In a recent posting on this site , Ross Douthat alerted us to an editorial in one of England’s most liberal papers, The Guardian, and pointed to a dangerous logic in part of its argument. The editorial decried the use of torture by Pakistani counterterrorism police. If reports are accurate, apparently it worked, for out of the interrogation came the discovery of that recent plot to blow up several American planes flying from London to the United States. Leaving aside The Guardian ‘s main claims on the evil of torture, Douthat rightly scored the editorial’s ancillary argument: that the use of immoral means to fight terror will only increase the terrorists’ motivation for terror. As if their resort to this tactic needed any further motivation!
I would only add that this kind of double-standard reasoning is daily fare at The Guardian . More even than American papers, this bastion of English bien-pensant secular liberalism demonstrates how flummoxed liberals have become in their encounter with contemporary Islam. This liberal flailing, though, can sometimes lead to amusing ironies. Consider this column of August 10, 2006 , from Timothy Garton Ash, one of the reigning Pooh-Bahs of the liberal establishment (he regularly writes for the New York Review of Books , for example). My "amusement" (if that’s the right word) comes from this richly ironic paragraph:
Britain now has one of the most libertine societies in Europe. Particularly among younger Brits in urban areas, which is where most British Muslims live, we drink more alcohol faster, sleep around more, live less in long-lasting, two-parent families, and worship less, than almost anyone in the world. It’s clear from what young British Muslims themselves say that part of their reaction is against this kind of secular, hedonistic, anomic lifestyle. If women are reduced to sex-objects, young Muslim women say, I would rather cover up. Theirs is almost a kind of conservative feminism. Certainly, it’s a socially conservative critique of some aspects of British society, particularly visible in their generation, in the urban neighbourhoods where they live.
It’s not that such views are inherently wrong, or even objectionable. But can you imagine Garton Ash defending traditional Christian morality as an antidote to a desiccated secularism or praising Pope Benedict XVI’s calls for a new defense of the traditional family (as he did in his recent trip to Spain) as a way of preventing women from becoming sex objects? No, I can’t either. But still, Garton Ash has a point: Something has got to give somewhere along the line, and if the growing Muslim populations in Europe are suddenly putting secularism on the defensive (something it seems that Christianity has not managed to do), then a Christian might be tempted to sit back and watch the liberal secularists squirm and flail about.
Such squirming and flailing was evident enough in the blog responses on the same page where the editorial was posted, the most concise perhaps being this one:
How dare you suggest that people in this country should change their way of life because Muslims don’t like it? What a specious argument. On all measures, we in the hedonistic west enjoy the greatest freedoms. Some may bemoan the breakdown of morals and perhaps the breakdown of the nuclear family. But changing these aspects of British culture should not be something that is done simply to assuage angry Muslims.
Well, maybe. But as I said above, something has got to give. So maybe Islam is the West’s last remaining "reality check." Back when I was an undergraduate, Marxist professors liked to talk about the "internal contradictions of late capitalism." With the collapse of the Soviet Union, some naive enthusiasts like Francis Fukuyama claimed to espy the "end of history" where these internal contradictions were now all resolved. Fat chance. Who knows what would have happened to European secularism if Islam had never appeared on the stage of history, or, at the least, if Europe had not let so many Muslim immigrants into its continent after World War II? But that is speculation. The reality is, secularism does not have the resources¯the internal, intellectual resources¯for responding to the ideological aggressions of a resurgent Islam.
And speaking of Islam as reality check, Garton Ash has also started a journey that just might lead (dare we say it?) to . . . neoconservatism! Maybe he won’t end up there, but at least the chthonic savageries of Muslim terrorists have finally made him see what happens when America’s hegemony is challenged. With the departure of the twentieth (the so-called American) century, might not the world be moving into the twenty-first century by reverting back to the nineteenth century¯that is, back to balance-of-power politics leading to the arbitrament of another world war? In an earlier column , this one dated July 20, 2006, Garton Ash had this to say:
So, welcome to the new multipolar disorder¯and farewell to the unipolar moment of apparently unchallengeable American supremacy. The hyperpower! The mega-Rome! Remember that? Moment turns out to have been the right word: a brief episode between the end of the old bipolar world of the cold war and the beginning of the new multipolar world of the 21st century. . . . When Jacques Chirac spoke fondly of multipolarity, back in 2003, he conflated two claims: the world is multipolar, and that’s a good thing. Claim 1 is being proved right. Claim 2 has yet to be confirmed. For a start, it matters a lot whether this is multipolar order or multipolar disorder. Order is a high value in international relations. It stops a lot of people being killed. At the moment, we have multipolar disorder, and it’s not clear what the shape of a new multipolar order might be. . . . So be careful what you wish for. In principle, multipolarity is an advance on unipolarity for the same reason that it is wise to have a well-ordered division of powers inside a democracy. But it’s an advance only if it comes as a version of liberal order¯with the adjective and noun being of equal importance. If, however, this week’s events are a foretaste of things to come, the world’s new multipolar disorder could be very nasty indeed. And then you might even find yourself nostalgic for the bad old days of American supremacy.
When The Guardian starts sounding nostalgic for the American Century, you know that reality is bearing down on us all, even among liberal secularists!
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