Ideas & Philosophy — 22 February 2006

Four years after the War on Terror was launched and despite centuries of western interventions in the Muslim world, western nations remain in control but out of sorts. Over two centuries after the enlightenment, secular free market liberals dominate just about every important nation in the twenty first century, yet the western enlightened agenda has stalled. Cynicism has surged. A sense of a strong society is dead. And when voters are asked about their political rulers, the sense of apathy is electric.

In America, Congress and the President have approval ratings of less than 50%. In the United Kingdom, Tony Blair gained power comfortably in 2005 with an “overwhelming” minority of 22% of the popular vote. In the Muslim world over two thirds of respondents cite the US and Israel as the two countries that pose the greatest threat to them.

For supporters of a movement that is supposed to be winning the battle of ideas, western secular liberals are in a mess.This is not to say that in the battle of ideas those that advocate alternatives have managed to succeed either, but for many people western specific ideas of secularism, capitalism, individualism and materialism are the only games in town. So what has gone wrong?

Firstly, most of the issues that attracted people to secular enlightenment principles have been addressed. Most people were attracted to liberalism because they feared the communist threat from the Soviet Union, wanted to gain economic prosperity and sought to gain more individual freedom from the state. With the demise of Communism, an era of unparalleled consumerism and popular acceptance for western states to curtail civil liberties in the War on Terror, many of these issues are no longer as burning as they once were.

Secondly, democracy, the chosen system of the enlightenment, has been semi-absorbed into the politics of the corporate trough. When Enlightenment thinkers such as Montesquieu and Locke were in their most creative phase, there was meant to be a distinction between the executive and the oligarchs. Politicians pursued policy ideas and were meant to be motivated by public service, while oligarchs and business elites pursued wealth and were motivated by avarice. However in the modern democracies of today, that distinction has become blurred. The corruption and bribery scandals currently engulfing the US Congress and the Indian Parliament are another example of the incestuous relationship between politicians and corporations. Paul Krugman commenting in the New YorkTimes about the corruption scandals affecting politicians and think tanks, states the real question as being ‘Who else is on the take? Or has the culture of corruption spread so far that the question is,Who isn’t?’

Many former politicians after leaving office immediately metamorphosed into corporate lobbyists or gained senior executive roles; this is not just confined to the United States where ethics today seem to have taken an extended vacation. Gerard Schroeder, after a fortnight’s break from being Germany’s Chancellor, has gained a senior role in a Russian-German gas consortium thus paraphrasing General MacArthur’s famous dictum that old politicians never die, they just fade into boardrooms. In addition, democracies consistently duck the major issues, deficits, energy security, global warming, healthcare, competitiveness, farm subsidies, pensions, social decay as politicians manage to an electoral horizon of four years instead of taking the tough decisions. No wonder Thomas Friedman the NY Times commentator rightly covets an ‘envious’ eye to the Chinese political system’s ability to get things done in an Op Ed he wrote on 11 November 2005. Most politicians today know that challenging vested interests the barriers to solving these issues would be tantamount to electoral suicide. Is there any wonder that today’s robotic western politicians fail to inspire their citizens or are able to address the big issues.

Thirdly, foreign policy has illustrated not just the unacceptable face of western imperialism but the true face of western states. The indomitable pursuit of profits, raw materials and cheap labour drive the inhumane policies of debt, trade and political support for dictators and tyrants around the world.The results are clear; 3 billion people on less than $2 a day, while the west continue to take billions from the developing world in debt interest and pay billions more in subsidies to their own rich corporate farming entities thus monopolising world trade. State socialism may have died when the Soviet Union collapsed but in the Mid West of the United States of America and rural France the people’s republic’s control over state production is alive and kicking. For most people minor concessions at international summits may gain the applause of ex pop singers, but they do not substantively transform the imperialistic heart of international policy.This harsh neo-liberal world order not only oppresses the developing world but has caused chasms to appear in western societies, where tens of millions have rejected neo-liberal free market capitalism by joining the growing band of counter political movements.

Fourthly, western states have today lost their moral authority. In 1989, when the Berlin Wall collapsed, western states had not needed to fire a shot in anger and were considered shiny beacons on the top of a hill by the oppressed citizens of Eastern Europe.Today, in the aftermath of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, torture, ‘extraordinary rendition’ (illegal kidnapping and torture to you and me),secret detention facilities, the wanton use of white phosphorous and depleted uranium and the reversal of Habeas Corpus, western nations are considered more a part of the problem than part of the solution. The situation is so bad that even Iraqi supporters of the United States like Shiite lawyer Abdul Wahab al-Unfi,part of a high powered delegation on a visit to the United States to learn about American democracy, cut short his visit to the US abruptly with his delegation in disgust at the US’s position on torture.Unfi justified his disgust with the following statement.

“Virtually every extended family in Iraq has someone who was tortured or killed in a Baathist prison. Yet, already, more than 100 prisoners of war have died in U.S. custody. How is that possible from the greatest democracy in the world? There must be no place for torture in the future Iraq. We are going home now because I don’t want our delegation corrupted by all this American right-to-torture talk.”

Indeed a recent Zogby/University of Maryland poll of citizens in six Middle Eastern states echoed Unfi’s sentiments, in finding oil (76%), protecting Israel (68%), domination of the region (63%) and weakening the Muslim world (59%) were cited as the main objectives of America in the Middle East, compared to only 6% who agreed with President Bush and Prime Minister Blair’s view that their objectives are to merely spread human rights and democracy. This distrust is not confined to the Muslim world but is found globally from Caracas to Seoul with people in all continents looking at new models of governance and rule. It says something that even in Europe, a dictatorship like China currently enjoys a more favourable image than the United States.

Fifthly, western states continue to demonstrate a political inability to integrate their diverse set of minorities. 7-7 and other trends have showed the British model has failed to integrate fully Muslims from Pakistan and Bangladesh. Hurricane Katrina revealed the segregated model that operates in the Southern United States which secludes blacks and the French riots showed that the laicite model of secularism can hardly claim to be any superior. If western secular values cannot integrate minorities of different backgrounds at home, the attempt to export these values abroad successfully to countries rooted in diverse traditions and religious beliefs is doomed to fail.

Sixthly, secular liberalism has contributed to epidemic social breakdowns in societies in the West.Of course to state this is controversial as policy commentators rarely ascribe social problems to the fundamental values of the enlightenment. Yet to ignore values is to repeat the error of many Muslims who believe that the fundamental decline in the

Muslim world can simply be solved by imposing top down Islamic rule (devoid of convincing people of the values that underpin these rules). In the west the breakdown of the family, the decreasing level in the birth rate and the rise in absentee fathers have destroyed the building blocks that underpin a strong society. Allied to this are the epidemic levels of binge drinking, drug taking and sexual anarchy leading to further social and economic costs. Major technological transformation has resulted in reduced social interaction, an alarming new trend in a society already suffering from rabid individualism. Inequality between rich and poor is rising and the environment suffers under the gluttonous weight of excess consumerism. Inner city education and lawlessness is a problem. Social mobility is lagging in Europe and the US as monoethnic ghettoes increase, while disproportionate taxes on the middle and lower classes (as the rich and multinationals increasingly offshore their income) hurt hard working people. Secular liberals have yet to address these new generation of issues in an intellectually coherent fashion. Some might say this simplistic view of western society is not confined to a few obscurantist Muslims ranting about social decadence but even held by British Members of Parliament. Six of them, echoing the opinions of one of their colleagues, John Hayes, who had previously written on the same topic, wrote this in a letter to the British Spectator magazine in August 2005.

Some liberals remain in denial, unwilling to face the decadent consequences of years of their ideas being put into practice. But whether it is lawlessness, family breakdown, the menace of drugs, binge-drinking, teenage pregnancies or merely the coarse brutishness which, as Mr Hayes suggests, has infested popular culture, the results of years of woolly-minded liberal thinking (with the licentiousness it has created) are plain to see.

Seventhly, the Muslim world, the main audience in the battle of ideas, has largely rejected the western model, preferring an Islamic system more in tune with their religious beliefs, history and heritage. In rejecting the western model, Muslims can still enjoy a representative government, accountability of rule, the ability to criticise officials no matter their position, an independent judiciary, a strong obligation to eliminate poverty and the rule of law. These objectives may be shared by western citizenry but for Muslims these are better achieved by an Islamic model of governance via the Caliphate. In recent surveys (University of Jordan’s Centre for Strategic Studies and the Pew Global attitudes report) most Muslims agreed with the view that Islam needs to play a larger role in societal affairs. In addition, Islamic texts reject western specific ideas of secularism (the detachment of religion from public legislation), the privatisation of vital resources such as water and energy, as well as the West’s failed social model. Muslims also are increasingly rejecting the flawed basis of political unity being achieved through nationalism and find this increasingly anachronistic and a throwback to the nineteenth century. As the Muslim world rejects nationalism and the false bonds of race, the western world retreats back to the dark ages of Westphalian nation state supremacy and patriotic concepts of Americanism, Britishness and what it means to be French. Just look at Iraq, historically under Islamic governance, being Shia, Sunni or Kurd was largely a secondary concept.Yet today western occupation has fragmented the country into a caustic sectarian divide in less than three years.

Eighthly, the war in Iraq is going badly.You can tell it’s going badly when the United States Commander in Chief is forced to make five speeches in three weeks about the war. Iraq was meant to be the holy grail, a western imposed template for the wider Middle East, yet it is fast becoming a metaphor for chaos, instability and brutal treatment of prisoners. An illegal occupation driven by an imperialistic rationale, the chronic barbarisation at Abu Ghraib and a complete disdain for civilian casualties has destroyed any attempt at using Iraq as a positive advertisement for western ideas. President Bush may claim that the US is defeating the Iraqi resistance and western values of secularism and individualism are universal, but no one else thinks so except those Iraqi journalists the Pentagon has now started to pay to carry their propaganda. Indeed in the Zogby poll previously mentioned, 77% of people sampled in the Middle East thought Iraq was “worse off” since the invasion. Security is so bad that even Vice President Cheney’s recent visit to Iraq (two and a half years after the invasion was undertaken) had to occur in such secrecy that not even the Prime Minister of Iraq knew he was coming. Having paper Quisling elections devoid of security to effectively govern, is like trying to stage a classical concert without an orchestra. But even if we put the dire security to one side, how can Iraq be considered a truly sovereign country when 150,000 foreign troops occupy its country, influencing all its major political and economic decisions.The claiming of successful elections (despite the success of religious parties and other separatist actors) continues the insipid strategy of the coalition in desperate checklist diplomacy, ticking off artificial milestones while the country burns and the substantive change they seek eludes them

Ninthly, the intellectual underpinning of western ideas is beginning to erode at the seams. Personal freedom, the main idea behind secular humanism, is chronically unstable alongside a hedonistic culture emanating from the same value system. In the case of an obsessive desire for freedom and anarchy, the receipt of such a desire can only lead to pseudo-anarchy as no individual is morally or emotionally obliged to adhere to restrictions designed by others.Western society’s consumerist culture constantly excite excessive desires that can never be fully satisfied, hence people in western societies never feel fully tranquil or at peace; the treadmill of material possession never stops. Hedonistic desires should normally be tamed by other values, but no such counter values are promoted in any public way in western society, due to the banishment of faith and morality to the private arena. This has led to a crisis in secularism in the sense that it has failed to provide hope and a holistic vision to more and more people who are instead now looking to religion and other spiritual pursuits. Secularists have lost touch with this vast new swathe of people who have largely rejected the triad of materialism, capitalism and hedonism. For these people the separation of religion from politics has become a metaphor for muscular atheism, an ideology driven by a rabid intolerance of anything religious or spiritual, whether it be Jesus Christ,The Chronicles of Narnia or a rational discussion about the origins of life beyond a narrow scientific focus. Muscular atheism in its narcissistic pursuit of one’s self is hardly an attractive proposition for the number of people (especially the young) who are increasingly attracted to a more balanced, just and communal vision for mankind.

The good news is that that there are now sufficient rumblings within western secular circles – people who believe that a severe crisis is at hand and that it needs to be tackled not just at the policy level but at the intellectual level. New political and economic models inconsistent with the West’s chosen menu are now being implemented in China, Russia, other parts of South East Asia and some parts of Latin America. In the Muslim world, to arrest the chronic problems of governance and justice there is a renewed and an unstoppable call for the re-establishment of the Caliphate specifically in one country at the outset. If this is realised it will be the first time for centuries that the Muslim world would have regained not just its political independence but its intellectual independence from western states,a much more important development in the battle of ideas. Western commentators in reviewing these new trends may then need to reflect on a new dictum, ‘Old ideas never die, they just fade into intellectual oblivion.’ Just ask Karl Marx.

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