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The liberal arts college in Ohio that I attended in the late ‘90s was ahead of the curve in many ways. In the first half of the 19th century, it had been the first college in the world to admit women, among other distinctions. When I attended, however, it was ahead of the curve on another distinction – identity politics-based liberalism. I had grown up as a liberal in the Bible Belt of West Virginia but there, as someone straight, white, and male, my opinions were suspect before I had given them. I could be expressing broad agreement with a liberal cause or simply what was being said. But, because of the ‘categories’ I slot into – which I have no control over – there was inherent suspicion of the contribution I was making.
This identity based, “regressive” liberalism is currently doing too good of a job eating away at the values and ideas of too many on the left in Britain and Europe, specifically when it comes to foreign policy and the issue of Islamism. I believe that not only are too many American liberals sharing in this vanishing of their personal political foundations, it could actually be worse here because of our recent history in the Middle East and our current political climate.
The current view of American liberalism on foreign policy is *still* suffering a hangover from our neoconservative years. As in much of western Europe, there was widespread opposition to Bush’s war in Iraq among American liberals. Once Saddam was out of power, however, there was some intellectual muddiness on what the outcome should then be. An infamous example of this was a famous American liberal celebrity comparing the post-war Islamist insurgents to the Minutemen of the American revolution. Even as infinite missteps were made and the violence continued, too many of those who had opposed the war to begin with were not concerned enough with the plight of ordinary Iraqis and with the well-being of our troops, and much too concerned that Bush’s war not come to be seen as any sort of success.
Now, throughout the six and a half years since President Obama has been in office, American liberalism still has not sorted itself out. We say “no perpetual war in the Middle East”, an aim with which it would be hard to disagree, but then give few solid liberal alternatives for dealing with Islamic State (IS) and other jihadists and Islamist extremists. When President Obama, who has consistently channeled his inner Cornelius Fudge when it comes to naming and shaming the Islamist ideology despite laudable successes on these matters, proposed and then ended up calling off air strikes against Assad for chemical weapon use (red line?), the opposition came from the faux isolationist liberals immediately. The air strikes against IS met with similar difficulties. Never mind day-to-day life for ordinary Iraqis and Syrians living under this theocratic fascism, never mind the Yazidis trapped up a mountain because IS wanted to annihilate or enslave them, the USA cannot get involved in anything military in the Middle East, no matter what or whom we’re defending, because of our neoconservative Iraq adventure.
Arguably some of the worst excesses of regressive American liberalism on this have come in the last few weeks and months. Liberal pages on Facebook have posted memes calling George W. Bush, the alleged co-founder of IS, showing not just an immature level of thought concerning the issue but also no recognition that Islamic State is not the beginning or the end of this. The ludicrously simplistic ‘if no Iraq war, no IS’ cannot become what we hang our hats on, much less sounding anywhere close to pining for Saddam and his kind of stability.
There is also the bleat of anti-Muslim bigotry from too many American liberal voices whenever Islam is subjected to scrutiny much less criticism, whenever someone states that IS has “something to do with Islam” and does not immediately pivot to a moral equivocation with something done, now or historically, by Christian fundamentalists. The USA has not, thankfully, had the numbers of recruits going to join IS that western Europe has seen but what evidence is there that is anything more than luck of geography and lack of means as opposed to any effort to dry up the pool of potentials?
As an American liberal, I think there is a better way. I also don’t believe we really have a choice. There is no world that includes IS which can be called civilized. They are as close an example as we have to men who just want to watch the world burn.
First, I believe there has to finally be an end to the political hangover from the Iraq war and a refocusing on liberal values regardless of geography. Liberals and the Left as a whole used to have an internationalist perspective. We must get back to that. Everything from free speech (how we should be holding the Saudis to account on Raif Badawi among many examples) to freedom of religion (the Yazidis, other minority religions *and* minority sects within Islam) to the separation of church and state. By no means should all issues arising along these lines have military solutions but the issues should be of concern at minimum.
Second, once and for all, we must stop seeing all Muslims everywhere as one indistinguishable group on the world stage. We should make it a liberal purpose to seek out as many experiences of Islam as possible. Forget the stereotype of the ‘authentic Muslim.’ Liberals must be the ones to seek out the “minorities within the minority”. Forget the beard and turban or ‘community representatives.’ Some Muslims are gay, some are feminist, some wear suits and ties every day to work, and some drink alcohol and caffeine. Why should their supposedly inauthentic Islam make them any less valuable as allies or their voices any less worthy of being heard when it comes to reforming Islam or fighting Islamism?
When LGBTQ rights are threatened in the USA, we speak up and fight back. When women’s rights are under attack in the USA, we speak up and fight back. When right wing Christians want to get rid of secularism in this country, we speak up and fight back. So, let’s use a longer lens and at minimum object when and where those things happen in the world. That’s what universal liberal values must mean. We must be the allies of the Muslim reformers not be hands off because of sensitivities. As one among many examples, when any woman is subjected to FGM, it’s not a cultural practice upon which we cannot comment it’s a violation of her human rights, period.
Now is our chance. Now. When we join, we win. We can be allies to help there be a 21st century Islam, not an Islam free from scrutiny but an Islam that respects human rights, does not threaten violence to try to win arguments , and is not imposed, any time, upon any society.
More than seventy years ago, the greatest American liberal president and a Conservative British prime minister saved the world from political fascism. As American liberals, let’s join together, all together, with British liberals and a Conservative British prime minster, to beat back theocratic fascism.
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