By Sohrab Ahmari
Thursday, January 26, 2017
Donald Trump’s double-layer fence along America’s southern border, and his plan to suspend all immigration from terror-producing countries, are dramatic and consequential pieces of public policy. But they’re also palliative symbols. The message they send to the president’s supporters is: “Your days of anxiety are behind you. We will be a coherent nation once more.”
Politicians across the West are beginning to tell their voters the same thing in what is shaping up to be the widest rollback of the freedom of movement in decades.
It’s not just right-wing nationalists like Marine Le Pen in France or Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. Centrists get it, too. Some, like Angela Merkel, are still-reluctant restrictionists. Others, like Theresa May, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and French presidential aspirant François Fillon, are more forthright. All have wised up to the popular demand for drastically lower immigration rates.
The paradox here is that freedom of movement is unraveling now because liberals won central debates—about Islamism, social cohesion and nationalism. Rather than give ground on any of these fronts, they accused opponents of being phobic and reactionary. Now liberals are reaping the rewards of those underhanded victories.
Liberals “won” the debate about the link between Islamist ideology and terrorism.
For eight years under President Obama, the U.S. government eschewed even the term “Islamism.” The preferred nomenclature created the ludicrous effect that U.S. service members were sent to war against people passionate about “violent extremism.” But voters could read and hear about jihadists offering up their actions to Allah before opening automatic fire on shoppers and blasphemous cartoonists.
Mr. Obama’s linguistic exertions didn’t repress the truth. They merely opened the space for others to express it—and sometimes to grossly distort it, by suggesting, for example, that all 1.4 billion Muslims are terrorists or terrorist sympathizers and should be denied entry into Western homelands.
Liberals also largely “won” the debate over Muslim integration.
For too many liberals, every Islamist atrocity was cause to fret about the “Islamophobic” backlash it was sure to trigger. This had become an almost an automatic reflex: When a jihadist would go boom somewhere, liberal hashtags expressing solidarity with threatened Muslim minorities were never far behind.
But liberals didn’t bother nearly as much about the pathologies in Muslim communities, and in Islamic civilization itself, that were producing so much carnage. Some liberals would sooner abandon their own feminist and gay-rights orthodoxies than criticize what imams in certain suburbs of Paris and London were telling their congregations about Afghanistan and defending the honor of the ummah.
Amnesty International cozied up to the British-Pakistani radical Islamist Moazzam Begg despite his fawning interviews with the al Qaeda preacher Anwar al-Awlaki. When an Amnesty staffer named Gita Sahgal went public with her objections in 2010, the organization suspended her and argued in a press release that “jihad in self-defense” wasn’t “antithetical to human rights.”
Likewise, the Islamist philosopher Tariq Ramadan became the toast of New York intellectuals—though he refused to call for an outright end to the Islamic practice of stoning adulterers.
By contrast, liberal writers sneered at the Somali-born human-rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali as an “Enlightenment fundamentalist.” Brandeis University withdrew an invitation to Ms. Hirsi Ali to speak on campus in 2014. The Southern Poverty Law Center branded her an “extremist” along with the counterterror campaigner Maajid Nawaz in a report last year.
Liberals thus empowered the most aggressive elements of Muslim communities while marginalizing reformers. Mr. Ramadan became the tribune of Western Islam, while Ms. Hirsi Ali and Mr. Nawaz were branded inauthentic and bigoted. Is it any wonder that many voters came to see all Western Muslims as sources of danger and social incohesion?
Liberals, finally, “won” the debate over nationalism.
In Europe especially and the U.S. to a lesser extent, liberals treated nationalism and the West’s Judeo-Christian heritage as relics of a dark past. For European Union leaders, the ideal political community was an ever-expanding set of legal procedures, commercial links and PC norms. Citizens could fill in the blanks with whatever cultural content they preferred—preferably “Europe” itself.
But norms and law didn’t inspire political attachment. The hunger for authentic identity drove young European Muslims to the Islamist underground. Meanwhile, among native Europeans, the far right came to own nationalism and nationhood. The divergence proved poisonous.
Judging by their breathless editorials and social-media outbursts, leading liberals still blame this reversal in political fortunes on a paroxysm of collective fear and hatred, the forces they’ve always sought to banish. Yet the main culprits for the popular revolt against liberalism are liberals themselves. If liberal ideals are to survive the current backlash, the West needs sharper, more hard-headed liberals.