What Lord Tebbit shares with Islamists: Woolwich, Islam and the struggle with Liberalism

Ilie Ilaşcu. 50 years of European Convention o...

Ilie Ilaşcu. 50 years of European Convention on Human Rights, Romanian stamp Русский: Илашку, Илие (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The attack in Woolwich has raised questions about how the UK will manage its relationship with its Muslim citizens.  More generally, the call for more surveillance power for the state raises questions about how all citizens will be treated. Therein we see the deeper issue raised by the attack: man’s relationship to the state. In Lord Tebbit in his comment piece in the Telegraph, we saw longstanding Conservative Party concerns about immigration, multiculturalism, and the Human Rights Act raised as the main culprits.  In particular, he praised the call for increased surveillance powers for the security services, which would further restrict the individual and empower the state.  His comments reveal a shared or common ground between the UK and Islamic States: struggle with Liberalism.

The Islamic radicals in the UK fail to realize that they are struggling against Liberalism just as some parts of the Conservative Party are struggling with liberalism.  The Conservative party’s dislike for the Human Rights Act and the European Court of Human Rights is only a difference in degree, and not kind, from the deep hatred the Islamists have for the West in general.  Two key differences emerge from such a comparison. First, the Conservative Party is not taking direct action against Liberalism when out of power.[1]  Second, the more important difference is that the UK has gone through the Reformation and two civil wars to resolve the underlying politico-theological issue (the relationship between Church and State).  These events have allowed the UK to embrace some of aspects of Liberalism, like the Human Rights Act. By contrast, Islam has had its “Reformation” so it cannot yet resolve the same issues. The UK and Islam are on the same path only they are at different points of journey. Each is resisting or adapting to Liberalism. In the UK, the Conservative Party shows its resistance by attacking the HRA and the ECHR because they embody Liberalism.

Politics, not religion, is the source of the tension.

Despite the headlines, religion is not the source of the tension.  Politics is the source of the tension.  In Islam, there has not been a successful political solution to Liberalism’s challenge to Islamic theology.[2]  The political tension is between an illiberal system (Islam) and a still to be completed liberal system (the UK).  The UK is not a liberal state because the Reformation remains unfinished and the English Civil War remains incomplete. In the UK, Parliament is only an incomplete solution to the Liberal challenge. It acts as a stopping point between an absolutist monarch and a liberal republic respecting and bound by the rights of man.  Parliament remains illiberal in its steadfast resistance to liberalism. Parliament’s belief in its absolute will is exemplified in the claim that its’ will must remain sovereign over any individual’s claim to rights. An illiberal tendency within an institution created to fulfil liberal ideals.[3]

Illiberal institutions: Church and Parliament?

We can see the illiberal nature of the UK regime within the relationship between Church and State. The established religion and Church is something the UK shares with Islamic states. In the UK, the separation of Church and State is incomplete, which creates continuing problems concerning religion, politics, and philosophy. Liberalism offers a solution to the problem. What is still being worked out is whether it is *the* solution.[4] Therein we see the problem for the West, in general, and the UK, in particular. In the West, in general, there is a deep seated, unspoken, fear that Liberalism has failed. In the UK, the question is whether it can become a post-liberal state by creating its own Bill of Rights and thus maintain parliamentary sovereignty while still providing individual rights. Underlying these issues is the tension between politics (religion) and philosophy. The question is whether philosophy (liberalism) can “liberalize” religion (Islam) enough to channel its extremism into a different realm.  The same question haunts UK politics albeit with less intensity. Parliament insists upon the supremacy of its will, which is an illiberal approach to politics. To put it differently, but directly, the UK does not have a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. If citizens want Parliament to be subject to the law, not its own sovereign will, they insist upon their individual rights as expressed in the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights.  The Conservative Party faces the same struggle.  They wish to reverse, or at best transcend, the moves towards a liberal state, as evidenced by the Human Rights Act and other Acts that reflected a more liberal politics. Yet, to do this they must have the consent of the same individuals who wish to benefit from Liberalism’s promise of individual rights and freedoms.

Liberalism’s experiment: a government of, by, and for the people

Liberalism’s politics rests on the belief that of laws made within a system based upon consent. The law has the legitimacy of consent through reasoned debate rather than being based on religious decree.  In this manner, the West is imbued with philosophy. Liberalism as it is practiced reveals a political aspect of the philosophical project. The liberal experiment in action is best exemplified in the United States of America.  The experiment, perhaps the greatest ever as Lincoln argued, is whether a government of the people, by the people, and for the people can continue to exist.  Moreover, the issue of consent reminds us why the American Constitution forbids an established church, which the UK is still working out a way to resolve. An established church denies the exercise of consent. To put it directly, the UK citizen does not have a say in who succeeds the Queen. What the Islamist extremists hate about the United States is the idea that all men are created equal and a just government derives its power from the consent of its people. The idea born of the Declaration of Independence, fulfilled within the US constitution, and consecrated in the blood of the American civil war, is that all men are created equal. From this equality men can form a government deriving its’ just powers from the consent of the people. This is what is at stake. George Washington made the issue of political and religious equality clear when he recognized the religious equality and liberty of Jews.  To uphold this end, church and state are not unified in an established church, but they are not antagonistic. To the extent that they reinforce each other, the American polity is strengthened.  More generally, the West is strengthened if the two are in harmony. Religion and politics in the United States of America are in harmony to the extent that it follows Declaration of Independence. In the Declaration, the country was set on a path that would respect the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.

Time to separate Church and State to complete the liberal promise?

The relationship between politics and religion in the UK brings forth a different reaction.  The established Church is a vestige of an illiberal age, which the UK has not resolved. The UK’s political culture and political structure is imbued with an established Church. The Monarchy, the question of succession and even Parliament are imbued with it. Parliamentarians take an oath to the Queen. The Queen in turn takes an oath to uphold the established Church.  Finally, the House of Lord have  Anglican Bishops as Lords Spiritual. When the Conservative party attacks multiculturalism, immigration, and defends the Crown, they show the underlying tension.  As Lord Tebbit argued, the attack in Woolwich was enabled by policies that respect the individual and suggest a power higher than the state and stronger than Parliament’s will. The Conservative Party and the UK, in general, have to understand that strengthening the rights of the individual does not weaken the state. If it does, it says more about the government’s inability or incompetence to manage or govern than it does about the rights of individuals.

Reconciling the UK and Islam to liberalism: the ongoing struggle?

In facing Islam, the task is to reiterate that the struggle is not life or death for Islam. The West and Liberalism are not at war with Islam. Liberalism has not defeated Christianity nor does Liberalism need to defeat Islam.[5]  Christianity is a vibrant religion (along with many others) within the liberal West. For the UK to reconcile Islam to its regime, it must find a way to reconcile Islam to Liberalism as it is practiced in the UK.  Reconciling Islam to Liberalism more generally will require a transformation, of Islam from within Islam.[6]  The same challenge is being played out within the UK Conservative Party.  What the UK’s history teaches us is that more Liberalism, rather than less Liberalism, is more likely to ensure religious toleration, protect individuals, and reduce political violence.  Until they recognise that requirement, their resistance to Liberalism aids those who wish to destroy the West. What we have is not a clash of civilizations, but a clash within civilization. We can live together or we can die together. The choice is ours.

[1] One will note that pro-hunt campaigners did take direct action against the Government with an attempt to disrupt a parliamentary vote on hunting with dogs. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/3656524.stm Such a response is almost understandable as conservatives attempt to resist the change, which they believe is harmful to their way of life.

[2] For an excellent understanding of the origins of this problem and an initial attempt at a solution, see Muhsin Mahdi’s outstanding work on Al-Farabi. Al-Farabi and the foundation of Islamic political philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.)

[3] On parliament’s sovereign will see Lord Neuberger’s Weedon’s Lecture. http://www.judiciary.gov.uk/Resources/JCO/Documents/Speeches/mr-speech-weedon-lecture-110406.pdf For a general discussion of the UK’s absolutism within Parliament, see Hobbes’ Leviathan

[4] For more on this interesting question I recommend Harry Neumann’s _Liberalism_ Carolina Academic Press 1991.)


[6] Perhaps a task that can be completed by an Islamic Thomas Aquinas.

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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