‘Edmund Burke and William F. Buckley were among the few people who were cognizant of the fragility of liberty — the fact that authoritarianism is the norm in human history. We in the modern, liberal — in the classical sense — West, we forget this: We’re the peculiar ones.”
C. Holland Taylor, co-founder of LibForAll, has devoted the last eight years of his life to promoting liberalization within the Muslim world. He and his organization try to do that not just by changing particular laws, but by shaping the entire zeigeist of a civilization — which may be why Taylor speaks in sweeping historical and philosophical abstractions. You could call him a philosopher-activist. The first question he asks me when I meet him at the Grand Hyatt in New York is what political thinkers I like. The first answer he gives me cites two of them.
The goal of LibForAll, Taylor says, is to “replicate the critical success factors that led to the Enlightenment, separation of church and state, and liberalism in the West — without being anti-clerical.”
Taylor came to this cause obliquely. In the 1990s he was a successful businessman, the CEO of a telecommunications company. While trying to expand operations in Indonesia, Taylor became an acquaintance, and soon a devoted admirer, of Pres. Abdurrahman Wahid. As head of state in the country with the largest Muslim population in the world, Wahid was effectively both a political and a religious leader. He was the scion of a family that, Taylor says, had long promoted a liberal, spiritual Islam in Java (one of the major islands of Indonesia). In Java, he says, a “spiritual
understanding of Islam had earlier achieved military and political dominance,” in contrast to the “legal, supremacist understanding — Sharia,” which is now “gaining traction.”
After September 11, President Wahid became convinced that his kind of Islam — spiritual, relatively liberal — was needed more than ever. Taylor agreed, left the private sector, and enlisted in Wahid’s campaign. He now spends most of his time in Indonesia, revisiting the West occasionally to keep us posted on his efforts to replicate our experiment in liberty.
Taylor speaks of Islamic radicalism metaphorically as a health problem: “The patient is in critical condition and requires comprehensive treatment.” Roughly speaking, there are two responses to the disease. Where it is virulent, the disease must be contained, quarantined, and destroyed — through sanctions, drones, heat-seeking missiles, daisy cutters, and Special Forces. But long-term eradication requires prevention of its spread, by strengthening vulnerable populations’ immunity. The U.S. Armed Forces have the first task covered; LibForAll is trying to do the latter — through pamphlets, conferences, and debates, intended to refute Islamic extremism from within Islam. Taylor doesn’t discount the importance or efficacy of the War on Terror. But in the long run, he says, “ideology is more dangerous than bombs.” And by the same token, ideology is a more efficacious force for reform.
That conviction has led Taylor to a study of intellectual history — of the conception and gestation of the ideas that eventually led to the birth of the open society in the West, and its failure in the Middle East. “What happened to make the West different from all previous civilizations?” he asks. His tone suggests the question has been on his mind for a couple of decades. “There were particular turning points. We’ve been blessed to have certain visionaries. If you look at our religious tolerance, it’s pretty modern. It’s an Anglo-Saxon, relatively new phenomenon.” And, “those ideas haven’t been safe and secure. If we had lost the war against Hitler, the meaning of the West would have been eradicated.”