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Enlightenment and moral absolutism

Faisal Al-Shammeri

Published: Updated:

The exchange of ideas and the ability to engage fellow citizens has always been one of the hallmarks of western societies. It was the desire to have a fully participatory society that motivated the aims of the French and Prussian Enlightenment in the 18th Century.

With the ideals of the Enlightenment not fully realized, once again in 1848 another surge from society took place with the aim of achieving these goals. The aspirations of 1789 and 1848 were to transform, and eventually supplant, the old monarchies that ruled throughout Europe with a liberal order.

One where the transcendent idea of a fully participatory citizenry debate was no longer confined by the norms of autocracy. The modern Western society that began to emerge in the 20th Century was one based on a common kinship, mutual understanding, and an acceptance of a shared common destiny.

One of the great misfortunes that visited France prior to the outbreak of World War II was the polarization of society as whole accompanied by a fracturing of the elite. The left was in many cases fixed to the idea of lock step solidarity with Bolshevik Russia, the goals of Marxist-Leninist ideology, and committed to completely remaking France into something it had never known.

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Segments of the right were so indignant at the prospects of the left taking power that it preferred to work with a German occupational authority than alongside the French left. When it came time to prepare the nation for war France could not, and when war did come, it was impossible to mobilize all levels of society to meet the mortal threat hanging over the nation.

In World War I the slogan had been “Now on to Berlin!” When World War II came it was not uncommon to see in Paris “Why War? Why Now?” The ability to have a fully engaged citizenry, identifying through common kinship and a shared destiny was non-existent.

When discussing the collapse of France in May 1940 this is without doubt one of the most prominent aspects to take into account. French society, in many regards, had collapsed well before the war started.

Today in parts of the West there is an developing trend of dissolution of civil society from within. It is possible to arrive at this conclusion through the measuring stick of what has defined the West since Ancient Greece and Revolutionary France.

With the way some societies are trending it is not just “The Others,” who will be forced into unconditional surrender but the center too

Faisal Al-Shammeri

Defining elements

The defining elements of the West are based in Greek/Athenian Democracy, French Enlightenment Values, free market principles as espoused in Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations,” and a citizenry that is able to fully participate within the varying nations or republics that currently propagate the West.

Strictly speaking in a sense of debate, discussion, and exchange of ideas the clarity of a full citizenry to participate in society is becoming murky in parts of the West. There seems to be a trend by some to create a coercive legal and social framework to aggressively confront their opponents by wrapping their cause in moral absolutism.

While claiming the high ground of virtue they simultaneously define their opponents as “The Others,” as aliens, or suspicious strangers, and the object of punishment if they are not brought into the orbit of those who define themselves as the sole bearers of virtue. For those who disagree in this scenario it is tantamount to a demand for unconditional surrender by those moral absolutists.

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What those who claim this standard of moral absolutism do not take into account is the many who live not at the poles of society’s spectrum but rather in the center. The middle, so to speak, merely wishes for progress to continue, to maintain some sort of normalcy in the process, and who don’t aspire to be claimed by anyone.

With the way some societies are trending it is not just “The Others,” who will be forced into unconditional surrender but the center too. The goals of the moral absolutist is to wage unrestricted warfare on their opponents, completely dismantle the way of life as “The Others” know it and by extension create a guilt by association for all who oppose their vision of utopia.

We have seen this in The Middle East. For centuries Sunni and Shia had lived as neighbors, friends, and intermarried throughout The Muslim World. Sectarian strife is only a recent trend. Sunni and Shiite are Muslims first before anything sectarian. Regarding the Umma, all Muslims are the same, mirror images of one another if you will.

Virtuous primacy

When moral absolutism was claimed in the name of a virtuous primacy and sold as a reasonable, palatable norm by belligerent forces one group of Muslims became “The Other.” What accompanied the ideology of moral absolutism for these individuals was unspeakable slaughter and bloodshed.

When these black hearts arrived in Iraq and Syria they spawned a cycle of violence that had not been known in either country during the lifetime of anyone who is able to read this. The “split” between Sunni and Shiite is really one that has common characteristics with those elements mentioned earlier in the West, which are becoming more commonplace in mainstream discourse.

One side, claiming moral absolutism, believing that its cause to be irrefutably virtuous, without blemish, with a vilified opponent identified and isolated that either must be coerced into complete subjugation or compelled by any means necessary into unconditional surrender. In both cases a moment for honest reflection would show that there is far more in place that should bind them together.

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In both cases the moral absolutist pressed forward widening fractures to such an extreme that any accommodation became impossible. In both examples, it is virtue being forcefully applied to illogical areas.

In both examples, those who are waging this ideological offensive unscrupulously use no rules or generally accepted terms of respect while asking “The Others,” to exist only within the rules that they apply on them in the name of moral absolutism.

In the Middle East the cost of indifference to taking on those who were self proclaimed moral absolutists while they were in their beginnings led to lost lives, pain and despair. In the West it remains to be seen where this ends.

At the moment this current regression is in the beginning stages. However, if left unchecked it cannot be ruled out that violence will not accompany the moral absolutists as they insist on imposing their vision of a new and enlightened utopia.
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Faisal Al-Shammeri is a political analyst based in Washington DC. He tweets @mr_alshammeri.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.