In her new book, Identity, Islam, and the Twilight of Liberal Values, Dr Terri Murray argues that core liberal values are under threat.
After the collapse of the authoritarian Communist regimes in 1989-91, Francis Fukuyama famously wrote in the End of History and the Last Man that ‘we may have reached the end of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of government’. Terri Murray begins this book by arguing that Fukuyama’s optimism was premature as the spread of religious fundamentalism, especially of radical Islam, poses a powerful bulwark against the spread of liberal democracy. Rather than exposing and opposing the damage done by Islamism in the West, soi disant liberals, leftists and progressives have acted as its supporters and cheerleaders. Murray instead labels them as “pseudo-liberals” and the “regressive left” because of their abandonment of bedrock liberal principles and progressive and secular values.
Murray aims to diagnose the ways in which European and American social liberalism has been eroded in the post-9/11 era, asserting that these are not because of its internal flaws but because Westerners have been reluctant to defend its strengths and to apply its principles internally. She maintains that a ‘paternalistic orthodoxy’ has arisen that demands positive respect or deference to those who, in fact, oppose liberalism, secularism, and democracy. Universal human rights and principled politics have given way to moral relativism and total subjectivism – arguing that none of this was inevitable.
This is encapsulated in the trendy buzzword that has become so prevalent in recent times, that of “diversity”. For Murray, the rhetoric of diversity has been used to peddle policies that have curtailed any genuine liberal dissent from the establishment’s orthodoxies and politically correct posturing. This has resulted in a decrease in intellectual diversity.
Murray’s core liberal values rest on the teachings of John Stuart Mill. At its heart is the primacy of the individual and this is essential for social progress and human flourishing. In his classic work On Liberty, Mill provides the following reasoning:
‘Where, not the person’s own character, but the traditions or customs of other people are the rule of conduct, there is wanting one of the principal ingredients of human happiness, and quite the chief ingredient of individual and social progress.’
The success of Islamists in the West has been to hijack the moral prestige of liberal terminology for the purposes of ultra-social conservative beliefs and practices. The Pakistani-American writer Tashbih Sayyed pithily sums up what is at play:
‘By casting its fascist agenda in terms of human rights and civil libertarian terms, political Islam has successfully been able to use the American liberal and progressive groups to project itself as an American phenomenon and win intellectual elites, liberals and the media with left leanings on its side’.
Murray rightly observes that violent acts of Islamic terrorism have the effect of misleading people into thinking that anything short of terrorism is “moderate”, pointing out that the ideology of an organisation may be extremist and deeply illiberal even if the group does not resort to violence to promote its views. Hence Islam, with its myriad illiberal doctrines, has been embraced within the umbrella of a diverse society so much so that German Chancellor Angela Merkel has proclaimed without serious debate that “Islam is part of Germany”. With focus on diversity has arisen the efflorescence of identity politics, the sphere of “competitive victimhood”. Murray asserts that Western apologists for the Islamists’ victimhood narrative subscribe to the false belief that a vigorous critique of Western foreign policy must necessarily exclude castigation of its violently regressive Salafi-Islamist counterpart – in reality, Western Islamophiles diligently refrain from critiquing and criticising any aspect of Islam.
Self-determination, equality, and human rights are now seen as hopelessly slanted such that the left’s acolytes of Islamism have adopted a thoroughgoing moral relativism so that they have no firm grounds from which to launch any moral critique of human rights abuses. In their welcoming of the Islamist version of anti-colonialism, they have thrown the Enlightenment baby with the colonialist bathwater. Murray provides an important insight made by Sara Khan (presently the UK government’s commissioner for countering extremism) that Marxists maintained an underlying assumption that they (Marxists) would, in their alliance with Muslim groups, steer Muslims gradually away from Islam towards socialism. In fact the steering has gone the other way round.
Islamists use terror attacks to construct their victim narrative whereby each act of terrorist jihad is used to go on the offence against critics with the refrain “Look how Muslims are branded as terrorists”. They then attribute this conflation to the “far right” and “Islamophobes”, thus creating the demand for yet more protection and immunity from legitimate scrutiny which is invariably described as some form of discrimination.
This clever manoeuvre is accepted almost carte blanche in universities. Murray provides a powerful chapter on the failings of American and British universities wherein there has arisen a form of tribalism that is antithetical to the raison d’etre of education in general and universities in particular. Universities are supposed to be places where there is an exchange of ideas between people who may be culturally, ethnically, or generationally different but where they are exposed to new and different ideas to those they have been brought up with. Rather, Murray makes the charge that from campus to courtrooms, an ongoing piecemeal dismantling of political liberalism’s core principles and institutions is underway, partly thanks to student-led movements that are the product of an aggressive multiculturalism.
The “right on” cultural and moral relativists believe that their views and attendant policies are designed to prevent harm to vulnerable minorities, above all at the present juncture, of Muslims. So criticism or lampooning of Islam and Muslims is construed as “hate speech”, hence a taboo. With this mindset has seen the mushrooming of “safe spaces”; “trigger warnings” and “no platforming” of undesirables or “deplorables” on campuses. This approach is diametrically opposed to the “harm principle” set out by Mill:
‘The only purpose for which power can rightly be exercised over any member of a civilised society, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant’.
Murray argues that liberals have traditionally adopted a very narrow understanding of harm to encompass only those activities that physically injure or constrain others or damage their “permanent interests as progressive beings.”
So while pseudo-liberals and the regressive left on campuses and beyond rigorously attempt to constrain free speech of those whose ideas their oppose, they are extraordinarily tolerant and uncritical of minorities, above all of Muslims in general and Islamists in particular. In the Open Society and its Enemies, Karl Popper cautioned against this by asserting that ‘if we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed and tolerance with them’.
This is precisely what concerns Murray and her belief that surreptitiously but surely the principles of free expression and tolerance of dissent are being eroded by an onslaught of intolerant ideas and actions by Islamists in cahoots with the regressive left. She points out that the latter uses deceptive rhetoric, new semantics and logical fallacies to use kernels of truth to weave overarching lies.
In the final chapter, Murray summarises what she considers to be core liberal values. These are secularism and anti-clericalism, free speech and tolerance (which is not relativism), freedom and individual liberty over community and cultural values, primacy of the individual, primacy of reason over superstition, custom and tradition, widest possible personal liberty, and justice with equal access to the law and one law for all. All who agree with these, and who are concerned by the ascendency of illiberal thinking and politics across the societal spectrum, and wish to oppose the unholy alliance between Islamists and pseudo-liberals and the regressive left should read and learn from this cogently argued book.
Rumy Hasan, February 2019
Please note that Foyles of London have a special offer on the book for £10.00.
Dr. R. Hasan,
University of Sussex
Rumy Hasan is a senior lecturer at Sussex University and author of Multiculturalism: Some Inconvenient Truths (2010), Dangerous Liaisons: the Clash between Islamism and Zionism (2013), and Religion and Development in the Global South (2019)