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
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
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
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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