The liberalism of fools?

I cannot recommend highly enough Ken Macleod’s post (found via Crooked Timber) on how the “socialism of fools” – Engels’ description of anti-semitism – was accompanied by a sort of “liberalism of fools”, to wit, the anti-Catholicism of the pre-WWII era. Macleod, acknowledging that anti-Catholicism is rather passé these days, wonders if hatred of something else, perhaps another sect, might fill the roll as a modern liberalism of fools.

And, on a not entirely separate topic, French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo (no website, not that kind of paper) is republishing the images, along with one on its cover of Mohammed crying “It’s hard to be loved by fools”. An effort by the Conseil français du culte musulman to stop publication through the French courts was rejected on a technicality.

Chirac, however, has demonstrated that he is not, contrary to widespread belief, the biggest fool in Europe. Unlike the Danish Prime Minister, he has “condemned all manifest provocations that are liable to dangerously arouse passions.” Alas, he has only retreated to the number two slot in European political idiocy. He also said, “Anything susceptible to harm the convictions of others, particularly religious convictions, should be avoided. Freedom of expression should be exercised with a sense of responsibility.” Right on count two, wrong on count one. Responsible freedom of expression means that when you go out to offend people, you can’t claim to be surprised when they are offended. But there is little point in free speech if it is forbidden from trying to change convictions.

And round and round this totally avoidable fiasco goes.

Lost in the Muhammed cartoon fiasco, a large ferry sunk in the Red Sea last Thursday, killing roughly a thousand people. Yesterday, the bereaved families ransacked and torched the offices of the Egyptian ferry company. Why? This doesn’t happen in the west after all? (Well, at least not recently.) But there is a big difference: When a plane crashes in Europe, we feel reasonably confident that a thorough investigation will take place, that the press will disseminate information about it, and that in the end, the families of the victims stand a good chance of successfully suing the airline, the airport, or their own national government if it is perceived to bear the greatest responsibility. In Egypt, no one has any such guarantee. In the face of unresponsive powers, people riot. They burn things.

This is natural enough human behaviour. Consider, say, the rioting in France late last year. Now, how many times in French history have Paris’ poor had a political grievance, no adequate avenue of redress, and in consequence taken to the street and burned things? Off the top of my head: 1789, 1830, 1848, 1870, more than once during the Third Republic, I’m sure, and most recently in 1968. Half of French history can be summarized as “the people of Paris rioted, burned things, and then the government actually took action or went into exile.” This is hardly the behavour of an unintegrated minority – it’s about as French as you can get. How the riots in France came to be about Islam, rather than some real issue like institutional racism, is beyond me.

Behind the cartoon fiasco, behind the rioting and threats, rests exactly the combination of double standards and powerlessness exposed in the French car burnings. The double standards are outlined in today’s Christian Science Monitor:

Free speech in Europe: mixed rules

[…] Muslims […] charge that hate-speech laws are implemented unfairly. Many countries, they say, do not abide anti-Semitic outbursts, but will tolerate cartoons that to many Muslims are deeply offensive.

“Most of Europe would not dare mock the Holocaust, and rightly so,” says Inayat Bunglawala of the Muslim Council of Britain. “Newspaper editors exercise good judgment every day when it comes to printing material so as not to cause offense, so why not on this occasion?”

In a bid to redress grievances, the French Council of Muslims has said it is considering taking France Soir, which reprinted the cartoons, to court for provocation. Last year, the Catholic church won a court injunction to ban a fashion ad based on the Last Supper. The judge said the ad was “a gratuitous … act of intrusion on people’s innermost beliefs.”

[…] At times, he [Roger Koeppel, editor in chief at German newspaper Die Welt which has printed the cartoons] says, it may appear there is a double standard. “Evenhandedness cannot be a goal,” he says. “It has to be clear that the majority culture rules and the minority culture has to accept the rules. If the rules are not acceptable, no one is forced to live there.”

[…] In France, where anti-Semitism remains taboo, a comedian named Dieudonne has been effectively sidelined for his anti-Jewish rants. Newspapers must even be careful not to equate the actions of Jews everywhere with the state of Israel following a recent case that punished the daily Le Monde.

Roy says a form of self-censorship is in practice in France. “No mainstream newspaper would ever publish an interview with Dieudonne,” he says. “He has been sidelined because he is supposed to be anti-Semitic.”

French Muslims have questioned whether the outcome would have been the same if Dieudonne had aimed his humor at Muslims.

I may never read Die Welt again. The dictatorship of the majority is one of those principles I thought liberalism was supposed to oppose. This is the ugly “my country, my rules” notion of cultural nationalism – something one would think was out of step with modern European unity. It’s certainly out of place coming from the mouth of a newspaper editor intent on defending free speech.

But, this sense of inequality is a real problem and not just an anomaly of the centre-right press. It leads to not just riots, it leads more importantly to the rejection of the Western values that we are supposed to believe are being defended here. Let’s take a look at the promises made by western liberalism as an ideology, and how they are perceived in practice:

  • Freedom of religion:

    You have the freedom to practice your religion, unless it involves wearing distinctive clothing, like a headscarf.

  • Freedom from racial discrimination:

    You are not judged by your race or ethnic origin, unless you’re from Africa, the Middle East, south Asia or a Roma.

  • Freedom of speech, to protest, and to manifest political opinions:

    You have freedom of speech, so long as you aren’t taking about Jews, Israel or the Holocaust; promoting racism; dissing the nation’s founder or symbols; or talking about Armenians. You have the freedom to protest, so long as you don’t make light of terrorism while doing so. You have the freedom to manifest political opinions, so long as you don’t burn flags.

  • Right to due process, to fair trials, to rule of law, to not be tortured or held incommunicado:

    You have legal rights which the state is obliged to uphold, unless you’re a Muslim, in which case you can be held at Guantanamo Bay or “extraordinarily rendered” to someplace where you don’t have those rights.

  • Freedom to elect officials, to vote in free elections, to form political parties and organisations:

    You have the freedom to choose your leaders in free and open elections, unless you vote for Hamas or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

This list could easily go on if we include the principles of international law. When Iraq invades Kuwait without provocation, it’s an aggressive war. When the US invades Iraq without provocation, it is in support of “international rule of law”. UN resolutions in the Middle East are enforceable with bombs and troops, unless they involve a veto power, a veto power’s clients, or Israel. Human rights in Iraq are profoundly important to westerners, human rights in Gaza much less so. Treaties that guarantee the signatories the right to pursue research and development in atomic energy do not apply to Middle Eastern nations. Or at least, this is how it seems to play out in the Middle Eastern press.

Is it really any wonder liberalism is so easily rejected in the Islamic world? Especially when so many of the regimes that give at least lip service to such notions are so thoroughly corrupt and so far from western ideals? And when so many of those same regimes have been installed and supported by the West? Is it any wonder when people turn to something else?

You may, of course, argue that each of these points is taken out of context; that it is wrong to lump the USA, Israel and Turkey together, and even wronger to lump them with western European democracies; that there are other views and opposing opinions that are not being considered, like quite legitimate concerns about the Iranian nuclear program; that the West is not really so uniform. And, this is all completely true – such a perspective is far from complete and it drastically oversimplifies public policy in the West.

The Christian Science Monitor article cited above goes on to make that case. It does point out that Europe’s speech laws are not so one-sided. It cites a prosecution against a clergyman in Sweden for homophobic statements; charges in Britain against the British National Party; and the trial of Oriana Fallaci in Italy for anti-Islamic statements. It also points out the Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code produced none of the response that The Satanic Letters did.

But then, would you accept the same kind of argument applied in support of Islamic ideas and Islamic nations? Would you see them as less worthy of condemnation just because Syria is actually fairly tolerant of different religions, so long as they steer clear of politics; that Saddam’s Iraq was relatively egalitarian in terms of gender rights; that no one begs or goes homeless in Saudi Arabia; that Dubai has a fairly free press? Does it make a difference that Swiss Muslim intellectual (and “threat to national security” according to US Homeland Security) Tariq Ramadan has a commendable piece up in today’s Libé on tolerance and press freedom, condemning Danish Muslims for traveling to the Middle East to fan the flames of this mess, months after the cartoons first appeared. Do they get any points for proving to be no more uniform than we are?

Whether or not one thinks that a liberal double standard exists, the existence of such a perception is clear. And, as far as I can tell, so far no action whatsoever is being taken to counter that perception. But the idea that the promises of liberalism are all lies is one of the major grounds globally for its rejection, not just among Muslims, but also in many quarters in eastern Asia and even Christian Africa and Latin America.

I’m not writing this to excuse rioting, and even less death threats or embassy burnings. Those things are generally not excusable. But, they can be understandable. Even irrational and counterproductive actions take place for a reason. People who have no other avenue of redress respond that way, or when incited to violence by others, they take to it more easily. The notion that the West, in some generic, broad, uniform, hopelessly simple-minded way, is tilting its rules against others, and that people are powerless to stop it, does play a part in these events.

Europe could have made, and could be making, a real difference in this case by actually standing for liberal values. It could do it by simply acknowledging that it might have a case to answer for when accused of double standards. America can’t do it, Israel even less so, and a Turkey unable to address its own history is hardly a model for applying liberalism in the Islamic world. But Europe could.

But as much as I would like to be wrong, I just doubt that Europe will.

26 thoughts on “The liberalism of fools?

  1. “C’est dur d’être aimer par des cons.”

    It’s rather “It’s hard to be loved by morons”.
    Something like that.

  2. And, as far as I can tell, so far no action whatsoever is being taken to counter that perception.

    Didn’t breaking international law save a couple of Muslims in Kosovo, or is this somewhow a double standard as well? I think the problem also has to do with the possibility that hatred of the West (however initially acquired) exceeds concern for the fellow Muslim. If the West comes to the aid of a certain Muslim group, instead of giving positive points to the West, it is much easier to deduct points from the Muslims in question and view them as pawns. Would the reaction in the Muslim world be drastically different had Saddam been on the verge of building a nuke? The quest is to find whether much of the Islamic world even has a criteria with which Europe can gain its trust, and whether Europe can do so without compromising its own values.

  3. There’s no perfection. Not even in our adherence to our own ideals. The proper response is to repair the errors, not to question the ideals.

    […] At times, he [Roger Koeppel, editor in chief at German newspaper Die Welt which has printed the cartoons] says, it may appear there is a double standard. “Evenhandedness cannot be a goal,” he says. “It has to be clear that the majority culture rules and the minority culture has to accept the rules. If the rules are not acceptable, no one is forced to live there.”

    He is right in principle.
    It is true that we apply our standards with a bias. But that doesn’t solve the issue. Suppose we allow blatantly antisemitic cartoons. We would mellow some protesters. But they still would favor censorship concerning the prophet. We can talk all we want about dialog of the cultures. We won’t reach a universally acceptable solution of this issue. As neither side has the wish or the means to impose its values in the other, we are faced with living uneasily side by side. What else would you base that upon if not the territorial principle?

  4. While you’re right to note the need for self-consistency, I think that you’re overestimating the moral comparability of Western and Middle Eastern political systems. Yes, Syria’s a state tolerant of diverse religious sects; Syria is also a state that killed thirty thousand or so subjects because they were religious conservatives. I can’t think of a comparable experience by a non-failed European state in the 1990s.

  5. The focus of this debate is already out of date given recent information that has come to light.

  6. I have to admit that I totally missed the point of Macleod’s thesis.
    Maybe he’s saying something in code to the Scottish communist world, but I’ve no idea where he’s trying to go with this.

    There is, to be sure, a strain of thought in both the US and Europe that reflexively hates the Muslim world — but it does not describe itself, and no-one else describes it, as liberal.
    Meanwhile those portions of the community that do consider themselves to be liberal are every bit as worried about the religious right in the US as they are of the Muslim world, say so constantly, and base their positions (anti-theocracy whether in the US or the Middle East) on arguments that are and have always been part of the liberal world view.

  7. >are every bit as worried about the religious right >in the US as they are of the Muslim world, say so >constantly

    It’s a different kind of worry though. In the American case it’s more of a head-shaking in conjunction with the question when the “American exceptionalism” will kick in and the balance of power is restored. The problem wiht the Muslim world is their exceptional in a rather different way…

  8. Meanwhile those portions of the community that do consider themselves to be liberal are every bit as worried about the religious right in the US as they are of the Muslim world, say so constantly, and base their positions (anti-theocracy whether in the US or the Middle East) on arguments that are and have always been part of the liberal world view.

    Worth repeating, Maynard. The trouble is that being liberal is now insufficient for “anti-imperialists” (my square quotes). Reactionary Islam, even out-and-out Islamism, are now allies in the war against “imperialism” and globalisation, viz. George Galloway’s interesting analysis:

    Islam is the last unconquered territory. The Soviet Union is defeated. Socialism is defeated. Nationalism is depressed. But, Islam is unconquered. And because Islam commands the believer to reject injustice and tyranny, this makes Islam automatically in a collision course with these tyrants, Bush and Blair. And, Islam has millions of soldiers. Millions of soldiers to resist this globalisation.

    http:// http://www.uruknet.info/?p=m20382&l=i&size=1&hd=0

  9. JLS – I went with a translation found in the international press. My first instinct was to translate “con” as “asshole”.

    Aegean disclosure, I agree that the west doesn’t have such simple attitudes towards Islam. But, the Bosnians and Albanians don’t have a lot of resonance in the Arab world. I suspect it’s a simple problem of identification: Most Americans consider themselves Christians, many quite devoutly so, but still have a hard time identifying with Christian sectarian conflicts in Nigeria. This is, I think, sort of the same.

    Oliver, I would base it on developing the notion that even if some of the people on side A are assholes with no respect for the values of side B, most of them don’t. If this was some isolated incident, and most Muslims really believed that western hostility was the domain of a select few, this issue would never have arisen. There is no territorial solution. If we can’t live with Muslims now, I promise you, in a generation it will be the Slavs, or the Catholics, or the Jews again. The history of America offers its fair share of just these kinds of events: Kick out the troublesome Indians, only to have trouble with blacks. Keep the blacks segregated, and people start bitching about the Mexicans. If the terrirotial principle is taken far enough, we’ll need a Calvinist homeland, and a Raëlian homeland, and on and on.

    I think that you’re overestimating the moral comparability of Western and Middle Eastern political systems.

    Randy, my point wasn’t to suggest that they are comparable, it was to avoid comparing them. My argument is not “things are the same in the Middle East”. It’s that if we’re going to excuse ourselves from collective responsibility for, say, Guantanamo Bay, by saying not all western states are like that, then we have to consider the same argument for them too.

    Mike and Dave, the Danish Muslim whatever they’re called should share in the blame for this, but that doesn’t exempt any other player. Personally, I blame the Danish PM more than anyone else for failing to show any consideration for the protesting Muslim nations. At any rate, the perception of double standard long predates this incident. My point is that this is about perception: something that is usually self-serving no matter who’s doing the perceiving. That they have their hypocrites too doesn’t change anything.

    Maynard, in addition to Tobias’ point, the American religious right is no threat to Europe. There’s a “Focus on the Family” bookstore in Belgium near where I go to school. It opened in the wake of the gay marriage debate here. I hear it’s not doing very well.

  10. Scott,

    respect is a very nice buzzword. Unfortunately it is badly overused. Societies have to make choices, even if the options are mutually exclusive. Compromise is not universally possible nor desireable.

    The territorial principle doesn’t mean expulsion. It means that the rules must be clearly set.

  11. >If this was some isolated incident, and most >Muslims really believed that western hostility >was the domain of a select few, this issue >would never have arisen.

    This is where I think you’re significantly overestimating the public sphere in Arab countries. We’re clearly looking at a specific problem as well as at a fundamental one. The fundamental problem is primarily twofold in itself – it’s a modern version of the never ending “church v state” that is forced upon societies as a consequence of migration patterns. Thus, political problems stemming from changing population affiliations are the second part of the problem. Unfortunately, there are now principles to be upheld in this case. In today’s die Zeit as well as in yesterday’s FAZ caricaturists explain how their life has become difficult. Freedom of expression should not be used to insult for the sake of insulting, no question about it. But then, we should remember Voltaire, even though some caricaturits are probably getting a little overdose of it right now.

  12. We are not obligated to respect Islam or Mohammed. The leftists defending the Imams and zealots are missing the point; theocracy must be stopped. The radical muslims are a danger to the entire edifice of Western rationality (including the sort of little socratic disputes common to blog land), and those accomodating, so-sensitive college boys who refuse to acknowledge that should be forced to live in Saudi or Iran (maybe along with their sisters and mothers), where they can’t swill their beer or go to movies or even eat a Sausage McMuffin.

  13. My argument is not “things are the same in the Middle East”. It’s that if we’re going to excuse ourselves from collective responsibility for, say, Guantanamo Bay, by saying not all western states are like that, then we have to consider the same argument for them too.

    Um, no. We’re talking about different sorts of phenomena, and different kinds. The legal theory that I, because of my sexual activities, should be liable to criminal punishment including execution has no standing at all in Western countries. In Islamic countries, though, it does.

  14. That is true.
    Nevertheless we are alienating large parts of the third world for the benefit of minorities here and the detriment of the majority. We should get rid of things like agricultural subsidies. Even if we cannot dampen the cartoon dispute we can at least make sure not everybody resents us.

  15. Personally, I blame the Danish PM more than anyone else for failing to show any consideration for the protesting Muslim nations.

    And why should he? Why should he show any consideration to what amounts to governmental censorship? It’s antithetical to the notion of a modern Western democracy that ideas should be censored because someone is offended.

    It’s amusing that you claim the West is failing it’s liberal birthright then turn right around and admonish it when it actually upholds it.

  16. Randy, I’m not quite sure I follow your argument.

    Verity, in October 2005, ambassadors from 11 primarily Islamic countries asked to meet with Rasmussen to discuss the cartoons. Not one of them asked for the imposition of any kind of censorship code in Denmark. And yet, Rasmussen blew them off. That has nothing to with defending liberalism.

  17. Randy, I’m not quite sure I follow your argument.

    My argument is that while Western democracies have their flaws, they’re quanitatively and qualitatively different from the flaws of those states governed under explicitly Islamic principles. Yes, there’s some hypocrisy; yes, this hypocrisy should be tackled; no, this hypocrisy doesn’t mean that there are serious problems afoot in the Muslim world with regards to free speech and freedom of conscience.

  18. Randy, in that case I agree. However, I think it’s the perception that the West is double dealing that poses a problem, one far larger than the actual fact, and that perception will not go away by saying “it’s less bad when we do it because we’re better.”

  19. Verity, in October 2005, ambassadors from 11 primarily Islamic countries asked to meet with Rasmussen to discuss the cartoons. Not one of them asked for the imposition of any kind of censorship code in Denmark. And yet, Rasmussen blew them off. That has nothing to with defending liberalism.

    It has everything to do with liberal values. The government is not supposed to involve itself with newspapers. He made clear from the beginning what his position had to be. Within the duties of his office all else he had to offer were empty words. Offering sympathies while saying that one might do it again is mockery worse than silence.

  20. Verity, in October 2005, ambassadors from 11 primarily Islamic countries asked to meet with Rasmussen to discuss the cartoons. Not one of them asked for the imposition of any kind of censorship code in Denmark. And yet, Rasmussen blew them off. That has nothing to with defending liberalism

    But it does. Why have a meeting with a government official about a non-governmental issue? Why not request a meeting with the editor of the newspaper? The implication is that these Muslim ambassadors see this as an issue in which the government can intervene. Logically, this can only mean censorship.

    Furthermore, since that non-meeting, many officials from Muslim countries, including Turkey, have called for limits with regards to freedom of expression in Europe! The Muslim world wants to impose it’s orthodoxy on the world at large, which is obviously non-Muslim.

    This is patently anti-liberal.

  21. I agree that the west doesn’t have such simple attitudes towards Islam. But, the Bosnians and Albanians don’t have a lot of resonance in the Arab world. I suspect it’s a simple problem of identification: Most Americans consider themselves Christians, many quite devoutly so, but still have a hard time identifying with Christian sectarian conflicts in Nigeria. This is, I think, sort of the same.

    Not quite. This “simple problem of identification” is pretty pervasive. Throw in the huge swath of Muslim Turks and Kurds with Bosnians then. Also, don’t forget if a group that is predominantly Shiite is helped by the West, the Sunnis will use this as cause to see Shiites as heretical pawns of the West and not, as I mentioned before, cause to see the West as helping a few Muslim brothers out. Had the West allowed the Bosnian Muslims to perish, then you’d here a lot of Muslims protesting against how the West allowed a genocide against Muslims in Europe (in fact they still do). The Muslims that acknowledge Western good deeds are in most part limited to the ones that are “saved”, the Albanian Kosovars, the Kuwaitis from Saddam, the Turks from the Soviets, the Kurds etc.

  22. Macleod’s thesis aims at religion, or a religious movement. But when does that religion become political movement? Has the current version of “Islam” already become so (gone back to its 7th century roots, as some historians have been maintaining)?

    Here’s an interesting take on this analysis:

    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2087-2036284_1,00.html

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