The West Has Abandoned Liberals Like Me
As the United States and Europe debate the demise of global order, people in forgotten corners of the world are still risking their lives for freedom.
Future scholars writing histories of international relations theory will certainly spare a chapter for the spate of recent obituaries mourning—some in sorrow, others in glee—the so-called liberal order. These obituaries are the latest entries in a decades-long paradigm debate over the ability, and responsibility, of democracies to spread their ideals elsewhere. Amid the global rise of nationalism and authoritarian populism, including in the West, the skeptics—those who argue that the appeal of liberal democracy may not be universal and anyone acting on the international stage would be wise to keep that in mind—have recently take the upper hand.
This battle of ideas is certainly worth having, and, as someone with dog-eared copies of books written by the participants sitting on my shelf, I’ve been personally excited to watch it. But I also recognize that something important has gotten lost in the abstractions. Liberal democracy isn’t just a factor to be accounted for—or discounted—in designing international order; it’s also a political goal for countless political actors around the world independently fighting to achieve it at home.
There are many places where striving for liberty is a sin that rarely escapes punishment and where the leaden weight of that knowledge binds the liberal-minded together. What is an intellectual debate in the United States is a daily struggle there. It gets you sued, fired, exiled, arrested, even killed. Westerners debating liberalism’s efficacy as a principle of international order should at least be able to agree that those on the front lines of these fights deserve the acknowledgement that their struggle isn’t meaningless. The reasons and motives that keep them fighting deserve to be heard and respected.
Unfortunately, voices from these front lines are rarely encountered in this conversation. This is a personal matter for me. I am a secular citizen of Turkey, a country where abjuring religion in politics is not only costly but also potentially deadly. This is not a melodramatic exaggeration but a reality of Turkish politics.
The spot in Ankara where Ugur Mumcu, one of Turkey’s most prominent journalists and an outspoken secularist, was killed in a car bomb attack in 1993 was the sight I woke up to many mornings; it was the view from my college girlfriend’s kitchen window. Mumcu’s killers were never brought to justice.
Aziz Nesin, a Turkish satirist whose storybooks still sit in my library as mementos from my childhood, barely escaped death after an angry mob torched his hotel as vengeance for his translating Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses the same year as Mumcu’s death. Nesin survived, but 35 others burned to their deaths. Turks watched it happen on live television. Most of their killers escaped justice in a controversial trial. Of the lawyers who defended them, one is now a cabinet minister, while another sits on the Constitutional Court.
One of my closest friends in life, and one of the nicest people whom I have ever known, was only 11 when her father, Necip Hablemitoglu, was gunned down in plain daylight in 2002. He was a secular professor who pissed off one person too many. We don’t even know who killed him. We will never know.
There are many other such stories in my country alone, and thousands more all around the world. They are not the first, and they will not be the last. We know it. And we still fight on.
The L-word has such a fraught history outside of the West that many would shy away from owning it. I don’t. I am a liberal and an internationalist. Proudly so. But the West’s conversation about the liberal international order doesn’t include people like me. Increasingly, we are addressed only by the cynics, who assign us roles either as fools, duped into a lie, or as tools, foot soldiers of a foreign hegemony.
It is difficult to not take umbrage at the self-flattery of those who think that people fighting for liberalism in places where the rewards are few and the risks are many are doing it to serve them, their power, and their profits. We don’t. I am a liberal because I yearn for liberty. I am an internationalist because my sense of pride in and belonging with my fellows is not confined to a small tribe whose existence is predicated on the inferiority of everyone who is not in it. These are universal values. The West is—or, at least, was—a place where they were most sacrosanct, but they are not convictions that are conditional upon the West.
That is what much of this debate seems to miss. It is almost as if these truths that were self-evident to those in the West are now considered to be impenetrable to those elsewhere, whose convictions are therefore in need of another explanation or an ulterior motive. Realists aren’t necessarily wrong to point out that the liberal international order is a myth. But mythical does not mean trivial. Myths are such that people live, die, and even kill for them. The myth that all humans are created equal and endowed with an unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is no less powerful because those who put it in writing were rich, white men who owned thousands of slaves. And the power of the myth that is the liberal world order is not erased by the fact that some of its worst enemies are its very creators.
The world’s liberals should be spared the condescending accusations of naiveté. Does anyone believe Iraqis or Syrians have failed to notice what has become of their countries? Could any Saudis be clueless about how their royals have gotten away with murder because foreigners don’t want to lose access to the country’s riches? Could the Russians or the Chinese not know how lawyers and bankers in London, New York, and elsewhere are making a fortune out of the billions pillaged from their countries? Could the Filipinos, the Chileans, the Congolese, and all the others who lived under the iron fist of U.S.-backed autocrats for decades simply have forgotten that past?
Could it be lost on me that this month nearly three decades ago, my friend Turkuler’s father, leftist publisher Ilhan Erdost, was beaten to his death in the hands of a junta whose generals were Washington’s “boys in Ankara” or that the West’s most recent darling in my country was none other than its current president, Erdogan, who since became their bête noire? Could I not be aware, after close to a decade in the United States, that this, too, is a country where the powerful are often too big to fail and the powerless are too small to matter? Of course not. And, lest I forget, I am reminded every day by my American peers for whom owning a home and saving for retirement is mostly a fantasy, my students already forfeiting their dreams in exchange for a job that will let them pay back their student loans, and my colleagues wondering how many years they will spend in “adjunct hell” before they can land a job.
So, why am I a liberal nonetheless? What is it that Raif Badawi and Loujain al-Hathloul, Mozn Hassan and Narges Mohammadi, Osman Kavala and Ilgar Mammadov––names many have not even heard––are fighting for with such fervor that they are now behind bars for it? Why do we defend this order that keeps failing us over and over again? Are we fools, or are we tools? The answer is that we are neither. We demand for ourselves what many of our peers have already—the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Perhaps it doesn’t matter if the West still cares for them or not. We are not passive recipients of an order imparted upon us. We are active participants in the pursuit of this dream that the West came closer to than anyone ever did. But the West doesn’t own this dream all by itself. It is as much our story as it is the West’s.