of a multimillionaire, France's 'most media-savvy
public intellectual,' Bernard Henry Lévy
was born in Algeria in 1948. 'I come from a family
that played a very high price for its anti-fascism.'
His family took him to Paris before his first birthday,
where he eventually graduated with a degree in philosophy
from the prestigious Ecole Normale Supérieure.
Numbered amongst his professors there were Jacques
Derrida who formulated the theory of deconstructionism
and Louis Althusser who pioneered a structural Marxism.
Universally known in France by the abbreviation
BHL he began professional life as a journalist working
on Combat, a paper founded by Albert Camus
as an act of resistance to the Nazi occupation of
France. For a short time BHL found himself adulated
as the new Camus.
Paris, in the wake of the 1968 student revolt, he
founded the New Philosophers school. It was a major
challenge to the thinking of the existentialist
Jean Paul Sartre and the grip his ideas had on French
intellectual and radical life. Sartre in what seemed
an act of impetuous angst accused him of being a
CIA agent. Although BHL would later claim to be
'enough of a Marxist to understand the nuances,
even the quarrels, and sometimes the deadly fights'
among the different forms of Communism, the New
Philosophers subjected Marxism to some critical
1977 he published Barbarism with a Human Face
- a blistering critique of Marxism on the grounds
that it was incorrigibly corrupt. In spite of this
he continues to claim he is a child of 1968. 'It
was about the spirit of freedom, the taste of revolt,
the refusal of all authority. I am still for all
of this. I am a human rights activist in fidelity
to 1968.' Nor does he harbour any regrets for the
Maoist phase he went through. 'I might not be the
radical anti-totalitarian I am today if I had not
gone through that.'
Jewish origin Bernard-Henri Lévy views Judaeism
as the brother of the enlightenment. 'The best wall
against religion is Jewish thought itself.' While
he accepts that Jewish origins shapes his firm support
for Israel, it is only part of the story: 'most
of it is just because I am a democrat. I think that
the building of Israel has been democratic: social
contract, Rousseauism, the general will, people
coming from everywhere across the world and deciding
to form a nation for themselves.'
he is not dismissive of Palestinian claims to their
land and believes in a two state solution.
have a right to a state that is the equal of a state
for the Jewish people
The mistake of the first
Zionists was to believe that there was a land without
people for a people without land. There were people
there, Palestinians, and they deserve a state.
the BBC called him 'one of the foremost living philosophers
in the Western world' he is often dismissed as 'the
archetypal pretentious Left Bank intellectual.'
And it is frequently said that his 'reputation for
narcissism' is the stuff of legend. Johann Hari
describes him as 'not a man afraid of blowing his
own trumpet; in fact, it is permanently affixed
to his lips so that he can blow it every other sentence.'
Hari points to a BHL idiosyncrasy which typifies
his narcissism: 'what writer can deny that the reason
he writes is to seduce women?' If he has failed
in his mission as a Casanova it is not for the want
of trying, having authored as many as 30 books.
In spite of this prodigious output his work sometimes
faces the accusation that is suffers from too many
the French assign to their philosophers a celebrity
status in contrast to the British view of them as
somewhat eccentric was captured in a further observation
by Hari. 'More than 300 paparazzi staked out BHL's
last wedding. I doubt Roger Scruton's next marriage
would be featured in Heat magazine.'
himself as being anti 'anti-American,' has helped
ignite the incandescence of some critics who have
frequently labelled him an advocate for Bush and
the neoconservatives. He denies this, pointing out
that he is severely critical of George Bush whom
he terms a serial killer for having executed 152
people while governor of Texas. On foreign policy
issues he portrays depicts Bush as a child 'frightened
by the world and trying to frighten it back.' The
neoconservatives while much less infantile are nevertheless
unconditional rallying with Bush's crusade for moral
values, their adhesion to the creationist creed
and the death penalty, their ambiguities on abortion
rights, their repugnant campaigns about Clinton's
private life, their taste for moral order, etc.
etc. In short, they are not my friends.
opposed the US led war in Iraq. 'Saddam Hussein
was a dictator
overthrowing a dictator is
always good, but are we sure he was the right target?
He was a dictator in his autumn
was an exhausted dictatorship
I think it
was a great error.' He feels the war has increased
the number of terrorists in the area. But he does
not hold to the popular view on the Left that Chalabi
is a U.S.-backed dictator 'whom they tried hard
to impose in office by gunfire.'
has a more nuanced view of the war than many.
matter what one thinks of this idiotic war, no matter
what conviction one has
of its uselessness
and its perverse effects, it is just not honest
to deny the positive effects it has also had; for
example, the freedom of the press, the end of the
dictatorship, free elections, and the fact that
an increasing number of Iraqis are starting to enter
this democratic culture
the West is now heavily involved in Iraq his position
is one of: 'I think about just the average Iraqi
people, just the raped women, the orphans, children,
the poor men ruined in this country. And we have
now to finish the work.' While not disputing the
right wing agenda of the dynamic behind the war
he argues for a realpolitik confrontation with some
harsh realities and a hard nosed approach to difficult
this right wing and the right wing of old times
- between people who, even awkwardly, even by committing
mistakes or crimes, think that America's role is
to work for world-wide democracy and those who,
like Henry Kissinger in his time, considered that
its role was to support and reinforce all the dictatorships
of the planet - I prefer the former; I prefer the
America that defends the heirs of Ahmed Shah Massoud
rather than the one that put Augusto Pinochet in
he wishes to see America experience what Europe
experienced 30 years ago:
emergence of a left wing, a true left wing, which,
without giving up being the left, without giving
up any of its moral heritage or positions on the
so-called social issues, would become truly anti-totalitarian.
objection to the military conquest of Iraq was based
on the inappropriateness of war to tackle the fading
dictatorship of Saddam. In Pakistan, by contrast,
the dictatorship was blooming and there was no Western
attempt to crush it. Describing Pakistan as the
core of terrorism, he was scathing in his criticism
of the Bush administration's courting of the Musharaff
government. Dismissing the notion that the West
has no choice in such matters he counters:
made the bad choice since 20 years. We chose the
radical against the moderate
we chose the
Taliban against Massoud. We chose Saudi Arabia against
the democrats of the Arab world. We chose that because
we wanted peace. Because we thought that we had
to make alliance with the most powerful. Because
we thought that our main enemy was the Soviet Union.
challenging the reactionary stance taken by many
opponents of the publication of the Danish cartoons
affirmation of the press's right to the expression
of idiocies of its choosing - rather than the acts
of repentance that too many leaders have resorted
to, and which merely encourages in the Arab street
the false and counterproductive illusion that a
democratic state may exert power over its press.
the want of something better he has coined the term
'fascislamism' which he regards as a 'formidable
hate-and-death machine' that justifies major abuse
as, for example, 'when an Algerian fundamentalist
emir disembowels, while reciting the Quran, an Algerian
woman whose only crime was to have dared show her
beautiful face.' Unlike some of his co signatories
to the Manifesto Against Totalitarianism he does
not see Islam per se as the problem. He rejects
the Samuel Huntingdon thesis of a 'war between civilizations.'
There is certainly a cleavage but it is 'between
democrats and fundamentalists.' The only war of
civilizations 'that holds here, in this political
division, exclusively political, between these two
versions of Islam' something he believes is the
most important clash of civilizations in our time.
'The sole clash of civilization is inside Islam,
inside the Islamic world between the moderate Islam
and the radical Islam.'
He rejects the notion expressed by one critic that
the problem of Islamism is one of 'complicated mixture
of theocracy and limited democracy.' He defines
it in more stark terms of 'totalitarian dictatorship.'
He stresses that the fight of his life since the
fall of the Berlin Wall has been in defence of modern
Islam against the Islamists.
fought and campaigned for intervention in Bosnia,
because the Muslims of Bosnia are the embodiment
of the Islam of Enlightenment, and they were being
slaughtered. I campaigned for France to support
the great Ahmed Shah Massoud
of moderate Islam. And I have supported the Chechen
resistance, which contains many people who are the
embodiment of moderate Islam
are alone these days, and in their solitude they
more than ever need to be acknowledged and hailed..
.For me, to stand by the side of moderate Muslims
today is as important as to stand beside the dissidents
of the Soviet Union. This is the fight of our day.
the communist world where there were very few dissidents
there are many in the Islamic world: 'you have a
really big minority - and sometimes a majority -
of women and men who know that Islamism is their
Of course, the 3,000 people killed
on September 11 was terrible, but the main victims
of Islamism are Muslims themselves.'
is critical of sections of the French Left who think
'Islamic fundamentalism is a legitimate expression
of the revolt of the poor, of the disillusioned
they think that Islamism can be embraced
and put in the service of the left. This is a terrible
international matters he argues in favour of a 'duty
to intervene.' He defends the decision to intervene
in Bosnia. 'I regret, more than ever, that we did
not support Massoud in Afghanistan. I estimated,
and I still estimate, that we had, in Rwanda, the
duty to intervene.' To feed his penchant for intervening
French president Jacques Chirac chose BHL to be
his personal ambassador to Afghanistan in the wake
of 9/11. He firmly believes that tackling the Taliban
was the correct thing to do. He sums up his interventionist
still believe today, right now even as we speak,
that we are guilty of not giving assistance to people
in danger in these areas about which I know quite
a lot, namely Sudan and the Nuba Mountains
I continue to dream of an ambitious foreign policy
that would help the simple men and women martyrized
by their states in cases such as that of Iran or
even, a few years ago, Iraq. And perhaps, in essence,
it is the great reproach that I feel like making
against the neoconservatives: that, with their bad
war, their bad policies, their absurd democratic
messianism, their errors of perspective and judgment,
they have compromised, wasted, and perhaps even
discredited this magnificent and necessary duty
to intervene - and have caused us, from this point
of view, to take a gigantic step backward.
are many on the Left who hate Bernard Henry Lévy.
Some for genuine political reasons and others because
hate is their forte. But until they can find something
better than the likes of John Rees to challenge
his views - pitching the two together could be billed
as the intellectual against the ineffectual - the
message that he incessantly hammers out will reach
millions. The Left will proselytise only to those
falling out of pubs, too thoroughly intoxicated
to understand that being persuaded to part with
50p in exchange for a paper was their worst transaction
of the evening.
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