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Triumph of the Enlightenment Fundamentalists

Apparently the whole world should look and sound and act like the liberal West.


Who won the last culture war? I’m referring to the skirmishes over Islam, immigration, and liberal democracy that roiled the West in the aftermath of 9/11. In those years, the two opposing camps weren’t the woke and un-woke, but “Enlightenment fundamentalists” and “cultural relativists,” as each would polemically characterize the other.

The former (the fundamentalists) believed fervently that the whole world should adopt liberalism—an ideology they saw as the universal endpoint of all human society. The latter (the relativists) denied or played down the universality of Western liberalism and thought the West itself should be capacious enough to tolerate non-liberal peoples and ideals.    


Judging by the 2022 World Cup, hosted by the decidedly illiberal Qatar, the Enlightenment fundamentalists have now utterly thumped the relativists. Not a match can go forward, it seems, without one or both of the Western sides taking a knee or brandishing rainbow colors. Scenes of LGBT activists arguing with Qatari security or even disrupting games with Pride flags have been commonplace.

The relativist strand of liberalism—skeptical of the West itself, quick to bow to the claims of “subaltern” peoples—has been vanquished, and all that remains is the insistence that Doha (and Tehran, and Moscow, and Beijing, etc.) resemble the Castro District, with Black Lives Matter and Progress Pride flags ever aloft.

It is a surprising turn of events. For in the early years of the War on Terror, it was the relativists who controlled the commanding heights of liberal culture, even as the fundamentalists had the ear of the Bush administration.

The Enlightenment fundamentalists—writers like Paul Berman, Douglas Murray, and Christopher Hitchens as well as Muslim-born critics of Islam like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Ibn Warraq—insisted that non-Western societies, Muslim ones especially, should embrace “Western values,” with U.S. military assistance if necessary. By “Western values,” they meant liberal individualism, official secularism, and Enlightenment-style skepticism. As for the Muslims residing within the West’s frontiers, the Enlightenment fundamentalists rejected “multiculturalism” (remember that old watchword?). Instead, they demanded that all communities submit to the pluralism and freedom of thought and expression that were the crown jewels of the West—or else.

The relativist camp comprised careful liberal thinkers such as the Dutch academic Ian Buruma, who criticized liberal missionary crusades and questioned the wisdom of elevating a handful of secularist Muslims and ex-Muslims as the West’s only legitimate interlocutors with the vast and complex House of Islam. The camp also drew in any number of academics, of highly variable quality, who “interrogated” and “problematized” Western values, seeing them as the impositions of white, male, hetero power. More seriously, there were those who saw in the rhetoric of “freedom” a perfect legitimating ideology for empire-building and the predations of a new post-9/11 security and surveillance apparatus.


It isn’t fair to call all of these figures “relativists,” of course, just as it isn’t entirely fair to describe the members of the other camp as “fundamentalists.” The point is that there were these two camps, roughly speaking, and that they opposed each other ferociously back then. Those who were absolutists about Enlightenment ideals influenced the executive branch in the Bush years but were increasingly relegated to the neoconservative press when it came to the culture. By contrast, the doubters had the New York Review of Books and the New York Times Magazine.

Today, by contrast, the fundamentalists (or the absolutists, if you prefer) have it all: American proxy wars for liberalism and against illiberalism are waged by a Democratic administration, cheered in the Times, boosted by Big Tech, and propagandized by Hollywood. Western corporations and sports teams have emerged as global ambassadors for the idea that the whole world should look and sound and act like the liberal West.

The supreme irony is that, as the new culture war has overtaken the coordinates of the old, many of the fundamentalists are unhappy in their triumph. Douglas Murray, whom I consider a friend, is a leading anti-woke polemicist. Ayaan Hirsi Ali has compared wokeness with—you guessed it—her old enemy, Islam. They, and others like them, would insist that the Western values they were devoted to imposing on panta ta ethne were different and better ones. But applying their principles, I would have trouble finding anything objectionable about the behavior of “woke” Western athletes in Doha.

Their universalism was a purely negative one, hankering for freedom without asking what freedom is for. They insisted on something impossible: “secular” governments that would deny man’s nature as a religious animal, always erecting altars in public. The “woke” filled in the vacuum with a substantive account of the good life (however perverse) and answered the religious animal’s yearnings with new liturgies. As is all too often the case, the Enlightenment liberal failed because he succeeded.


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