by Melanie Phillips
In this lecture given at Neo magazine’s recent Stockholm conference, British journalist and author Melanie Phillips argues that the West faces two enemies: the violent Islamists waging a holy war against it and a paralyzing corruption of its traditional liberalism, which intellectually disarms it in the face of jihadist assault. Contrib. Ed.
First of all, let me define my terms and say what I mean by Islamism and liberalism. Islamism is the politicised version of Islam that mandates jihad, or holy war against the infidel and conquest of the non-Islamic world for Islam. I’m well aware of the argument that there’s no difference between Islamism and Islam: that’s a theological argument for others to have.
By liberalism I mean the commitment to a free society, founded above all on the separation of secular government from religious worship — from which follow the concepts of equal respect for all people, freedom of conscience, tolerance and the rule of law.
These two concepts, Islamism and liberalism, are currently engaged in a fight to the death. My argument is that liberalism is in danger of losing this fight because it has so badly undermined itself and departed from its own core concepts that it is now paralysed by moral and intellectual muddle.
Liberalism is the creed of modernity. The driving force behind the Islamic jihad is the fight against liberalism and modernity. All the iconic conflicts — Iraq, Israel, Kashmir, Chechnya, Sudan —are secondary to the fundamental aim of the jihad to prevent liberalism and modernity from destroying Islam.
The founding ideologue of modern Islamism, Syed Qutb, made clear in his writings that at the core of the salafi interpretation of Islam was opposition to the separation of religion and temporal power that resulted in liberalism and democracy. His governing impulse was the fear that the instinct for liberty was so powerful it would spread to and infiltrate the Muslim mind unless checked by the most repressive possible form of Islam.
The Big and Little Satans themselves, America and Israel, are proxies for liberalism and modernity. That’s why Islamism says they must be destroyed. Qutb famously went to America and concluded from seeing men and women dancing at a church hop that America was one giant brothel. And much of the bitter hostility to the Jews who started returning to Palestine in the 1920s was because the women wore shorts and were sexually free.
The Islamist goal is to destroy the virus of freedom and modernity before it infects the Islamic world, and to replace it with Islam. That is the core of the profound threat it poses to the west, a threat mounted through the pincer movement of both terrorism and cultural takeover.
This cultural takeover, or the aim to Islamise the west, was explicitly laid out in a programme of subversion for Europe by the Wahhabi Muslim Brotherhood almost 30 years ago. In 1978, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference sponsored a seminar in London that said Muslim communities in western countries must establish autonomous institutions with help from Muslim states, and lobby the host country to grant Muslims recognition as a separate religious community as a step towards eventual political domination.
In Britain in 1980, a book called ‘The Islamic Movement in the West’ by Khuram Murad advocated an ‘organised struggle to change the existing society into an Islamic society…and make Islam…supreme and dominant especially in the socio-political spheres…’ A Muslim Brotherhood document seized in Switzerland in 2001, known as ‘The Project’, outlined a twelve-point strategy to ‘establish an Islamic government on earth’. And the Brotherhood has now set up an intricate network of bodies across Europe to put all this into action.
Many Muslims in Britain and around the world are deeply opposed to this; indeed Muslims are the most numerous victims of the jihad. That’s why I use the term Islamism, to distinguish those who believe in Islamic conquest from those who merely draw upon Islam for spiritual sustenance. But at the same time, it is false to deny that Islamism is the dominant force in the Muslim and Arab world, false to deny that it is radicalising millions of Muslims in the west, and false to deny the huge inroads it has made into western society through this pincer movement of terrorism and cultural pressure.
But many in the west do deny it. They ignore the clear evidence of the goal of Islamising the west. They choose to believe instead that the reason for Islamist terror lies in the wrongs the west has done to the Islamic world —Iraq or Palestine, discrimination or Islamophobia. Indeed, even to speak in this way is to invite the deadly label of Islamophobia — a term invented to shut down legitimate and vital debate about Islamism. Far from defending core liberal values that are thus singled out for destruction, such people thus side with or appease those who attack them. So Europe — bastion of free speech — attacked those newspapers that published and re-published the Mohammed cartoons. And liberals committed to human rights march on the streets of London, behind banners saying Free Iraq and Free Palestine, shoulder to shoulder with Islamists who believe in death to gays.
Why is a liberal society so reluctant to defend its own most cherished values of freedom and tolerance? The answer, I suggest, lies both in the intrinsic nature of liberalism — and also in what I would call our dominant culture of corrupted liberalism, in which true liberal values have actually been turned on their heads.
Corruption of liberal values
Our corrupted liberal culture has torn up the key precepts of liberalism so that it no longer knows what they are, let alone stands ready to defend them to the death. Authentic liberalism was a doctrine of social progress based on maximising the good in people’s behaviour and minimising the bad. It thus depended upon making moral distinctions between good and bad.
But these distinctions have been destroyed by a combination of hyper-individualism —which grew out of liberalism — and a form of cultural Marxism whose agenda is to destroy liberal values. Between them, these trends tore up the concepts of objectivity, authority and the Judeo-Christian moral codes underpinning western values and substituted emotion, subjectivity, and moral and cultural relativism.
All lifestyles were now deemed to have equal status. Social or moral norms were intolerable because by definition they excluded those who lay outside them. So normative values were replaced by those of groups hitherto deemed to lie outside them. Such self-designated ‘victim’ groups became unchallengeable: they could now do no wrong, while the dominant culture could do no right. And ‘universal’ human rights law became the judicial weapon for minorities to overturn the values of the dominant culture.
Under the banner of liberal values, this actually destroyed the core precept of liberalism — the distinction between right and wrong, good and bad, truth and lies. Instead, feelings and emotion became most important. The particulars of a culture were deemed hurtful and thus illegitimate because by definition they divided one culture from another. The nation, rooted as it is in the particulars of history, religion, law, language and tradition, became seen as the cause of all the ills of the world from prejudice to war. And the culture of a nation had to be replaced by multiculturalism.
Many people think multiculturalism just means showing respect and tolerance to other cultures and faiths. If that were so, it should be unarguable. We should all support respect and tolerance. But that’s not what multiculturalism is at all. It holds that all minority values must have equal status to those of the majority. Any attempt to uphold majority values over minorities is a form of prejudice. That turns minorities into a cultural battering ram to destroy the very idea of being a majority culture at all. And so, since no culture can assert itself over any other, liberalism cannot assert itself as a dominant cultural force. Instead society must fragment into a kaleidoscope of equal — and opposing —values, and liberal values must give way to their opposite.
That is what happened over the Mohammed cartoons. Freedom of expression is a key liberal precept. But under multiculturalism, that cannot trump a minority faith that holds that to publish these images is to give offence. So the minority wins over the liberal majority value, and Europeans decry not the violence and intimidation, the kidnappings, riots and murder which followed the publication of the cartoons but the offence to minority religious feelings that was given in publishing them.
Multiculturalism has produced furthermore two particularly lethal effects. First, it has left all immigrants abandoned, and none more lethally so than young Muslims. For if there is no longer an overarching culture, there is nothing into which minorities can integrate. Many young Muslims in Britain, stranded between the backward Asian village culture of their parents and the drug, alcohol and sex-saturated decadence that passes for western civilisation, are filled with disgust and self-disgust. They are then given, in our multicultural schools and wider culture, absolutely nothing to educate them about or fill them with respect and affection for the western society of which they are citizens.
Indeed, worse than that our schools fail to teach them historical truths. If they were taught the truth about, say, the crusades, slavery or the history of Israel and the Arabs — truths they will never have heard —this might make a huge difference to their attitudes. Instead, their heads are filled with distorted anti-western and anti-British propaganda that only reinforces the lies they are told in the Arab and Muslim world, deepens their feelings of grievance and resentment towards the west and further inflames their hatred of Americans and Jews. They are thus intensely vulnerable to the predatory jihadis recruiting in youth clubs, in prisons and on campus, who promise them self-respect and a purpose to life based on holy war.
Second, and worse still, multiculturalism has reversed the notions of truth and lies, victim and victimiser. Since minorities can do no wrong, they cannot be held responsible for acts such as suicide bombings, which must instead be the fault of their victims. This key confusion, which has caused intellectual and moral paralysis in the west, plays directly into the pathological Muslim victim culture that makes dialogue impossible. Because so many Muslims genuinely believe they are under attack by the west, which is a giant conspiracy to destroy Islam. So they perceive their own aggression as legitimate self-defence, and the west’s defence as aggression.
This fundamental untruth has created a dialogue of the demented. Because instead of treating it as the mad discourse that it is and refusing to play along with it, Britain regards it as an extension of its own multicultural, minority rights doctrine that routinely reverses victim and aggressor. So the untruths driving the terror are merely deepened —particularly since the left, which controls British and European culture, demonises America and Israel. So the central Islamist perception of the Big and Little Satan, America and Israel, is echoed in mainstream British discourse where anti-Americanism is rampant and Israel is well on the way to being delegitimised altogether. This acts as an echo chamber for Muslim prejudice, reinforcing it and fuelling the sense of paranoia and victimisation. And it has also released the virus of Judeophobia, with claims of a world Jewish conspiracy that are a re-run of the medieval blood libels leading to rising numbers of physical attacks on Jews. Our debased liberalism thus negates the power of reason, the key characteristic of liberal thinking, promotes murderous prejudice and weakens the west in its defence against Islamism by paving the way for its distortions and twisted thinking to take even deeper root.
What are the limits of tolerance?
People say, however, that the only alternative to multiculturalism is intolerance of minority faiths and cultures. This is completely wrong. It is a false antithesis; and it betrays a profound confusion between multiculturalism, which is fundamentally illiberal, and pluralism, which is the essence of a liberal society. Pluralism allows for many different groupings but, unlike multiculturalism, does not try to impose one uniform status on all of them. It allows a thousand flowers to bloom, with minorities forming communities of faith, ethnicity or culture within a society — but under the overarching umbrella of a national identity to whose core values everyone signs up. It is only by having that overarching set of common values — monogamy, freedom of conscience, equal rights for women, freedom of expression —that a society coheres as a common project. And a liberal society is no exception. If a liberal society doesn’t accept a hierarchy of values, that there are core principles that are non-negotiable and to which everyone must sign up, then by definition it can no longer remain a liberal society but must fragment into a kind of Balkanised tribalism in which the strongest groups win through intimidation or force.
A liberal, tolerant society — which is what Britain once was — welcomes and respects minorities within the overarching framework of British values. These provide a set of cultural norms from which groupings can deviate in their own private space, provided they do not conflict with the core precepts of our society. This is the basis of tolerance — and it has a quid pro quo. Ever since the Enlightenment the deal has been that, while the state makes no demands upon minorities practising their faith and culture in the private sphere, minorities in turn make no demands that the state must either adopt their own practices or turn a blind eye where the conflict is fundamental. Minorities do their own thing, but where their values conflict with the bedrock values of majority culture—freedom of speech, monogamy, women’s right—they must give way.
Most minorities accept this. Many Muslims accept it, and manage to reconcile their faith with acknowledging that sharia law must give way to English law and values. But a third to a half of British Muslims want to live in Britain under sharia law, even though its precepts —such as polygamy, the subordination of women or the death penalty for apostates or gays —are totally inimical to western society. And multiculturalism gives them the muscle to insist that their practices must become mainstream.
This confusion over liberalism and its multicultural antithesis is paralysing our ability to defend our way of life — and also defend those Muslims who need our protection from the Islamist threat to their liberty. In Britain, it has surfaced in controversies over the veil. In one legal case, the courts ruled that a 16 year old pupil had a ‘human right’ to wear the full length jilbab to school, even though the head teacher had banned it on the basis that it would cause other girls at the school to be intimidated and coerced into wearing it and signing up to extremism. And indeed the pupil herself was clearly being manipulated by Islamist groups. This ruling was eventually overturned. More recently, a huge debate erupted over whether Muslim women should be entitled to wear the face-concealing niqab veil in public situations such as consulting a member of Parliament, appearing as a witness in court or teaching children in class. Many thought they should not, and were promptly denounced for religious intolerance. It took Muslims themselves to point out to these muddled multiculturalists that wearing such veils was not a religious requirement at all but a wholly political act, designed to keep women servile, to intimidate the public and to recruit yet more to extremism.
What should be done, and isn’t being done
In the fight to defend the west, true liberals should face down the mind-twisting manipulation and say this: that Muslims are welcome and deserve respect for their way of life, but on the same terms as everyone else. There can be no discrimination, after all, as even multiculturalists must agree. And these are the terms laid down for everyone since the Enlightenment: that minorities are welcome to form communities of faith or culture, but they must accept that where there is a conflict with the host culture, the minority gives way. If they do not accept this but insist that the host society must change to accommodate their values, then they are by definition not moderate but extremists; not citizens but colonisers; not Muslims seeking religious freedom but Islamists seeking to destroy freedom.
And for Islamists there is no room in a liberal society. True liberals never thought they had a duty to accommodate fascism. True liberals always fought it. So must we do with religious fascism. Liberalism separates the religious from the secular; so we too must separate Muslim conscience, which we should respect, from Islamist conquest, which we must resist.
In the fight for liberalism, we must not give an inch. We must defend our society in two ways, negative and positive. On the negative side, we must stop Islamists recruiting to extremism and terrorism in our countries. On the positive side, we must staunchly reassert our own values. But we are actually doing neither of these things.
In Britain, despite some welcome success in stopping terror plots, we are doing virtually nothing to stop Islamists recruiting in the mosques, in prisons, in youth clubs and on campus. Last January, an undercover TV documentary revealed that certain prominent ‘moderate’ mosques were advocating the murder of homosexuals, the beating of women and hatred of Christians and Jews. Nothing is being done to address this.
Despite the Prime Minister’s promise to outlaw the radical group Hizb ut Tahrir (which believes that Britain should be an Islamic state), the Government refuses to do so. Yet this group is telling countless British Muslims that it’s their duty to wage holy war, and that Muslims have a duty ‘to be prepared to launch attacks on Britain from within’.
As for our values, far from reasserting them they are going down like ninepins. While our universities refuse to act against Islamists on campus on the grounds of freedom of expression, Leeds university cancelled a proposed lecture on the links between the Nazis and Islamic antisemitism after protests by two Muslim students. And after students at Cambridge university published a magazine satirising religion and which published one of the images from the Mohammed cartoons, they were disciplined by the university, threatened with prosecution by the police and forced to apologise to Muslims, Christians —and Jews, who hadn’t even been mentioned.
Above all, Britain must not allow the encroachment of sharia. Yet it is paving the way for sharia. There are now areas of the country under the informal parallel jurisdiction of sharia law. A blind eye has been turned to honour killings, forced marriage and polygamy – now polygamous men settling in Britain are even receiving welfare benefits for their multiple wives. We have sharia-compliant mortgages; our tax authorities are considering recognising polygamy for inheritance tax purposes; and the government is encouraging London to become the global hub of Islamic banking, despite the fact that such arrangements will force those who make use of them to conform to sharia law.
The problem is that we seem to suffer from the innate weakness of liberalism while failing to benefit from its strengths. Those strengths lie in its claim to universalism, its governing belief that liberty and equality are the inalienable rights of human beings everywhere. But we don’t uphold this because multiculturalism tells us it’s wrong to impose our standards on those who don’t share them.
At the same time, we have the innate weakness of liberalism in spades. We see everything through the prism of the profound liberal delusion that the world is governed by reason and that all people have goodwill. This means that liberals cannot grasp that some of the things that divide people are insuperable barriers and are not susceptible to reason. They cannot acknowledge the transcendent and irreducible nature of religious fanaticism. They think instead that everything is subject to negotiation and compromise. So their instinct is to reach out to Islamists to reason with them, to draw the poison of this extremism by giving it rewards and inducements that will play to the fanatic’s self-interest and turn him into a pillar of western society. That is why liberals do appeasement; and Britain, the cradle of liberalism, does it better than anyone else.
Liberals also think they are superior in intelligence to everyone else. So they don’t understand that the Islamists are actually playing them for suckers, exploiting the intrinsic weakness of a liberal society they correctly assess as decadent: no longer prepared to fight for its values because it no longer even knows what they are.
What we are living through in the west is nothing short of a repudiation of the Enlightenment, a repudiation of reason; and its substitution by irrationality, obscurantism, bigotry and clerical totalitarianism — all facilitated by our so-called ‘liberal’ society, and all in the name of ‘human rights’. Western liberalism now embraces its Islamist mortal enemies and attacks its American and Israeli allies in the fight to defend civilisation.
We are giving the Islamists the message that we are theirs for the taking. This is how liberalism may disappear up its own backside.
With credit to Neo magazine, sponsor of the conference at which presented, this lecture is reprinted with permission of the author, whose website is <melaniephillips.com>
Recipient of the 1996 Orwell Prize for journalism, Melanie Phillips is best known for her columns in the Daily Mail. The author of All Must Have Prizes, an acclaimed study of Britain’s educational and moral crisis, she regards herself as a defender of authentic liberal values.