Reluctant liberalism

Liberal democracies may have come with a self-destruct button after all. The state of Geneva last month paid generous compensation of 200,000 euros to Hani Ramadan, a Muslim teacher, who had been fired in 2002 after publishing an article in France’s Le Monde newspaper in which he defended the stoning of adulterers. «The punishment fits the crime: the severed hand for theft, stoning for illicit pleasure,» he wrote. Ramadan, director of the Islamic Center of Geneva and the brother of Islamist superstar Tariq Ramadan, has written several other controversial articles in the past, among other things suggesting that AIDS is an example of divine vengeance. An administrative court had, yes, ruled in his favor four years ago, ordering the state to reinstate Ramadan to his post at the Meyrin Junior High School, but the local authorities refused to rehire him, preferring to pay out a lump sum. «We have decided on the maximum compensation award in order to guarantee peace of mind,» Laurent Moutinot, the president of Geneva’s local government said. «Peace of mind.» What an extreme manifestation of a guilty conscience, of a fear to come across as undemocratic or as culturally arrogant. The West is once again caught up in a bout of self-flagellation. Sure, the West has made its mistakes, but that does not mean it should not come out in defense of its hard-won legacy. By shrugging our shoulders at repression and cruelty in the name of a mistaken sense of moral relativism or political correctness (such as building women-only swimming pools for Europe’s Muslims), we are at risk of losing the very substance of liberalism. We are at risk of losing ourselves. If Western secular societies want to live in peace with their immigrants, they will have to respect their values. That’s all very well. But it also depends on the values. Inhuman practices, such as stoning, genital mutilation, forced weddings and death threats against apostates, cannot be tolerated in modern democracies. After all, secular liberals have their own sensibilities. Shouldn’t these be defended? Switzerland is a part of secular Europe. The truth is that Europeans are far from crazy about the swelling ranks of minorities in their midst, but the latter often seem to snub or even reject outright the values of the countries in which they have chosen to live. Like the freedom to lampoon religion, for example (Christian religion is ridiculed all the time). Two Tunisians were arrested in Denmark this week along with a Dane of Moroccan origin for plotting to kill one of the 12 cartoonists who drew images of the Prophet Muhammad two years ago. The problem, it seemed, was not the rise of extremism within Islam, but commenting on it. We live in a world where the customs and values of some people are unbearable to some others. Many liberals think that when challenged by people who do not share their ideas, they only have to sit down at the same table and resolve their differences through dialogue. They don’t realize that doing this often presupposes a liberal world outlook that the others may lack. How far can liberalism bend before it breaks? How much tolerance can it show before it self-destructs?