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Western liberalism is no match for the Islamic Game of Thrones

19 November 2015

11:05 AM

19 November 2015

11:05 AM

As a graduate student in the Harvard Government Department in the late 1980s, I became slightly jaded about the number of visiting professors who warned about the imminent demise of the West. The thrust of their arguments was nearly always the same. The secular liberal values we cherish, such as freedom of speech and the separation of church and state, won’t survive in the face of growing, religious disenchantment with modernity unless they’re rooted in something more meaningful than rational individualism. They were talking about Islamic Fundamentalism, obviously, although sometimes they threw in Christian Fundamentalism as well in order not to seem ‘Orientalist’ or ‘ethnocentric’.

These political scientists were, without exception, left-of-centre and their critique of garden-variety liberalism was usually accompanied by a call for some version of utopian socialism or – its diffusion brand – ‘communitarianism’. I was a member of a small band of conservatives in the Department and, after the visitors’ words had been warmly received by almost everyone else, one of us would pipe up and ask how long they thought we had left. Ten years? 15? 50? If they were foolish enough to name a date, the follow-up was instantaneous: ‘Care to make a wager?’

There have been many occasions since then when I’ve regretted that callow reaction, with the terrorist attack in Paris being the latest example. The West has rarely seemed weaker or more exhausted than in the past week, with President Obama reduced to mouthing Thought For The Day-style platitudes, Jeremy Corbyn re-iterating his opposition to an armed response – he even has difficulty with the police being allowed to kill terrorists *in the act of murdering people* – and the usual arguments about whether the Islamic State is genuinely Islamic. (I will return to that question below, but for a comprehensive demolition of the notion that it isn’t, see this film by the historian Tom Holland on This Week.)

What’s so demoralising is the lack of any firm leadership – the inability of the liberal democracies to speak with one voice. Britain and America can no longer serve as the nucleus of an allied response, as they did in 2001, thanks in part to the political fall out from the War on Terror. I won’t rehearse that argument here, and it may be that David Cameron will yet manage to secure the Parliamentary backing for airstrikes against Syria that eluded him in 2013, but the public on both sides of the Atlantic have little appetite for another full-blown Middle Eastern adventure. The daily slaughter by the Islamic State of anyone it deems a ‘Crusader’ or an ‘apostate’ – Christians, Yazidis, Kurds – will continue.

But it isn’t just the inadequacy of the West’s response to this latest outrage that suggests the horse is ‘weak’, to use Osama bin Laden’s metaphor. It’s the fact that the terrorists were, for the most part, French and Belgian nationals. The values enshrined in the Declaration of the Rights of Man have proved to be pretty thin gruel next to the heady cocktail of anti-Western ideology and a brutally literal interpretation of the Quran.

Back in 2011, the Prime Minister called for a more aggressive approach to promoting Western values – what he called ‘muscular liberalism’ – and that attitude has found its way into various policies, such as the ‘Prevent strategy’ and the new requirement, enforced by Ofsted, that English schools teach ‘British values’. But it’s doubtful that young Muslims in the Parisian banlieue, the breeding ground of Islamic radicalism, have been exposed to even a weak defence of values like religious tolerance, let alone a muscular one. According to a recent ICM poll, 16 per cent of French citizens have a positive view of Islamic State, with the figure rising to 27 per cent among 18-24 year olds. That’s more than a quarter of all French 18-24 year olds who think it’s just fine to behead aid workers, throw homosexuals off buildings and sexually enslave 12-year-old girls. If French professeurs are teaching children about human rights they aren’t doing a very good job.


That is certainly the view of a growing band of right-wing French intellectuals called les nouveaux reactionnaires, that Patrick Marnham wrote about in The Spectator last month. They blame multiculturalism, moral relativism and post-colonial guilt for the reluctance of French schoolteachers (and media panjandrums) to promote the values that have defined France since the 1792 revolution, such as anti-clericalism, a sense of universal brotherhood and egalité. Their solution, apart from replacing François Hollande with Marine Le Pen in 2017, is to call a halt to Muslim immigration and do whatever it takes to get France’s existing Muslim population to ‘integrate’ properly, starting with the vigorous enforcement of the niqab ban introduced by Sarkozy five years ago.

I’m all for the ‘muscular’ promotion of liberal values in schools (although I’m not sure about egalité), but how effective is that likely to be? A crash course in the virtues of limited government and the rule of law, drawing on the writings of John Locke, Immanuel Kant and Thomas Jefferson, may not win over the hearts or minds of the disaffected Muslim youths of Molenbeek, the wretched Belgian suburb where several of the Parisian terrorists hailed from. Hard to imagine them sitting down and working their way through Winston Churchill’s four-volume History of the English Speaking People.

What’s required, according to Maajid Nawaz, the jihadist-turned-liberal-commentator, is not just an adjustment to the curriculum taught in Europe’s schools, but an alternative narrative that’s as compelling as the propaganda churned out by the Islamic State on social media.

We shouldn’t make the mistake of under-estimating just how alluring the other side’s narrative is. One of the reasons it’s unhelpful to describe the Islamic State as ‘un-Islamic’, well-intentioned though that may be, is because its propagandists are so skilful at winning over mainstream Muslims. They sell their particular brand of Islam on the grounds that it’s the only interpretation that’s faithful to the sayings and actions of Muhammad and they draw on a considerable body of Islamic scholarship to substantiate that claim. Even Muslims well-versed in the Quran find it hard to come up with good arguments as to why this painstakingly literal reading of it is ‘un-Islamic’. (So what hope does President Obama have?) For chapter and verse on this, I recommend this article in the Atlantic by Graeme Wood, which is one of the best things I’ve read on the group.

Wood compares this defiantly pre-modern version of Islam to a medieval fantasy novel, except with real blood. The Islamic State’s narrative, rooted in this religious framework, has some of the same broad-based, popular appeal as the Lord of the Rings saga, pitting a plucky band of righteous warriors against the massed ranks of evildoers, bent on world domination. The story ends, as prophesised by Muhammad, with a battle-to-end-all-battles in which the sinners are vanquished and the righteous ascend to heaven, led by Jesus, whom the ultra-conservative Muslims of the Islamic State regard as second only to Muhammad in the prophet pecking order.

Be in no doubt that the Islamic State’s propagandists know how to sell this package to their Muslim target audience. Using the type of storytelling techniques that you’d expect to find in video games or Hollywood blockbusters, they convince them that it is their religious duty, particularly now a bona fide Caliphate has been established, to make their way to the new Holy Land and take up arms against the non-believers. For a young, unemployed Muslim man in the Midlands, faced with a choice between watching Birmingham FC slide down the Championship table, or taking part in an epic adventure in a far-flung part of the world in which he gets to participate in a real-life battle of good against evil, it’s a no brainer. It’s a life stripped bare of all meaning, versus a starring role in the Islamic version of Game of Thrones.

So what the West needs is a competing narrative, using the same story-telling techniques as the jihadis, that promotes the universal values of the Enlightenment. But what might this look like? Should David Cameron create a propaganda arm of the Extremism Taskforce that’s staffed by TV producers, advertising copyrighters, screenwriters and video game developers and give them the job of coming up with ways of selling the sacred texts of secular liberalism to an 18-year-old Grand Theft Auto addict with ADD? Not muscular liberalism, so much as PlayStation liberalism.

Can it be done? Maybe. One obvious difficulty is that Western values don’t have the same sub-cultural glamour as a 7th century religious cult – we can’t really claim to be the underdogs, however ‘mad’ the culture of political correctness has gone. The jihadis pouring into the Levant think of themselves as joining a rebel alliance surrounded by powerful enemies on all sides. The liberal democracies, with their fighter jets, surveillance technology and nuclear arsenals, seem more like the evil Galactic Empire.

Another problem is that liberal values are too nice. They’ve evolved as a means of resolving conflicts in democratic societies, not provoking them; they’re inclusive rather than exclusive. Indeed, one of the reasons liberals are so mealy-mouthed and equivocal about promoting their beliefs is that their values are supposed to be compatible with a huge range of different ideas about what a good life consists of, including philosophies that sit outside their tradition. There’s something essentially pacific about liberalism, which makes it a poor competitor for the allegiance of angry young men next to the super-charged bellicosity of medieval Islam.

Liberalism offers its adherents peace and prosperity – it appeals to man’s desire for comfortable self-preservation, as Nietzsche pointed out. That’s fairly tepid and uninspiring compared to the intoxicating wine of Islamic radicalism, which promises life-and-death struggle, followed by eternal bliss. To emphasise this point, Graeme Wood quotes George Orwell on the appeal of Nazi-ism:

Fascism is psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life… Whereas socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people ‘I offer you a good time,’ Hitler has said to them, ‘I offer you struggle, danger, and death,’ and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet … We ought not to underrate its emotional appeal.

Perhaps the greatest difficulty, though, is the absence of any authority Western liberals can appeal to that can match the divine authority claimed by the Islamists. The Enlightenment project of basing liberal values on reason and empiricism has long been discredited and we’ve probably left it too late to reverse the decline of Christianity. Even if that was possible, it’s hard to see how it would sit with the anti-clericalism that animates so much of the liberal tradition. Could some mishmash of pre-Christian religions, yoked to secular humanism, serve in its place? Marvel Studios seems to be making a pretty good fist of it, but the difference is that no one in the cinema audience thinks the Avengers are real, whereas every Holy Warrior in the Caliphate believes in God and the prophet.

There’s no obvious liberal solution to the challenge posed by Islamic Fundamentalism and in the absence of one emerging, the future described by the French novelist Michel Houellebecq seems ever-more likely. In his latest novel, the aptly named Submission, France becomes an Islamic republic in 2022, with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Socialist Party uniting behind a French-Tunisian President to keep out the Front National. Judging from the British left’s accommodations with Islamism, that doesn’t seem too far-fetched. If this particular Cassandra offered me a wager, I’m not sure I’d take it.

This is a longer version of Toby Young’s Status Anxiety column in this week’s Spectator.

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