"What Is Occurring Today Is a Mimetic Rivalry on a Planetary Scale."
An Interview by Henri Tincq,
LE MONDE, November6, 2001
Translated for COV&R by Jim Williams
Can your theory of "mimetic rivalry" be applied to the current international crisis?
The error is always to reason within categories of "difference" when the root of all conflicts is rather "competition," mimetic rivalry between persons, countries, cultures. Competition is the desire to imitate the other in order to obtain the same thing he or she has, by violence if need be. No doubt terrorism is bound to a world "different" from ours, but what gives rise to terrorism does not lie in that "difference" that removes it further from us and makes it inconceivable to us. To the contrary, it lies in an exacerbated desire for convergence and resemblance. Human relations are essentially relations of imitation, of rivalry.
What is experienced now is a form of mimetic rivalry on a planetary scale. When I read the first documents of Bin Laden and verified his allusions to the American bombing of Japan, I felt at first that I was in a dimension that transcends Islam, a dimension of the entire planet. Under the label of Islam we find a will to rally and mobilize an entire third world of those frustrated and of victims in their relations of mimetic rivalry with the West. But the towers destroyed had as many foreigners as Americans. By their effectiveness, by the sophistication of the means employed, by the knowledge that they had of the United States, by their training, were not the authors of the attack at least somewhat American? Here we are in the middle of mimetic contagion.
"Far from turning away from the West," you write in your latest book,*"they cannot avoid imitating it and adopting its values, even if they don't avow it, and they are also consumed like us by the desire for individual and collective success." Should we understand then that the "enemies" of the West make the United States the model of their aspirations, even while feeling the need to slay it?
This sentiment is not true of the masses, but of the ruling classes. At the level of personal fortune a man like Bin Laden has nothing to envy of anyone. And how many party or faction leaders are in this intermediary situation, identical to his. Look at a Mirabeau at the beginning of the French Revolution: he has one foot in one camp and one foot in the other, and what did he do but live out his resentment in even more bitter fashion. In the US some immigrants become integrated easily, while others, even if their success is dazzling, live in a permanent anguish and resentment. This is because they hark back to their childhood, to frustrations and humiliations inherited from the past. This is particularly true of the Muslims, who have traditions of pride and a style of individual relations closer to feudalism.
But the Americans must have been the least astonished by what happened, since they live constantly in rivalistic relations.
America indeed embodies these mimetic relations of rivalry. The ideology of free enterprise makes of them an absolute solution. Effective, but explosive. These competitive relations are excellent if you come out of it as the winner, but if the winners are always the same then, one day or the other, the losers overturn the game table. This mimetic rivalry, when it turns out badly, always results eventually in some form of violence. In this regard, it's Islam that now provides the cement that we formerly found in Marxism. "We will bury you," Khrushchev said to the Americans. ..Bin Laden, is more troubling than Marxism, in which we recognize a concept of material well-being, prosperity, and an ideal of success not so far removed from what is lived out in the West.
What do you think of the fascination for sacrifice of the kamikazes of Islam? If Christianity is the sacrifice of the innocent victim, would you go as far to say that Islam is the permission to offer sacrifice and Islam is a sacrificial religion, in which one finds also that notion of "model" which is at the heart of your mimetic theory?
Islam maintains a relation to death that convinces me that this religion has nothing to do with archaic myths. A relation to death that, from a certain point of view, is more positive than what we observe in Christianity. I think of the agony of Christ: "My God, why have you abandoned me?" And: "May this cup be removed from me." The mystical relation of Islam with death makes it even more mysterious to us. At first, Americans took these Muslim kamikazes for "cowards," but, very quickly, they began to see them differently. The mystery of their suicide thickens the mystery of their terrorist act.
Yes, Islam is a religion of sacrifice in which we find also the theory of mimetic rivalry and the model. The candidates for the act of suicide are not lacking when terrorism seems to fail. Imagine, then, what is happening now when – if I dare say – it has succeeded. It is evident that in the Muslim world, the kamikaze terrorists embody models of saintliness.
The martyrs of faith in Christ are also, according to the Church Fathers, the "seeds" of Christianity...
Yes, but in Christianity the martyr does not die in order to be copied. The Christian can be moved to pity over him, but he does not desire to die like him. He is suspicious of it, even. The martyr is for Christians a model to accompany them but not a model for throwing oneself into the fire with him. In Islam it's different. You die as a martyr in order to be copied and thus manifest a project of transforming the world politically. Applied to the beginning of the 21st century, a model like this leaves me aghast. Does it really belong to Islam? One refers often to the sect of the "assassins" of the Middle Ages who killed themselves after having inflicted death on the infidels, but I am not able to understand this act, still less to analyse it. It must only be verified.
Would you go so far as to say that the dominant figure of Islam is the warrior and in Christianity it is the innocent victim, and that this irreducible difference condemns any attempt at understanding between these two monotheisms?
What strikes me in the history of Islam is the rapidity of its expansion. It was the most extraordinary military conquest of all times. The barbarians dissolved into the societies they had conquered, but Islam did not and it converted two‑thirds of the Mediterranean world. It is not therefore an archaic myth as has been said. I would even go so far as to say that it is a resumption – rationalist, from certain points of view – of what happened in Christianity, a sort of Protestantism before its time. In the Muslim faith, there is an aspect that is simple, raw, and practical that has facilitated its spread and transformed the life of a great number of peoples in a tribal state in opening them to Jewish monotheism as modified by Christianity. But it lacks the essential thing in Christianity: the cross. Like Christianity, Islam rehabilitates the innocent victim, but it does this in a militant manner. The cross is the contrary, it is the end of the violent and archaic myths.
But aren't the monotheisms the bearers of a structural violence because they gave birth to an idea of unique Truth, excluding any competing expression?
One can always interpret the monotheisms as sacrificial archaisms, but the texts don't prove that they are such. It's said that the Psalms of the Bible are violent, but who speak up in the psalms if not the victims of the violence of the myths: "The bulls of Balaam encircle me and are about to lynch me"? The Psalms are like a magnificent lining on the outside, but when turned inside out they show a bloody skin. They are typical of the violence that weighs on humans and on the refuge that they find in their God.
Our intellectual fashions don't want to see anything but violence in these texts, but where does the danger really come from? Today, we live in a dangerous world where all the mob movements are violent. This crowd or mob was already violent in the Psalms. Likewise in the story of Job. It – the "friends" – demanded of Job to acknowledge his guilt; they put him through a real Moscow trial. His is a prophetic trial. Is it not that of Christ, adulated by the crowds, then rejected at the moment of his Passion? These narratives announce the cross, the death of the innocent victim, the victory over all the sacrificial myths of antiquity.
Is it so different in Islam? Islam has also formidable prophetic insights about the relation between the crowd, the myths, victims, and sacrifice. In the Muslim tradition, the ram Abel sacrificed is the same as the one God sent to Abraham so that he could spare his son. Because Abel sacrificed rams, he did not kill his brother. Because Cain did not sacrifice animals, he killed his brother. In other words, the sacrificial animal avoids the murder of the brother and the son. That is, it furnishes an outlet for violence. Thus Mohammed had insights which are on the plane of certain great Jewish prophets, but at the same time we find a concern for antagonism and separation from Judaism and Christianity that may negate our interpretation.
You dwell in your latest book on Western self-criticism, always present beside ethnocentrism. You write, "We Occidentals are always simultaneously ourselves and our own enemy." Will this self-criticism continue to exist after the destruction of the towers?
It continues to exist and it is legitimate for rethinking the future, for correcting, for example, that idea of a Locke or of an Adam Smith according to which free competition would always be good and generous. That's an absurd idea, and we have known it for a long time. It is astonishing that after a failure as flagrant as that of Marxism the ideology of free enterprise doesn't show itself any more able to defend itself. To affirm that "history is finished" because this ideology has won out over collectivism is quite clearly a deception. In the Western countries the divergence in incomes continues to grow greatly and we are heading for explosive reactions. I'm not talking about the third world. What we await after the attacks is of course a renewed ideology, a more rational one of liberalism and progress.
* René Girard, Celui par qui le scandale arrive (Desclée de Brouwer, 194 p., Oktober 2001)