The Essential Intolerance of Liberalism

Abdal Hakim Murad, writing at the Australian Broadcasting Corp.’s website, has a fascinating essay on the conflict in Europe between secularism and Islam (though other conservative religions are not immune either):

Europe may be economically inclusive, and passionately liberal and libertarian, but ultimately, to be itself, it must be exclusive of non-Christians, and of Muslims above all. The old Crusading cry of “Christians are right, and pagans are wrong,” has been modified by replacing the “Christians” with gay activists and human rights commissioners.

Murad asks: “to be Europeans, must we be liberals?” He then notes that there is a fairly broad consensus among European liberals in favor of banning Muslim headscarves for women and preventing the building of minarets on masjids (and other overt acts of public worship and private belief). He goes on to describe this trend, using France’s National Front as an example:

In fact, it is probably the case that the so-called far-right parties, such as Marine Le Pen’s Fronte Nationale, are in fact not far to the right of the political spectrum at all. They are best seen as coercive liberal parties, their social and fiscal policies placing them somewhere in the centre-right of the political spectrum, but so passionate about the unique truth of liberalism that they seek to punish those who fail to comply with present liberal social beliefs.

Coercive liberalism. A liberalism which cannot tolerate dissent of “liberal values” and ideals. In the case of secular liberal Europe, Murad notes those values are feminism and gay rights, and strangely enough, Murad finds that much of the support for secular right wing parties in Europe tends to be strongest among the secular center-left. 
I’m not going to give a blow-by-blow of this article — read it for yourself — but Murad asks a very interesting question of liberals and liberalism, one that needs to be asked (because liberals, assuming their own tolerance, are not going to ask it):

In the [UK’s] Muslim schools, where citizenship training is apparently in even greater disarray, Ofted says: “We must not allow recognition of diversity to become apathy in the face of any challenge to our coherence as a nation. We must be intolerant of intolerance.” 

Here, I think, the official finger rests on the Achilles heel of secular liberal ethics. If we must be intolerant of intolerance, then can liberalism tolerate anything other than itself? If Europe defines citizenship in terms of adherence to a set moral template, with all else defined as intolerable, how can Europe ever positively experience real difference, which more often than not is bound up with good, or bad, religion?

I think this is an important to question to ask, and not just of Europeans. Can liberalism tolerate anything other than itself? In effect, liberalism — especially when a governing ideology — demands all allegiance to the secular nation-state (Murad’s evaluation of Germany’s citizenship exam in the essay is interesting in this regard) as the one true thing held in common. (As Murad notes: “European liberals – with their Enlightenment, civil society, democratic institutions and human rights codes – sometimes seem to self-define as a secular Messiah, willing and ready to save the world. To resist is, by implication, to align oneself with an unregenerate, sinful humanity.”) Liberalism’s acceptance of “diversity” or toleration of “difference” is not real, especially when that difference or diversity is fundamental. Liberalism’s acceptance of difference and embrace of diversity only goes so far as all of those included accept the principles and values of liberalism and submit themselves to liberalism, including the state. Thus, those who either fail or refuse to conform are marginalized or excluded, sometimes violently.

This is what Liberalism does, and that makes it no different from any other means of organizing people, communities and polities.

Murad is right to call liberalism a religion. And a particularly intolerant one at that. (He rightly also links that historically to the intolerance of real religious difference in Christendom.) While things are not quite this way in the United States, we live with a version of this. (Indeed, as Americans, we live with a “religious” version of this in so-called Conservative Christians.) I wonder, after reading this piece, just how much liberal Christianity’s embrace of “tolerance and diversity” is really a grafting of Liberalism into or onto (or, more likely, instead of) an understanding of the purpose of the church, and how dogmatic this “tolerance and diversity” really are. One of the reasons I believe the Liberal Churches are so comfortable with secularism is that they form their moral templates with the same materials that secular liberals do — in this case, feminism and gay rights.

Which means as well that Liberal Churches in America are also going to be comfortable with Liberalism’s essential intolerance and exclusion of anything that isn’t (or isn’t seen to be) liberal. (And I think Liberalism’s fundamental intolerance was on full display in the complete nonsense over Chik-fil-A in the last couple of weeks.)

UPDATE: Scott Galupo at The American Conservative has some things to say about the nonsense at Chik-fil-A and an American element of the Liberal creed he calls “Make Money and Mind Your Own Business”:

This is the statement of belief about which nearly everyone in our pluralistic society can agree. It’s not the “thickest” or morally expressive of credos, but it has proved durable. Free-market conservatives are as invested in it as progressive liberals are. The assimilation of blacks in the last century into mainstream American economic life was perhaps its greatest challenge as well as triumph. We told ourselves this: Our constitutional order was only partially flawed — and it was flawed in a convenient way. The problem was not its fundamental morality but rather that it excluded black citizens from their right to Make Money and Mind Their Own Business. The economic liberty of whites to do as they pleased with their private property was circumscribed. But federal coercion was the price we had to pay to uphold the legitimizing promise of the credo. 

The assimilation of gays is turning out to be a more devilish task. On one side are traditionalist conservatives who believe, not without justification, that opposing same-sex marriage does not violate the neutralist credo. In this view, gays are free to make money and to live free from persecution. That they may not marry is merely a function of the immutable nature of an institution designed for a man and a woman. Traditionalists are saying, You are free to live as you please — but on the question of marriage, our hands are tied.

The logic of liberal neutrality often leads to liberal affirmation. Gays are no longer content to make money and mind their own business. They seek a broader validation. And the credo can’t give it to them. 

Eventually, traditionalists are going to bend — because it’s in the nature of liberalism to make them bend. 

In the meantime, tempers will flare.