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Irshad Manji

Liberty has always been one hell of a slog Add to ...

On the day Stephen Harper's parliamentary posse collapsed, I checked a Globe and Mail online survey that asked readers which issues would most influence their vote. The clear winner: government ethics.

This result made me proud. Isn't it what people across the Arab world are fighting for - the kind of democracy in which they can pronounce on their leaders' values as practised, not just as preached?

And isn't it what the 18th-century Enlightenment envisioned - that citizens embody an inherent dignity that, if affronted by any whiff of corruption, ought to be expressed freely?

You might think I'm making too big a deal out of a puny, unscientific Internet poll. But it's not absurd to be thankful for the small things if you recognize that liberty is one hell of a slog and always has been. Lately, I've deepened my appreciation of this fact by reflecting on what the great Enlightenment thinkers might make of the rebellions currently roiling the Middle East and North Africa.

First, they wouldn't be surprised that the revolution's focal point, Egypt, is showing signs of merely tinkering with the system rather than overhauling it. The Enlightenment faced that very problem.

Jonathan Israel, a professor in the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., notes that a democratic mindset began emerging in Europe after "two fraught, bitterly contested decades" - the 1770s and 1780s. That's when the reformist Radical Enlightenment gained ground over the mealy-mouthed Moderate Enlightenment.

The Moderate Enlightenment was sponsored by the monarchy, so it served the interests of existing elites. Not much change could be expected. In Egypt, likewise, constitutional revisions are being sponsored by the military - as establishment as it gets. No wonder speculation now swirls that the military has cut a backroom deal with the Muslim Brotherhood. Any such pact could shut out young secularists by speeding up elections and aborting the time they need to organize political parties.

Another intriguing parallel: In his 2010 book, A Revolution of the Mind, Prof. Israel contends that the Moderate and Radical Enlightenments took fundamentally different views of social evolution. Moderates considered progress the work of God; radicals regarded progress as the work of humans.

That distinction undoubtedly applies in contemporary Egypt and beyond, where secularists will have to be at least as persistent as Europe's radical thinkers were in order to reach the religion-soaked masses.

(By "secularists," I don't mean "atheists." Baruch Spinoza, the progenitor of Radical Enlightenment, may or may not have believed in God. But he certainly argued for religious tolerance and humble faith as a substitute for haughty dogma. I'd say that's where Arab secularists are today.)

In a phone conversation, Prof. Israel mentioned one more similarity. The champions of Radical Enlightenment had to confront a dilemma that's already stalking Egypt's democrats: "How do you respond when you're promised a few reforms by the people in power?"

European radicals had no breezy answer. According to Prof. Israel, Denis Diderot wrote "with tears in his eyes" that "it appears the only way to end despotism is through violent uprisings."

Violence could well be in Egypt's near future. So says Amr Bargisi, a principal figure in the Egyptian Union of Liberal Youth and a student of the Enlightenment. "Those who are revolting are seeking not to minimize evil but to eradicate it altogether," he said in an e-mail. "Frustration will take an entire generation by storm. … [T]e revolutionaries, failing to achieve what they set out for, will seek more radical instruments - the guillotine, for example."

This much is certain: Democracy is ever-maturing and never complete. Let's remember that the American Revolution didn't do away with slavery. And while blacks shed blood in every war of the new republic, desegregation of the U.S. Army started only in the late 1940s.

"The most important thought I can leave you with," Prof. Israel told me, "is that, to this very day, the Moderate and Radical Enlightenments compete with each other everywhere."

Even in the West. After the Allies defeated Nazism and fascism in Europe, the ideals of Radical Enlightenment returned in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But we have yet to realize those shared standards of liberty.

It's one step at a time. And among the steps are seemingly silly polls that give Canadians the space to voice concerns or outright anger - an act that not so long ago would have been dangerous for Europeans and, for some peoples, still is.

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