View of the minaret of the Paris mosque behind the Paris Natural History Museum Charles Platiau / Reuters
Last Sunday President Trump stood before Muslim leaders in Riyadh and declared: “America is a sovereign nation, and our first priority is always the safety and security of our citizens. We are not here to lecture. We are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship.”
Amid the journalistic uproar that greets nearly everything Mr. Trump says, few noted the connection he made between these two concepts: We are sovereign, and we don’t want to lecture. By putting them together, the president scrambled the pattern that has long shaped the West’s relations with Islam.
For decades, the West has seen itself as an empire of rights and liberal norms. There were borders and nations, but these were fast dissolving. Since rights were universal, the empire would soon encompass the planet. Everyone would belong, including Muslims, who were expected to lose their distinctness.
It didn’t work, as the latest jihadist attack, at a concert for teens in Manchester, England, attests. So it makes sense to consider alternatives. Judging by his Saudi speech, Mr. Trump wants to revive the nation-state as the primary political vehicle for encountering Islam. The nation has clear—and limited—territorial and cultural boundaries. It says we are this, and you are that.
To the French philosopher Pierre Manent, such thinking is the beginning of wisdom. “We have a big problem with Islam,” he tells me. “And it’s impossible to solve it through globalist, individualist, rights-of-man mantras.”
I meet Mr. Manent, 68, in his office at the prestigious School for Advanced Social Studies in Paris. For years he has been associated with the school’s Raymond Aron Center for Political Research, named for the great Cold War liberal who denounced Soviet tyranny even as most French thinkers grew addicted to what Aron called the “opium of the intellectuals”—Marxism and radicalism. Aron was Mr. Manent’s mentor.
Although Mr. Manent has retired from teaching, he still writes and lectures across Europe, mainly on how to preserve political freedom and liberal order in the face of globalization, mass migration and Islam. His ideas have wide application in the West.
Here in France, the government has vowed to counter Islamist terror with a military and intelligence surge. But newly elected President Emmanuel Macron generally eschews the more profound, unresolved questions of community and belonging that haunt French society. “There is no such thing as a single French culture,” he said in February. “There is culture in France, and it is diverse.”
These glib assertions lead Mr. Manent to conclude that Mr. Macron has fully imbibed the “acceptable opinions, or the PC opinions,” about Islam and nationhood that prevail among trans-Atlantic elites. In these circles, even to suggest a problem with Islam is to invite “scowls,” he says. “Everything they say about the situation is determined by their purpose, which is to prove that there is no problem with Islam—against their own anxiety.” Not to mention the evidence.
He regards Islam as a powerful and “starkly objective” faith. Wherever it spreads, it brings a set of “authoritative mores,” whose adherents constitute the faithful community, or ummah. This is in contrast to Christianity, with its emphasis on subjective, inner assent to the Redeemer, distinctions between the visible and invisible church, Caesar and God, and so on.
Islam instead rests on a political geography that divides the world, Mr. Manent has written, between the “house of submission,” where the faith reigns, and the “house of war,” where it doesn’t. As a political form, Islam thus most closely resembles an empire, he argues. The trouble—for Muslims and for the West—is that since the Ottoman collapse in 1924, it “has been an empire without an emperor.”
French philosopher Pierre Manent
Meanwhile, the liberal West has grown tired of the older forms of “communion” that used to define it. Liberals in Europe, and to a lesser extent the U.S., wish to dispense with both the modern nation-state, the political communion that once gave concrete shape to the open society, and Judeo-Christianity, the sacred communion that used to provide the moral and spiritual frame.
For the West’s professional classes, Mr. Manent contends, the only acceptable sources of political communion are the autonomous individual, on the one hand, and humanity as a whole, on the other. He understands the jet-setters’ impulse: “We can go anywhere on the planet, work anywhere on the planet—these new liberties are inebriating.” Better, then, “to be a citizen of the world.”
But Mr. Manent, a Catholic and classical liberal in the tradition of Alexis de Tocqueville, thinks this attitude breeds resentments and anxieties that are only beginning to surface across the developed world.
To wit, for most people everywhere, humanity is “too large and too diverse” to provide meaningful communion. “I cannot prove that the nation-state is the only viable form,” he says. “But what I’m sure about is that to live a fully human life, you need a common life and a community. This is a Greek idea, a Roman idea, a Christian idea.”
It’s why 19th-century liberals such as Tocqueville were so enthralled by the modern democratic nation-state. It was committed to universal human rights, but it housed them within a pre-existing “sacred community” that had its own inherited traditions—and boundaries.
It’s also why in the 21st century, Mr. Manent says, the “small, damaged” nations of Central Europe react most viscerally against transnational liberalism. Hungary fears “it couldn’t have endured and would have disappeared,” he continues, if it faced the same multicultural pressures as, say, France. The European Union’s efforts to punish voters in such countries for electing the wrong kind of government will therefore intensify the backlash.
But there is a bigger wrinkle in the transnationalist pattern: It isn’t universalistic at all. When the house of Islam looks at Europe, it doesn’t see a union with procedural norms, trade ties and kaleidoscopic lifestyles. It sees a collection of particular nation-states. More important, it sees the cross.
In its communiqués claiming credit for terror attacks, Islamic State never fails to mention that the “soldiers of the Caliphate” targeted this or that nation, which “carries the banner of the cross in Europe.” Such statements puzzle secular Europeans, Mr. Manent says, because they think: “Well, perhaps the Americans who intervened in Iraq, but we French are not Crusaders!”
The West has relegated faith to a purely private sphere, in which the believer, in his inner depths, communes with the Almighty. But to adherents of Islam, Christianity’s public, political dimension still shines forth.
This leads to another turn in Mr. Manent’s thought: “In the present circumstances, relations between Europe and the Muslim world will be less fraught if we accepted this Christian mark, while of course guaranteeing that every citizen, whatever his religion and lack of religion, has equal rights.” In other words, the Muslim world would more easily come to terms with the West if Westerners acknowledged who they are.
Take Turkey’s accession to the EU. European leaders for decades have contorted themselves to justify their reluctance to admit Ankara. If it were purely a matter of “rights,” then Ankara would be correct to demand entrance ASAP. But, says Mr. Manent, “Europe” is also a cultural and political community, and it matters that Turkey is a large Sunni Muslim nation with Turkish mores. By being honest about these differences, the West could clarify the terms of the encounter and ease tensions.
As for the West’s often ill-assimilated native Muslim populations, like the British community that produced the Manchester bomber, here too Mr. Manent prefers a “national solution.” For starters, he says, “we must accept that the Muslims who are among us will remain Muslims.” It follows that the West must “do things so that Muslims feel that they can be reasonably happy Muslims” in a non-Muslim environment.
The basic bargain: “We accept Muslims, but they also have to accept us.” In France that might mean dialing back laïcité, the official secularist dogma that restricts many public expressions of faith. “We won’t bother you about your veils or the way you eat,” Mr. Manent says. “In school lunches, meat without pork will be available. It’s silly and mean to say, ‘They will eat pork or they won’t eat.’ Muslims shouldn’t always be under suspicious eyes.”
But then, he continues, the French would demand reciprocity of Muslims: “You really belong to France. You turn toward it and your life will be centered on this European country, which is not and will never be a Muslim country.”
What he wants to combat is the widespread sense of alienation, particularly among young Muslims who are “paper French”—citizens without political attachment. In practice, this would involve the government’s insisting that mosques and cultural associations cut their ties with Algeria, Tunisia and other foreign countries and instead actively promote an indigenous French Islam.
His grand-bargain vision has detractors on the left, who call it discriminatory, and the right, who find the offer too generous. Others think it’s too late. But Mr. Manent is optimistic that the combination of political liberty and nationalism is more resilient than most people suppose.
Then again, the 19th-century marriage of liberalism and nationalism ended in a very ugly divorce in the first half of the 20th century. What about the dangers of reviving nationalism today? “There is no a priori guarantee that it could not devolve into something nasty,” Mr. Manent says. “But if we don’t propose a reasonable idea of the nation, we will end up with an unreasonable idea of the nation. Because simply: However weakened the idea of the nation, nations do not want to die.”
Then there is the example across the Atlantic. Like Tocqueville, Mr. Manent sees much to admire in the American experiment. Even as Europeans have sought to pool or even abandon their sovereignty, he says, “Americans remained very much attached to the idea of a people making its laws to protect itself.”
True, “this people was open to the world, since of course it was formed by immigration. But people came from all over the world, not to be human beings but to be citizens of the United States, which had a keen sense of its exceptionalism and unique character.” In the Second Amendment, the persistence of the death penalty, and the reluctance of U.S. courts to follow foreign precedents, Mr. Manent sees “not a proof of American barbarism” but of democratic vigor.
And realism. Europeans, he says, imagined the world was so safe for liberty that they could discard the harsh, Hobbesian elements of power. Americans recognize that the modern world still has one foot in the state of nature, and this calls for the sovereign prerogatives of self-preservation: We are sovereign—we don’t lecture.
Mr. Ahmari is a Journal editorial writer in London.