Saturday

16th Feb 2019

Opinion

Why are liberal democracies not winning the argument?

  • We need to listen and understand why citizens are disenfranchised (Photo: j naylor)

The attacks in Paris against Charlie Hebdo, against the police officers protecting their offices, against a random police woman, and against shoppers and staff in a kosher supermarket, are not going to change the way we live.

Yet we have to ask ourselves why liberal democracies are not winning the argument.

Read and decide

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Because while - as has been widely recognised - acts of terrorism in no way coincide with Islam (except perhaps in the sense that religion can function as a conduit for otherwise very human madness), many muslims do look at western societies with scepticism, disdain or even anger.

Unlimited freedom to say whatever one wants, the right to love and marry whomever one likes, a democratic decision-making process rather than a strong leader who can ‘get things done’ - we should not fool ourselves into thinking that these are universally accepted concepts.

There are many democracies, far much fewer liberal democracies.

And muslims by no means have a monopoly on criticism on our society.

In Russia, many states in the US, in the India of Modi or Japan under Abe, these liberties seem to matter less and less.

The same is even true for many non-Muslims in Europe. Autocratic rule is much less despised than we would like in former communist countries such as Hungary or Slovakia, but also in Italy - devoid of pluralistic media.

In the Netherlands, the UK, Denmark, Belgium, Austria and France itself, populist movements that are even less liberal than they are democratic (many funded by Putin), are coming ever closer to power.

Why is this?

Why have liberal democracies not been able to woo everyone to come in contact with them?

There are many sociological answers to this question but the biggest concern for Europe is that its liberal model has not been as inclusive as advertised.

From refusing to allow (former) colonies to benefit from the prosperity in the 1950’s, to a preposterous focus on consuming, to denying the poor (including many minorities) access to the economic ladder, and ignoring the negative effects of profit-driven companies on communities in say Bangladesh or the DRC, the perks of freedom have hardly been handed out to everyone.

This makes the French response to both the global financial crisis and the attacks in Paris, so heartening.

Through a mix of cultural arrogance, star economists and now this moving protest rally of epic proportions, they have consistently expressed an unwillingness to fully surrender to the rules of globalism, efficiency and a focus on money, and now seem unwilling to surrender to the sort of fear mongering that would be prevalent in most other countries.

Press freedom, freedom of expression, in fact all our civil liberties, should be protected with the greatest force available against those who want to kill their way to changing them.

But for the much wider group of citizens - both muslim and non-muslim, both within and outside of Europe - who experience little value from these liberties in their daily lives, for that second group we need to do the exact opposite of using force.

We need to listen and understand why they are disenfranchised. We need to explain that these liberties are not some bonus feature but a crucial element in maintaining a peaceful, safe and prosperous society.

Above all, we need to include all our citizens, be civilised to those who migrate here and consider the effects of our actions on citizens of other nations.

Only then will the liberties that we know to be essential, make sense to them, instead of representing some unreachable utopia.

Wouter de Iongh has worked as legal counsel to victims of violent crime in The Netherlands and as a market/legal researcher in New York. He is a partner at the Brussels-based NGO consultancy ODS www.odsupport.eu.

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