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What is an appropropriate response?
Political and philosophical considerations after the attack on the Word Trade Center

Intolerant liberalism

The west's arrogant assumption of its superiority is as dangerous as any 
other form of fundamentalism

Madeleine Bunting
The Guardian
October 8, 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. Crucially for a modern war, public opinion formers at home 
have been prepared and marshalled into line with a striking degree of 
unanimity. The voices of dissent can barely be heard over the chorus of 
approval and self-rightous 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 - what else can justify the suffering and
brutality?- so the conflict is now being cast as a battle between good and
evil. Both Bin Laden and the Taliban are being demonised 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 for 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 
September 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 
excerbated 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

Is this gullibility? Naivety? 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 towards other cultures only to the extent 
that they reflect its own values - so it is frequently fiercely intolerant
of religious belief and has no qualms about expressing its contempt and 
prejudice. 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 what 
is profoundly different from itself.

This is the shadow side of liberalism, and it has periodically wreaked 
havoc around the globe for over 150 years. It is detectable in the 
writings of great liberal thinkers such as John Stuart Mill, and 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 US founding recipe of puritanism and enlightenment 
bequeathed a profound sense of being morally good. This superiority, once 
allied to economic and technological power, underpinned the worst excesses
of colonialism, as it now underpins the activities of multinational 
corporations and the IMF's structural adjustment programmes.

But recognising this need not be the prelude to an onslaught on liberalism
- just the crucial imperative of recognising that, like all systems of 
human thought, liberalism has weaknesses as well as strengths. We need to 
remember this: 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 in liberalism is between its 
claim to tolerance and its hubristic claim to universality, which 
Berlusconi's comments on the superiority of western civilisation brought 
embarrassingly 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. He owns up with refreshing honesty that in the 
conflict between Islam and Christianity: "Their values, or many of them, 
contradict ours. We think ours are better."

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. 
September 11 and its aftermath launched both 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 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 civilisation. 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 and produce nothing but tinnitus.

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". That each culture nurtures and develops 
some dimension of being human, but in that process it misses out others, 
and that progress will always come from dialogue between cultures. "We are
all prisoners of our subjectivity," argues Parekh, and that is true of us 
individually and collectively, so we need others to expose our blindnesses
and to increase our understanding of our humanity.

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 there is only one interpretation of those 
principles and that that is its own. 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 
one culture has cracked the prefect 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 their fundamentalism, we have no lesser duty to do the