Nick Cohen

Liberal Democrats reveal the great fissure in liberalism

Liberal Democrats reveal the great fissure in liberalism
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Someone once said (it may have been me) that while the left looks for traitors the right looks for converts. Only in Britain’s centre ground, however, are converts treated as traitors.

Maajid Nawaz is one of the most interesting public figures I know. As a young man growing up on the Essex coast, he received an education in both varieties of modern far-right thinking: the racist and the religious. Racist gangs and Combat 18 were active in his area. He reacted against them, as any boy of spirit would. But his reaction took the form of joining Hizb-ut-Tahrir.

Hizb was the marijuana or soft porn of radical Islam in the 1990s. It gave recruits a hint of the hardcore: the need to restore the caliphate, the hatred of the West, the necessity of jihad and the enmity against women’s rights, Jews, homosexuals and anyone else, including other Muslims, who did not believe in theocratic tyranny. But Hizb did not commit acts of violence in Britain or tell its recruits in plain language to turn to terrorism abroad. Rather it excused violence, as so many do today.

Maajid went to Egypt for his studies, and was arrested. In prison, he met Egyptian liberals and noted how Amnesty International treated him as a political prisoner. His experience taught him to abandon Islamism. (If you haven’t read it, his full story is in his biography Radical.)

He became everything a liberal could want him to be. He helped set up the Quilliam Foundation, which campaigns against extremism. He put himself forward as the Liberal Democrat candidate in Hampstead and Kilburn. He supported universal human rights. He learned to understand the difference between free societies – however in need of watching and reform they are – and dictatorships.

In a recent message to British Muslims he told them to come home even if it meant a jail term because

You know deep down that, despite their many failures, democratic governments will generally treat their prisoners according to a defined set of standards. You will have rights to practice your religion. You will serve your time and, eventually, you will be released. All of this is better than dying in a great tribulation—fitna— and facing a most uncertain judgment from your Lord, which is your most likely alternative.

But modern liberals and liberalism as conventionally understood have little in common. One variety of liberalism – the dominant strain, I regret to say – uses speech codes to silence free speech, and is highly uncomfortable with challenging religious conservatives, particularly if religious conservatives can deliver block votes, as they do to the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties in many constituencies. To these kinds of communalist, politically correct “liberals” the convert to classical liberalism is a traitor not an ally.

There are, I accept, moral as well as cynical reasons for avoiding offence and respecting “diversity” even when the diversity you respect is against the interests of women, and so many others. But it quickly turns scandalous.

As it did in the case of Maajid. The story has been told before but in brief Maajid tweeted a link to an entirely innocuous cartoon of Jesus saying: "Hey" and Muhammad saying: "How ya doing?" His enemies led by one Muhammad Shafiq took it upon themselves to organise a national and international campaign against Nawaz, accusing him of failing to respect the prophet. “We will notify all Muslim organisations in the UK of his despicable behaviour and also notify Islamic countries,” Shafiq said. These are words that claim men’s lives, as Shafiq ought to have known.

To anyone looking at the wreckage of English liberalism, the most striking thing about Shafiq that he was a Liberal Democrat. We noticed too that Gordon Birtwistle, the Liberal Democrat MP for Burnley, joined the mob. He doffed his cap to Burnley's "community leaders," and alled for his fellow Liberal Democrat to be deselected. He was prepared to abandon a colleague to his enemies in the hope of making his re-election easier

At the Liberal Democrat spring conference this weekend, it was therefore not possible to say with confidence that a motion defending freedom of speech would pass. All the signs were indeed that the duplicitous, authoritarian liberalism of the past would triumph. The organisers of a debate chaired by Lord Wallace on the murders in Copenhagen and Paris reported 'This event has antagonised and caused controversy amongst some within the party who insisted that the debate be cancelled labelling it insensitive and inappropriate'.

Maajid’s arguments in favour of the motion supporting free speech made a point I have made so often I weary of repeating it: liberals and leftists are betraying their friends as well as their principles.

He told the conference that:

'A certain neoorientalism has crept upon us, partly in reaction to the failed militarism of the neo-conservative years, but mainly attributable to historical self-critical attitudes towards the British Empire. This neo-orientalism interprets liberalism as a Western construct ill-fitting to non-Western cultures.'

'Struggling, dissenting liberals within minority community contexts find that they have no greater enemy than these neo-orientalists who lend credence to the idea that they are somehow an inauthentic expression of their ‘native’ culture.'

But whatever doubts I may have had, the motion passed, and Lord Wallace’s debate went ahead, despite the protests.

I can see similar shifts elsewhere on the Liberal-Left. I’d like to think people are moving because they have thought through their prejudices, and resolved to behave better in future. Perhaps that explains why Liberal Democrats are at last defending liberalism and democracy.

But I suspect something more basic is at work. Events drive thought. The barbarism of Islamic State is so great, and the numbers of young British Muslims joining it are so large, liberals have been shocked into defending principles they spent a generation denigrating.