If the test of liberalism is how it confronts its illiberal adversaries, some of the liberal intelligentsia seem to have fallen at the first hurdle. Writers such as Martin Amis and Hitchens do not just want to lock terrorists away. They also tout a brand of western cultural supremacism. Dawkins strongly opposed the invasion of Iraq, but preaches a self-satisfied, old-fashioned Whiggish rationalism that can be wielded against a benighted Islam. The philosopher AC Grayling has an equally starry-eyed view of the stately march of Western Progress. The novelist Ian McEwan is a freshly recruited champion of this militant rationalism. Both Hitchens and Salman Rushdie have defended Amis's slurs on Muslims. Whether they like it or not, Dawkins and his ilk have become weapons in the war on terror. Western supremacism has gravitated from the Bible to atheism.
Here, Eagleton seems like a drunk hitting out at any target that comes his way, hoping to land a punch on at least one of them. Do Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens really have a greater desire than anyone else to 'lock terrorists away'? And does that mean Eagleton thinks they shouldn't be locked up? And where's the evidence for their supposed 'western cultural supremacism'? I don't agree with everything Dawkins has written, but calling his rationalism 'old-fashioned' merely avoids having to engage with his arguments. As for condemning his scepticism because it might be used against a 'benighted Islam': well, it can also be used against the right-wing Christianism which I would guess Eagleton opposes (does he?), and is 'benighted' an appropriate adjective in the context of (say) the Iranian revolution, or the Taliban victory in the Swat valley? As for Grayling and McEwan, they each get dismissed in a throwaway sentence. The former comes in for a longer condemnation in the original LRB piece, his offence apparently being that he dares to praises Enlightenment values without acknowledging that they have been responsible for western racism, imperialism, etc.
Eagleton never really explains how he thinks such a diverse bunch of writers have become 'weapons in the war on terror' (assuming that's a bad thing). As in his suggestion that the agnosticism of Dawkins and Hitchens 'is part of late capitalism's everyday routine', Eagleton is a master of the classic pseudo-leftish 'guilt by association' move. If you can get your audience to see your opponents as part of a wider, sinister movement - the war on terror, neoconservatism, late capitalism, imperialism - this relieves you of the necessity of engaging with their arguments. (It's rather like the feature of po-mo leftism that I noticed in the previous post, where characteristing an idea as merely an expression of power becomes a substitute for debate.) Nowhere in this article does Eagleton argue that Dawkins is wrong about religion, or Hitchens mistaken about the reactionary character of Islamism, or present any evidence to counter their arguments.
In the final section of the article, Eagleton goes on the attack, accusing the writers he's mentioned of 'the slanderous reduction of Islam to a barbarous blood cult.' To which one might respond: first, show me an example of this reductionism in any of these writers; second, you can't 'slander' a religion; and third, isn't it the likes of al Qaida and the Taliban, rather than western liberals, who have been responsible for any 'blood cult' associations? Eagleton then suggests that the 'genuine liberal' is 'appalled by Islamist terrorism, but conscious of the national injury and humiliation that underlie it.' This sounds like the politics of excuse. Try using this argument with any other kind of unsavoury politics and see if it works. Can you imagine Eagleton arguing that the 'genuine liberal' is appalled by the BNP, but conscious of the injury and humiliation that have inspired their views?
He then claims that none of the writers he's mentioned 'is remarkable for such balance' and concludes that 'they are more preoccupied with freedom of expression than freedom from imperial rule'. Are they, really? Again, Eagleton's piece is free from any quotations in support of his claims, so it's impossible to verify such sweeping statements. One might as easily reverse the sentence and say that Eagleton and his ilk are so caught up in their anti-imperialism that they neglect the importance of freedom of expression. Either way, the effect of such lazy rhetorical devices is to suggest that it's impossible to support both kinds of freedom.
After attempting to make sense of Eagleton's peculiar logic, one is tempted to play the same kind of rhetorical game as he does. If he can airily dismiss all the writers he disagrees with by tarring them by association with the war on terror, western supremacism, etc - then what's to prevent me from characterising Eagleton's own pro-faith, anti-secular, anti-western leftism as 'merely' a manifestation of a left in terminal decline, or to argue that his attempts to 'understand' Islamist terror are dangerous because they provide a boost to reactionary fundamentalism?
I recommend the debate in the comments below - and also Russell Blackford's excellent post on Eagleton's piece, which includes this:
It sounds [...] as if Eagleton is getting very close to telling Dawkins and the others to shut up. The choice of the word "slanderous", which denotes a form of illegal speech, is very troubling. Is Eagleton seriously suggesting that the speech of Dawkins, etc., should be regarded as slander - as a form of defamation - and so prohibited? Perhaps not, but it would be a relief if he clarified this. If he doesn't actually want to use force to shut up his rationalist opponents, he's chosen his words poorly. Talk of slander may be colourful hyperbole, I suppose, but it's not very amusing at a time when the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, supported by other influential players such as the Vatican, is continuing its campaign to ban "defamation of religion".
And the comments just keep coming - probably more than for anything else I've written. Meanwhile Max provides some helpful links to other posts on the evasive Eagleton.