Untimely Islam: September 11th and the Philosophies of History
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Untimely Islam:
September 11th and the Philosophies of History

In the intellectual and philosophical world the decades preceding the entry into the third millennium of the Christian era have betrayed (or have been accompanied by) a sometimes odd and troubled relationship to History. The utter disenchantment with regard to any progressivist conception of history reasserted itself, though it had, of course, been articulated more or less consistently since the Enlightenment, when the idea of historical progress first appeared. All of the grand narratives of Universal History were rejected en bloc: whether we are speaking about the Christian or providential narrative in the classical manner of Bossuet, a more empiricist narrative such as that of Turgot or Condorcet, the idealist and theological narrative of Hegel, the materialist, technological, and revolutionary narrative of Marx, or the narrative of economic liberalism, there was no longer a conception of historical evolution that seemed acceptable. The philosophy of History appeared to be bankrupt. The great progressivist narratives that had promised the emancipation of Humanity in a nearer or more distant future had lost all credibility.1 A certain faith in the improvement of human societies, which Modernity embodied by endowing them with a kind of transcendence—no longer vertical (the Heavens, the beyond), but rather horizontal (the Future, a better world)—appeared to have waned and dissolved in the acute awareness of recent and less recent horrors, to which we must add the apprehension of certain catastrophes (technical, moral, ecological) that make the future of humanity on our threatened planet seem indecipherable or even absurd.

The meaning of History is lost in this post-modern crisis. To many, this meaning appears retrospectively as an ethnocentric and imperialist notion that remains blind to the diversity of cultures and their particular evolutionary paths, merely serving to promote the idea of a unique, Western direction to History.

For some time, however, the collapse of the Soviet Empire, which dashed Marxist hopes, prompted a revival of the question of History, but under different auspices. The conviction that it was the democratic destiny of nations to lead inevitably toward free enterprise and a free [End Page 52] market in a globalizing and Westernizing world breathed new life into a schematic and sterilized Hegelianism stripped of its tragic nature, of the work of the negative, of its providentialist inclinations and of its mad Trinitarian speculations. This thought thus became the easily intelligible philosophical guarantee of a triumphant capitalism. According to this vision of the legitimization of Western capitalism, humanity has attained the ultimate principles that will henceforth dominate its future, even if the empirical unfolding of its History continues.2

That was, in a nutshell, the conjecture that seemed to define the philosophical question of History during the recent past. However, despite the apparent antagonism of these two positions—post-modern disillusion and the theme of the end of History—they still had something in common: the negation of the event. Whether History is meaningless or whether it is virtually "finished" (in the figure of the liberal economy and the universal principles of parliamentary democracy), these two opposing positions reached the same conclusion: in the eyes of the philosopher, there could no longer be any important or meaningful events. Either the event no longer belonged, in principle, to any historical narrative, because every conceivable historical narrative had been discredited and History was simply chaos and a tangle of facts that no unifying theme could render intelligible; or, the event belonged in advance to a History already virtually completed, to which nothing essential could be added.

Suddenly, a terrifying and enigmatic event occurred that restored substance—and, one might say, actuality—to the question of History. In the wake of the stunning and murderous terrorist attack that destroyed the Twin Towers in New York, one could everywhere hear phrases such as: "nothing will ever be the same." Ordinary citizens believed they were witnessing, either in person or on TV, some kind of disaster-film unfolding live before their eyes, which would forever change their way of seeing the world. Intellectuals spoke of a "caesura,"3 or of the "next...