Liberals: be consistent and show your secular teeth

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(This op-ed piece was previously published in Dutch in the magazine ‘Idee‘, the scientific-political bureau of the Hans van Mierlo foundation, linked to the Dutch political party @D66 @VMStichting)

In the run-up to the Dutch elections, an uncomfortable feeling came over me that has haunted me to this day. To me, D66 is a social-liberal party with a clear eye for human rights, individual freedom and free speech. I like the pragmatic, viable style, that gives maneuverability between socialist, capitalist, nationalist and religious dogmas. The Dutch elections were all about cultural identity and integration: who are we and what binds us as society?

Where does D66 stand?
The political ‘debate’ about cultural identity is influenced by a fierce battle of ideas. When I listen to the political rhetoric of party leader Alexander Pechtold, D66 comes across as a postmodern, left-wing party that fights against rightwing populism and Christian conservatism. But where does D66 stand on integration?

In his book ‘Henk, Ingrid en Alexander’ I read: ‘All integration needs is time’ and: ‘I have my ideals, other people can have doubts about them’. To me, this comes across as: “This is not my fight”. To Pechtold and D66 the political and religious ideas of jihadism, with Islamism as its foundation, seem to be of no political importance. However, because of this, the anti-populist political rhetoric appears defensive, evasive, inconsistent, and loses credibility. This is the core of my discomfort.

Battle of ideas
I see three upcoming radical ideologies which seem to create a reactionary rhetoric in politics, but mostly in the media. These three ideologies form alliances on the basis of the idea ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’, keep polarizing eachother, and may eventually disrupt society:

1) The rise of Islamism (or political Islam: the desire to impose one version of Islam on society) is visible in countries like Turkey (linked to nationalism), Indonesia, Bangladesh and Egypt. It has been supported, both ideologically and financially, by Saudi-Arabia, the Gulf-states, and Iran. The Netherlands has not been immune to this influence. The rise of Islamism is primarily responsible for the global jihadist insurgency that causes dozens of fatalities on a daily basis, especially in Muslim communities. Not only that. Think about the position of women, gays and those that abandon the religion. About antisemitism and the hatred for the West. Labels: Kufar. Infidel.

2) The rise of nationalist populism. The ‘conservative’ ideas of the right wing. Visible in the election of president Trump and the aggressive attitude of Putin at the borders of Europe. A strong dislike for Muslims and fear for re-population and invasion, based on the fear of reverse-assimilation and islamisation. The reason ‘judeo-christian’ values and the distrust in the left-wing ‘party cartel’, are making a comeback. Closing borders and mosques. Thinking of Trump and Putin as strong leaders. Labels: Oikophobe. Gutmensch.

3) The rise of postmodern identity politics. The ‘progressive’ ideas of the left wing. The struggle of the classes, but reshaped into obsessive identity politics of oppressed color, gender or sexual orientation. Activists opposing racism and sexism based on the idea that people of color and women are systematically oppressed by unconscious white privileges and a conspiracy of the patriarchy. ‘Progressive’ identity politics reject a national or western identity and associated values. The constant focus on the victimhood of minority groups has led to the idea that Muslims should be protected as a group. Give integration time, be silent on cultural and religious problems. Diversity of identities rather than ideas. Tolerance, but only on our terms. Labels: Racist. Islamophobe. Sexist.

Three suggestions for forty seats
D66 is often blamed for lacking principles and accommodating the ‘zeitgeist’. Here are three suggestions to dust off core principles and to double the electoral basis for D66:

1) Be consistent in challenging radical, illiberal ideas.
D66 says it values the individual development of its citizens, and they wish to facilitate that. However, minority groups seems to be an exception to this rule. This requires them to be seen as a group, rather than individuals. In doing so, D66 appears to be a party that not only tolerates but even champions all forms of bigotry within these minority group contexts. But let me remind you, the smallest minority is the individual.

So, besides challenging national-populist ideas, also challenge Islamism and identity politics. Islam is a set of ideas. Muslims are a group of people that adhere to a personal version of Islam. When you’re in the political arena, treat all religions as a set of specific ideas that either align or conflict with your basic ideas of liberalism. Do not be afraid to challenge illiberal, Islamic ideas. Show where and how the Right is wrong on Muslims and the Left is wrong on islam (see edited graph by David Silverman). The thinking along vague identity lines obstructs a clear battle or even the exchange of ideas. Tear down unduly identity politics and return focus to the individual. D66 was right to support the poster campaign of Femmes for Freedom and Shirin Musa. Take a stance, people long for it.

2) Show your secular teeth and expand free speech.
You’d think this is a basic principle for a liberal party like D66. But they seem to have forgotten this, because I never hear them talk about it. Argue for, and show the necessity of secularism. The fear of Sharia, justified or not, nééds to be addressed explicitly. No, D66, there is no place for religious symbols on police uniforms. Take a stand for a neutral government and the separation of church and state. Remind everyone that this is not state-atheism, but the framework for peaceful coexistence, and self-determination for believers and non-believers. Of course there is a need for decency and courtesy, but always prioritize free speech over claims for offense. Expand free speech: get rid of the incrimination of group offence or hate speech. Defend the right of people to be critical of Islam. Challenge ideas that attack to Muslims as a group, also when these come from Islamist. Give political support to reforming liberal Muslims. As Maajid Nawaz (a liberal reforming Muslim) says: ‘no idea is above scrutiny, no person is beneath dignity’. Which, I believe, should be the motto of a liberal party like D66.

3) Start a think tank with dissenting thinkers
Organize your own resistance and form an independent group of free-thinkers who discuss  our current issues from a liberal and secular perspective. Let this group advise D66 leadership on topical and fundamental issues. Make dilemmas transparant, open up and talk about it. With eachother ánd with others. D66, the battle of ideas on our identity and our society really ís our fight. And it’s one we don’t want to lose. ♦

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