For some people, the concept of ‘liberalism’ connotes moral decay and degeneration, an anti-religious attitude and little else. For those who share this perspective, liberalism makes everything permissible and valid leaving no place for religion or morals in a liberal society.
In this view, a liberal society is one built on the pursuit of pleasure and is comprised of individuals who are governed by their physical desires, the love of money and women, instant gratification and nothing more.
For some, liberalism constitutes the antithesis of religion whereby no liberal-minded individual can be affiliated to any religion and neither can a religious individual be liberal. As such, a liberalist must invariably be a ‘disbeliever’ just as any democrat was deemed a ‘disbeliever’ in Ahmed Lotfi al Sayed’s story and the parliamentary elections of his time. The tutor’s [al Sayed’s] opponents of the same generation had resorted to a trite political trick when they deluded the simple masses into believing that democracy was synonymous with infidelity. When they asked Ahmed Lotfi al Sayed if he considered himself a democrat, he enthusiastically affirmed, and thus he was placed in the list of infidels. This is the same fate suffered by liberalism and its defendants. Liberalism is an obscure concept, especially in societies that only knew authoritarianism throughout their history, where repression colored all dealings and where these societies hadn’t practiced but a single opinion and one reality since their inception up until their last moments.
Delving into philosophical and theoretical interpretations of ‘liberalism’ is not what is intended here, neither its manifestations, volatility and the variations of the meaning of the word since the emergence of the concept. The purpose does not lie in elaborating on how liberalism is contradictory to democracy and how this contradiction gelled into cohesion later whereby the two terms became associated with one another. The intention is dispel some of the confusion that surrounds this concept, which has borne more than it could bear of misconceptions in addition to being unjustly tackled. The objective of this article is to reflect on the essence of liberalism and how it is ultimately humane in content in a way that does not contradict religion and ethics so that its basis is religion and its source stems from ethics in the end.
The principal idea behind liberal philosophy is that the individual is the basis, because human beings are tangible entities far detached from abstract notions and theories. The philosophy of life revolves around the individual and the values that define both thought and behavior generate from him/her. Humans come into life as free individuals who have the basic right to live. The very meaning is embodied in Umar Ibn al Khattab’s famous saying, “When did you enslave men when they were born free?” as a natural reflection of an innate truth.
From this right to life and liberty all other rights emerge; such as freedom of choice, the freedom to live life in the manner that one so wishes not as others determine, the right to self-expression through different mediums, the right to search for the purpose of life in accordance to one’s own convictions not by what is imposed or dictated. In short, liberalism does not mean more than the individual’s right to live freely with absolute freedom of choice in this worldly life – as for the hereafter, only God knows what fate may hold. Freedom and free choice are the cornerstones of the liberalist philosophy. No contradictions exist between its various viewpoints as adopted by advocates such as Hobbes, Locke and Bentham, among others. Although Hobbes had an authoritarian political tendency, his social philosophy – even the political authoritarianism that he defended – emerged from the rights of freedom and choice. Locke was rather democratic, still, that trend had also generated from these same rights. Bentham was an advocate of utilitarianism, but his ideology similarly stemmed from the same source when explaining human behavior and the primary motive that drives it.
However, to enjoy the freedom of choice doesn’t mean that such a privilege should be absolute. In Hobbes’ ‘Leviathan’ man had absolute freedom but it could only exist in the ‘state of nature’ which involves killing and destruction and what was entailed of related freedoms, thus man ‘chose’ to relinquish some of these freedoms to the giant entity, the leviathan or the state, so that he may be able to enjoy the other natural rights and freedoms. Freedom, or the freedom of choice more specifically, essentially means the absence of constraints – however, this freedom is obliged to be restrained by two fetters if indeed our concern is a civilized society: These two constraints are the freedom and the rights of others on one hand, and the laws that shape these rights and freedoms and determine the range of domains that an individual can move within to exercise his own freedom without breaching the freedoms of others. In the end, society is nothing but a group of individuals who share the same rights and freedoms. If these rights and freedoms were not preserved by a framework that determines the limits of every individual’s freedom, then the Hobbesian ‘state of nature’ will most definitely be the outcome.
Today’s Iraq is an example of this ‘state of nature’ where absolute freedom allows for everything – including the freedom to kill. The American, British or French societies are liberal to a large extent whereby individuals are free to do whatever they want but only insofar as it is not at the expense of the freedom of others. In these societies, all people are equal before the law; the law’s main objective is to regulate the relationships that result from the freedom of choice. Some may only see in the liberal West a general looseness, a state where homosexuality, illicit relationships and deviant practices are rampant – but has the West been established on these elements only? Definitely not. Correspondingly, there are also people in the West who believe that the Islamic civilization is nothing but the face of terrorism, the oppression of women and backwardness – which is an equally biased view.
If indeed Western societies comply with the aforementioned description and yet they were able to dominate the world today, of which we are a part of, then it is we who are at the core of this dilemma not the West. But if there are other faces to the truth, why should we reduce them to practices that already exist in our societies and may perhaps even be more than what is happening there. But the prevalent freedom there, which is condemned and absent here allows for us to know what transpires in their states but prohibits us from tarnishing the image of the angels in our countries. The freedom of choice, even if it involves ethically questionable practices in some respects, also indicates a freedom that lacks suppression, unrestricted freedom for research, freedom of speech without the muffling of mouths, freedom of the press without piloting, freedom of expression without limits, freedom of criticism without taboos and the freedom of belief without repression.
In the relationships between liberalism and morality, or liberalism and religion, the emphasis lies on the fact that liberalism is not concerned with the individual’s conduct so long as it does not transgress beyond its own scope of rights and freedoms. If it does cross that line, the consequences become severe. To be morally degenerate is one’s own business as long as the consequences do not harm others, such as getting drunk and driving a car or assaulting a girl in the street, for example – then it is no longer one’s own business alone. Choosing to be religious or atheist is one’s own call and it is what all religions have asserted. “The righteous path has become distinct from the erroneous one, let they who want to believe, believe, and let those who will it, reject.” [Quranic verse]
Some may be shocked by such discourse, but the truth eventually imposes itself. Imposing one’s belief on others, whatever the reason may be, may force them into adopting that belief superficially, however, does it penetrate their inner consciousness and transform them? This constitutes the question and is where the difference between
liberal, totalitarian, theocratic or authoritarian societies lies; liberalism permits a reconciliation between an individual’s internal and external being whereas all the other forms establish contradiction as the basis of the relationship between those two antipodes within individuals; which yields the phenomenon of hypocrisy.
You may have not been a communist during the days of the Union Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR), you may have even hated communism, however you couldn’t but laud it, the establishments of Lenin, the glories of Stalin, the firmness of Kruschev and the achievements of Brezhnev. The same applies to Saddam’s Iraq, Assad’s Syria, Qaddafi’s Libya, Castro’s Cuba, Mao’s China, and the Iran of the Shah and Khomeini (same difference). Hypocrisy is the prevalent philosophy and the dominant code of conduct in such cases – and here lies the difference between liberalism and other models. Hypocrisy is absent in liberalism where the internal and external merge and all masks are dropped.