SPIEGEL Interview with Bernard-Henri Lévy 'We Lost a Great Deal of Time in Libya Because of the Germans'
Part 2: 'A Black Pearl in the Nazi Oyster'
SPIEGEL: You were against the Iraq war. Why do you believe this intervention is legitimate?
Lévy: The Iraq war was illegitimate and a violation of international law. The intervention in Libya was approved by a majority in the UN Security Council. That's the big difference.
SPIEGEL: The UN foresees intervention only in the case of war crimes, genocide or crimes against humanity.
Lévy: And how many dead does it take to qualify for an emergency? How high is the threshold? That's cynical. In 1996, Gadhafi had 1,200 prisoners shot to death at the Abu Salim prison in Tripoli. Wasn't that a crime against humanity? And when you attack unarmed demonstrators with fighter jets and have them shoot at the crowd, it's nothing other than a war crime.
SPIEGEL: But doesn't the intervention make it more difficult to find a political solution for Libya?
Lévy: This isn't the West's war. The Arab League asked us for help, aircraft from Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are involved in the mission, and the Tunisian and Egyptian people morally support this intervention. This has nothing to do with a Western crusade. As far as the political solution is concerned, there is only one: to eliminate Gadhafi politically. If we allow him to do as he wishes, perhaps even negotiating with him, it'll be the end of the Arab spring. In fact, this was probably what some governments in the West wanted.
SPIEGEL: That's nothing but speculation!
Lévy: I'm not entirely sure whether everyone in the West was all that interested in seeing this Arab spring continue until the summer. Do we know whether the American government really wants to get rid of Gadhafi? Aren't there perhaps some people who feel that it's time to put an end to this wave of revolutions? Because they are determined to prevent it from reaching strategically important countries like Saudi Arabia. Can we be sure that there are not those who see Libya as a sort of fire extinguisher, preventing the flames from spreading? The West is very divided over the issue of whether democracy is the best guarantee for good relations with the Arab world, or whether it isn't preferable in the short term to cooperate with dictators.
SPIEGEL: You were once very skeptical about the prospects for democracy in Arab countries. You even spoke of a "fascist tradition" in the Arab world. Has this changed?
Lévy: I still believe that the Muslim Brotherhood is the last black pearl in the Nazi oyster, a legacy of the Nazis that isn't criticized. Everywhere in the world, one feels a sense of sadness over what the Nazis did to the Jews. Just not in the Arab world, where there is a taboo in this respect and where the past was never been critically addressed. But I also said that there are two sides to the Arab world, the one I have just described and another one, an Islam that is compatible with human rights and wants democracy. This side is now becoming more and more powerful, in places like Libya and Egypt. That's why I believe in the success of this revolution, even though I remain vigilant and sometimes anxious.
SPIEGEL: You say that you have observed a new "political maturity" in Egypt.
Lévy: I've often experienced this after democratic revolutions. Changes happen very quickly. The dictatorship lasts a long time, while freedom comes quickly. It was the case in Portugal in 1974 and in Eastern Europe in 1989. I remember how democratic reflexes took hold there within a week. A thaw of this magnitude doesn't just gently bring words that were long under ice to the surface. It also accelerates the political education of a society.
SPIEGEL: You have close personal and family ties to North Africa. You were born in Algeria to an Algerian father and you own a house in Morocco. What does it mean to you to see the regimes overthrown in Tunisia and Egypt?
Lévy: It didn't come as a surprise to me. For the last 10 years, I have repeatedly said that the struggle of cultures within the Arab-Muslim world is critical for the 21st century, and not the struggle between the Arab-Muslim world and the West. The Arab world is just as open to democracy as Bulgaria and Romania were at the end of communism. I wrote this in my reports from Afghanistan and after having researched the fate of journalist Daniel Pearl, who was killed by al-Qaida in Pakistan.
SPIEGEL: You must be pleased that you were right -- and about your role as a philosopher who influences world history.
Lévy: I am pleased, but I'm also nervous, as I am whenever there is a revolution. Revolutions can produce the best and the worst possible outcomes. What the Libyan, Egyptian and Tunisian democrats want from us is that we don't make the same mistakes we made more than 30 years ago, when certain intellectuals uncritically endorsed the Iranian revolution.
SPIEGEL: What has this Arab revolution taught you so far?
Lévy: When the Arab League requested that we intervene in Libya, it was a decisive moment in the history of the modern age. The obligation to intervene in the affairs of other countries became universal as a result. Now no one can accuse the coalition of engaging in dark maneuvers or hidden colonialism. This is a radical shift.
SPIEGEL: The same Arab League is helping the rulers in Bahrain stay in power.
Lévy: Nevertheless, we took a big step on the path to a world in which humanity is united and is no longer divided into different civilizations, with different laws and values.
SPIEGEL: Could there be a lot of naïveté behind your pathos?
Lévy: I'm not naïve. I believe that you must allow yourself to be surprised, and that you have to remain sensitive and alert. I am pragmatic and I stick to the facts. This request by the Arab League, its participation in the Paris summit and the involvement of Arab aircraft in the mission, is an incredible victory.
SPIEGEL: But the Arab leaders' reasons for wanting to get rid of Gadhafi are not as noble as you would like them to be.
Lévy: When I fought to prevent the genocide in Darfur, people listened to those who said that it was an African affair. But it seems to me that those who still say that Libya is an African or an Arab affair have lost the game. This is a step in the direction of a moral conscience for mankind. And a defeat for the assumption that a nation's right of self-determination automatically precludes intervention and ultimately gives those in power the right to do as they please with those they rule.
SPIEGEL: What, in particular, do you remember about the encounter between Sarkozy and the Libyan transitional council at the Elysée Palace?
Lévy: The surprise, the incredulity and the gratefulness of the three Libyans when they understood what Sarkozy had just said to them. The great significance of what he proposed to them. The radicalism of his gesture. That moment of astonishment and of realization -- it was a beautiful moment.
SPIEGEL: You are an independent philosopher, and yet you are very close to power. Isn't that a contradiction?
Lévy: I am not close to power. I am very far from our president. I am an opponent of Sarkozy and his policies. I did not vote for him and I will not vote for him. But it's no secret that we know each other well.
SPIEGEL: You must have something in common politically.
Lévy: Certainly the words I used to tell him about my experiences in Libya reached him. When I returned to Paris, I told him that there would be a massacre if Gadhafi made it to Benghazi, and that the French flag that had been flying above the Corniche since the previous evening would also be soiled with blood in this massacre. He was very moved by these words. There are emotional moments in which even statesmen react in a very normal and human way -- moments when a single word can touch and move them just as its touches and moves every one of us.
SPIEGEL: For decades, you have been traveling back and forth between very comfortable Paris circles and less comfortable crisis regions. What motivates you?
Lévy: This strange thing called fate, which ensures that one person is born into hell and the other into excess. I can hardly stand the contradiction. The thought that the only reason someone is treated like an animal is that he was born in Darfur, this sense of horrible injustice, is a feeling I have had since my youth. I was a student at the time, and left the university to go to Bangladesh. There was a genocide going on there that no one was reporting about. I felt that this commitment was my moral duty.
SPIEGEL: Your parents were very wealthy. Did you perceive this as a burden or an obligation?
Lévy: I believe that being human means having an obligation to other people, and that every human being runs the risk of trampling on someone else. I have a deep belief that your place in the world doesn't really belong to you. Rather, you are merely borrowing it.
SPIEGEL: Where does this conviction come from?
Lévy: It's the moral and spiritual tradition in which I grew up. For me, it's the definition of Judaism. Being Jewish means having more obligations than rights.
SPIEGEL: Can you imagine a world without Bernard-Henri Lévy?
Lévy: Yes, it would all work quite well without me.
SPIEGEL: And France without BHL?
Lévy: That's a different matter. In that case I would have to be invented.
SPIEGEL: Monsieur Lévy, thank you for this interview.
Interview conducted by Georg Diez and Britta Sandberg
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
- Part 1: 'We Lost a Great Deal of Time in Libya Because of the Germans'
- Part 2: 'A Black Pearl in the Nazi Oyster'