On a summer’s day, a parade of young people and children march for gay rights, waving the rainbow flag, in Ramallah, on the Palestinian West Bank.
Suddenly, a masked mob of Islamists storm into their midst, beating and kicking them, screaming abuse. Security forces look on in apparent approval, doing nothing, according to Amnesty International.
That vicious, depressing incident in July seems comparatively trivial now compared to the unimaginable horrors of the Hamas terrorist attack on Israeli settlements near Gaza, and the slaughter at the Nova peace music festival.
But it has grim significance as we try to comprehend the global threats to Western civilisation and to our democratic way of life.
It might seem obvious, given the strength of calls for LGBT rights in Britain and the US over the past half a century, that gay campaigners would be vehement in their condemnation of Hamas. But no. The opposite is true.
French-Lebanese actress Manal Issa holds a sign reading ‘Stop the Attack on Gaza’ in May 2018
Actors and TV personalities, many always so eager to be seen as advocates or allies of LGBT people, have tied themselves in knots to avoid condemning the atrocities.
Many have condemned Israel, oblivious to the fact that it is on the front line of a broader conflict of values, or to what might be the fate of those who tried to speak out for LGBT rights in Gaza.
The truth is we have reached a point of madness where Left-wingers in the West now seem to support groups, however barbaric, whatever their crimes, to signal their contempt for our civilisation.
The immense irony is that they can do this only because of the precious values of free speech and democracy. Three decades ago, the liberal Left was brimming with smugness at the end of the Cold War. The darling of the intellectuals was historian Francis Fukuyama, whose book The End Of History predicted Western values were now accepted the world over. In as many words, he claimed that religion, communism and intolerance were aberrations of the past.
That view provoked a counterblast from the political scientist Samuel Huntington, whose book, The Clash Of Civilisations, warned that war in the future was inevitable but it would be fought between cultures, not countries.
Instead of wars between opposing monarchs, nations and ideologies, he foresaw the future of conflict caused by clashing ‘civilisation states’. We can now see how wrong Fukuyama’s optimistic, triumphal End Of History thesis was. The world has not become blandly centre-Left, some sort of global New Labour rainbow regime.
Huntington’s Clash Of Civilisations theory has proved partially right. The rise of Al Qaeda, Isis, and now Hamas, shows that Islamist death cults pose an existential threat to all Western values. Russia and China both fit Huntington’s template. They have no doubts about how essential it is to protect their own cultures.
A man holds up a Black Lives Matter placard as they attend a ‘Take The Knee’ event outside Southend Victoria Station in May 2021
The Kremlin has framed its invasion of Ukraine as a battle to save Russian civilisation from Western aggression and corruption. In Beijing, the state defines its role as restoring China to its former glory.
For their part, in Washington, old school politicians also regard the US as a superpower capable of subduing its enemies through sheer economic and military might.
But the reality is far more complex than a clash of civilisations. Although Western civilisation faces a threat that could tear it apart, this threat comes from within. It comes from the self-hatred of the liberal Left, those virtue-signalling celebrities and the millions who amplify their pronouncements on social media. What I fear will doom us, if this continues unchecked, are our endless, decadent debates over cultural issues such as sexuality, self-identification and the alleged racism in all our institutions.
It is the constant denigration and repudiation of our civilisation. Social media has become an echo chamber in which science and objectivity no longer exist, yet many are scared to laugh at the Emperor’s new clothes, lest their opinion is out of step with this week’s ‘truth’.
For some time, it has been unforgivably racist to say ‘all lives matter’. The only acceptable line was ‘black lives matter’. But in the wake of what is happening in Israel and Gaza, ‘all lives matter’. In such a cruel, shallow and dishonest atmosphere, even-handed debate becomes impossible. And it cannot be overstated how dangerous that is. In Russia, China and Islamic states, freedom largely does not exist.
Make a political mistake in China, and you will be imprisoned or killed. Come out as gay in Iran, Russia or Palestine, and you risk being murdered. If your family protests, they will be intimidated, beaten or imprisoned.
The great prerequisite for Western civilisation, in all its diversity and inclusivity, is freedom – to say what we believe, to vote for who we choose, to live how and where we wish, with whomever we love.
Notably, that means the freedom to make mistakes and change our minds. As the savagery of Hamas reminds us, human beings have a tendency towards tribalism. It is against this background we realise the importance that steady cultivation of tolerance and mutual respect must be learnt and transmitted anew to each generation through our institutions and broader culture.
By ramping up the distinction between friend and enemy, the neutral space of civility is erased. Like children playing with fire atop a tinderbox, the liberal Left has peddled a morality tale of minorities as vulnerable and defenceless and whose interests will be uplifted by benevolent and privileged progressives.
Our future has yet to be made and will be shaped by our choices today. As the world returns to great power competition, the West heads further down a path of ‘decolonisation’ and we face a brutal clash of values between Israel and its enemies, we must be careful what we wish for.
Failure to grasp the importance of this means that the precious flame of freedom may be fully extinguished. Whether we still have the will to blow the almost extinguished embers alight again remains to be seen.
Doug Stokes (@profdws) is a Professor at the University of Exeter and Senior Fellow at the Legatum Institute. His most recent book is Against Decolonisation: Campus Culture Wars And The Decline Of The West, published by Polity.