Intolerant Liberalism

The West's Fundimentalism

by Madeleine Bunting

The Guardian, London, Oct. 8, 2001

(World Press Review, December 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. Crucial for a modern war, public opinion-formers at home have been prepared and marshaled into line with a striking degree of unanimity. The voices of dissent can barely be heard over the chorus of approval and self-righteous 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, so the conflict is now being cast as a battle between good and evil. Both Bin Laden and the Taliban are being demonized 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 in order to establish 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 Sept. 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 exacerbated 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? Naiveté? 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 toward other cultures only to the extent that they reflect its own values. 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 anything that is profoundly different from itself. This is the shadow side of liberalism. Detectable in the writings of great liberal thinkers such as John Stuart Mill, it 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 U.S. founding recipe of Puritanism and enlightenment bequeathed a profound sense of being morally good. This superiority now underpins the activities of multinational corporations and the International Monetary Fund's structural adjustment programs.

Recognizing this should not be the prelude to an onslaught on liberalism; rather, it brings up the crucial imperative of recognizing that liberalism has weaknesses as well as strengths. 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 contradictions in liberalism is the claim to tolerance and universality, which [Italian Prime Minister Silvio] Berlusconi's comments on Western civilization's superiority brought 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. 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. Sept. 11 and its aftermath launched 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 the 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 civilization. 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.

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." In other words, each culture nurtures and develops some dimension of being human but neglects others, and progress will always come from a dialogue between cultures. "We are all prisoners of our subjectivity," argues Parekh, and that is true of us individually and collectively.

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 that there is only one interpretation of those principles. Rights come into conflict, and every culture negotiates different trade-offs between them.

To understand those trade-offs is sometimes complex and difficult. But no single culture has cracked the perfect 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 its fundamentalism, we have no lesser duty to do the same.

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