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Liberalism as the vaccine against terrorism

By Sanjeev Sabhlok, 16 August 2003. (will be reviewed)

The West is extremely concerned about actions taken in the recent past against its interests by certain individuals with very limited resources. Self defence is crucial in this exercise, and huge energy must be spent on controlling this risk.

But more broadly speaking, history and human nature are key determinants of mans present state of affairs, internal to ourselves, and external, in what we do. Both of these are largely beyond the control of policy makers.

History is important because even though it is a subjective mental precept created out of images both verbal and non verbal, it sets a significant stage in our minds about our current role and status. The racial arrogance of the past two to three hundred years displayed by some members of the West toward the East is a fact of life and will remain embedded in the minds of people from the Third World for many generations to come. Attempts of religions dominate others have also left similar impacts.

On the other side of the mental model is our own human nature, as well as our understanding of the nature of other human beings. Human nature has evolved over many tens of thousands of years, and can be taken as being almost completely unalterable. Our behaviour is amenable to incentives, but our nature, ie. our ability to do good or evil, remains the same. Further, the human mind is very fragile and subject to many significant errors of judgment and fallacies of understanding. Therefore it is impossible to expect the human mind to rise above some completely unexpected or even unacceptable interpretation of history.

It sometimes becomes very difficult even for me to interpret many of the actions and sayings of the Western people with whom I have interacted, as being in good faith with equal regard to all human beings. Almost the only explanation that fits the treatment accorded to many professional migrants from South Asia, for instance, by Australian employers, is that they are extremely racist. I have continued to try to believe that there is an underlying element of integrity in the minds of employers and others in the West, and that they are in search of excellence, but very few of my fellow migrants believe this is the case. A questioning of these employers would surely elicit shock at such an interpretation. Thus the same event can have two radically different interpretations due to the pollution of history.

It is this human interpretation of history that has to be dealt with. If history and human nature cannot be changed, how can we reduce the threat of terrorism, given that over the past 200 years, and in many ways even today, Western arrogance and racism has been an integral part of global experience? Since it is human nature to believe the worst of each other, it is particularly important for the dominant force, the West, to be cautious in its behaviour with the so-called Third World. Even the word Third World is, to me, personally, extremely provocative, since it was only 250 years ago that no distinction could be made between the West and the East in terms of income or wealth. A hundred years ago, Japan was treated as a Third World country (not that this word existed then, but derogatory references abounded), but today the West is keen to include it in its fold. Many definitions of the West today actually include Japan, the eastern-most corner of the world! All this smacks of continuing ill-will (or contempt?) and arrogance toward the poor of the world.

From this bitter history and somewhat bitter present, perhaps the one and only positive message or philosophy that the West brings to the table, is that of classical liberalism. Its messengers (Locke, Bentham, Mill, JS Mill, to name a few) were not in any way proof from arrogance, but they were presenting a new and more general way of looking at the world. That message makes me look around myself today and treat the Western people as any other people - liable to significant human error through sheer ignorance. I forgive their racism as being simply the same underlying arrogance that is seen in India, for instance, within the caste system. I realise, because Im a liberal, that it is the genuine choice accorded by the modern market systems and democracy that enables me to have similar rights to others and express my choices without fear. My anger at history is dissipated by the existence of many things to do. Liberalism de-toxifies my mind and I use it to detoxify the minds of others who see the West with bitter feelings.

I do not expect the West to become genuinely free of racism in the next hundred years. I do not expect the Third World to be rid of its underlying hatred of the West during the same period. However, if the message of liberalism is taken to every corner of the world, it would become more difficult for the West to be racially arrogant and for the East to hate the West so much. When free trade and economic incentive overpowers human nature, some of this bitterness will be dissolved. At the same time, when the entire East genuinely understands secularism and democratic principles, it would get an opportunity to express itself more fully in its day-to-day life, and not have some of its discontents organise on the side through terrorist organisations to express their frustrations with numerous things in life. Democracy would take the sting out of human failure.

The West has spent and continues to spend billions of dollars in strengthening its defences against an unknown enemy from the East. While that is an excellent strategy, it is also useful to consider a slower but more durable strategy and which involves the expenditure of far less resources - the aggressive preaching of a message of classical liberalism. It would be inappropriate for the West to directly teach this message to the East - that would be interpreted as arrogance again. Instead, it would be best for the West to promote this message through those from the East who are already convinced about the long-term validity of a liberal philosophy as the road to global peace. Significant upgradation of scholarships for students from the East and supporting those from the East who wish to take the message of liberalism to their peoples would come at the cost of a couple of nuclear bombs, but would provide much greater security in the end than the two bombs lost.

As the bitterness of history dies down through greater interaction and trade, as well as relatively free movement of labour across the world, the suspicions that characterise the current state of affairs will hopefully come to an end. With complete equality between the East and West, and delinking politics from religion across the world, in a hundred years or less, we may have come closer to permanent peace on this planet than ever before.