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Can You Force People to Be Free?
In part 3 of my letter exchange with Mustafa Akyol, I argue that to privilege liberalism in the Arab world is to consign Arabs to their tragic fate.
This is part 3 in a 6-part correspondence series between myself and the Turkish author and thinker Mustafa Akyol. I will be writing letters 1, 3, and 5, and Mustafa will be writing letters 2, 4, and 6 on his Substack.
Links will be added as the letters get published: letter 1, letter 2, letter 3, letter 4, letter 5, and letter 6. We’d love to hear from you, so let us know what you think in the comments.
Hope you’re well. It appears that our debate has caught fire, for better or worse. I think this is an important experiment, because it shows that good friends can (and probably should) disagree—profoundly—on foundational questions of what is right and good. It can get tense. In the past few days, our increasingly heated Twitter exchanges have even gotten a bit awkward. But hopefully writing in longer-form can move us in a more productive direction.
With that, let’s get to it. First, thanks for your thoughtful reply to my opening letter. I’ll start by addressing your question of definitions. What is liberalism? As I argue in my book, liberalism is only neutral to those who are already liberals. Like other ideological orientations, it speaks to foundational questions about the good life and the purposes of government—the ends of politics, rather than the means.
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Liberalism is best understood as a value system as well as set of premises about the primacy of the individual over the collective and of reason over revelation. If the primary unit of reference is the individual, it follows that particular importance would be paid to freedom of conscience, belief, and expression. The right to pursue happiness (or fulfillment) as one sees fit is sacrosanct, with the only real delimiting principle being one of harm to other individuals, since this would infringe on their own pursuit of happiness and fulfillment.
Liberalism is not synonymous with secularism, of course. But even the more permissive and broad-minded forms of liberalism imply a restricted role for religion in public life. The preeminent liberal theorist John Rawls deserves special mention, since he went out of his way to make room for religion within the liberal imagination. For Rawls, believers did not have to give up their “comprehensive doctrines.” This was the broad-minded part. But there was a catch. Believers would need to justify their policy preferences with resort to rationales that could be accepted by citizens who didn’t share the beliefs in question. This is what Rawls called “public reason.” Public reason, to put a finer point on it, was to be the realm of secular.
The relative emphasis placed on reason over revelation and on personal autonomy over traditional norms and collective obligations is either a bug or a feature of liberalism, depending on your perspective. The collective has no legal, enforceable “rights”—or at least none that can supersede an individual’s, when the two are in tension. And this is where the tension between liberalism and democracy becomes palpable.
In this sense, liberalism can’t but clash with Islam—a religion that, in its various mainstream iterations, has jealously guarded its jurisdiction over such ultimate questions. This is not Islam as it “should” be, but Islam as it has been—nearly uninterrupted for the better part of fourteen centuries. I imagine, Mustafa, that you could simply respond that you disagree with my characterization of Islam. And many Muslims might share similar objections. So I want to put the empirical question of what Islam has been (and the normative question of what Islam should be) to the side for a moment and focus instead on what I worry are the practical implications of prioritizing liberalism over democracy, regardless of one’s opinions about Islam itself.
When people question whether Arabs are really ready for democracy, they are falling back on a liberal premise without necessarily realizing it. Underlying the liberal idea in its original European forms was the notion that there should be a particular sequencing to the development of societies—that before mass politics or anything approaching universal suffrage, there must first be education and enlightenment. Enlightenment proponents wanted to protect hard-won liberties from the ordinary unwashed. As the political theorist Faheem Hussain notes (emphasis mine): “Enlightenment philosophes were prepared to make a spoken or unspoken agreement with authoritarian interests, promising obedience and loyalty as long as core liberal values such as freedom of expression over private beliefs were maintained, at least those opinions that wouldn’t trouble the security of the state.”
These, then, are the deeper philosophical assumptions driving what might be called temporary repression in the name of tolerance. And now to the practical implications. Crucially, Hussain connects the assumptions of liberal sequentialism to the tragedy of the modern Middle East:
As the [Enlightenment] philosophes did before them, Egyptian liberals find themselves within societies that have religious majorities who view liberal ideas as at best religiously problematic, or at worst foreign or infidel.
Which goes a long way towards explaining why Egyptian liberals saw democracy—and, really, mass politics of any kind—as an existential threat. Not only did they view it as such, they quite consciously and deliberately acted upon that view by supporting the July 2013 military coup that ended Egypt’s democratic experiment, however flawed it might have been. Among those of us who worked on Egypt, we’d “joke” that you could count on one hand the number of prominent Egyptian liberals who opposed the coup. This wasn’t hyperbole—the most we could usually come up with was 3 or 4 individuals (in a country of 100 million).
In practice, if not necessarily in theory, this is what liberal premises can lead to—authoritarian justifications for the indefinite postponement of democracy. Maybe liberal premises shouldn’t lead to this. But they do, and they have. And that is what we have to contend with. This isn’t just an academic debate.
That’s probably a good place to end, for now. Mustafa, very much looking forward to hearing your thoughts and continuing the conversation!
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