Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Liberalism and conservatism part one

Are Muslims essentially liberal or conservative? This question strikes at the heart of the some of the debates within the community at present. It is about our relation to wider society and our understanding of our own morality. At the outset, it should be made clear that British society is not monolithically liberal and Muslim culture is not monolithically conservative. But nevertheless, the debate rages.

So let’s begin with a few definitions. By liberal I wish to refer to two aspects of this liberalism – one is the appeal to individual rights as law and the second is liberalism as permissive culture, of course, the two are connected, in that it would have been difficult to have achieved some form of permissive culture without an appeal to the rights of the individual. Muslims don’t have much of a problem with rights of the individual under law as they employ such rhetoric or even the law itself in the war on terror. In fact, an appeal to certain foundational aspects of liberalism has formed the cornerstone of the Muslim and wider critique of the war on terror – the right to be free from the state, the right to travel and associate freely, the right to be free from abuse and torture etc. Permissive culture has been facilitated by ‘freedom from state interference’ arguments as well and this is where I think the first relation between liberalism and conservatism emerges.

A question could be asked, why is it that the second generation Muslim youth in Britain decided to take on religious identities while they were living in a permissive culture? Can it all be put down to international politics and ideology? Was ideology a sufficient motivator to be able to make people withdraw from a permissive society which has offered them all sorts of enjoyment and pleasure? Many media commentators and screenplay writers think so, and I think it is a failure of the imagination that they have failed to realise why so many went religious and so profoundly. It has to be deeper than that, and the answers come from a deep engagement with the core questions of life, meaning, spirituality and religion. Many Muslims observed the ‘hedonistic’ lifestyle around them and wondered why they should similar engage in such endeavours. Indeed, truth be told, many have taken part in such lifestyles for many years and then turned religious – some of the leaders even. That is, many of them have considered hedonistic lifestyles and decided that they wished to adopt a morally conservative approach to life instead. An intellectualised explanation of this can be accessed in the first hundred pages of Alasdair MacIntyre’s ‘After Virtue’. Their conservatism is therefore oppositionally related to the permissive culture around them.

This conservativsm does not mean that they do not wish to take up the language of identity rights or individual rights, this has been very successfully achieved over the last decade or so. However, there is a tension in the relation towards permissive culture. Here I want to introduce a second problem. Permissive culture is easily understood by most readers, however, this does not mean that the culture within which we live is totally permissive, it is only selectively permissive, and very selectively at that. In fact, there are very few absolute libertarians about, most people hold to several strands of discipline in their lives and these are associated with their class positioning and life ambitions (for example around public service, health and education – again to do with notions of individualism). This is about the relation between morality, class and culture and as any student of British society knows, Britain is a very complicated place in this regard. Britain is not a society with one culture and one major disciplinary regime, it is society of many cultures and many regimes, mostly well-disciplined. So practicing Muslims may for example withhold in disagreement from certain aspects of British society – say drinking – but may also agree and argue for discipline around other aspects of British society – say pursuing education or the importance of reading and writing. The differences between what could be called Muslim conservatism and British permissivism are therefore not as stark and widespread as some anti-Muslim Iagos would like to suggest. Nevertheless, areas of difference do remain and they will need to be negotiated.