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Intolerant liberalism: Re The west's arrogant assumption of its superiority Is dangerous

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  • Islamic News and Information Network
    Assalamu alaikum Intolerant liberalism The west s arrogant assumption of its superiority is as dangerous as any other form of fundamentalism Madeleine Bunting
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 8, 2001

      Intolerant liberalism The west's arrogant assumption of its superiority is
      as dangerous as any other form of fundamentalism

      Madeleine Bunting
      Sunday October 07 2001
      The Observer


      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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