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Liberalism and its effect on Society

This article has been adapted from the forthcoming Hittin Institute publication “Liberalism and its Effect on Society: Philosophical, Practical and Islamic Perspectives”.

Introduction

Liberalism has directly contributed to social problems. These problems range from child abuse and neglect to violent crime and rape. A common trend in liberal societies, such as the UK and US, is that social breakdown has become a norm, and has shaped academic and popular culture discourse. Professor Daniel Bell, lecturer in Political Science at the University of Singapore, states,

“Liberalism, it is claimed, contributes to, or at least does not sufficiently take account of, the negative social and psychological effects related to the atomistic tendencies of modern liberal societies. There is undoubtedly a worrying trend in contemporary societies towards a callous individualism that ignores community and social obligations, and liberal theory does not seem up to the task of dealing with this problem.”[1]

It is the scope of this article to highlight Liberalism’s negative effects on society using philosophical and practical arguments. This article will conclude by briefly discussing the Islamic solution to the liberal phenomenon of social decay.

Philosophical Perspective

Individualism: The False Premise of Liberal Values

Liberalism is a “disputatious family of doctrines”[2] which share the same core political values. These values are the priority of individual rights and an emphasis on individual freedoms; it can be argued that these values form Liberalisms intellectual foundations. The ‘Oxford Concise Dictionary of Politics’ reflects this position and describes Liberalism as,

“…the belief that it is the aim of politics to preserve individual rights and to maximise freedom of choice.”[3]

The proposition upon which these values are based on – in other words, the premise for Liberalism’s core political values – is atomism or individualism. Political Philosopher Marilyn Friedman adds that,

“…individualism…underlies some important versions of liberal political theory.”[4]

Individualism is the consideration that individual human beings are social atoms abstracted from their social contexts, attachments and obligations.[5] In light of this, is individualism a correct premise to base a political outlook or philosophy?

If it can be shown that individualism is ontologically false, this should raise fundamental questions about the validity of Liberalism as a suitable ideology for humanity. Individualism views, and seeks to understand, the self – in other words the human being – as an abstract entity divorced from its social reality. This is incorrect because:

1. There are social and communal attachments which determine the individual.[6] 2. Aims and values must be considered when determining the individual, and aims and values can only be truly understood within a social context.[7] 3. There are dynamic links between society’s values and behaviour. Social Constructionist Vivien Burr concludes that key features – or values – of a specific society will affect an individual’s personality.[8]

It can be concluded that the premise of Liberalism – individualism – is a false one. As its attempt to understand the individual or the self is incorrect. Its effort to comprehend the human being is false as it seeks to dissociate the self from its social reality, in other words, it argues that the individual is shaped, influenced and developed without any reference to social links. It logically follows that if an entire political outlook is based upon a false premise, its results will also be incorrect.

Practical & Social Research Perspective

Non-Cohesive Political Values

Liberalism’s political values of individual freedom and the primacy of individual rights, based upon the false premise of individualism, are non-cohesive. What is meant by non-cohesive is that these values do not facilitate social cohesion and do not evoke ideas that construct positive behaviours.

Since modern liberal states emphasise and propagate these values within western societies, their effects must be examined. If social breakdown is on the increase and it seems to be a permanent feature of liberal society, then it can be argued that the propagated non-cohesive values have had a role to play.

Practical Perspective: The Negative Effects of Liberal Values

The political values of liberalism have caused the social decay being witnessed today. In February 2009 the Children’s Society[9] launched ‘A Good Childhood: Searching for Values in a Competitive Age’[10] report and it presented evidence that supports this essays thesis. The reports states,

“Britain and the U.S. have more broken families than other countries, and our families are less cohesive in the way they live and eat together. British children are rougher with each other, and live more riskily in terms of alcohol, drugs and teenage pregnancy. And they are less inclined to stay in education. This comes against a background of much greater income inequality: many more children live in relative poverty in Britain and the U.S.”[11]

The report also supports this essays conclusions that social breakdown and decay is due to the premise of liberalism – individualism.[12]

Individualism has affected our societies in an immense way, below are some statistical accounts of social breakdown in the two most liberal nations, the UK and US. There is a plethora of statistics that strongly indicated social decay in these countries however I have specifically chosen child abuse, the treatment of women and crime to bring to light the conclusion that the UK and US are experiencing social breakdown.

Child Abuse

The atomistic trends in modern liberal societies have effected the treatment towards the most vulnerable. The seventeen months of torture and agony inflicted on ‘Baby P’ is probably one of the worst stories of child abuse in the UK. The baby was found dead after months of torture with broken ribs and a broken back.[13] In the UK, according to NSPCC research, 7% of children experienced serious physical abuse at the hands of their parents or carers during childhood.[14] In the US an estimated 3.6 million children were accepted by state and local child protection services as alleged victims of child maltreatment for investigation or assessment.[15]

Treatment of Women

Liberalism’s political values have affected the way UK society treats women. According to Amnesty International (UK)[16], 167 women are raped everyday in the UK. Domestic violence accounts for nearly a quarter of all recorded violent crime in England and Wales – one in four women will be a victim of domestic violence in their lifetime and one incident of domestic violence is reported to the police every minute

The UK is not alone in its maltreatment of women, in the US a woman is raped every 6 minutes and battered every 15 seconds.[17]

Crime: UK

The effect of Liberalism’s non-cohesive values can also be seen in the following U.K. crime figures,

  • 2,164,000 violent incidents during 2007/08 against adults in England and Wales[18]
  • Approximately 47,000 rapes occur every year in the U.K.[19]
  • Increase in murder rates. Metropolitan Police reported the most incidents, with 167 murders in 2007/8, up from 158.[20]

Crime: US

The US is also suffering from social breakdown and social decay[21] US suffers from,

  • 16,204 murders a year[22]
  • 9,369 murders with firearms in one year[23]
  • 2,019,234 prisoners and this has increased since 2002[24]
  • 420,637 robberies per year[25]
  • 11,877,218 total crimes per year[26]

It can be seen that the UK and US are suffering from social breakdown and social decay. The social collapse of the two most liberal nations is due to their ideological convictions – liberalism. There is a direct correlation between Liberalism’s non-cohesive political values and the social problems highlighted in this essay.

The Islamic Solution

Since non-cohesive liberal values have directly contributed to social breakdown, then an obvious solution is to propagate cohesive values with the relevant social models and mechanisms to achieve a cohesive society. It can be strongly argued that Islamic cohesive political values are an answer to the problems faced by liberal societies.

Islam’s view on society doesn’t rest on a false premise; rather it has a unique view on the society and the individual. This philosophy is best described by the following hadith,[27]

“God’s messenger gave an example of people sailing on a boat having an upper deck and a lower deck. The people from the lower deck require water and request water from the people of the upper deck. The people from the upper deck refuse water, so the people from the lower deck decide to make a hole in the floor of the ship and get water from the sea. God’s messenger said, ‘If the people from the upper deck don’t stop the people at the bottom from making a hole, the ship will sink and all the people travelling will drown.’”[28]

This hadith gives a clear view that individuals are part of society and the society is part of the individual. It highlights the need for a symbiotic relationship between society and the individual. Certain actions, values and behaviour of individuals in a society can affect it in negative way, especially if these actions and values are non-cohesive. Hence, Islam propagates cohesive values in its society to prevent the ‘boat’ from sinking, in other words preventing social breakdown and facilitating social cohesion.

These cohesive values include justice, compassion, empathy, distribution of resources, tolerance and accountability. The source texts of Islam, namely the Qur’an and the Hadith (also known as the Sunnah), which are the bedrock of Islamic Law known as the Shariah, seeks to propagate these cohesive values. The Qur’an and the Hadith strongly emphasise these values, for example:

“Let there be among you people that command the good, enjoining what is right and forbidding the wrong. They indeed are the successful.”[29]

“What will explain to you what the steep path is? It is to free a slave, to feed at a time of hunger, an orphaned relative or a poor person in distress, and to be one of those who believe and urge one another to steadfastness and compassion”[30]

“…bear witness impartially: do not let the hatred of others lead you away from justice, but adhere to justice, for that is closer to the awareness of God. Be mindful of God…”[31]

These cohesive values were once propagated in the Muslim world. Many commentators argue that these essential political values have disappeared due to Muslim nations not adopting Islamic political theory comprehensively. However, much evidence can be sited via historical references, when the Islamic cohesive political values were once disseminated in the Muslim world.

It must be noted here that the cohesive Islamic values can not be established successfully without a fully functioning Islamic Government, also known as the Caliphate. This is because Islamic Governance is a comprehensive system where all of its models and mechanisms are interdependent and interlink with one another. In Islamic history, when the cohesive values of Islam were propagated via the implementation of the Caliphate system, the conclusions made by some historians are unparalleled. The Jewish historian Amnon Cohen states that the Jewish minorities sought justice from the Islamic courts rather than their own,
“The Jews went to the Muslim court for a variety of reasons, but the overwhelming fact was their ongoing and almost permanent presence there. This indicates that they went there not only in search of justice, but did so hoping, or rather knowing, that more often than not they would attain redress when wronged…”[32] Many liberals may argue that these values are shared by all; however Islam propagates these values and doesn’t create a competition between cohesive values and non-cohesive values like we see in liberal societies. Hence, Islam makes its cohesive values part of its political and social make up, which is in contrast to Liberalism’s individualistic and atomistic outlook. Islam should be investigated and used as a reference in the dynamics of political discourse as its political values rest on a strong premise and its core political values are cohesive.

Conclusion

Liberalism has failed humanity. The premise of Liberalism – individualism – is philosophically incorrect as it views the human being as an abstract entity divorced from necessary social attachments. It has also produced atomistic tendencies in modern societies resulting in social breakdown and social decay.

Liberalisms core political values of individual freedoms and the primacy of individual rights are non-cohesive values that have facilitated the social problems faced by liberal societies. These non-cohesive values propagated in western nations have affected their collective behaviour. In contrast to this, Islam has a unique view on society and its propagated cohesive values have produced positive results.

Significantly it must be noted that policy and legislative changes will not solve the social crisis experienced in liberal societies. We have already tried that method and failed. Now it is time to question the underlying values of liberal nations and find workable solutions based upon cohesive values that will bring us out of this social decay. I believe that these cohesive values must be the Islamic values and the workable solution is Islamic Governance also known as the Caliphate.

The most practical way of this being achieved is that Islamic Governance must be implemented in the Muslim world. By doing so, it can be the example to western liberal nations – in the hope that they would realise that Islam is a positive solution for our broken society.

References

[1] Daniel Bell. Communitarianism and its Critics. Oxford University Press. 1993. p 7.
[2] John Charvet and Elisa Kaczynska-Nay. The Liberal Project and Human Rights. Cambridge University Press. 2008. p 1.
[3] Iain McLean and Alistair McMillan. Oxford Concise Dictionary of Politics. Oxford University Press. p. 309.
[4] Marilyn Friedman ‘Feminism and Modern Friendship: Dislocating the Community’ in Shlomo Avineri and Avner de-Shalit. Communitarianism and Individualism. Oxford University Press. 1992. p 101.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Communitarianism and Individualism, p 3.
[8] Vivien Burr. Social Constructionism. Routledge. 2003. p 33.
[9] http://www.childrenssociety.org.uk/
[10] Richard Layard and Judy Dunn. A Good Childhood: Searching for Values in a Competitive Age. Penguin Books. 2009.
[11] Ibid. p 4
[12] Ibid.
[13] http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/crime/article5140511.ece
[14] Cawson et al., 2000, Child Maltreatment in the UK: A Study of the Prevalence of Child Abuse and Neglect, NSPCC.
[15]http://member.preventchildabuse.org/site/DocServer/Child_Maltreatment_Fact_Sheet_2005.pdf?docID=221
[16] http://www.amnesty.org.uk/content.asp?CategoryID=10309
[17] Broken Bodies, Shattered Minds: Torture and Ill Treatment of Women, Amnesty International, 2001
[18] http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/rds/pdfs08/hosb0708chap3.pdf
[19] http://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/documents/Rape%20-%20The%20Facts.doc
[20] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/2287360/Murder-rate-increasing-amid-epidemic-of-knife-and-gun-crime.html
[21] http://www.globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=va&aid=9621
[22] https://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/index.html
[23] The Eighth United Nations Survey on Crime Trends and the Operations of Criminal Justice Systems (2002) (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Centre for International Crime Prevention)
[24] Ibid
[25] The Eighth United Nations Survey on Crime Trends and the Operations of Criminal Justice Systems (2002) (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Centre for International Crime Prevention)
[26] UNICRI (United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute). 2002. Correspondence on data on crime victims. March.
[27] The recorded sayings, actions and consent of the Prophet Muhammad (p).
[28] Mishkaat vol. 2 p. 436
[29] Qur’an Chapter 3 verse 104
[30] Qur’an Chapter 90 verses 11-20
[31] Qur’an Chapter 5 verse 8
[32] A World Within: Jewish Life as Reflected in Muslim Court Documents from the Sijill of Jerusalem (XVIth Century). Part One, 1994, Pennsylvania, p. 17.