Intolerant liberalism The west's arrogant assumption of its superiority is
as dangerous as any other form of fundamentalism
Sunday October 07 2001
The bombs have hit Kabul. Smoke rises above the city and there are reports
that an Afghan power plant, one of only two in the country, has been hit.
Meanwhile the special forces are on standby, and the necessary allies have
been cajoled, bullied and bribed into position.
That is not all that was carefully prepared ahead of yesterday's launch of
the attacks. Crucially for a modern war, public opinion formers at home
have been prepared and marshalled into line with a striking degree of
unanimity. The voices of dissent can barely be heard over the chorus of
approval and self-rightous enthusiasm.
It's the latter that is so jarring, and it's a sign of how quickly the
logic of war distorts and manipulates our understanding. War propaganda
requires moral clarity - what else can justify the suffering and
brutality? - so the conflict is now being cast as a battle between good
and evil. Both Bin Laden and the Taliban are being demonised into absurd
Bond-style villains, while halos are hung over our heads by throwing the
moral net wide: we are not just fighting to protect ourselves out of
narrow self-interest, but for a new moral order in which the Afghans will
be the first beneficiaries.
The extent to which this is all being uncritically accepted is
astonishing. Few gave a damn about the suffering of women under the
Taliban on September 10 - now we are supposedly fighting a war for them.
Even fewer knew (let alone cared) that Afghanistan was suffering from
famine. Now the west is promising to solve the humanitarian crisis that it
has hugely excerbated in the last three weeks with its threat of military
action. What is incredible is not just the belief that you can end
terrorism by taking on the Taliban, but that doing so can be elevated into
a grand moral purpose - rather than it incubating a host of evils from
Chechnya to Pakistan.
Is this gullibility? Naivety? Wishful thinking? There may be elements of
these, but what is also lurking here is the outline of a form of western
fundamentalism. It believes in historical progress and regards the west as
its most advanced manifestation. And it insists that the only way for
other countries to match its achievement is to adopt its political,
economic and cultural values. It is tolerant towards other cultures only
to the extent that they reflect its own values - so it is frequently
fiercely intolerant of religious belief and has no qualms about expressing
its contempt and prejudice. At its worst, western fundamentalism echoes
the characteristics it finds so repulsive in its enemy, Bin Laden: first,
a sense of unquestioned superiority; second, an assertion of the universal
applicability of its values; and third, a lack of will to understand what
is profoundly different from itself.
This is the shadow side of liberalism, and it has periodically wreaked
havoc around the globe for over 150 years. It is detectable in the
writings of great liberal thinkers such as John Stuart Mill, and emerged
in the complacent self-confidence of mid-Victorian Britain. But its roots
go back further to its inheritance of Christianity's claim to be the one
true faith. The US founding recipe of puritanism and enlightenment
bequeathed a profound sense of being morally good. This superiority, once
allied to economic and technological power, underpinned the worst excesses
of colonialism, as it now underpins the activities of multinational
corporations and the IMF's structural adjustment programmes.
But recognising this need not be the prelude to an onslaught on liberalism
- just the crucial imperative of recognising that, like all systems of
human thought, liberalism has weaknesses as well as strengths. We need to
remember this: in the heat of battle and panicky fear of terrorism,
liberal strengths such as tolerance, humility and a capacity for
self-criticism are often the first victims.
In all systems of human thought, there are contradictions that advocates
prefer to gloss over. One of the most acute in liberalism is between its
claim to tolerance and its hubristic claim to universality, which
Berlusconi's comments on the superiority of western civilisation brought
embarrassingly to the fore two weeks ago. It was the sort of thing many
privately think, but are too polite to say, argues John Lloyd in this
week's New Statesman. He owns up with refreshing honesty that in the
conflict between Islam and Christianity: "Their values, or many of them,
contradict ours. We think ours are better."
Once this kind of hubris is out in the open, at least one can more easily
argue with it. These aren't just academic arguments for the home front
before the cameras start rolling on the exodus of refugees into Pakistan.
September 11 and its aftermath launched both an aggressive reassertion and
a thoughtful re-examination of our culture and its values. Both will have
a lasting impact on our relations with the non-western world, not just
Muslim world. It is that aggressive reassertion that smacks of
fundamentalism, a point obliquely made by Harold Evans recently: "What do
we set against the medieval hatreds of the fundamentalists? We have our
fundamentals too: the values of western civilisation. When they are
menaced, we need a ringing affirmation of what they mean." The only
problem is that "ringing" can block out all other sound and produce
nothing but tinnitus.
There is a compelling alternative for how we can coexist on an
increasingly crowded planet. Political philosopher Bhikhu Parekh starts
from the premise that "the grandeur and depth of human life is too great
to be captured in one culture". That each culture nurtures and develops
some dimension of being human, but in that process it misses out others,
and that progress will always come from dialogue between cultures. "We are
all prisoners of our subjectivity," argues Parekh, and that is true of us
individually and collectively, so we need others to expose our blindnesses
and to increase our understanding of our humanity.
Parekh argues that liberalism is right to assert that there are universal
moral principles (such as the rights of women, free speech and the right
to life), but wrong to insist there is only one interpretation of those
principles and that that is its own. Rights come into conflict and every
cul ture negotiates different trade-offs between them.
To understand those trade-offs is sometimes complex and difficult. But no
one culture has cracked the prefect trade-off, as western liberalism in
its more honest moments is the first to admit. There is a huge amount we
can learn from Islam in its social solidarity, its appreciation of the
collective good and the generosity and strength of human relationships.
Islamic societies are grappling with exactly the same challenge as the
west - how to balance freedom and responsibility - and we need each
other's help, not each other's brands of fundamentalism. If we are asking
Islam to stamp out their fundamentalism, we have no lesser duty to do the
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