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Too often defenders of liberal societies express a surprising lack of confidence in the basic ideas that underpin them.

The religious right see decadence and immorality in their own society. This sometimes leads them to paint their enemies as wise, tolerant, brave, and poetic.

Liberals, on the other hand, often seem to think that lacking romantic heroism, they cannot compete with the appeals of illiberal political ideologies.

Seldom do either side suggest that any such failures of liberal civilization may correct themselves. There are sound foundations to build on.

Both liberals and conservatives give Islamic fundamentalists more credit than they deserve.



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Liberalism’s greatest asset in a time of terror is liberalism itself. There is evil in the world. Terrorists, many inspired by militant forms of Islam, do kill innocent people. No one ought to be naive about this.

But just as you do not fight anti-liberal enemies by copying their methods of secrecy, torture, and unchecked executive power. Nor do you defeat terrorism and genocide by tying one hand of your own political philosophy behind your back.

No threat is so serious that we need to break our own rules. 




This means defending what the Enlightenment achieved, without ignoring what it didn’t.

It requires the kind of self-examination that faces the ways in which human needs for truth and freedom remain unsatisfied in Western culture. But it also means having the confidence that we can find the answers.

In his ‘What is Enlightenment?’ essay Kant said maturity lies in the path between thoughtlessly accepting everything authorities tell you and thoughtlessly rejecting it. This recognises that calibrating the right path is matter is a matter of judgment and it’s a course that demands considerable nerve.

That same judgment is needed to confront the terrorist threat. The right path lies between thoughtlessly accepting everything in liberal society and thoughtlessly rejecting it. It lies in accepting that the liberal life is the best way of life but that current western society is not the finale. There is much still to do.

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This Essay draws on work by the philosopher Alan Wolfe, particularly his book The Future of Liberalism. If you’re interested in learning more click here.

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