After the atrocities in Paris, Western societies have to ask themselves just how serious they are about protecting the liberal values that terrorists seek to undermine.
There are two common explanations for the horrific terrorist attacks which took place in Paris last month.
The first seeks to interpret the Paris shootings as a response to Western foreign policy—or more specifically, to Western imperialism. This can either refer to the supposed imperialism of recent years or go as far back as the Crusades.
The second dwells on the jihadists’ fundamental opposition to liberalism itself. Thus, the West is not on the receiving end of violence for what it does, rather it experiences these sporadic outbursts of brutality based on what it is.
Both arguments are deployed in opposition to one other, yet both contain an element of truth.
First of all, Paris may very well have been “blowback” for France’s role in bombing ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Hitler’s production of the V-3 cannon was “blowback” for the Allied assault on Nazi Germany. Blowback is invariably what happens when a country wages war—what it is not is a moral judgement on the decision to go to war itself (though the argument is often disingenuously deployed as if it were).
At the same time, it is also true that Le Bataclan concert hall in Paris was a place where, in the jihadist vernacular, “hundreds of apostates had gathered in a profligate prostitution party.” This sounds a lot like the misogynist statements put out in the past by jihadists, such as those who unsuccessfully placed a bomb outside London’s popular Ministry of Sound nightclub in 2004, the casus belli in that instance being “those slags dancing around.” It should be clear from reading them that it is the existence of liberal democracy, rather than any particular policy pursued by the liberal democracies, which these budding totalitarians find so repugnant.
Despite these two propositions being in seeming opposition to each other, how Europe’s democracies inoculate themselves against jihadist violence will depend to a certain extent on how successfully Western governments grapple with the central tenets of both arguments. What sort of foreign policy ought the West to pursue in order to minimize the threat from jihadist violence? And how will the West build a confident liberalism at a time of widespread suspicion and distrust?
On paper at least, an ethical yet simultaneously robust foreign policy is less esoteric and thus ought to be the easier of the two to conceive. The hair in the Crème brûlée, so to speak, is the fact that things never play out in the real world as neatly as in the seminar hall.
The 2003 Iraq war is often trotted out as an example of the West fanning the flames of jihadism, but in reality the West has stumbled ever since then from one disaster to another like a drunkard on roller-skates. Military interventions in Iraq and Libya left violent power vacuums. Yet the antithesis to these interventionist solutions—the chin-stroking isolationism now in vogue in the White House and the British Labour Party—has been tested and found wanting to the tune of 250,000 corpses in the Syrian civil war, along with a refugee crisis at levels unprecedented since World War II. The latter has been at least as propitious to the spread of jihadism as the militarist follies of George W. Bush in Iraq.
What seems unarguably true in both cases is that regional insecurity—whether the unintentional by-product of American intervention or as deliberate policy in the case of the Syrian regime of Bashar al Assad—has created fertile ground for extremism. A Sunni Muslim who has witnessed an Iranian militia torch his house will unarguably be easier to recruit to the jihadist cause than someone who does not feel in imminent danger of having his clothes ripped from his back.
To their credit, the neoconservatives of a decade ago were, for a time at least, aware of the link between repressive governments and the growth of Islamist extremism. Their mistake was to go from this to the far-too-neat assumption that the violent overthrow of dictatorship was the obvious inoculator against extremism. In the world as it actually functions, and as America found to its bloody cost in Iraq, successful democratic governance requires more than just giving people the right to vote. It also requires the rule of law and the cultivation of a democratic spirit—central tenets of the unfashionable concept of nation building and harder to summon into existence than a make-shift canvas polling booth. “Each country is inhabited not only by its citizens but also by ghosts from the past,” as the late historian Robert Conquest put it. “Cultures,” he added, “have great intrinsic momenta, and cannot be rapidly turned in new directions.” Nor can a functioning parliament be dropped from the hatch of a B-52.
All of this, though, is largely academic, for democracy promotion is about as unfashionable today as polyester suits and tie-dye shirts. The bigger challenge in 2015 is persuading reluctant Western electorates that the globalization of the world means more than cheap sneakers and iPhones. Like the gruesome parody of a weekend in Vegas, what happens in Syria no longer stays in Syria, and retreating to an isle of moral rectitude where the war and the foreigners are “out of sight and over there” is about as realistic as wearing a flower in one’s hair and demanding that our leaders “give peace a chance.”
If it is hard to foresee the development of a foreign policy that eschews the utopianism of a decade ago without adopting the hard-nosed realism of the current age, creating a self-assured liberalism in Europe on the domestic front will likely be an even greater challenge. Over half a century ago, the American critic Lewis Mumford wrote that the average liberal “lacks confidence in himself and in his vision of life.” What was true of 1949, when Mumford wrote those words, is undoubtedly true today: liberalism seems to lack the vim and vivacity of its enemies. Leaving the horrors of the twentieth century behind means abandoning the idea that human history is endowed with some sort of meaning.
On the whole liberals seem to understand this. Yet paradoxically, defeating the latest totalitarian menace means imbuing liberal democracy with at least some of the “transcendent purpose” which comes so easily to the movements that have a boot placed at liberalism’s throat. It is one thing to give a wide berth to those who stand in the street admonishing us to eschew earthly pleasures, yet as Ross Douthat sagely put it in The New York Times last month, “many human beings, especially perhaps young human beings, still crave a transcendent purpose, even in a society that tells them they don’t really need one to live a comfortable, fulfilling life.”
The struggle for existence has always been primarily material; but the spiritual paraphernalia which used to accompany this vale of woe has largely disappeared. Yet the impulse for “something more”—and at times, utopia—lives on. It is easier after all to admit that life is full of misery when the prospect of some sort of release is thought to be obtainable in this world or in the heaven to come.
This is why belligerent attempts to heap all of Western Europe’s current troubles on Islam fall wide of the mark. The Islamic State is merely the latest blossoming of the totalitarian impulse—totalitarianism with an Islamic face, certainly—but a totalitarianism which at some point will metastasize again and be found wearing an unrecognizably different mask. In the recent past it has donned an SS uniform and a five pointed red star. The more pertinent question for the West is surely: how do we imbibe liberalism with a sense of confidence? And how do we do this when the fashion amongst intellectuals in the West is to damn their own societies as essentially worthless?
Both questions are easier to answer in the negative: a confident liberalism should not seek to collectively punish Muslims, nor fan the flames of suspicion and mistrust in response to acts of terrorism. To quote the well-meaning cliché, that is what the terrorists want. Yet it would still be a profoundly stupid and callous thing to do even were this not the case. There is, as the late Christopher Hitchens used to put it, a clash within civilization rather than a clash of civilizations. The main impetus to discredit violent Islamism will necessarily come from within the communities most affected by terrorism, whether moderate Sunni Muslims fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria or liberal Muslims facing down hate preachers in Europe. This requires that governments reach out to reformers within Muslim communities as well as take practical measures to ensure the safety of Western populations from terrorist violence.
Take Britain, which has been spared a major terrorist atrocity for over a decade now. Around 800 British citizens have so far traveled to Syria and Iraq to wage jihad. Half of them have reportedly come back to Britain. Thus the importance of working with Muslim reformers to stem the tide of further radicalization cannot be over-stated. There is already, in Western universities, an organized movement—aided and abetted by a new generation of useful idiots—successfully propagating jihadist politics. Adam Deen, a former non-violent Islamist in Britain who recently joined the anti-extremism think tank the Quilliam Foundation, has written that it is at British universities, rather than in British mosques, where radicalization is overwhelmingly taking place:
Often mosques are considered hotbeds for extremism, but this is inaccurate. Mosques are run by a generation who are in most cases out of touch with the youth. It’s at universities where the exposure to intolerant and unethical theological ideas happens….The sole focus is on the Other, namely the West and non-Muslims. For example, an event in Bedford entitled “Quiz a Muslim” (held, by an unfortunate coincidence, on the day of the Paris attacks) consisted entirely of Wahhabi and Islamist speakers who appear regularly on university campuses.
Deen calls on us to “uproot the intellectual landscape” that ISIS “taps into.” In order to do this, a strictly paternalistic approach on the part of European governments is unlikely to bear fruit, for the distance between Western governments and the people they seek to inoculate against extremism is too big. As Michael Walzer writes in The Paradox of Liberation, his study of why secular revolutions in Algeria, India, and Israel gave way to a resurgence of religious fundamentalism, “Traditionalist worldviews can’t be negated, abolished or banned; they have to be engaged.” Reformist Muslims are the people best placed to do that.
But this means eschewing the current binary, which, in Britain at least, is a peculiar mix of jingoistic hostility and pseudo-benevolent paternalism. Hostility towards Muslims has traditionally come from the far-Right, whereas a phenomenon that might be called “neo-Orientalism” has in recent times taken firm root on the liberal Left. The toxic nature of the former hardly needs pointing out, but a consequence of the second intellectual fashion is that it is no longer strictly the frothing-at-the-mouth-racist who puts people in restrictive ideological boxes based on spurious ethnic or confessional grounds; today, the well-intentioned British liberal who shops fair trade and votes Liberal Democrat is liable to do it too.
A central tenet of this neo-Orientalism holds that Muslims, both in the West and elsewhere, lack autonomy, and blithely float through life buffeted from pillar to post by the actions of white Westerners. In foreign policy terms it follows that everything bad which happens in the Islamic world is the fault of the West. Thus neo-Orientalism turns the solipsism of orthodox Orientalism on its head: whereas at one time the West was the source of all that was good in the world, today it is the source of all that is wicked. Just as during the glory days of the British Empire, the center of the universe is always happily located in Western Europe and North America (and, for some reason, Israel).
On the domestic front, the neo-Orientalist believes Muslims living in the West are most suitably represented by unelected “community leaders”—often stereotypical figures with cartoonish beards and reactionary ideas. This has been accurately described as the “racism of low expectations,” for the entire approach takes two sinister premises as naturally a given: that we should define Muslims only by their religion, and that there is nothing odd about promoting as spokespeople men who are equivocal about things like head chopping and death by stoning. (Paradoxically, the very people who pander to these crude stereotypes are the first to balk at any suggestion some Muslims really do harbor unsavory views.)
These two prevailing poles of Orientalism—the bigots of the far-Right on the one hand and the paternalistic do-gooders of the Left on the other—have in recent years made it far more difficult to promote a shared set of values that a confident liberalism ought to espouse. For many white liberals, “authenticity” has become a by-word for backwardness, with liberal reformers such as Maajid Nawaz, a former Islamist who is now a prominent counter-extremism strategist, subjected to smear campaigns by the very people whose support they should be able to count on—his fellow liberals.
The consequences of this approach have been predictably risible: because the Left has gone missing on the problem of Islamism, preferring to blame the entire phenomenon on foreign policy and often adopting the aforementioned neo-Orientalist mindset, the European far-Right has been able to portray itself as the only reliable foe of Islamist radicalism. Add to this a general unwillingness on the liberal Left to grapple with the politics of integration, and fertile ground has been sown for the kind of hatred spewed by the white fascistic Right. This is particularly true in France, a country with higher levels of racism than Britain and with the added toxicity of highly disenfranchised immigrant ghettos. Marine Le Pen, the leader of the Front National, was already polling at 29 percent before the November 13 attacks. Since then it seems more, rather than less, likely that she will top the first round of France’s presidential elections in 2017.
The recent implosion of both the neo-Nazi British National Party and the English Defence League has meant the ground is less propitious for a far-Right revival in Britain than in mainland Europe. Historically, the British haven’t voted for extremes—or at least not in significant numbers. Britain is also blessed with a political system that actively conspires against extremist electoral success. Yet for all the platitudes about British moderation, a catastrophic terrorist event could conceivably act as the impetus to erroneous change.
Along with several other European countries, in recent years Britain has felt a delayed political reaction to the international financial crash of 2008. This was initially discernible in the growth of the UK Independence Party (UKIP). More recently it has manifested in the rise of Jeremy Corbyn to the summit of the Labour Party. Britain isn’t yet voting en masse for extremists, but a growing number of people seem willing to give its various representatives a hearing.
This ought to act as a warning: should liberals be unwilling to grapple with some of the issues outlined in this essay, we can be sure that, in the event of a Paris-style atrocity in London, the demagogues of the far-Right will be on hand to do so in their own far more ugly and illiberal way.
Banner Photo: Maya-Anaïs Yataghène / flickr