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What is Liberalism? – by Asif Zaidi

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I have noticed that there are various misconceptions in different parts of the world about what makes someone a Liberal. For example, in the Muslim world people often think that anyone who consumes alcohol and likes to dance is a Liberal. That is far from the truth as drinking or dancing are attributes of the individual or collective conduct which have nothing to do with Liberalism. In most societies, minorities pretend to be liberals in order to become more acceptable. In the West many people think that Liberalism consists in pinching from the rich and giving it to the lazy. Then pseudo liberals are also present in every society. These pseudo liberals are strongly "band wagon" orientated. When the political winds are strongly at their backs, they have an overwhelming desire to cheer and march with clenched fists raised in triumph. The pseudo liberals are often wishful thinkers but not critical enough to decipher the information they love to memorize. They like to dish it out but they cannot take it and never admit that they are wrong.

 


Let’s attempt to set forth the elements of the political creed defined as Liberalism. I also hold that Liberalism has no conflict with any major religion including Islam and, therefore, always argue for the adoption and implementation of the liberal precepts in the politics and sociology of Islamic countries. Many of these countries still continue to struggle in framing the relationship that ought to exist between the individual and the State.


The history of the deliverance of the masses from slavery, bondage, and totalitarian rules and their advancement to political dominance illustrates that the change in their social and political status has been progressively caused by certain liberalizing forces. Liberalism has its roots in the censure of the totalitarian order. The fight for liberty is manifest everywhere in the post-Renaissance period of modern history. After the Renaissance -with improvements in means of communication, education, and quality of life- the political power steadily started to embrace the lower strata of society. The general level of masses rose everywhere in the 19th and 20th centuries. The advent of modern States after the collapse of clerical power in Europe led to a widening of the political base which, in turn, conduced to democratization of the social order. The growth of civil liberty made the fight for personal freedom easier. People suffering under the arbitrary rule, countries colonised by other powers, races held in bondage to the notions of racial superiority of others, entrepreneurism undermined by social or government privilege were all liberated. This liberation from the yoke of tyranny still remains the main struggle in some societies of the world.


While the concepts are age-old, Liberalism burgeoned in the nineteenth century Europe. Political liberty was spurred by the discovery of biological evidence of the evolutionary continuity of creation, the start of industrial revolution, and the progress of scientific education unfolding the wider world of truth about universe and life. Representative government first became possible and then inevitable. Nineteenth century resonated with the demands for all types of liberty – civic, government, political, social, personal, economic, and business. Religious liberty and tolerance also became popular. This upheaval in Europe was the result of civilizing stimulus of Liberalism. This is where Liberalism became an effective historical force to shape every aspects of a modern man’s life. There was a spread of education, an expansion of human knowledge, and an empowerment of rational thought against the dead weight of tradition and the tyranny of dogmatic authority.

Rousseau set the stage for the French Revolution by writing his social contract, heralding an era of government by consent. The democratic movement stimulated by the French Revolution nourished the political philosophy of the Benthamite school and the teachings of the economists developing the ideas of Adam Smith. The antithesis between personal freedom and the necessity of social control began to diminish. The main function of state control turned into ensuring personal freedom for all its citizens. The individual is organic to society as the sole bearer of the value. Hence, in a modern state there can be no place for the formation of a totalitarian order. The collective life of the state does not progress by coercion or restraint.

The more firmly the government of a state is instituted in freedom the more free it is to transcend individual’s limitation through collective action. It’s a modern state’s responsibility to ensure that coercion and force are never used against the liberty of the individual. The method of liberalism is not militancy, it is democracy. It looks to settle conflicting claims through organized intelligence. Liberalism has ensured that today’s great social changes are taking place without resorting to violence.

To summarize, liberalism is a belief in the value of human personality and a conviction that the source of all human progress lies in the free exercise of individual energy. Liberalism emancipates individuals and groups to exercise their powers without jeopardizing others. The state power is used to create conditions within which individual can thrive. Liberalism consists in thwarting all misuse of power, providing every citizen with the means needed to acquire the exploitation of his unique capacities, and ensuring equality of opportunity for everyone. Liberalism enjoins significant efforts on the part of man to fight against the forces of poverty, ignorance, and suffering. Hence, it is understandable why in totalitarian countries it is maligned by forces of bigotry, intolerance, and conservatism.

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