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Modern Europe and the Enlightenment by Rumy Hasan

Terri Murray asks if liberalism is under attack in Europe.

In a June 2019 interview given to the Financial Times, Vladimir Putin brashly declared that the ‘liberal idea’ had outlived its purpose. His evidence for this was that the European public had rejected ostensibly ‘liberal’ policy stances on immigration, open borders, and multiculturalism. In Modern Europe and the Enlightenment (2021), social scientist Rumy Hasan, a senior lecturer at the University of Sussex and Visiting Professorial Research Fellow at the Civitas think-tank, rigorously explores whether open borders and multiculturalism really are consonant with liberal democracy and the Enlightenment values that underpin it. He garners abundant evidence to suggest that Putin was bashing a liberal straw man rather than true liberal democracy. But if Hasan is correct, then the entire political boardgame has been misconstrued. This makes Hasan’s argument pivotal in understanding how well, or ill, the rhetorical labels ascribed to political policies fit their substance. When someone says something is liberal, is it really liberal, and in what sense?

Modern Europe and the Enlightenment starts by presenting a robust summary and balanced examination of Enlightenment values. Hasan also diligently charts counter-Enlightenment influences in today’s Europe, whether in the cultural relativism of self-styled liberals, the authoritarian tendencies in Eastern Europe, or the pre-Enlightenment customs prized and nurtured by some immigrant groups. His book also chronicles the extent to which Enlightenment values are adhered to in various parts of modern Europe. For the purpose, he delineates the continent into Western Europe, the progenitor of the Enlightenment; former communist countries that have joined the European Union; and former communist countries that are not in the EU.

From the start Hasan anticipates his critics by showing full awareness of those instances where Enlightenment thinkers proffered unenlightened ideas and theories. Hasan’s contention is that the regressive racist and sexist views of some Enlightenment thinkers ran contrary to the substance and sinew of Enlightenment values rather than being their logical outcome. Rather than absolving Hume, Kant and Jefferson of their ‘serious failings’, then, Hasan acknowledges these failings, but places them in their proper context, within the broad sweep of Enlightenment values of evidence and logical argumentation. Had they been applied consistently by such men, these values would not have lent support to the sort of personal deviations in thinking routinely cherry-picked by Enlightenment-bashers. Moreover, along with Paine, Diderot and the abolitionists, Jefferson’s great hero John Locke firmly opposed racism and white supremacy. And Jefferson, despite being a slave owner, had nonetheless inserted clauses within the US Declaration of Independence outlawing slavery – only to see them forcibly removed by delegations from the slave-owning states and mercantile class. A principled espousal of Enlightenment values, Hasan contends, militates strongly against white male supremacist beliefs.

There has been a strand of thought which views the totalitarian horrors that engulfed Europe in the first half of the twentieth century as unintended consequences of Enlightenment values. Many proponents of this view are disciples of Horkheimer and Adorno’s counter-Enlightenment assault in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947). But Hasan points out that this is a crude case of the post hoc ergo propter hoc (‘after the thing, therefore because of the thing’) fallacy. The Nazis themselves were vehemently against Enlightenment thinking. Their cynical utilisation of democracy followed by the immediate destruction of all democratic structures once they came to power in 1933, illustrates that they did not value democracy in principle but only instrumentally. The bedrock of reason and science are necessary, but not sufficient, conditions for the achievement of a modern Enlightened state and society, since they too can be deployed in the service of ends that undermine them.

Also, although European colonisation expanded rapidly in the nineteenth century, this was against the core tenets of Enlightenment. While colonisation brought some Enlightenment ideas to the colonies, they were invariably not put into practice with respect to the colonised. How could they be, when the very act of colonisation was a breach of the core Enlightenment values of self-determination and liberty? Enlightenment ideas spread rapidly around the globe after World War II; but Hasan points out that post-colonial leaders neither stressed their importance nor implemented them with any conviction. He believes this accounts for the minimal economic and social development in many post-colonial countries in the decades after they gained independence. He marshals plentiful empirical data to support this, citing an array of indices of freedoms and rights throughout the book.

Hasan focuses his discussion on the turn-of-this-century ‘Enlightenment bashing’ that Darrin McMahon described as “something of an intellectual blood-sport, uniting elements of both the Left and Right in a common cause” (Enemies of the Enlightenment, 2001). Hasan’s thesis is that a counter-Enlightenment mindset, characterised by cultural and moral relativism rather than reason and evidence, has taken root throughout Europe. He thinks this is a profound error that threatens to plunge Western Europe back into irrationality and obscurantism, causing great hardship to millions. Hasan is especially well-positioned to make this claim because of the massive sociological research he has undertaken into living conditions, human rights, and economic development around the globe. Several studies have indicated that secularising culture and society is not only beneficial for the cognitive development of children, but is also necessary for economic development and modernisation, and that high levels of religious affiliation in the Global South have suppressed growth, development, and human flourishing.

Paris attacks memorial
The Paris attacks memorial at the Place de la Republic 2015
Photo © John Englart 2015

Following the Second World War, Western Europe firmly committed to equipping liberal democracies with constitutions and laws that embedded universal human rights. This consensus was concretised in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, as well as in the European Convention on Human Rights, which came into force in September 1953. Central principles of the latter were freedom of expression (Article 10), and the prohibition of discrimination, which says that accident of birth must not be the subject of discriminatory acts. A unified commitment to common values and principles was reiterated in the 1973 Declaration on European Identity. These values and principles are markedly different, says Hasan, to what has followed under the auspices of ‘multiculturalism’. Multiculturalism prioritises the diversity and sovereignity of cultures. Therefore it does not give rise to ‘common values and principles’ and rejects the idea of a ‘common European civilization’. While the rights, protections, and status of women and sexual minorities in Western Europe in the twenty-first century are unparalleled, this overall advance masks some profound differences between cultural, religious and ethnic groups within Europe. Sometimes attitudes and practices that are not acceptable in the host society are tolerated and protected within migrant communities. This blatant double standard is explained away by recourse to the twin positions encompassed within multiculturalism: cultural relativism and moral relativism. Instead of protecting the rights of minorities, this stance has stripped minority ethnic individuals of equal protection under the law by supplanting their individual rights with ‘community rights’. This policy accommodates deeply illiberal values in the name of liberal tolerance! This paradox has been thrown into sharp relief by the arrival of large numbers of migrants from countries with intolerant, regressive views on women’s, children’s and LGBT rights, and freedom of expression.

On this basis, Hasan effectively dismantles the consensus opinion that policies supporting mass immigration and a generous asylum policy are liberal, and that those opposed to these policies are unenlightened reactionaries, populists, or far-right. He argues that on the contrary, the primacy and liberty of the individual – the sine qua non of Enlightened liberal political philosophy – is seriously jeopardised by the socially-conservative group-think that multiculturalism promotes. The primacy of reason and the freedom to exercise it which form the core of Enlightenment values, unshackle individuals from community values, customs, and traditions. Such freedom is a necessary condition of individual self-determination.

It is refreshing to read about contentious cultural issues from the pen of a social scientist who treats his subject with forensic precision. Hasan delivers pleasant and unpleasant facts in equal measure, while concealing any hint of a personal investment. The evidence is given the loudest voice, and Hasan is disciplined in compiling and arranging it. This book is a masterpiece of academic style, and should be taught to university students as a paradigm of lucid prose.

© Terri Murray 2022

Terri Murray is the author of Feminist Film Studies: A Teacher’s Guide. With a BFA degree in Film & Television Studies from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, she has taught A-Level film studies for over seventeen years.

Modern Europe and the Enlightenment, Rumy Hasan, Sussex Academic Press, 2021, £24.95 pb, 240 pages, ISBN: 1789760917

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