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When rival fundamentalisms contend within the community

Sina Odugbemi's picture

“A true believer is someone who will kill you for your own good.”
– Anonymous

One of the reasons the world feels so out of joint at the moment is that millions of people appear to have forgotten the lessons from the unspeakable horrors of human history…the wars, the pogroms, the paroxysms of rage. As a result, they have forgotten one of the major achievements of liberal constitutionalism. The idea is a simple one but infinitely difficult to make habitual. When we the people choose to live together in a liberal constitutional democracy anywhere in the world what we have is a thin agreement not a thick one.  The liberal constitution embodies a framework consensus…nothing more. We agree on the basic rules for living together in the same political community and how governments will be both constituted and replaced, their powers are enumerated and so on.

In other words, to live together in a liberal constitutional democracy we don’t have to worship the same Deity. We don’t have to agree on how life ought to be lived in detail. We don’t have to belong to the same ethnic group or tribe or nation. Again, our agreement is a basic one, not deluxe, not super-sized. We agree to let each individual human being of full age and competent understanding to make her own way in the world, work out how best to live her life, what Deity to worship or not, whether to circumcise her son or not…and so on.  This simple idea is a powerful one. It is: live and let live. And it has produced decades of peace in many political communities, and it has provided room for a superabundance of human flourishing and development.

Unfortunately, this simple idea is also a fragile one. For, one of the major causes of civil strife in many political communities in the world today is that millions of citizens have yielded entirely to the blandishments of militant comprehensive ideologies. Militant comprehensive ideologies can come from across the political spectrum and they can be religious in nature. The opening quote, for instance, is from Jewish and Arab fundamentalists…they understand what they are about. (See this review essay…Link) What is common to these militant and comprehensive ideologies is a rejection of live and let live. They run for elections with the sole aim of seizing the state in order to impose on everyone else their idea of how life ought to be lived. To repeat: “A true believer is someone who will kill you for your own good”. Because these militant ideologues do not respect the autonomy of other citizens they do not want to spend time persuading others to live the way they live. They focus on using the coercive powers of the state to impose their point of view on everyone else. They seek control of legislative bodies, courts, regulatory bodies of all kinds etc., so that they can tell all those who disagree with them “Look, our way is now the law of the land. Fall in line!”

The fundamental arena of battle is the regulation of private life through the coercive power of the state. A couple of examples should make the point. Suppose I believe that life begins at conception and that abortion is, therefore, the taking of a life. Naturally, I would refrain from paying for an abortion. But it would be something else entirely were I to seek power in order to prevent anyone from having an abortion, if I were to insist that a woman who disagrees with me has no right to choose. That battle is raging in many places today. The second example. Suppose you live in a democracy and some female members of a religious minority, say, Muslims , choose to wear the full body covering that also covers the face  (the burqa) on the streets, or cover their bodies when they go to the beach to swim by wearing the famous burkini. If you are a social liberal of a deep dye you might find this offensive. Question is: should you seek to use the power of the state to ban these ways of dressing?

The unfortunate consequence of the clash of rival fundamentalisms – defined here as seeking power in order to impose a view about how life ought to be lived – is that the militants and their followers seek total victory. They do not want to debate those who have a different point of view; they certainly are not willing to tolerate difference. They want to crush those who disagree with them. As a result, the public sphere is a cacophony of rival gigantic megaphones blasting fulminations characterized by mutual incomprehension; or social media sites where you commune with only those who share your view about how life ought to be lived by anybody with any sense. The stakes in politics, and especially during elections, become incredibly high. Compromise becomes well-nigh impossible. The sober center ground vanishes. In fragile political communities, the end result is often violence and bloody civil strife.

The vanishing ideal is Toleration. According to an excellent entry in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (edited by Ted Honderich) the ideal of toleration:

Requires people to coexist peacefully with others who have fundamentally different beliefs or values. Within Western political philosophy, toleration was first discussed during the Wars of Religion between Catholics and Protestants. When the attempt to impose a single religion failed, the assumption that political stability required a common religion was replaced by the principle of toleration. This principle has now been extended to other areas of moral disagreement, including sexual orientation and political belief…

Sadly, those who abandon toleration in favor of militant comprehensive ideologies are condemned to relearn the brutal lessons of history.

Photo credit: University of Birmingham; JSTOR.

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