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The Limits of Liberalism

Jonathan Freedland may be reached via email at

The Guardian, Dec. 22, 2004

Photo: Behzti (Dishonor)

I'm almost glad it's Sikhs. I don't mean I take any pleasure from the obvious discomfort the Birmingham Rep.'s production of Behzti - a play depicting a rape inside a Sikh temple, written by a young Sikh woman - has caused to some in that community. I mean that this episode usefully confirms something that needed spelling out: that a question which now looms over contemporary life is not quite as it seems.

At least since 9/11, and maybe since the [Salman] Rushdie affair, many have asked if the West has a gathering 'Muslim problem,' suggesting that somehow liberal values, the cherished achievements of the Enlightenment, are under assault from an encroaching Islamic menace. Several liberal luminaries have urged their troops to saddle up and take on what they regard as the great threat of our age: the anti-liberal tyranny known as Islamo-fascism.

The Behzti affair is useful because it forces us to pause, to realise that crude sloganising about a clash of civilisations will not quite do. This is not only about Muslims and the West - here is a row involving Sikhs - but about the nature of liberalism itself.

The conflict played out in Birmingham, and elsewhere every day, is between two values - one that liberals have cherished for centuries and another acquired much more recently. The ancient, almost defining liberal ideal is freedom: of expression, of movement, of protest. The newer value is an approach to society's minorities that aims to go beyond mere tolerance, and reaches for understanding and sensitivity.

Today's good liberal aims to be both. Stop one in the street and ask if artists should have the right to say what they like, and the answer will be yes. Ask if Muslims or Sikhs or Jews have the right to have their feelings respected, their differences understood, and the answer will be yes again.

And yet now we know that in the 21st century these principles, both noble, keep colliding. We want free speech but are flummoxed when someone uses it to demean Arabs and Muslims (witness Robert Kilroy-Silk). We want to be sensitive to a disadvantaged ethnic minority, but hesitate when that entails compromise on values that are precious and timeless, like the right to stage a play.

Until now, too many progressives have sought to muddle through, to pretend that this tension does not exist. But just as Isaiah Berlin once forced the left to see that freedom and equality were very often at odds, so it is time for today's liberals to be honest - and admit that the ideals they have clumsily bolted together for three decades often chafe badly. Sometimes one of them is sacrificed for the sake of the other. Better to admit it and to decide consciously which value we are preferring in this case or that, than to pretend there is no conflict. Hard-headed liberalism means hard choices.

Once we make that move, we might start thinking more clearly - which might in turn prevent several enlightened souls heading down some very blind alleys.

Take Ken Livingstone's warm embrace this summer of Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Egyptian Muslim cleric who appears to justify wife-beatings, persecution of homosexuals and suicide bombings against Israeli civilians. This was a trickier case than even the usual conflict of freedom versus cultural sensitivity. For one thing, many of those who are usually most vocal about the sanctity of free speech somehow lost their ardour for free expression when it came to the sheikh: they wanted him banned.

On the other hand, Mayor Ken went much further than merely defending Qaradawi's right to speak. By ostentatiously hugging him, he appeared to endorse the cleric's message rather than just his right to deliver it. In so doing, he became as inconsistent as his critics. For his defence relied on the progressive ideal of inclusion: Muslims are a group under great pressure around the world, Qaradawi is a scholar whom they revere, and Ken wanted to show them respect. Fair enough. But if the principle of cultural sensitivity was so important, why did it not extend to the feminists, gays and Jews who had sensitivities of their own? Why did the Mayor choose to respect one group's feelings at the expense of others?

Such is the landscape we now inhabit. The choices are not simple, but they need to be faced with rigour. So when the Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh was murdered by an Islamist extremist, no liberal should have done anything but condemn it completely. This was not just censorship of the most brutal kind, it was also a heinous crime, murder. And yet some progressives found it hard to condemn the killing unequivocally, because van Gogh had so extravagantly violated the newer liberal value of cultural sensitivity: he had gone out of his way to offend Muslims (and Jews, for that matter) in wild, unrestrained language.

In their urge to stand with Muslims as an oppressed group, many liberals let their judgment be clouded. They somehow construed the murder as if it were, say, a political attempt to block a van Gogh film or cancel a play - as if this was on a par with the Behzti affair. They might indeed want to back the offended group in such a situation, preferring the progressive's respect for the marginalised minority to the liberal principle of free speech, but this was not that situation: this was a murder. Again, it's clarity and rigour that's needed.

I am having to make some of these awkward choices myself. All of my instincts set me against the government's proposed move to outlaw incitement to religious hatred. An admirer of America's first amendment, I start as an absolutist on free speech: let everyone say what they want. Once politicians or lawyers start deciding what's acceptable and what isn't, the trouble begins.

But that position would, applied consistently, require me to call for the abolition of the current law banning incitement to racial hatred. And yet, though that law places a limit on free speech, I cannot deny that it has done more good than harm. It has helped establish a social norm in Britain, rendering the once acceptable racism of the 1970s beyond the pale today.

If I don't want the law which effected that change repealed, then logic demands I should want it extended to everyone who needs protection. If it's good for black, Sikh and Jewish Britons, then it can hardly be denied to Hindus and Muslims. (To say the first group is racial while the latter is religious is to make a distinction that does not fit the real world.)

I side with the Birmingham Rep. against the protesters in part because for some of the latter, as in the van Gogh case, the chosen method of censorship was violence. But I also wonder why those who are so determined to see the theatre stand firm are not equally vigorous in demanding that Madame Tussauds restore its Posh-and-Becks nativity scene, which was also taken off after a violent protest (by a vandal) staged in the name of religious sensitivity. What's called for here is some honesty - no matter how uncomfortable.