Tuesday, February 26, 2013

In praise of muddle

The latest article from Paul Berman on what he sees as the third phase of the Arab Spring is worth reading, if only to reinforce the point that the main opponents of Islamist politics are Muslims.
So it is not true that, in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood speaks for society as a whole. Nor does Islamist ideology, with its invocations of superstition and its exaltations of obedience, express the Egyptian “street.” Nor does the Brotherhood possess the canny ability to bend history to its will... Nor is it true that, in Tunisia, the reputedly more moderate version of the Brotherhood, Rachid Ghannouchi’s Ennahda party, has offered a sounder alternative ... A great many Tunisians have evidently had their fill... Nor is it true that radical Islamists, given the chance to rule on their own, can succeed in spreading their beliefs to the rest of society. On the contrary. Not in Mali, anyway.
Revolutions are usually confused, messy and pluralistic. The resulting power vacuum gives organised groups the opportunity to simplify the situation. The Islamic far right was well placed and tactically astute enough to mount a power grab. Now, if Berman is right, it faces another messy, pluralistic challenge.

This has confused sections or Western left/liberal opinion. In the wake of the end of the Cold War their greatest fear was of the 'tyranny' of American hegemony. Their polar opposites were the neo-conservatives who celebrated and sought to promote just such a hegemonic outcome as "the end of history." Both created a range of fantasy politics stretching from the "Clash of Civilisations," through a romanticised anti-imperialism, to the conspiracy theories of the "New World Order." And Islamists profited. Neatly sidestepping their theocratic authoritarianism, misogyny, homophobia, anti-Semitism and barking mad world view, whilst engaging in ever more elaborate apologias, some of the left sought the comfort of a tidy bi-polar world by embracing radical Islam. And even today, Islamists can be assured of a good press in the house journals of the liberal/left. The world they have created is one where America (always bad) is confronted by anti-imperialists (always good). It is easy. You know which side you are on and every political conflict can be neatly placed in one drawer or the other.

There is one problem. Tidiness is not the human condition. When a large section of people, the very ones who have been neatly filed under the heading 'Muslim (good),' start saying 'we don't want these bastards to rule us,' this world view breaks down.

Instead, there are a range of political positions that welcome ambiguity and messiness. For instance, it is possible to be hugely critical of aspects of United States society and politics without seeing it as the ultimate evil. You don't have to be an advocate of American hegemony to argue that liberal democracy is far better than either fascism or the latest fad of murderously psychopathic theocracy. Nor do you have to be an imperialist neo-con to think that humanitarian intervention by the West is preferable to standing aside and watching systematic murder take place. Rather than a neat world, we should be looking for a moral one. Not in the sense of the 'morality' of social conformism and sexual repression. The morality I would advocate is that of human rights, of emancipation, of liberty. Torture is wrong, mass murder is wrong, vile punishments for non-crimes conjured from the fantasies of sex-obsessed theologies are wrong - the list goes on and on. Our guide is not a vision of an ordered world, but of conscience, an instinctive sense of what is right. Peter Kropotkin put it well, "A man who possessed no trace of such instincts would be a monster."

And there are monsters in this world. They need confronting and opposing. This leads us to make choices, to side with lesser evils, to kill to save other lives. We cannot escape difficult judgements through the application of neatness.

Aside from the unshakeable principle of moral clarity, maybe we should embrace pluralism, enjoy the muddled and infuriating complexity of human life, whilst dealing with the myriad of unpredictable problems that it throws up as people shape their own lives. After all, this is what we mean by liberty.


Bob-B said...

A good post.

Anton Deque said...

A very fine exposition.