Progressive, Western Liberalism is the Mother lode of Bad Ideas

Wife-unit watched Good Will Hunting again recently. It is a masterpiece of a film, full of glorious moments and superb performances. My favourite scene in the film is where Ben Affleck’s character stands in for Will at a job interview.

“Until that day comes, keep your ear to the grindstone.”

Of course, as the years have gone on, Affleck emerged as an outstanding scriptwriter, actor and director. Argo is as rollicking and enjoyable a film as I can remember winning an Oscar and his performance in To The Wonder is utterly iconic.

One of the things that I liked about Affleck’s appearance on the Bill Maher show this week was how easily dumbstruck he was. He is obviously a deeply intelligent and compassionate man. By his fruits we can assume as such. But faced with the smug smarminess of the unfunny Maher (lionized recently by Dawkins as “brave”) and the comedically evil Sam Harris, all Affleck could come up with was a resigned “Jesus Christ”.

He did manage to point out that Maher and Harris’ liberalism was gross, racist and blind to the decades of slaughter that America has inflicted in majority Muslim lands. For that he deserves our gratitude.

But let us take the Maher and Harris logic and try the simple task of turning it back on itself. Presumably, for two men who believe themselves to be intellectuals, coherence is an essential aspect of any argument that they wish to back. How does the claim that Islam is “the mother lode of bad ideas” stand up if we examine American liberalism and American progressives with the kind of suspicion that Maher, Harris, or many in the Obama administration hold for the entirety of the global ummah?

If Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas, what is American liberalism? It insists that all humans are intrinsically good, invested with inalienable rights. And yet in a world populated with good men, it has been at ceaseless war since 1939. American liberalism is such a bad idea that it cannot even account for the causes of wars that it endlessly fights. Oh you American progressives, answer us this: “All the evil people, where do they come from?”

Islam is oppressive of its women and homosexuals. But American liberalism has just recently decided that homosexuals were people too. And the argument used to support this change of heart is that gay people are born this way. But at the same time, every single person’s sexual identity and practice is an expression of who they want to be, a free and autonomous act of self-creation. A nation that forgets that its psychological association only declassified homosexuality as a condition in 1973 affirms gay people by simultaneously saying “You are made this way” and “you make yourself”. Liberalism forgets its own sins, while it convicts Muslims on terms that Islam does not accept and even contradicts itself in the action.

And let us not forget the great liberation that women in the liberal west now enjoy. They can do the same jobs that men can do, for less money, while doing all the work they historically had to do in normative patriarchies as well. “But,” says the western woman who is expected to dress to a higher standard than her male colleagues, is afflicted by drastic body-image issues and who has often heard bosses make comments about how her “refusal” to get pregnant is one of the reasons they can “really trust her to do the job”, this woman says, “but the hijab is oppressive.

Sam Harris loves to tell us that Islam is violent. But Sam Harris is a citizen of a country that has been at war without end for longer than my dad, who is not a young man, has been alive. America kills with secret agents, and with robotic drones, and with trade sanctions, and with intellectual property clauses over essential medicines, and with soldiers carrying guns, jet fighters flying faster than the speed of sound, submarines powered by nuclear reactors and through the slow, determined, dedicated acts of torture they unfurl without any accountability and justice. America kills its own citizens, in botched capital punishment and in alarming numbers at the hands of police officers who aren’t racist but they just happen to only shoot at black people. Liberals say Islam is violent, but they ignore the fact that Affleck tried to make. More Muslims, innocent children and elderly ladies as well as young Jihadis, have been killed by western Liberals than westerners killed by Muslims. Putting a murder on YouTube isn’t what makes murder wrong. Putting murder in the hands of soldiers doesn’t make murder right.

Islam, it is said, hinders culture. It drapes social life under a theocratic strait-jacket. It slows economic development. All this may be true. It may be false. But let us consider again on what shaky ground the liberals stand when they make this claim. The western progressive laments the state of societies they have never visited, while living in cities segregated so thoroughly by internal poverty that there are neighbourhoods they have never visited and would feel unsafe to do so. Somehow, this is exclusively the fault of the people who live in those council estates or projects. Such social utopia we enjoy in the EU and the US! We are segregated by race and by creed and by capital. But the people up on top who get invited onto hilarious talk shows with Bill Maher don’t need to worry because they never need to see what happens to families when no one can get a job and kids go to schools where the teachers have 38 students in a class and where libraries get shut down, sports centres never get built and the only place where you can congregate with friends is the pub. Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas, but our increasingly unjust distribution of wealth, decaying social fabric and paranoia represents the pinnacle of human culture.

Finally, the sophisticated liberal distances himself from the crude, gross, racism of Maher and Harris but they do quietly suggest, in tones informed by tomes you have heard of but never read, that Islam has a problem with its status as religion. “You see,” says this mansplaining progressive, “Islam can’t have a separation of church and state.” Somehow this is meant to be a killer argument. We in the west have entertained a blind faith in the dogma that religion is a private endeavour that shouldn’t intrude on the public square. That the Muslim world refuses to embrace this doctrine doesn’t just make them heretics. In the eyes of the contemporary liberalism, it makes them savage. Until they progress beyond their primitive refusal to compartmentalize religion from politics, economics from ethics, liturgy from community and faith from reason, they will always be suspect. Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas, but in the face of all evidence, we liberals will continue to irrationally insist that religion is something like Marmite, a taste acquired by some, offering marginal flavour to lives of those in the margin.

Let me close with a word from an American Muslim prophet:

Your Correspondent, Once visited the United States, Land of the thief home of the slave

4 Replies to “Progressive, Western Liberalism is the Mother lode of Bad Ideas”

  1. I think I’ve mentioned it before on this blog, but Romans 3:10 is my favourite Bible verse. Maher has an underlying tone of righteousness in that exchange, which has the potential to be very dangerous. It is close to demagoguery, and liberalism, paved with the best of intentions can lead to neoconservative imperialism. (Though with this said, I don’t think Maher is an imperialist. This clip is fairly typical for him: ).

    But conservative Islam and its theocracy is culturally destructive, and we must not shy away from denouncing it incisively, especially since those entrenched in the culture often do not have the opportunity to do so. In fact, I would say we have a duty to denounce it, since it was our imperialist systems that incubated and weaponised it for use against rival empires. We must also be willing to disentangle notions of equality, intellectual freedom, and freedom of religion from western imperialism. These ideals are not western ideals. They are humanist ideals. They only become western when we use them as pretexts for imperialism.

    We aren’t without sin. I completely agree with your statements about gender equality in the workplace here. There is still plenty of work to be done. But the fact that the current leader of Europe is a woman who was previously a quantum chemist implies it is not a hopeless battle, and I see no shame in wanting every nation on earth to undergo the same transformation we are undergoing (but have not completed).

  2. I love that you embrace the subversive power of Rom 3:1 and I empathise with what you are saying in your second paragraph. But how do you define conservative Islam? What is theocracy?

    Or put more bluntly: How can you incisively denounce Islam when you do not know the Qur’an?

    Again, one of the conceits of Western liberalism is that there is a single thing called “humanist ideals”. I call myself a humanist. Of course I do, for I am a Calvinian Presbyterian. But the Humanist Society won’t be inviting me on to their board very soon. Now maybe the force of that distinction is dulled because Christian humanism so thoroughly permeated earlier versions of liberalism that they extensively overlap.

    But there are contemporary and historical streams of intellectual thought in Islam that could sit gladly beside what you and I call humanism. So why do we need to disentangle these ideas from western imperialism? The entire point I am trying to make is that western liberalism is imperialist – even of humanist rhetoric.

    Finally, it is notable that the leader of Europe, in your eyes, is a woman who was a chemist. I thought she was the leader of Federal Germany. The democratic deficit involved in the realpolitik fact that you are accurate in your designation of Merkel is yet more evidence that we are not as stable as we think we are when we enter into dialogue with other cultural realms.

  3. My knowledge of the Qur’an is very limited. Denouncing every group that identifies with the Qur’an would be very foolish, and arguing against the theology of Islam would only obfuscate what I am trying to say, especially since the Islamic tradition is much more anarchical than Christianity’s more hierarchical, centralised history . I fully applaud Reza Aslan’s and Waleed Aly’s efforts in exposing the under-representation of liberal Muslims in the media.

    By conservative Islam, I mean a group of people who have chosen to interpret Islam in a specific manner. This interpretation involves the suppression and subjugation of women, the restriction of religious freedoms, the restriction of the press, the re-implementation of capital punishment, the denunciation of scientific fields like evolution, and the legal implementation or enforcement of Sharia.

    By theocracy, I mean the prioritisation of Islam as a post-colonial political ideology and system of government (sometimes a system of imperialism itself), as opposed to a spiritual exploration of the relationship between man and God.

    The west can’t affect change with bombs. Even if they could, it would still be an abhorrent strategy. But we can affect change with argument and rhetoric. Sure, we must all be aware of the context of our comments. Out house is indeed unstable and made of glass, or at least has very large windows, but I still encourage activism against systemic, oppressive neoconservatism in all its forms, particularly when the obstruction to international media used by theocracies in the Muslim world are increasingly easy to subvert.

  4. Hi Kev,

    Loved your piece, as always. I do enjoy a good rant.

    I read a good article in the Guardian the other day that flagged one of the spin-offs from our much vaunted Western way of life.

    The following is one of the top comments on that piece that I thought would be grist to your mill, especially the question at the end.

    I don’t know if George reads his own press but….. great articles putting into words what many of us think, and here the” many of us “I refer to are those with a world view similar to Georges, not the vast majority who are quite happy with or cannot see an alternative to the way things are. Are there any suggestions as to what one person can do to work towards changing our broken society and failed economic system?

    God bless,


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