“Civilisation,” claims Nick Cohen, “Came from the battering that religion took from the Enlightenment.” For liberal triumphalists like Mr Cohen, culture and science sprang into existence around the time that Voltaire first poked fun at faith. Before this, Britain was no more than a primitive tyranny.
Never mind the fact that Shakespeare, Drake and Newton somehow flourished among all of this barbarianism. If Europe was so benighted, how did Hulme and Voltaire, let alone Rousseau, not only live but speak and publish? Muslim reformers are still being killed today.
Enlightenment supremacists often fail to acknowledge the extent to which liberalism depends on traditional institutions: all of the cultural and administrative apparatus that allows for prosperity, social trust, security and innovation. Overlooking this is like attributing all of one’s success to one’s own virtues without acknowledging the contributions of one’s parents.
How effective can liberalism be, anyway? Cohen is writing on Islamic extremism and its supposed enablers. As well as the evermore hypersensitive left he is attacking the supposed hypocrisy of traditionalists. Yet what does he offer to deal with the problem? Little except the vague, optimistic hope that supporting reformers and denouncing orthodoxies will prompt the liberalisation of Islam. This is a faith-based position. All previous examples of religious reform have been long and frustrating, and some have been brutal. I hope the idea will be found to have some truth to it but otherwise Europe depends on the unlovely work of traditional institutions: border controls, secret services and social taboos. This is not inspiring but it is the truth.