Friday, 16 January 2015

The Dangers Of Selective Liberalism


The unwillingness of liberals to confront illiberal ideas in Islam with the same spirit that they attack right wing bigotry and the excesses of capitalism is an example of intellectual dishonesty. Their consequent loss of credibility only strengthens the Right. This is as true of India as it is true of the West.

A reformation within Islam is overdue, but the form it will take depends on the actions of all players today.

If liberals can emphasise the distinction between Islam as an ideology and Muslims as fellow human beings, they can play a constructive role in nudging Muslims towards creating a more progressive society for themselves, a society that will also coexist amicably with others. Abdicating this challenge only vacates the stage for a mischievous and divisive right wing narrative that conflates ideology with people and demonises an entire community. Such a narrative will paradoxically strengthen the more regressive forces within Muslim society and perpetuate hatred and social conflict for decades to come.


With the atrocities of Boko Haram and the Charlie Hebdo massacre, Islam today occupies centre stage in world affairs, and not in a good way. In spite of widespread condemnations of these atrocities from many Muslims and their organisations, such opinion is hardly unanimous. There is more outrage over the Charlie Hebdo cartoons than over the killing. In the recent past as well, the attitude of many Muslims has been to demand acquiescence from the world in enshrining Islam's special status, exempt from all criticism, even as the killing of perceived cultural enemies is applauded. A girl who achieved worldwide fame after her shooting is being vilified in her own country. Stories of the ill-treatment of women and minorities in Muslim countries has grown common, with the latest outrage being the ISIS pamphlet documenting scripturally sanctioned ways to treat female slaves. And in the background is the constant theme of terrorism, with depressingly regular attacks that kill perceived aggressor and innocent victim alike. The image of Muslims worldwide has never been lower.

The Right has responded to these developments with glee. Attacks on civil liberties, jingoism and xenophobia, a systematic demonisation of Muslim communities both in their home countries and in others - all form a consistent pattern. Under the guise of protecting the freedom of the majority, the rights of all have begun to be eroded. Muslims have begun to be seen as the hated and feared "other".

But from the start, the Left, the traditional champion of civil rights, has done nothing to call out the illiberalism within Islam, nor did it ever begin a fearless investigation into the causes of such illiberalism. Had liberals done so in an even-handed manner from the start, a firm yet hate-free critique of the good and bad in Islam could have been presented to civil society as a whole, and the terms of the dialogue could have been framed in a more constructive form. Alas, liberals have abdicated their role.

It is true that Muslims conflate criticism of their religion with attacks on themselves as people. Their defensiveness is perhaps understandable. But what is not acceptable is that liberals (who should definitely know better) have fallen victim to the same fallacy. By seeing any critique of Islam as the "oppression of an already marginalised community", they conflate the ideology of Islam with Muslims as a people.

I have liberal views, and I dislike illiberal ideas anywhere. I don't understand the reluctance among liberals to point out the illiberalism in Islam, mainly in the following areas:

  • Intolerance towards unbelievers of all stripes, including apostates from Islam
  • Poor treatment of women
  • Poor treatment of animals (e.g., ritual bleeding to death of animals during slaughter, injunctions to kill geckos on sight, etc.)

I have separately described a particular example of how liberals vociferously attempt to shut down uncomfortable questions. They seem unaware that right-wing bigots are merrily spreading their own simplistic and self-serving answers to these very questions.

How to make liberals see sense? As my own experience in a liberal forum demonstrated, a non-Muslim's critique of Islam is deemed to be Islamophobia or motivated by right-wing ideology (whether consciously or unconsciously imbibed). I think what liberals need is a figurative kick in the pants from a person belonging in some sense to the Muslim community (even if not a practising Muslim).

Indeed, this is what Sufian Ahmed has brilliantly done. Just substitute "Indian" for "White" in his post and it will be completely relevant to India.

Ouch! That's got to hurt.

For a movement that has historically been associated with revolution, I think the Left/Liberal side has become timid and forgotten to think big.

What we should be calling for is nothing short of an Islamic Reformation. In the 21st century, this is overdue, but it appears that only a minority within the Muslim community is thinking along these lines, with Egypt's military leader the only public figure to openly call for it. The Right does not have a viable plan to deal with Islam, because their prescriptions will lead to unending strife without resolution. The Left seems to naively believe in business as usual, when the political temperature is rising. An Islamic Reformation is the last thing on anyone's mind. Everyone seems to believe that an ideology that has not changed in 1400 years can never change. Not true. The fact that Islamic doctrine has remained unchanged is what has resulted in the decline of Muslim society, and a tipping point has either been reached or is imminent. Something has to give, and the best outcome would be a peaceful reformation within Islam itself rather than a war of civilisations. The Left can help bring about such a peaceful outcome, but first they need to get their collective heads out of the sand and learn to think big again.

I am not alone in criticising liberals for their lack of courage. "Dear Fellow Liberals" is a particularly candid one that makes the same criticism of American liberals over their lack of courage in dealing with Islam. How To Be An Islamist Apologist is even more scathing. And in the Indian context, the charge has been made that liberals don't really support freedom of expression.

It seems clear to everyone but the liberals that their pusillanimity in confronting illiberal thought in Islam has seriously damaged their credibility in the eyes of the undecided majority. This is why they are losing the argument to a newly-belligerent Right that has no compunctions about drawing false equivalences between illiberal ideologies and the communities that nominally identify with them. If the liberals abandon the discourse to the Right, bigotry will take over and we will see increased strife over the coming years.

If liberals want to avoid such a dystopian future, they need to be able to tell uncomfortable home truths about Islam just as they do with every other ideology.

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