It was St Augustine who went so far as to say that only when we begin to rethink our desires can we be said to be thinking at all. Yet the unlimited incentives and products of desire—ambition, resentment, envy, covetousness—surround us on all sides, so much so that some thinkers believe that the violence triggered by those products of desire are stripping away from us all the protective powers of our former culture.
It is even almost possible to believe, in this explosion of desire, and particularly under the influence of seeing others have what we haven’t got and want ourselves, that desire and life itself are one and the same thing— such is at least true as far as advertising values and much of the media are concerned.
Yet, St Augustine apart, there are some modern thinkers who believe that if this explosion remains unchecked, humanity is fast approaching its violent end, and that society is reverting to its violent beginnings.
The anthropologist and philosopher René Girard, who taught at Stanford and is now 88, began his exploration of this trend, which he calls ‘mimetic [ie imitative] desire’, in writing about major European novelists and Shakespeare—as for example when X falls in love and then seduces Y’s wife because Y has extolled her virtues and beauty, or what Shakespeare calls ‘love by hearsay’, or ‘love by one another’s eyes’—and then expanded the theory into religion and society.
It is this dimension on a personal and political level that some years ago I explore in my biography of the Blairs, The Darlings of Downing Street. Since 9/11, and the effect of the occupation of Iraq and the war in Afghanistan, Girard has gone much further and sees mimetic desire’s application and relevance to the increasing violence of terrorism, stating that ‘What is happening today is mimetic rivalry on a planetary scale.’
As long as we can share what we desire this unites us—but when we cannot, we become the worst of enemies. Such rivalry then becomes identifiable as a fundamental source of human conflicts, in particular in the struggle to obtain power and keep it—and so people resort to the ultimate mechanisms of blaming others and scapegoating, which is an essential component of the theory. ‘If vengeance is not stopped, it can kill the entire population of the earth,’ he warned in lecture I attended on a visit he made to London London.
Examples of scapegoating are more than plentiful in present-day Britain— the prototype is the tragic scapegoating of Dr Kelly in 2003, but now increasingly they are, having moved on from black people, gays, and Muslims, to those who hold principles or devout beliefs.
With regard to the ensuing postwar scenarios of suicide bombing and terror the crucial factor, Girard spells out, as well as the physical containment, is to counter the desire for vengeance with an understanding of the sacrificial basis of both Islam and Christianity. Man needs something to prevent violence from spreading, which is sacrifice. It applies just as much to nations as to the individuals, in particular to the spreading worldwide clash between Islamic fundamentalism and Western values.
Girard points to the rapid expansion of Islamic belief, which he identifies both as a religion of sacrifice, practised by Muslims whose traditions of pride, and of a style of individual relations close to feudalism, and tribal traditions, which the West has largely ignored, and by this fostered terrorism.
‘Like Christianity,’ Girard says, ‘Islam rehabilitates the innocent victim, but it does this in a militant manner… The candidates for the act of suicide are not lacking when terrorism seems to imagine, then, what is happening now when – if I dare say – it has succeeded. It is true that in the Muslim world, the Kamikaze terrorists embody models of saintliness.’ This could be seen in September 2004 when Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s terror gang in Iraq sacrificed life in the name of God, but there are many recent examples.
Girard points out that in Christianity the martyr does not die in order to be copied, as does the Muslim suicide bomber, whose manifest aim is to transform the world politically. Girard shows that this reversion of the Islamic terrorist to primitive mechanism stems from the inevitable complicity of religion and violence, a knowledge and understanding of which has been entirely lost in Christianity.
This is why Christianity has become so weak in relation to fundamental Islam, whose eruption of sacrificial violence in Iraq is a symptom of a cultural breakdown.
We fear sameness, says Girard – we fear the loss of identity. Girard believes only a properly understood and practised Christianity can withstand the appeal and spread of the Islamic fascination with sacrifice, as well as live alongside it in peace and harmony. ‘Violence,’ he says, ‘is the heart and secret soul of the sacred.’
Yet for Girard, again if properly understood, it is God’s sacrifice of Jesus Christ as the redeeming scapegoat for that ancient need for violence, which allows God to become the scapegoat and reverse the hidden mechanism, the complicity of religion and violence, thereby saving the world and causing Satan, or universal wickedness, to ‘fall like lightning’.
This is the ‘secret’ (not the cultural trivia of Dan Brown and others) which, says Girard, has been hidden ‘since the foundation of the world’. Religious conversion for Girard, the necessary basis for the Christian belief, begins in the recognition, the discovery that ‘we are all butchers pretending to be sacrificers.’
This aligns him, at a more mundane level, with G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown: ‘No man’s really good till he knows how bad he is, or might be… till he’s squeezed out of his soul the last drop of the oil of the Pharisees.’
The tirades of Jesus against the scribes and Pharisees, described as ‘united sepulchres’ and ‘unmarked graves’ are, Girard points out, a denunciation of religious violence ‘ for covering up its violence’. That’s what bad people do—cover up their violence.
Girard also adapts his theory of personal mimetic rivalry, which he sees as informing all human behaviour – what he calls ‘relations of imitation’— to the world situation. We repress our awareness of mimetic envy in ourselves, he maintains. Primitive cultures have feared and repressed envy so much that they have no word for it, while we maintain a silence about envy today, which we feel ashamed to own it, while secretly encouraging it in every aspect of our lives.
Contradicting all notions of ‘evil’ Islam, he would agree with many Arab writers, such as the Algerian Yasmina Khadra and the Egyptian Alaa Al Aswany (The Yacoubian Building), as well as numerous Muslim moderates, who believe that Islam, like the West, is consumed by ‘the desire for individual and collective success’.
They have the tendency to make, in fact, the leader that is the United States, the model of their aspirations while feeling they want to destroy it. ‘Under the label of Islam we find a will to rally and mobilize an entire third world of the frustrated and of victims in their relations of mimetic rivalry with the West.’ So we are, Girard says, ‘in the middle of mimetic contagion’, while the ideology of the free enterprise world hardly shows itself more able to defend itself than the ideology of Marxism did.
Forging the enemy, their inner demons, into a cohesive, well-integrated worldwide force of terror may well be the main legacy both Bush and Blair have left their countries. Both believed in waging war on the abstract, delusional and all embracing notion: TERROR. As Christian believers, both men should have stepped back, and thought long and hard what they meant by the word.
It is Girard’s conviction that that the cross—the death of Christ— announced victory over primitive myths and reversions to myth. The theory could prove to be a means to both a wider understanding of terrorism, and lead to a reduction of its threat.