Hopefully Troppodillians will forgive me for tackling another Pearson piece only two weeks after my last effort. I’ll try not to make a habit of it, I promise.
With your indulgence, then, let’s proceed.
First, a few questions. Is it relativism to hold our liberal democratic traditions to a higher standard than those of Islamic extremists? Do our actions over the years in the Middle East really have little to do with the growing enmity many of its inhabitants feel for us? Is it either useful or accurate to constantly label the narrative of grievance shared by a significant part of the Muslim world (and, it should be noted, many others) as irrational?
Noel Pearson seems to think so.
In a lengthy opinion piece (November 10, 2007), he ventures more deeply into the territory he introduced two weeks ago in United, We’ll Fight Terrorism. Pearson’s views can be summed up as follows:
- Despite many errors in its prosecution of the war on terror, some of them grievous, the liberal democratic West is in one camp, “within the pale” in Pearson’s terms, while the Islamic extremists are in another. To obscure this distinction is not only wrong, but dangerous.
- Those who oppose, in principle, the current policies for dealing with the Islamic threat hail from the Left and are generally “immature and highly confused”.
- Even a radical change in Western policy would do little to reduce Islamic extremism because it “feeds off an irrational attribution of real and imagined grievances to Western and Zionist conspiracy”.
- “Deterring people from taking the step from the middle group [those who have some sympathy with the extremists] to the violent extremists, and controlling those who do take the step, must then be a very high priority for Western policy”.
We can, I think, let the last one stand without much further comment. It is, after all, little more than a commonsense wish, carrying a slight implicit policy prescription only in his use of the word “deterring”, rather than, say, “encouraging”. This, oddly enough, is as close as Pearson gets to an actual policy suggestion in the entire article.
The other threads of his argument deserve a much less forgiving scrutiny.
At first glance, it's hard to disagree with his initial point. Indeed, stated in such a simple form, it’s a truism. Pearson goes out of his way to acknowledge the many policy errors made in recent years and to restate the vital importance of argument and dissent within the West. First, though, he says, we must understand that we are we and they are not.
Fair enough, in many ways. Still, the effect of this line of argument, as employed by Pearson, is to discourage vigorous debate about the fundamentals of Western policy. Not the details, note, but the fundamentals. In fact, his whole piece (and most of the one two weeks ago) seems devoted to confining such debate within boundaries he considers acceptable. The same is generally true of the writings of Hitchens and the signatories to the Euston Manifesto whom Pearson so extols.
There are those within the West sufficiently disillusioned or embittered to blur, or even entirely deny, the distinctions between their own tradition and that of Islamic extremists. They are, however, few in number and weak in voice. Certainly they bear no comparison to all those who have a great love of their country and its traditions but are convinced these are being dangerously undermined, or even betrayed, by current policies.
Most of these do indeed come from the left, but roughly similar views on foreign policy and civil liberties are held by some conservatives, by liberals of a more classical persuasion (such as myself) and by many libertarians. It is these groups (many of whom are far more immersed in the traditions of liberal democracy than their critics), together with their principled concerns, that Pearson seems to be trying to exclude from the debate.
Discuss in our Forums
See what other readers are saying about this article!
Click here to read & post comments.
7 posts so far.