For John Gray, the Enlightenment project was the western attempt to institute world-wide "a political providence in human affairs whereby tragedy and mystery would be banished". The enterprise failed, says Gray, because religion and nationalism, particularly in alliance, are the most visceral of political passions. Anwar Sadat and Yitzhak Rabin would have had reason to concur, though we do not need their testimony.
Gray is a liberal pluralist, and we do need his avowal. Parts of his book read like a cunning apology for the kind of western conservative hubris that led to the Gulf war. Gray admires Machiavelli as the first realist among western political thinkers. "The world," writes Gray, "is an intractably anarchic place in which readiness to use measured military force is a permanent necessity." Certainly, but this is a truth as convenient to dictators as to democrats.
The author accuses modern political philosophers of being preoccupied with defending the personal biases of a western academic class whose self-identity is liberal. Those of us who have suffered at the hands of these liberals may see nothing liberal in a creed whose hallmarks, at the extreme, are an idolatry of art allied to an obsession with extending the arena of obscenity. But then Gray is not one of its victims.
Multiculturalism, asserts Gray with innocent pride, is "a peculiarly western preoccupation". If so, why does Islamic Malaysia empower its minorities? Why was medieval Spain under the Arabs a more tolerant culture than modern Bosnia? And in Britain, where there are no Muslim MPs, one would expect a dozen of them if multiculturalism were more than an ideal. Most race relations policy-makers believe that a devout black man should behave like a secular white liberal in order to be a good British citizen.
In western societies, the brief hour of liberalism is over. Many, especially in America, now question the wisdom of quotas and affirmative action programmes for helping minorities. Gray welcomes this scepticism: it is unjust to defend group rights and make race and gender into morally relevant considerations. But if minorities are abandoned by the state at this early stage, they may see social self-segregation as the only way to maintain their identities. And that way ultimately lies civil war. Gray is in good company with other establishment liberals who mistake their own affluence for a universal condition.
Gray believes that nonwestern communities can and should modernise without necessarily becoming westernised. I agree with him. Liberal democracy need not entail economic affluence or a peaceful civil society. Indeed, as Britain under Margaret Thatcher proved, an elected form of power can also be a tyranny. On the other hand, some traditional societies have economic prosperity, low crime rates and none of the legalism of liberal cultures such as the United States.
All this is political common sense. Yet it seems more credible if a westerner says it. For the Muslim Malay government to reject the Chinese minority's calls for greater modernisation seems obscurantist. Yet the Malays' retort, surely rightly, that modernisation is merely concealed westernisation if, for example, it necessitates the legalisation of pornography.
For Gray, the alternative to the Enlightenment illusion is political pluralism: we must learn to accommodate rival ideologies fuelled by racial and religious passions. Fair enough. But in moving away from the question "How can we live well politically?" to "How can we live together peacefully?", we abandon political philosophy, at least in part, in favour of political diplomacy.
Shabbir Akhtar is a philosopher who teaches at the International Islamic University, Malaysia.
Enlightenment's Wake: Politics and Culture at the Close of the Modern Age
Author - John Gray
ISBN - 0415 12475 1
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £19.99
Pages - 203