A troubling question of perceptions

Donald Trump

In a column in the Globe and Mail, concerning whether or how the Middle East will disrupt Donald Trump’s presidency, John Ibbitson raises a troubling question. “All of these presidents,” Mr Ibbitson say, speaking or Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barak Obama, “brought, at the least, goodwill to the question of how to bring peace to the Middle East. Mr. Trump, in contrast, brings an ingrained suspicion of Islam, which he and some of his advisers consider, not a religious faith, but a threatening ideology.

The perception, the “ingrained suspicion” is not, of course, unique to President elect Trump or his inner circle. A poll released last summer said, according to an article in the Toronto Star, that “Three-quarters of Ontarians said they feel Muslim immigrants have kellie_leitchfundamentally different values, largely due to perceived gender inequality, the survey found … [and] … Despite a generally positive view of immigrants, 53 per cent of Ontarians said we should only allow immigrants from countries that have similar values to our own while 74 per cent said we need to be more strict about what kinds of immigrants we accept.” In other words, a majority of Ontarians have some sympathy, at least, for some of Dr Kellie Leitch’s views on “Canadian values” and some of President elect Trump’s views on isolating Muslims.

My own, personal, view is that Dr Leitch has grasped the edge of a real problem ~ identifying and inculcating out core Canadian values ~ but she proposes to deal with only one small, even minor aspect of it by screening immigrants. The problem is real but it is shared by almost all Canadians. We need to identify and teach our core values of traditional, British liberalism, of respect for the rule of law, of liberal democracy, of secularism that falls far short of laïcité, of free enterprise and private property, of tolerance, of respect for diversity, of belief in a few fundamental rights ~ life, liberty, property and privacy ~ and of respect for the whole pantheon of civil rights while understanding that most are “bounded” or restrained in many ways.

Afghan university students shout anti-US slogans and hold a banner reading 'No Democracy; We want just Islam!' during a demonstration in KabulBut the question is: if most of us believe that Muslims have “fundamentally different values” then how did we come to that view? Is it wrong? Are so many of us so uninformed or ill informed? Or is there something that makes Islam and Muslims too different from our toronto_18graphic.jpeg.size.xxlarge.letterboxtraditional values? Do Muslims, here in Canada, believe things, say things and do things that are too far removed from our mainstream Judaeo-Christian traditions and beliefs? And if some Muslims and some, probably only a few, Canadian citizens reject our core values and demand “values” which the vast majority of Canadians are unwilling to even tolerate much less embrace then what do we do? Do we strip them of their citizenship and deport them for their beliefs? Not in a Canada that is bound, by law, to our core values. No, the answer must be that we teach the worth and the utility of our values to all Canadians … we reaffirm that regardless of our race, creed or sex we are all sisters and brothers in a free, secular, liberal democracy and we all intend to keep it that way.

John Ibbitson, and a whole plethora of experts are concerned about how President elect Trump will treat the Middle East. I am not. There is no right way to treat the Middle East ~ ignoring it and bombing it indiscriminately are equally useless and equally good tactics because, eventually, only the North Africans, Arabs, Israelis, Iranians and South West Asians can solve the Middle East’s many and varied problems, and it is likely that several all out, bloody, even nuclear wars may be necessary to do it. President elect Trump is likely to be another footnote, as were Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and, and, and, through to and including Obama.

My concern is with how we treat Islam and Muslims here at home.

I hold no brief for or against any religion; I know too little about the subject. I know, from a long life lived on several different continents, that most people are alike: black and white, Buddhist and Jew, gay and straight, man and woman: we are all, roughly, equally honest and venal, brave and cowardly, smart and stupid. None of our attributes have anything to do with it. But our cultures do. I am persuaded that there are superior and inferior cultures. Superior cultures are, in my view, liberal, egalitarian, enlightened, sophisticated, entrepreneurial, curious, skeptical and open.

The late Samuel Huntington wrote or edited a couple of articles/books on this topic:

Both were attacked by progressives, mostly on the political left, because they both seem to make “nurture” matter more than “nature” and both, explicitly, suggest that our Western, Anglo-American or Euro-American or whatever “culture” produced the civilization which has done best in the world … so far.

Professor Huntington dealt with the “clash” in two phases: first in the geo-political sense of e.g. the US led West versus the Islamic Middle East or Sinic Asia, and then, in a very local sense of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s dictum that “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.” The essays that Harrison and Huntington choose suggest, very strongly, that Moynihan is right and they go so far as to say that, generally, the Protestant and Northern European “cultures” are “best” and providing economic, social and political benefits to their people while the societies of Africa and the Middle East are worst. Some “Confucian” societies, most notably the city-states of Hong Kong and Singapore are fell fledged members of the “elite” level of the First World while parts of Catholic and Orthodox Europe and much of Latin America remain in or near the Third World. This is an old notion, going back, at least bamboo-scroll-slips-famous-book-of-the-analects-of-confucius-with-gift-boxto Max Weber in about 1905. I, personally, don’t think it has much to do with religion, at all. I believe calvinthat Confucian values, for example, produce almost exactly the same results that Weber saw and attributed to the teachings of Calvin and Knox … but I do believe that “values” matter and that “values’ make cultures. Confucius was, notably, very concerned about the “order” of relationships in the family: parents <> children, spouses <> one another, elder siblings <> younger siblings, and he taught that if we got those “values” right then we could apply them to society at large and have happy, harmonious (peaceful) and prosperous societies. Somehow, it appears to me, some Northern Europeans, mostly Protestants, and some East Asians, mostly Confucians, built socio-political orders around values that produced either liberal or conservative democracies and robust, free market economies that respected and made good use of the rule of law, the notions of equality of opportunity and, consequentially produced stable, peaceful, democratic, law abiding and egalitarian societies that work.

And those, of course, are the “values” that we want to reinforce here in Canada, for all Canadians, newcomers and “old stock” alike and we need to do that reinforcement in our schools and through our law courts and political processes and by strengthening the voluntary sector in our society. We need less government “welfare” and more private, very often church and mosque and temple based, charities to provide better targeted social programmes for those in real need, including e.g. schools, hospitals, community centres and so on.

Back to John Ibbitson’s original point, about the “ingrained suspicion,” of on religion or culture or civilization toward another or towards all others, The Economist notes that “Paradoxically, the sight of Sunnis being bombarded in Aleppo will be particularly ominous to Western Muslims who believe in liberal democracy, and perhaps less unwelcome to radical types whose Manichean view of the world has been grimly confirmed. As one influential figure in British Islam explains, liberal Muslims are bitter because back in 2011, the emergence of a non-sectarian opposition to Mr Assad was a “moment of sweet hope” for democratic change, in Syria and many other places. These expectations may have been dashed, as opposition to Mr Assad has been taken over by extremists; but such memories make Mr Assad’s successes more galling … [and] … H.A. Hellyer, an Islam-watcher and fellow of the Royal United Services Institute, is another who sees broad dangers to Muslim-Western and Muslim-Christian relations from the Aleppo tragedyAs he puts it: “far too many people have been willing to view Assad as a protector of Christians, rather than someone presides over death and destruction. If one type of life, that of Syria’s Christians, is viewed more valuable than another, that of Muslims in Aleppo, that will inevitably lead to embittered attitudes” … [further] …  Among Sunni Muslims in the West, some will resent their governments for doing too little to stay the hand of Mr Assad, and others (feeling a reflexive opposition to any Western intervention in the Islamic world) will feel that their governments have done too much by deploying their own forces in a heavy-handed way. Such resentment may not be well founded, and the first complaint is hardly consistent with the second. But that will not stop people feeling one or both grievances, and at least in a deadly handful of cases, translating them into violent action.” The suspicions grow and fester and linger and nothing that President elect Trump or Prime Minister Trudeau are likely to say or do is going to  make anything much better or much worse.

Here at home we need to persuade all Canadians, and immigrants and refugees that they must temper their most deeply held beliefs, which, by their very definition, are impervious to reason, in order to function within the broad context of our, Canadian, liberal, secular, tolerant, democratic, egalitarian and pluralistic society. Any person and any group may believe as they wish, in private and in congregations but they may not, must not seek to make their beliefs into rules for others. Freedom of religion, for one person, means from from religion for another. Rights, as I keep on saying, must be in balance … and there is a lesson there for the socially conservative wing of the Conservative Party.

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