A review of Identity, Islam, and the Twilight of Liberal Values by Terri Murray, Cambridge Scholars, 212 pages (Dec. 2018)
After the collapse of the totalitarian 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 Identity, Islam and the Twilight of Liberal Values by arguing that Fukuyama’s optimism was premature, because the rise of religious fundamentalism—especially radical Islam—has become 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” as a result 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 for, or deference to, those who oppose liberalism, secularism, and democracy. Universal human rights and principled politics have given way to moral relativism and total subjectivism—developments that Murray argues were by no means inevitable. This trend is encapsulated in the buzzword that has become so fashionably prevalent in recent times—“diversity.” Murray contends that 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, in turn, 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 which is essential to 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.
Islamists in the West have successfully hijacked the moral prestige of liberal terminology for the purposes of disseminating ultra-social conservative beliefs and practices. Murray quotes the Pakistani-American writer Tashbih Sayyed, who pithily summarises the effects of this strategy as follows:
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 correctly observes that violent acts of Islamic terrorism have had the effect of misleading people into thinking that anything short of terrorism is “moderate.” She points 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 beneath the umbrella of a diverse society to such a degree that German Chancellor Angela Merkel has proclaimed that “Islam is part of Germany.” This preoccupation with diversity has brought the efflorescence of identity politics and 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.
The upshot has been that self-determination, equality, and human rights are now seen as mere preferences and evidence of Western bias. The Left’s acolytes of Islamism have adopted a masochistic and selective species of moral relativism that allows them to excuse any culture or tradition but their own from scrutiny of its human rights abuses while obsessively picking over every flaw and imperfection in open societies. In their embrace of the Islamist version of anti-colonialism, they have thrown the Enlightenment baby out with the colonialist bathwater. Murray provides an important insight from Sara Khan (presently the UK government’s commissioner for countering extremism) that Marxists wrongly assumed that their alliance with Islamic groups would gradually steer Muslims away from Islam towards socialism. In fact, Islamists have helped steer the Left away from secularism and towards Islamism.
In this way, Islamists have been perversely successful at using terrorism to further their victim narrative—those who recoil from these atrocities are accused of further stigmatising an already marginalised and vulnerable minority by using such attacks to “brand Muslims as terrorists.” But it is Islamism’s apologists who are responsible for the conflation of Islamism and Muslims which they attribute to their opponents, thereby reinforcing their demand for yet more protection and immunity from legitimate scrutiny. Citizens of liberal democracies find themselves attacked twice over—even as they grieve for their dead in the wake of a terrorist outrage, they are berated for the intolerance that brought it about.
This clever manoeuvre is accepted almost without question in Western universities. In a powerful chapter on the failings of American and British universities, Murray argues that a form of tribalism has arisen that is antithetical to the raison d’etre of education in general, and of universities in particular. Universities are supposed to be forums for the robust exchange of new and unfamiliar ideas between people who may be culturally, ethnically, or generationally different. From campuses to courtrooms, however, 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 cultural and moral relativists believe that their views and attendant policies are designed to protect vulnerable minorities from harm, and so criticism or mockery of Islamic doctrines have become taboo and illustrative of Western prejudice and “hate speech.” 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.” However, their new censorious mindset has led to the mushrooming of “safe space” and “no platforming” culture on campuses, an approach diametrically opposed to the “harm principle” as 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.
So, while radical activists on campuses and beyond rigorously attempt to constrain free speech of their political opponents, they are extraordinarily tolerant and uncritical of minorities, no matter how reactionary or retrogressive their beliefs may be. In The Open Society and its Enemies, Karl Popper cautioned against this attitude 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 undergirds her concern 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 an increasingly regressive and radical Left. The latter, she points out, use deceptive rhetoric, new semantics, and logical fallacies that transform kernels of truth into overarching lies.
In her final chapter, Murray summarises the core liberal values she believes are now desperately in need of a principled defence. These are secularism and anti-clericalism; free speech and universalism; freedom and individual liberty over community and cultural values; primacy of the individual; primacy of reason over superstition, custom, and tradition; personal liberty; and equality before the law. All those who agree with these, and who are troubled by the ascendency of illiberal thinking and politics across the societal spectrum, should read and learn from this timely and cogently argued book.
Rumy Hasan is a senior lecturer at the University of Sussex and author of Religion and Development in the Global South (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).