‘Identity, Islam and The Twilight of Liberal Values’ by Terri Murray confronts the decline of liberal values among the modern Left.
In 2017 I began blogging for Conatus News. I was keen to engage some of the changes I saw occurring in Britain’s political discourse because it reminded me of similar culture wars I had seen played out in the United States in the eighties and nineties. Now, however, it seemed that the religious right had learned from its past losses and had re-branded its socially conservative ideology in far more appealing ways.
I began to notice that in the UK (where I live) a host of neologisms were being introduced into the political discourse or old terms were being resurrected with completely new referents. Lots of this Newspeak was suddenly going mainstream: “cisgender”, “Trans kids”, “intersectionality”, “TERFs”, “the Alt-Right”, “Antifa”, “Islamophobia”, and “populism” all made their way into millennials’ everyday language. And yet so many of these terms seemed to contain within them unstated assumptions or conclusions that had not been argued for, so that once you treated the words as meaningful, you had already conceded the point.
This peremptory use of words to beg important questions frightened me, because it seemed that young liberals were ill-prepared to analyse the many rhetorical ploys and fallacies being flung at them. Much of what was being peddled as being liberal, left-wing policy was, in fact, eroding key aspects of liberal political philosophy while simultaneously giving inordinate cultural cache to religious conservatives and offering no challenge to neoliberal economics. My background in teaching political ideologies allowed me to discern inconsistencies between the appealing ‘liberal’ labelling and the regressive contents of these new political ‘products’.
The primacy of the individual and the protection of her civil rights was giving way to communitarianism and collectivist social arrangements, which give more importance to social hierarchies that constrain individuals to a subordinate status vis-à-vis cultural traditions and customs. This agenda, however, sounded nice when described as “religious freedom” or “multiculturalism”. Where self-appointed community representatives speak on behalf of “the community” as a whole, however, the type of cultural imperialism of which ‘the West’ stands accused is not avoided but perpetuated on a smaller scale, and officially sanctioned by Western governments, while also being immunised from criticism. In Britain, many leadership roles from the so-called ‘Muslim community’ are assumed by ultra-conservative Salafi-Wahhabists who do not represent Britain’s large secular Muslim constituency but drown its voices and colonise whole communities.
Tolerance for intellectual dissent and diversity of opinion on moral and social norms was replaced by a totalitarian state-sponsored demand for “diversity” that replaced the neutral state with a top-down demand to show deference and positive esteem for difference (from the West) with any refusal to do so punished as a thought crime. The new meaning of ‘diversity’ was the obligatory divergence from Western liberalism and its secularism and a unilateral, rather than reciprocal, demand for tolerance, with each intolerant action against Western targets followed by apologetics explaining why all acts of terror were the inevitable consequence of legitimate grievances against the West and its imperialism.
In Universities, moral relativists disseminated the view that moral beliefs that respect self-determination and authoritarian, theocratic or fundamentalist ideologies that do not, are equally legitimate value systems. They rejected ‘Western’ understandings of ethics and human rights, claiming that there can be no “master discourse” on such matters, while simultaneously assuming that their relativist view on the matter is objectively true or at least morally superior to that of their “Eurocentric” opponents. “Western colonialism” was itself treated as an objective moral evil to the extent that former colonial powers and their heirs should experience guilt and shame, irrespective of their cultural positioning or social status. Yet, this expectation of guilt implies the very kind of objective morality that relativists and pluralists reject and deem impossible.
LGBQI rights were extended to a new category of ‘transgender’ person who, contrary to all past progressive sexual liberation movements, claimed that gender is not a social construct after all but a real, intrinsic aspect of human psychological identity, so essential to his inner being that any refusal to acknowledge his inherent psychological state of “masculinity” or “femininity” amounts to a hate crime. This despite decades of dismantling these stereotypical concepts as socially-circulated fictions layered over our biological sexual differences and designed to keep men and women bound to their traditional roles within a patriarchal heterosexist society.
Chief among the fallacies being peddled in the mainstream media was that of the false dilemma, whereby a listener is forced into an either/or situation when in fact no such choice is required since the two values or policies are not mutually antagonistic. We are told that we must oppose either Western interference in foreign lands or Islamist terrorism in Europe and America, not both. We are told that we can only either oppose racist speech or defend freedom of speech, not both. We are told that we must either oppose xenophobic European far-right parties or oppose the religious right (and Islamist organisations), not both.
One demand that involved a subtle false dilemma was that we treat all Islamist terrorism or intolerance as a justified response to legitimate grievances, as Glenn Greenwald did when he claimed, “As the attackers themselves make as clear as they can, it’s not religious fanaticism but rather political grievance that motivates these attacks.” This trope plays on the truth that the Western governments and their agencies have indeed waged overt or covert wars or proxy wars in foreign lands, including in the Middle East. But opposing these wars and western foreign policy does not require one to positively ‘buy-in’ to the grievance narrative of Islamists, which serves to obfuscate the extent to which Western superpowers have colluded with Islamist repression and its leadership.
Exemplary of this fallacy was how, in June 2018 following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to uphold Trump’s travel ban against majority-Muslim countries, at least seven Democrats from the House and Senate spoke publicly and shared a platform with Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) Executive Director Nihad Awad. The Washington, D.C.-based organization claims to be a “leading advocate for justice and mutual understanding” and represents itself as the voice of a majority of American Muslims. However, upon closer inspection of the organisation’s history, activities, statements, and causes, it is arguable that its primary goals are to silence and de-legitimise its critics (including secular Muslim critics) and redefine what it means to be a “moderate” Muslim. CAIR has co-sponsored and taken part in multiple Islamist conferences in the United States, while at the same time condemning and seeking to censor more moderate Muslims.
Instead of joining with a falsely “moderate” Islamist organisation that is tied to the Muslim Brotherhood’s American network and has been found by two separate courts to have played a supporting role for the terrorist group Hamas, the progressive thing to do would have been to oppose both Trump’s blanket travel ban and Islamists who wanted to exploit it opportunistically for political gain.The false dilemma between condemning either U.S foreign policy or Islamist terror also glosses the fact that Islamism is itself a colonising force that seeks to impose a global caliphate and universal sharia law. The “wicked West” mantra serves to disguise the fact that violence and censorship are not justifiable means of redressing grievances and merely replaces one form of repression with another, rather than taking the moral high ground. It treats all Islamist ideology as a response to evil and spins the fiction that Islamism has no inner ideology of its own that it wishes to impose. This erases the realities of both hard and soft Islamism.
“The false dilemma between condemning either U.S foreign policy or Islamist terror also glosses the fact that Islamism is itself a colonising force that seeks to impose a global caliphate and universal sharia law”
What if a ship’s planks were replaced one at a time while the ship continued to sail? The Ancient Greek philosophers used this hypothetical (they called it the ship of Theseus) to consider whether the new vessel, with an entirely new set of planks, would be the same ship? If the planks substituted for the originals were materially identical in size, shape and type of wood then it seems fair to say that the new ship, while not identical to its predecessor, would still be ‘the same make’ of ship.
If we use this metaphor to contemplate a political system that replaces all of its core values (“planks”) with entirely new ‘materials’ (principles), then we cannot be talking about the same political system, and this is what I believe is currently happening to political liberalism. While many well-meaning and ostensibly ‘left-wing’ activists fly the prestigious colours of the liberal flag at every port, their neoliberal Titanic is a ghost of the vessel that set sail in the second half of the 18th century.
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Terri (PhD) is an author, blogger, and has taught philosophy and film studies in Secondary and Adult Education for over ten years