Liberalism and tolerance

Published November 27, 2004

AS we watch the backlash against Muslims and Islam continue its destructive path in the West, we tend to forget that much has changed under our noses right here without any serious desire to stop the slide.

A European who has been married to an old (Pakistani) friend has made Karachi her home, and spent the first twenty years of her married life in Pakistan. She now visits it for extended periods, still maintaining a home here. Sensitive to local sensibilities, she never appears in public with arms or legs exposed. She has loved shopping in the bazaars, and as she speaks passable Urdu, she has been able to be fairly independent. But she is very upset over the behaviour of people now: where earlier she found courtesy and consideration wherever she went, she is now jostled, pushed and stared at.

This may be just one instance of behavioural change, but is still an indication of the xenophobia and blind anti-western sentiments that have gripped so many Muslims. Outraged at how some westerners view and treat Muslims, they are blind to where their own prejudices have taken them.

The ongoing reaction over the murder of the Dutch filmmaker, Theo Van Gogh, in Holland, and the resultant anti-Muslim anger there is another indication of the direction this confrontation is taking. Having visited this peaceful country once a decade ago, I was very struck by its liberal, laid-back attitudes. It seemed that anybody could do whatever he or she liked, provided nobody was coerced or hurt. With its easy acceptance of immigrants, Holland has a million Muslims out of a total population of 16 million.

Now the Dutch are increasingly viewing these Muslims, even the large number born and brought up in their country, as a disturbing internal threat. Polls indicate that a majority wants immigrants to go back’. Indeed, many illegal immigrants are now facing the very real threat of forced repatriation.

In France, another European country with a large Muslim minority, tensions between the two communities is running high. Indeed, across the continent, there is a growing consensus calling for tougher measures to deal with immigration. The subtext here is that fewer Muslims should be allowed in.

The question being asked across the spectrum is “ as the Economist put it “ How far should liberal societies tolerate the intolerant?’ And this raises many disturbing points. Muslims alone are not the losers in this debate: liberal societies will lose some of their hard-gained freedoms and values by being tougher on one section of their society, no matter what the reasons. The bottom line is that tolerance and liberalism are not divisible. Either you accept and practise them, or you don’t.

But it is equally clear that militant Islam is testing these values to their limits. By allegedly murdering a well-known figure like Theo Van Gogh (who, incidentally, was the great-grandnephew of Vincent Van Gogh), the young Dutch Muslim of Moroccan descent committed the act of ultimate intolerance.

Despite the fact that Van Gogh’s films were widely seen as being disrespectful of Islam and Muslims, the truth is that such expressions of artistic freedom are widely available and tolerated in liberal societies. If they upset you, simply don’t watch or read them. But to react with such extreme violence is incomprehensible. The famous Salman Rushdie affair caused an uproar because a death sentence was viewed as a bit over the top in terms of literary criticism.

Many people who have grown up in socially deeply conservative societies have a very hard time coming to terms with the freedoms available in liberal countries. Indeed, they take this personal liberty as a sign of decadence, and often despise westerners as effete and irreligious. Unfortunately, they do not comprehend the centuries of strife and struggle that have gone into attaining this level of secularism and freedom from the church, society and the state.

In short, westerners who have grown up in their liberal societies, and Muslims with their far more rigid code of conduct, could have come from two different planets. This is why Muslims immigrants in the West have traditionally been the last to integrate into the mainstream out of all the different ethnic and religious groups.

One direct result of this destructive friction is the fundamentalist terrorism that now threatens the peace and stability of the world. Refusing to accept that their current attitudes and inflexible belief system have made them losers and pariahs, extremists lash out in anger and frustration, producing events like 9/11. The problem is that these people do not have the sophistication of analysis necessary to see that their desperate actions hurt the Muslim world far more than they do the West.

Oddly, as the Muslim world becomes more insular and xenophobic, more of its young people want to migrate to the very West they hate so much. Indeed, a recent survey indicates that as many as 51 per cent of the young (between 15 and 25) from the Middle East would like to leave their homes and migrate.

But the far fewer numbers who do succeed find it very difficult to make the mental adjustments necessary to accept the values of the majority. Refusing to integrate, they and their children remain torn and unhappy. Westerners ask the obvious questions: If these people hate us and our society so much, why did they come in the first place? And if they are so deeply unhappy, why don’t they go back?’

Refusing to accept the injustice and misery at home, and appalled at the freedoms they see around them when they arrive in their promised land, they are unable to achieve a synthesis that will bring them peace and equilibrium. This is a moral and philosophical quandary for millions of Muslims trying to make a life abroad. Too often, these troubled souls fall victim to the siren song of extremism that seems to show them the way out of their existentialist conundrum.

For westerners, too, the presence of millions of foreigners in their midst who refuse to integrate, or even accept the basic values of secularism, liberalism and democracy, presents an uncomfortable dilemma. Different societies have tried to work out different solutions, with varying results. So far, nobody can claim to have an answer to this most vexed question of our times: How far should liberal societies tolerate the intolerant?’

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