Professor Jonathan AC Brown has just posted this cri de coeur on Facebook.
This semester my students read critiques of liberalism alongside “critiques” of Islam (like by career native informants). As the semester went on I kept thinking: You know, maybe liberalism wasn’t so bad after all! At least there were some norms and expectations that people and states could be held to… that transcended whatever the jingoism or tribal dress obsession being flogged in the media that day was!
So I felt very guilty and foolish for sniping from the sides when I really relied on what I was nitpicking.
But then I realized: That’s pigswill! I wasn’t objecting to liberalism (defined here as acknowledging disagreement over what ‘the good’ is and privileging ‘the right’ to choose one’s notion of good over the notions proffered by others). That liberalism is fine and dandy by me.
What aggravated me to no end, and what’s earned the enmity of so many both in the US and globally, it seems, is the abuse of the standard of liberalism to bully people and pursue deeply flawed political, economic and social agendas. So freedom of speech is used to abuse and deride Muslims (je suis Charlie!), while French Muslims are arrested for saying they understand why the attackers did it, and wearing a tshirt saying boycott Israel becomes a crime in France. So democracy is sacrosanct unless it elects a government the US doesn’t like… or a US president that elites don’t like. Freedom of religion is sacred just as long as that doesn’t mean teaching your kids anything unpopular with the Daily Show writers.
And look at the results. Americans don’t trust news outlets that squandered their credibility. The Middle East is a moil of bloodshed and extremism in great part because 1) the West has coddled dictators and stifled legitimate expressions of political and social interest in order to shelter its apartheid, settler-colonial client state. And, 2) this rage and desperation has mingled with the religious extremist product of another western regional ally to create a tragic cocktail of death.
So decades of savagely toying with the lives of brown people ended up with millions of those brown people flooding into Western Europe and too many Westerners realizing they were just as tribal as the natives they had disparaged. And decades of killing Muslims for immoral reasons and blaming their anger on Islam has led to (remarkably few!) acts of violence by Muslims in the West… while news anchors end-stress words as best they can and ask “was this motivated by terrorism?” … when attackers have done interviews or written in their own blood why they did it: because the people who sit at the high table condemning violence don’t care when the victims are Muslim. And they wanted to show this had a cost.
As Anne Norton wrote in On the Muslim Problem, the West’s problem with Islam was never about Islam. It was about how Islam and Muslim always reflected the West’s BS back a little too clearly, revealing its betrayals of liberalism. But instead of addressing this strain of BS, Western leaders just doubled down. David Cameron claimed liberalism says it’s not enough to just obey the law and be left alone. Etc. etc etc.
Hypocrisy drives people crazy. And it ultimately undermines the regime of values that you’ve betrayed, until not enough people care about them anymore.
And that’s a pity.