clashing fundamentalisms is real", Gray writes in his review of the book in The New Statesman.

Why is Gray saying this, one wonders as a thinking, blogging citizen? What interest does he have in this supposed symmetry of fundamentalisms which TGA has just declared obsolete? Gray obviously needs it to uphold his pessimistic worldview. The conflict, as the London School of Economics professor emphasises twice in his brief article, is unsolvable, and yet pales in comparison with the real challenges of climate change and strained natural resources. Like a vacuum cleaner salesman – he always has a replacement model at the ready.

So we must again ask: Is there such thing as Enlightenment fundamentalism, a mirror image of Islamic fundamentalism? Is there a danger that these fundamentalisms will drive one another into a spiral of violence until a clash of cultures ensues?

Gray essentially turns the debate, which he obviously only knows from TGA's description, back to zero. "Much of the state terror in the past century was secular, not religious," he comments. "Lenin and Mao were avowed disciples of an Enlightenment ideology." This was precisely the objection that Garton Ash's antipode in the "Islam in Europe" debate, Pascal Bruckner, made – only to reject it: "More people were killed in opposition to God in the 20th century than in the name of God. No matter that first Nazism and then Communism were defeated by democratic regimes inspired by the Enlightenment, human rights, tolerance and pluralism."

You could go a step further than Bruckner and ask whether Lenin and Mao really did draw on "Enlightenment ideology". What they actually drew upon, albeit in a drastically coarsened version, was Marx. Is it enough to declare your own explanation of the world scientific, in order to pass as an advocate of Enlightenment? Even Marx himself, a man who claimed to know the magic formula for the future of the world – would not pass as an advocate of the Enlightenment by today's standards. He was prophetic in one thing: he called communism a spectre.

But if real existing socialism was a fundamentalism, it certainly wasn't Enlightenment fundamentalism. It practised dogmatic exegesis like religious fundamentalism. It just used a different book. Fundamentalisms try to model reality according to a truth pronounced in a text. Anything that doesn't fit the model is lopped off. They promise a return to original purity, redemption from the corruption of alienating market developments, proximity to God, care in the community instead of the sad, isolated recognition of one's own mortality. No responsibility is accepted for collateral damage on the path back to this blessed state. Some want to reach it through terrorism, others content themselves with isolating a particular community and directing the terror inwards.

There is nothing in the reaction of Western societies to Islam or Islamism which bears any resemblance to such discourse or behaviour. There is intolerance, certainly, and indifference, racism, discrimination and a whole repertoire of grievances which not only Muslims are forced to endure every day. These cannot be called enlightened.

How is it possible to equate the Enlightenment with fundamentalism? Its principles are aimed precisely against the belief in fundamentals. It is only by "thinking for oneself" that one emerges from self-imposed immaturity. By thinking for oneself one frees oneself of dogmas and seemingly eternal truths which are imposed by the clergy. Thinking for oneself also means thinking about oneself, self-reflection, self-relativisation in relation to others. This is why the motto of the Enlightenment is often paradoxical: "Freedom is the freedom of dissenters." The Enlightenment does not believe in any automatism on this path to self-awareness. That would make it a progressive philosophy which turns people into marionettes of some externally-steered process.

In his obituary to the Leszek Kolakowski, Wolf Lepenies cites the Polish philosopher: 'In the doubt which Europe entertains about itself, European culture can find its spiritual equilibrium and the justification for its claims to universality.' The ideas of the Enlightenment are therefore not meant as "Western values" that stand in opposition to Islam. For a start they presuppose a distance from one's own religions and traditions. Paradoxically, the democracy that was born out of the Enlightenment became the only regime which allows a coexistence of religions. Of course the Enlightenment throws doubt on beliefs of every kind, but it also allows them as a freedom of the dissenter. Belief becomes a personal avowal, quite separate from tradition or priestly compulsion. It is the freedom to lapse that makes belief real.

This freedom to practise religion – rather than "Enlightenment fundamentalism" – is what really attracts the hatred of the fundamentalists. They are not interested in religion but in the control of the individual. In the case of Islamism, the most powerful symbol of this will to power is the headscarf. Of course women are free to submit, as long as they do so of their own volition.

Timothy Garton Ash has published a 400-page book full of ideas, reflections and stories. But John Gray is clinging to a ten-line footnote in order to reinstate a pointless term. Calling the Enlightenment fundamentalist is the dream of an apocalypticist who is waiting for the clash of cultures to happen.

No sir, I'm not buying your vacuum cleaner.


This article first appeared in German on

Thierry Chervel is the editor-in-chief of perlentaucher and

Translation: lp - let's talk european