Europa burde fremfor noen vite hva religiøs fanatisme kan føre til. Det er nok å tenke på Bartolomeus-natten. Men av en eller annen grunn velger Europa å glemme hvilken kraft religion kan være. Europeerne er på ferie fra historien, sier Israels ambassadør i Paris.

Elie Barnavi har skrevet et essay som har vakt oppsikt. Han sier europeerne er de som burde ha best forutsetninger for å forstå den nye fundamentalismen. Det er også Europa som sitter med nøkkelen til å bekjempe den. Vi greide å skille samfunn og religion, bare for å vakle når nye utfordringer dukker opp.

Europeans should understand religious fundamentalism. After all, they invented it. That is the provocative argument of Elie Barnavi, an Israeli academic and former ambassador to France, in a fascinating essay that has prompted much debate in Paris.

Barnavi, a historian of Europe’s religious wars, says the extremist Catholic League that emerged in 16th-century France can be seen as the prototype of many fundamentalist religious groups, stretching up to Hizbollah (the Party of God) today. Ruthless by instinct and totalitarian by nature, such groups have shared many mental structures and pathologies wherever and whenever they have surfaced.

The trouble is that secularised Europeans have forgotten their own history and remain oblivious to the dangers of religious fanaticism. In their holiday from history, they do not understand that they are at war.

As Barnavi sees it, religions are about many different things. But one thing they have in common is that they are about power. Religion has been used as a means of legitimising established power (think of the Queen of England, the supreme head of the Anglican Church). But it has also been used as a revolutionary creed to overthrow established power.

That is the threat posed by Islamic fundamentalists today. The reason this threat is so acute is that religions, like so much else, have become globalised. There are now 20m Muslims in Europe, which makes Islam Europe’s second biggest faith.

However, Islam is inherently no more violent than any other monotheistic religion that believes in received truth, the author argues. All such religions, he writes, carry violence within them like stormclouds. The Christians had their religious fundamentalists during the wars of religion. Judaism has had its own «madmen of God», such as Ygal Amir, assassin of the Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. Even Zen Buddhist monks fought in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05, employing the battle cry: «To die is a blessing; kill them all.»

Barnavi therefore rejects the notion of a mechanistic clash of civilisations, popularised by Samuel P. Huntington. In reality, there exists only one conflict: between civilisation and barbarity. Today’s war is a clash within civilisations. Supporters of civilisation in all cultures and religions must join forces to combat the malignant cadre of fundamentalists that is abusing Islam. «The question is not what is said in the Koran, but what one chooses to read in the Koran,» he notes.

The US administration has understood the nature of the threat and has been right to pursue the war against Islamist fundamentalism by all means possible, he says. But while swatting the fanatical mosquitoes wherever they are to be found, it has failed to drain the swamps in which they breed.

«The least that one can say about the ‘war against terrorism’ declared by President Bush after September 11 is that it is not a clear success. The man correctly identified the problem; but, carried away by brilliant ideologues, he has wrecked the solution. To go to war against the Taliban was correct; but to fail to ensure that victory was followed by the establishment of real military and civil order in the country was stupid.»

Paradoxically, Barnavi argues that, even though Europe does not understand it is at war, it may be well placed to win it. The separation of church and state in Europe, which stemmed from the clash of spiritual and secular authority, provides the best means to counter religious fundamentalism. He urges the west to overcome its post-colonial guilt and have faith in its own civilisation, defend its secular Enlightenment values and ensure that its schools once again become the crucibles of a common identity.

But he draws distinctions between European countries. He agrees with the increasingly common analysis that the British model of multiculturalism fails in principle while the French model of integration fails only in application. UK-style multiculturalism leads to mutual incomprehension between communities and ghettoisation of society. The French model of common rules and opportunities for everyone is preferable provided it is fairly applied. France must urgently reclaim the «lost territories» in its riot-torn suburbs to prevent sectarian divides, he says.

Within the French debate, Barnavi aligns himself most closely with Nicolas Sarkozy. The presidential contender from the Gaullist right has provoked fury from the left by adopting the slogan of the ultra-nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen: «Love France or Leave It!» In a recent interview with Tribune Juive magazine, Barnavi says that this is not an unreasonable proposition. Being a citizen of a country is like joining a club. «If you want to join, follow the rules. If you do not accept them, you cannot be a member. If you want to play by other rules, then go elsewhere,» he says. «There is no reason in an open world not to go elsewhere.»

Europe’s problem, he suggests, is its reluctance to enforce those rules. «A civilisation that loses confidence in itself to the point of losing the sense to defend itself has slid into decadence.»

Europe’s holiday from its own history

By John Thornhill