There's a pair of articles on the op-ed pages of the Guardian today that - whether by accident or by intention - complement one another. One of them is by Karen Armstrong. In summary: beware of orthodoxies, of 'dogmatic adherence to beliefs that are often indistinguishable from prejudice'; these can be secular as much as religious, they can be 'ours' as much as 'theirs'; there are no easy answers, and we should be mindful of the virtues of Socratic, questioning, conversation.
Jonathan Glover is the author of the other piece, and he, too, commends to us a model of dialogue: 'a serious dialogue between the overlapping worlds of the west and Islam before irreversible mutual hatred sets in', and in order to 'break out of the cycle of violence'. We need, he says, dialogue both on 'the different systems of belief on each side' and on 'our different narratives of recent history'.
The principal burden of what is set out, front of stage, in these two pieces is not something that anyone of secular, rationalist and liberal outlook should want to quarrel with: awareness of the gaps in our own knowledge, of partiality to our own interests and concerns, of our own fallibility; the importance, therefore, of a plurality of voices, of being willing to learn through dialogue and conversation - these are familiar and valuable principles. I'm inclined to point out, all the same, one or two incidental things in both articles, and a (to me) strange omission which they display in common.
Karen Armstrong simply co-opts to her side of the argument that we went to war in Iraq because of a 'misplaced opinion' about WMD. Apart from the fact that the whys and wherefores of that war are more complicated than this, the general principles (of fallibilism) she has argued for apply to all substantive viewpoints, not merely pro-war ones. Those opposing the war are subject to the very same strictures as everyone else. Similarly, Jonathan Glover, in talking about contrasting narratives, happens to happen upon 'illegal war', but somehow not upon 'just war'. I repeat: they're general principles; they don't automatically validate the political viewpoints of the authors who appeal to them. This would take quite separate advocacy. Indeed, Armstrong and Glover must know it, or in any case they should do, by the light of the very principles they appeal to.
Second, Jonathan says that violence can sometimes be a backlash and due to 'a group's sense of being insulted or humiliated'; and he continues:
The anger that blazes through Mein Kampf was a backlash against the humiliations of the 1918 defeat and subsequent peace.He fails to note what can be inferred from this historical example - namely, that there are times when, even if violence is that, it has to be fought and fought in deadly earnest.
Lastly (the omission), neither writer dwells upon the fact that the principles they are commending to us - awareness of one's own fallibility, openness to other views, the virtues of conversation and dialogue - are not evenly distributed, so to put this, across all outlooks. Some outlooks are more hospitable to them than others. Fundamentalist religion, for example, is less well disposed to these values than secular liberalism is. One (unstated) presupposition of the kind of conversation Karen Armstrong and Jonathan Glover both laud is that the conversational population is in principle universal; no one is excluded from the right to speak. It's less easy to hold the conversation when some of the putative participants do not share that presupposition or are trying to murder you.
This isn't to say that secular liberals aren't also sometimes afflicted by prejudice or guilty of a closed mind. But it is to say that the two writers here don't give any political name to the principles they put before us. But they have a name. They are best known and, historically to date, best practised within the framework of democratic liberalism. While that framework does indeed impose on us the dialogic obligations which the articles under discussion say it does, it is also a framework, a type of political order, that has had to be fought for and won at some cost in human effort and human lives.