By Mustafa Malik
"Bernie Sanders won’t beat Hillary” Clinton. And “Jeremy Corbyn probably won’t be Britain’s next prime minister.” All the same, “liberalism is living dangerously,” and you would be wise to “hedge [your] bet” against its demise. After all, “all orders pass away.”
I was floored by these year-end thoughts of Ross Douthat, a right-wing columnist for the New York Times. Douthat has been a card-carrying apologist for liberalism. Classical liberalism, that is. The ideology that says the right to life, liberty, property and social equality has been bestowed on us by nature. Not the “liberal” label that Donald Trump or Newt Gingrich would use to demonize Sanders, Noam Chomsky or Paul Krugman.
A traditionalist Catholic, Douthat resents Pope Francis’s “ostentatious humility.” He believes that the pope’s humble lifestyle and progressive words and deeds are a ruse to camouflage a “plot.” That plot is meant to recognize the remarriage of divorced Catholics, give them the sacrament of the Eucharist, and sidestep other long-established Church rules. The columnist opposes any dramatic deviation from the Catholic tradition.
For all his worries about liberalism, Douthat remains its inveterate defender. He points out, proudly, that liberalism’s past ideological rivals such as fascism and communism have failed. So would, he predicts, the “vision of a new Islamic empire,” proclaimed by the Islamic State in Iraq and greater Syria (ISIS). So would Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “Stalinist nostalgia.”
What, then, is bothering him? Why wouldn’t he bet on the survival of the liberal, capitalist system? Well, the Harvard alumnus says he sees some “cracks in the liberal order.” What are they? The Black Lives Matter movement continues to show its “potency.” Trump is drawing big crowds, despite his “boastful authoritarianism” and bizarre antics. Streams of Democratic voters, on the other hand, are romping and whooshing to “crypto-Marxist” Sanders' rallies, as though mesmerized by his socialist rhetoric. More worrisome, polls are showing Americans’ “declining faith in democracy.”
The spectacle is as bleak in Europe, according to Douthat. The European Union project is wobbling from a surge of ethnic nationalism, separatism, and economic crises, especially in Greece, Hungary and Poland. If that was not all, Angela Merkel’s decision to accept “a million Middle Eastern refugees” jangles his mind with the specter of an Islamized Europe, as envisioned in Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission.
Douthat’s concerns are legitimate, except that he is rather late to recognize them. A host of other Western intellectuals and polemicists already have. They are dismayed by the havoc the liberal capitalist order is wreaking everywhere. The top 5% of Americans are soaking up of most of the national income and wealth. The incomes of most people in the lower rungs of American society are dropping or stagnating. Families and communities are breaking down. Carbon emissions threatening the existence of the human species. And so on.
By and large, liberals seem to have become tone deaf about it. They continue to cherish in the old-line liberal mantra that you can solve the world’s problems and improve human conditions everywhere by holding on to and spreading liberal values and institutions (democracy, secularism, nationalism), and capitalist tools and processes (technology, trade, production and consumption). If free trade is costing American jobs and depressing American wages, charge ahead with it, anyway. Never mind democracy is facilitating, instead of stopping, capitalist greed and social injustices in the West. Spread it around, nonetheless.
Except for a circle of sociologists and philosophers (among them Peter Berger, David Martin, Grace Davie, Daniele Herview-Leger, and very lately Jurgen Habermas), most Western scholars and intellectuals are caught up in this charade. They react to the blowbacks of what has been called the “crisis of liberalism” with clichés and canned answers from received knowledge.
Question: Why are Greek and Hungarian economies in a mess?
Answer: Well, their leaders are irresponsible and have not learned the rules of capitalism and the market economy.
Q: Why are xenophobia, racism and Islamophobia surging in Europe?
A: Europeans are scared stiff by “the invasion” Muslim workers and refugees. These Islamic reactionaries would not assimilate into their host societies and threaten to tear up the liberal order in Europe. Naturally, people are losing patience with them.
Years ago I read in a medical journal that people afflicted with terminal cancer go through several stages before reconciling with their fate. The first is the stage of denial: The prognosis can’t be right. Let us have a second opinion. It follows spasms of anger: Why me? Why couldn’t my doctors find it out before it spread?
There is no denying the fact that the Enlightenment, the harbinger of liberalism, has changed our world, mostly for the better, beyond the imagination of our ancestors. As Isiah Berlin aptly said, “The intellectual power, honesty, lucidity, courage, and disinterested love of the truth of the most thinkers of the eighteenth century remain to this day without parallel.” The problem is that they went a bit overboard with their mission. The mission to create a brave new world with the flawed premise of universality of rationalism.
They revolted, rightly, against the abuses and corruption of the Roman Church. But they lost sight of the ennobling teachings of the Christian faith that Jesus and Paul brought to the world: humanity, compassion, community, and aversion to greed and materialism. They threw the baby out with the bath water.
The Enlightenment’s Achilles’ hill has been a basic misconception about human nature. The belief, which is credited to Rene Descartes but can be traced to Plato, is that we are all alike in our basic mindsets and style of reasoning. That our deeds and proclivities can be ascertained with the kind of scientific methods that Isaac Newton used to determine the laws of motion.
This old argument has been challenged by curious minds since the dawn of ontological thinking - from Greek sophists to David Hume to Giambattista Vico to Richard Rorty to my friend George McClean, professor emeritus of philosophy at Catholic University in Washington. They all maintain that we are cultural products, that our thought processes and value judgment are conditioned by our cultural environment, not by any universally applicable standards. “[T]here is no such thing as a human nature, independent of culture,” as Cliffort Geertz puts it presciently.
Liberal rationalists reject this view and hold on to their a priori notion that liberal recipes for progress and fulfillment would apply everywhere. Among the latest disasters caused by this belief and attitude was the Iraq war. The invasion of Iraq was planned by neoconservative Ph.Ds. to plant Western-style liberal democracy in Iraq’s traditional Muslim society. From there, they said, such democracy would spread to other Muslim countries. The devastation of Iraq, loss of nearly a million Iraqi lives and the birth of ISIS have been among the outcome of this experimentation.
Liberalism is all about methods. It does not relate to the sources of realities. Newton saw an apple falling from a tree, and discovered the law of gravity. One of the most momentous, epoch-making scientific discoveries ever. Humanity will forever remain indebted to him for it. The questions that Vico would have asked the renowned physicist, and remain unanswered to this day: Why was the gravity there? Or the apple?
Our friend Douthat is worried about the “cracks” he sees in the liberal social and political model, and appears to be getting reconciled with the prospect of its demise because “all orders pass away.”
Would he ever wonder why?
Maybe we should follow up on the question another day.
• Mustafa Malik, an international affairs commentator in Washington, hosts the blog: Muslim Journey (http://muslimjourney.com).
Iraq's Shiite militias have “cemented control not only over the Baghdad government, but the balance of military power, designed to destroy Sunni influence.”
The government of Shiite Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has “begun wiping out the Army's Sunni leadership,” and his Interior Ministry “has also fired several thousands of other Sunni security forces in the past several weeks while continuing to arrest and 'disappear' [sic] thousands of Sunnis."
It’s feared “that the next Syria is already unfolding right next door” in Iraq.
Bernie Sanders: "Saudi Arabia, turns out, has the third-largest defense budget in the world. Yet instead of fighting ISIS they have focused more on a campaign to oust Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen."
Get real, Sanders campaign!
More than 90% of Saudi and Qatari populations are Sunni Arabs, as are their monarchies, and they are anguished and angered by the Shiite atrocities and the American war that have caused grave hardships to Sunni Arabs in Iraq, which bred ISIS. ISIS gets most of its funding and fighters from these and other Arab countries.
Sunni Arabs and their governments, too, are locked in a stupid but bitter power struggle with Shiite Iran and the Shiite regime in Iraq. As part of that struggle, the Saudi monarchy is now bombing Shiite Houthis in Yemen.
The Saudi and Qatari monarchies aren’t going to risk an ‘Arab Spring’ in their countries by joining Americans, and Shiites in Iran and Iraq to fight their fellow Sunni Arabs in ISIS.
Expecting Sunni Arabs to go to war against the Sunni Arab ISIS is a pipe dream, which reminds me of the neocons’ and the Bush administration’s fantasy to make post-Saddam Iraq a democratic “Arab Germany”!
“American officials say they believe that Pakistan’s army has become more serious about fighting the Taliban and encouraging peace talks because the generals are increasingly worried that a Taliban victory could make Afghanistan a more attractive magnet for the Islamic State and other militants who could threaten Pakistan. Other experts are doubtful. Whether a stronger personal connection between Mr. Modi and Mr. Sharif can lead to real trust and cooperation on such issues remains to be seen.”
I like the Times editorial board’s positive feedback on the prospects for better relations between Pakistan and India. But the rationale for the revival of the dialogue between Islamabad and New Delhi eludes editorial’s U.S.-centric perspectives. Despite Pakistan’s on again, off again attacks on Taliban targets (mostly to keep the U.S. aid flowing in), its government and military are certainly not “increasingly worried about a Taliban victory” in Afghanistan. Pakistanis always have supported the Afghan Taliban to resist India’s half-century-long efforts to court Kabul and use it to badger Pakistan, so Pakistanis may quit supporting the Kashmiri militants struggling for independence or wide autonomy against New Delhi. So far Pakistan has manifestly succeeded in its Taliban strategy. It's unlikely to change the strategy.
Neither are Pakistanis too worried about ISIS gaining a foothold in Afghanistan, even though they may be telling Washington that they are.
Remember the United States "liberated" Iraq from Saddam Hussein, Libya from Muammar Gadhafi, Iran from Mohammed Mosaddeq, Chile from Salvador Allende, Guatemala from Jacobo Árbenz, Brazil from João Goulart, and so on and on?
What happened to those societies after their liberation?
ISIS has committed heinous crimes. So did Saddam Hussein. But what has America accomplished though the use of its colossal military and economic power to overthrow Saddam, destroy Iraq and unleash the vengeful Shiite militia and Iranian military units against Iraq’s hapless Sunni Arab minority?
I’m afraid, I wish I were not, that the “liberation” of Ramadi and the war on ISIS aren’t going have a better outcome than the destruction of the capital of Anbar province and other towns and cities. If ISIS is dislodged from its Iraqi and Syrian strongholds, the result would be same as that of hounding out Al Qaeda from the caves in the Hindu Kush mountains. ISIS very likely will fan out to myriad other societies, as Al Qaeda has, and pose, I’m sad to say, even greater threats to American security.
I know America’s political and military establishments are prepared to pay the price, whatever it is, for their pleasure to serve as the policemen in the Middle East. Are Americans?
Do American politicians and generals know that ISIS is the outcome of their thoughtless and catastrophic invasion of Iraq? Are they going to consider the proposition that they may not have, and don’t need to have, solutions to every political or social trouble facing the world? That whatever global problem they may want to try to tackle, diplomacy is always a better, more cost-effective, and often more productive tool to use than the military?
I was alarmed by the torrent of xenophobia and anti-Muslim frenzy that gushed out of tonight’s Republican presidential debate. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, who moderated the forum, actually whipped up the delirium.
He devoted almost the entire two-hour debate to questions about how to destroy ISIS and tackle Islamic extremism, whether to impose a blanket ban on Muslim entry into the United States, and accept any Syrian refugees, including orphans and widows; and so on.
If my memory is serving me well, Blitzer and two other CNN reporters never asked a question about the economy, guns, law and order, or other burning domestic issues. The candidates were mostly vying with one another about how tough they would get with “radical Islamic jihadists.” Carson went on reiterating his pitch for carpet-bombing ISIS strongholds. Trump reiterated his call for slaughtering families of Muslim terror suspects, and so on. But the candidates were hostages to the CNN panel of questioners, who kept on hammering on ISIS, Islamic extremism and securing the borders against Muslim visitors and immigrants.
CNN must have got its rating running through the roof by ratcheting up the war hysteria (and would reap a bonanza from covering another war in the Middle East, if there is one).
It reminded me of media hysteria during the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war. In fact the danger posed to America by corporate ownership of American media was never so vivid to me than it was tonight.
- Georgetown UniversityInternational Relations, 1977 - 1980U.S.-Soviet military balance, Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty II.
I am is a journalist and researcher and the host of the blog http://beyond-freedom.com/
My writings appear in the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, Atlanta Constitution, Miami Herald, St Louis Post-Dispatch and other U.S. newspapers and journals. They also run in Turkish, Lebanese, Egyptian, Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi publications.
I have conducted primary investigation of Islamic cultural patterns in North America and Western Europe, Turkey’s Kurdish question, security options for the Persian Gulf and nationalist experiments in the Indian subcontinent, Iraq and Lebanon. For my research I had fellowships for his research from the University of Chicago Middle East Center, German Marshall Fund, American Friends Service Committee and other organizations.
Earlier, I worked as a reporter, editor and columnist for the Hartford Courant, Washington Times, Glasgow Herald and other newspapers.
I live in the Washington suburbs.
- Hartford Courant, Glasgow HeraldEditor, columnist
- University of Chicago Middle East CenterResearch Associate
- German Marshall FundJournalism Fellow