I received the following article through the Party for Islamic Renewal’s mailing list (one of the “benefits” of being an activist is that all sorts of people and organizations subscribe you to their mailing lists, once in a while with interesting results). In it, a self-described “Muslim student of Political Philosophy” constructs an attack on the perceived “clash of civilizations” thesis, which might explain the Muslim response to the Mohammed cartoons published by a Danish newspaper, and on secular liberalism in general. He calls on liberals for their alledged hypocrisy in supporting freedom of expression in some contexts but apparently not in others, and questions the rational bases for freedom of expression itself.
Though, as a secular liberal, I don’t agree with much of the article and I find the author’s reasoning fallacious and partial in many ways, I still found the article very interesting. Some of his criticisms of liberalism deserve at least some thought, but most importantly, the article provides a window as to how Muslim intellectuals understand this particular conflict.

Islam, Liberal Fundamentalism and the limits of free speech
A Muslim student of Political Philosophy
We have not sent thee (Muhammad) except as a mercy to all nations. (Quran, 21: 107)
I have studied him the wonderful man, and in my opinion far from being an anti-christ, he must be called the saviour of humanity. I believe that if a man like him were to assume the dictatorship of the modern world, he would succeed in solving the problems in a way that would bring it the much needed peace and happiness. Europe is beginning to be enamoured of the creed of Muhammad. In the next century it may go still further in recognizing the utility of that creed in solving its problems and it is in this sense that you must understand my prediction
(George Bernard Shaw)
The furore and anger that has predictably erupted since the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad in a violently distorted and derogatory manner have a striking parallel with the crisis created by the publication of the Satanic Verses over 15 years ago. Yet this time a mere rehearsal of arguments about the limits of free speech will not suffice; the context has drastically changed. The brutality of the illegal and immoral war in Iraq that has left at least 30,000 innocent civilians dead and countless more homeless and orphaned, taken together with the backdrop of military persecution meted out by the Israeli regime and the arbitrary incarceration of Muslims in Britain and America, has all left many Muslims with the feeling that they are the victims of an imperialistic policy hell bent on waging a war against Islam. The so called ‘moderates’ have been busy, until now, in trying to co nvince Muslims to be wary of conspiracy theories that do nothing but engender a condition of self-induced victimhood. Even they now would find it difficult to dismiss the mainstream perception as conspiratorial scaremongering.
Among the secular elite in the West there will those who will immediately interpret the reaction of Muslims world wide as evidence of the clash of civilisations thesis. Underpinning this view is the ethnocentric belief that because the Muslim world has yet to travel through the intellectual heights of Enlightenment rationalism, it is unable to deal with the cultural and political dynamics of the modern world that demand a form of secularity that has little place for a principled commitment to sacred and transcendental values. In fact identifying with any beliefs that are not rooted in a strictly materialistic view of the world are derided as anachronisms that reflect an intellectually deficient and altogether antediluvian mindset that is in desperate need of education. The unspoken assumption of all those that are champions of secular modernity, who see themselves as self-appointed guardians of the Enlightenment project, is that the Moder n West embodies a civilisation that is culturally and politically superior to Islam.
Without having to undertake an intellectual tour de force to show how Islam is more than capable of defending itself against the charge of embodying an antiquated and defunct belief, an indirect way of exposing the fallacy of secular ideologues is by simply pointing to the abject failure of the Enlightenment project. The ruthlessly oppressive totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century, whose utopian visions are indebted to the Enlightenment belief in the possibility of human reason to set humanity on a path of progress and perfection, have perpetrated human suffering on such a scale that the consequences are still being felt today. Fascism, Nazism and Communism are all secular modern ideologies. So much for the idea that abandoning religion per se will make the world a better place.
The irony of the idealistic Enlightenment faith in rationality is that it is beset by an essential irrationality: faith in the omnipotence of human reason in the face of its obvious limitations. The contemporary postmodernist backlash in literature, art and philosophy is a vociferous rejection of the fanciful idea that modern Western societies embody universal principles of civilisation and progress. Yet postmodernism has bequeathed its own set of intractable problems. Moral relativism, fractured identities, a loss of an overall framework of meaning and values have all contributed, in some form or another, to the disaffection, angst and sense of alienation that so many experience living in Western societies. The radical disintegration of the family unit has only compounded these problems further. One might be forgiven for wondering how this all ties in with the conflicts surrounding the publications of the cartoons. Its relevance cannot be overstated.
Whilst the Western media has been busy in selectively portraying the most sensationalist elements of the Muslim reaction, what has gone unnoticed is the brazen rhetoric of Liberal Fundamentalism. Secular liberal fundamentalists have all been lining up in a chorus of condemnation of the supposed disregard Muslims have for free speech, and have used the crisis to loudly extol all the virtues of secular liberal societies, and by implication, the decadence of all those that choose not to embrace the dogmatisms of secular liberal beliefs. Their confidence betrays a deeper psychological insecurity. The secular intelligentsia are only too aware of the disorientating effects of being caught in the middle of modernist beliefs in universal liberal values and the blatant obviousness of post-modern social realities – and not knowing where to turn. To assure themselves of the ‘essential truth’ of secular liberal values they have retreated into the comfortable orthodoxies of liberalism, because it is in the bosom of this political tradition that they gain certainty, meaning and identity, and regard a dissent from those values to be heretical, or even, to add an interesting ironic twist, sacrilegious. Thus Skidelsky makes the following astute observations: “Liberalism is facing a crisis. This judgement may seem extreme; given the current confidence of liberal rhetoric….Yet the recent upsurge of confidence hides a deeper anxiety. We proclaim to the world the values of equality, liberty and toleration, but we have no idea on what authority we proclaim them. The older liberalism has no anxieties on this account. It derived its principles either from Christian tradition or else from the supposed attributes of human nature. Both these sources of justification have fallen into disrepute….Thus rights are no longer deduced, either theologically or philosophically. They are proclaimed. Fiat has replaced argument. Our faith in our own civilisation is without rational foundation. This accounts for the shrill, dogmatic tone of modern liberalism”
If this analysis is true, then ‘liberal fundamentalism’ is an entirely apposite term because it captures the condition of a civilisation that is increasingly unsure about what it actually stands for, hence the need to continually reiterate ad nauseum the supposed superiority of a Western way of life as a means of resolving this uncertainty. Alas, how illiberal liberals become when their liberal values are challenged. The more significant implication is that it is utterly inaccurate to characterise the conflict as being a battle between open-minded liberals and narrow-minded fundamentalists. What we really have is a case of competing fundamentalisms. The former characterisation inhibits us from asking more searching, serious and perennial questions about the validity of the different epistemic sources from which these different ways of life spring. It also, quiet unjustly, places the burden of proof on Muslims to justify their reaction by suggesting that the presumpt ion must always lie in favour of secular liberal beliefs. Liberals want to apparently engage in open and rational dialogue but one that is conducted exclusively on their own terms: a rather illiberal position by any account!
Instead of assuming that the most rational question to ask is how we should maximise free expression, perhaps it is worth considering whether a question about protecting the sanctity of religious identity is equally, if not more, rationally valid. Muslims and secular liberals will begin by asking different questions because they are rooted in different cultural and moral contexts that demand and initiate divergent trajectories of moral consideration. The real issue at stake is how to construct an environment that will facilitate a respectful, albeit critical exchange between different ways of thinking that allows for the articulation of difficult and vexing questions, without leading to a situation where one culture feels the need to deliberately denigrate the other. The challenge is how to break down the barriers of mutual incomprehensibility. Aside from gross insensitivity to the religious sensibilities of one billion people, this is on e of the reasons why the publication of cartoons that deliberately vilify and mock the character of the Prophet Mohammad are an unforgivable crime: they have exacerbated mutual mistrust and even hatred between two great civilisations. The vituperative scorn and prejudicial propaganda that is pouring out from both sides of the cultural divide, that may lead to yet more mutual resentment is too high a price to pay for the infantile irrationalities of a cartoonist. This naturally brings us to the question of the raison d’etre for free expression.
J S Mill’s seminal work On Liberty is cited by many secular liberals in support of the indispensability of free speech to a liberal democratic society. Although the inadequacies of Mill’s arguments are well known to anyone familiar with modern political theory, it is important to briefly reconsider them in the context of the current crisis. Mill has essentially two strands of argument for the contention that free speech/expression should be unrestricted. The first line of justification is an epistemological account of the provisional and tentative nature of human knowledge. The form of the second line of justification is a utilitarian evaluation of the benefits unrestricted free speech brings to individuals and society as a whole. Both strands are inextricably intertwined in the actual text but the delineation into two separate forms of justification helps to bring clarity and focus to a complex matter.
Mill asserts that no single individual can claim a monopoly of truth since this would require an unjustifiable presumption of infallibility. Since such a presumption is rationally untenable we have no right to restrict the public expression of views that run contrary to our own- no matter how extreme they might appear to be. In essence, there is no absolute finality in human knowledge and understanding of reality: to suppress any points of view therefore is to implicitly claim an omniscient grasp of reality. Mill’s argument appears to make a lot sense, at least superficially. The problem is that it falls prey to the very premise that is used to establish it. If all knowledge is indeed limited and inconclusive then (the statement that asserts this) must recognise that its view of human knowledge is also partial and limited, in which case it cannot take its own view as some kind of incontrovertible truth. The incoherence of Mill’s relativistic theory of knowledge evidently does not provide a credible basis for unrestricted freedom of speech. After all, if there is no final truth, then how can Mill be so certain and know that there is no absolute truth that is embodied by the doctrines of a particular religion, ideology or philosophy?
The utilitarian argument for free speech again has a superficial appeal but suffers from a na