If you're reading this article, then you've benefited, at least indirectly, from the laws protecting the satirical French newspaper Charlie Hebdo. These laws support freedom of expression, itself rooted in the political philosophy of Liberalism. Liberalism holds that individual rights are inherent, not granted, and that governments best operate based on a "social contract" between leaders and citizens, rather than divine right or absolute authority. And for all their faults Liberal societies have produced the some of the most prosperous, diverse, and safe places in history. These are places where informed electorates consider minority rights, environmentalism, and economic equality.
This entire way of life is under assault.
I'm deeply concerned about where things are headed in the world, specifically regarding the violent struggle between the West and extreme Jihadist groups. This appears to be the defining geopolitical struggle of my adult life, and one far from resolution. It's not an issue that I'm willing to ignore or merely "outsource" to other people. I also believe that what "we" do - the citizens living in the countries of the world - powerfully influences the future of this struggle. In this era of open economies and borderless communication, people power is more potent than ever.
We must choose what world we want to live in. We must decide what we are willing to tolerate. We must have boundaries around what we hold sacred.
As any observer of history will tell you, progress is not irreversible. In the West, advanced societies in ancient Greece and Rome gave way to over a millennium of social barbarism and intellectual hibernation. Rapid modernization in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries led to twentieth-century showdowns with fascism and communism. In the U.S., the abolition of slavery spawned decades of institutional racism, victory in World War Two fostered years of McCarthyism, and the aftermath of 9/11/2001 generated a surveillance state that we're just now attempting to restrain. In the East, various periods of openness and progress unleashed horrific militarism in Japan and decades of punishing isolation in China. Progress in India has been wobbly. The Middle East appears up for grabs.
There is no cruise-control setting for Liberalism. No matter how much a society commits to and entrenches itself in democratic institutions, it is never past the point of no return. It takes constant effort and vigilance. We are at a point in the West, and wherever else Liberalism stands as the societal model, of facing a test. How committed are we to this way of life?
It's often tempting to think that we are not at risk of dealing with extremism, that those prone to such danger are other people. We may think, "I'm not a soldier," or "I'm not an aid worker," or "I'm not a cartoonist at a satirical newspaper." Yet we must reflect on the wisdom from people who have faced down and lived through extremist threats in the past.
Consider the words of Martin Niemöller, a prominent Protestant pastor who publicly quarreled with Hilter's administration in Nazi Germany.
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out-- Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out-- Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out-- Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me--and there was no one left to speak for me.
If we allow paramilitary death squads to target unarmed cartoonists because of how they express their ideas, then we all lose our ability to express ourselves. If we change our way of life to accommodate ideologies of hatred and genocide, then it's just a matter of time until we're targeted in the crosshairs of purification.
We have come too far and struggled too mightily to allow radical groups spewing tribal venom to destroy our society. We must stand up for who we are and what we believe in. This may, indeed, be our generation's mission.
Yet it's the "how to fight this attack on Liberalism" decision that confounds most of us. In short, I suggest, be more liberal. Liberalism celebrates the individual's choice to direct his or her own life. Embrace it. Choose how to think and how to show up. Avoid the often-automatic responses of blame, cynicism, or retreat. Hate thrives on fear.
We didn't become prosperous, liberal societies by forming angry mobs and attacking easy targets. There's a subtle but important line between defending ourselves and succumbing to reactionary revenge.
Consider the following ideas:
- Speak your mind in whatever way fits. Many people on social media have embraced the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie. In the words of Gandhi, "Be the change that you want to see in the world."
- Learn more about interfaith efforts. Check out this link: http://worldinterfaithharmonyweek.com. Get involved. Don't shy away.
- Reach out to your friends or acquaintances who are Muslim or have Muslim roots. Let them know that you're interested in promoting dialogue. These individuals have an important role to play in the future of their culture.
- Take that next step in your life to express your identity, whatever it is. Start that conversation, ask that person out, open that business, or write that article. Be a role model for those who fear following their dreams. Your courage inspires others.
In closing, I'd like to open for comment the trickiest aspect of this difficult issue. While we can create the world in which we want to live, and we can work to promote our ideals in the world, there are simply people who can't or won't play by the same set of rules. The rules for resolving differences in open, liberal societies are to engage in dialogue, debate differences, and then achieve a solution through consensus or voting. But no radical Jihadist groups have signaled an interest in dialogue or debate with any opposition groups. It's a matter of submitting or dying. So, how can we retain our values and constructively deal with radical Jihadism?
This article first appeared on the site Good Men Project.