by Bruce S. Thornton
Review of Why the West is Best: A Muslim Apostate’s Defense of Liberal Democracy, by Ibn Warraq, (Encounter, 2011, 286 pp.)
Occasionally, the mainstream media will let slip something that reveals the incoherence of multiculturalist orthodoxy. Not long ago, the New York Timesreported on an Indian casino in California that had begun purging its rolls of members deemed insufficiently Indian. At the end of the story, an official from the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, himself an Indian, remarked: “The tribe has historically had the ability to remove people. Tolerance is a European thing brought to the country. We never tolerated things. We turned our back on people.”
Such honesty about the Western origins of goods like tolerance is rare these days among the media, academic, and popular-culture purveyors of multicultural “diversity.” For them, other cultures are just as good as, if not better than, the West’s — but at the same time, these cultures allegedly endorse Western ideals such as tolerance, gender equality, human rights, political freedom, and the other universal boons to which people everywhere aspire. They deem it Eurocentric or racist to assert the superiority of the West because it originated those goods, even as they castigate the West for its racist, sexist, imperialist, and colonialist crimes. But as Ibn Warraq shows in his thoughtful and compelling new book, the ideals that even multicultural relativists profess have their origin and highest development in the West.
Ibn Warraq is the pen name of a Muslim apostate who left his native Pakistan and now lives in the United States. His first book, Why I Am Not a Muslim, earned him death threats and a pseudonym. Over the years he has published frequently on the unique goods of Western civilization, particularly “liberty and individual dignity,” contrasting these with the intolerance and close-mindedness of traditional Islamic culture. Why the West is Best continues the argument, laying out the defining ideals and virtues that have propelled Western civilization to global dominance.
Warraq’s prologue summarizes, in his view, the values that make the West superior: “rationalism, self-criticism, the disinterested search for truth, the separation of church and state, the rule of law, equality before the law, freedom of conscience and expression, human rights, [and] liberal democracy.” These principles, Warraq continues, are not restricted to Westerners but have universal application. They are “the best and perhaps the only means for all people, no matter what race or creed, to live in freedom and reach their full potential.”
The bulk of Why the West is Best further defines these core principles, frequently in contrast with Islamic cultures. Rejecting fashionable materialist explanations for Western success — geography, species distribution, climate, natural resources, or disease immunity — Warraq reminds us that “the economic and technological success of the West began with culture, and with principles embodied in its characteristic institutions.” That culture arose from the melding of Greek, Roman, Hebraic, and Christian influences. The Greeks invented democratic political participation and the rule of impersonal laws and institutions, rather than force. The Romans provided the foundations of our modern codes of law, establishing “a flexible legal framework that combined tested formulas with ongoing innovation,” Warraq writes, eventually broadening the notion of law to include the natural law that transcends tribe, time, or place. Hebraism added the ethical ideals of compassion and responsibility for our fellows that gave divine sanction to alleviating suffering and working for improvement—even in the face of oppressive secular power. And Christianity sanctified the separation of church and state, institutionalizing a moral force to counterbalance the tendency of state power to encroach upon private activity and personal conscience. Insofar as non-Western cultures embrace these ideals, they progress and improve; those that don’t find themselves mired in political oppression, inequality, poverty, intellectual stagnation, and economic failure.
Warraq also rebuts the charge that the West has been uniquely evil, that its record of slavery, racism, colonialism, and imperialism has made it history’s arch-villain. As Warraq notes, racism and slavery are universal human evils, but “it was the West that first took steps to abolish slavery; that took legal measures to end institutionalized racism; and that voluntarily withdrew from its colonial possessions and abandoned any imperial ambitions.” He dispatches the widespread lie that the West is responsible for the African slave trade. Africans themselves kept slaves and provided the unfortunate people purchased by Europeans. Indeed, in 2000, the president of Benin apologized for his country’s participation in the slave trade. And Warraq reminds us that Muslim Arabs “engaged in the slave trade for thirteen centuries and shipped far more black slaves across the Sahara and the Red Sea than were sent across the Atlantic” during the four centuries of European slave trading.
As for racism, Warraq quotes a thirteenth-century Persian Muslim’s view that “the ape is more reasonable and more intelligent than the Zanji”—meaning black Africans, still called “slaves” in Arabic today. And anti-Semitism, Warraq writes, “is widespread in the Islamic world, often encouraged by the state” through government-controlled newspapers and other media. He shows how Muslim anti-Semitism has its roots in the Koran and the life and teachings of Mohammed, who deemed Jews “cursed for their unbelief” and who commanded, “Kill any Jew that falls into your power.”
Finally, no people have been as successful at conquering, occupying, and exploiting territory as Muslims, eradicating the cultures they conquered and impelling their victims to believe, as Warraq puts it, “that their whole prior cultural heritage was worthless.” Compare this imperialistic cultural cleansing with European colonizers, who, for all their exploitation, nonetheless often studied and protected the cultural heritage of the peoples they colonized. Europeans established the formal academic study of these cultures, which even today serves as the basis for learning about them.
Such curiosity about the “other,” Warraq writes, is unique to the West. In contrast, Muslim cultures display little interest in learning from other cultures, with the notable exception of technical expertise. This close-mindedness — reinforced by Islam’s claim to provide a complete guide to existence — is a major factor in the political and economic dysfunctions afflicting many Muslim nations. It stands in stark contrast to “the way that Western intellectuals, writers, historians, and politicians have themselves chronicled the follies of the West, challenging Westerners to rethink their ideas and alter their policies and social behavior.” Out of such self-reflection has come the material and moral progress that abolished slavery and institutionalized respect for human liberty. For the Muslim Middle East to improve, as Warraq says, it needs an “enlightenment” that would introduce “critical thinking about the Islamic religion and culture.”
Warraq recognizes that Western civilization is threatened not just by external rivals, but also by self-loathing Western ideologies such as multiculturalism and the “promiscuous pluralism that ends in moral relativism.” These ideas go beyond self-reflection to justify “special accommodations” for minorities (like Muslim immigrants) that contradict values such as personal freedom and equality before the law. Warraq advises us to stop appeasing our enemies, do a better job of translating into Arabic and other Muslim tongues Western books that define our core values, and return to teaching our children an accurate history of the West.
We should not be surprised that it takes an immigrant from a country sorely lacking in the social, intellectual, and political goods Warraq discusses to document the glories of the West. Why the West is Best is a timely, passionate reminder of how fortunate we are, and how fragile is our good fortune.
©2012 Bruce S. Thornton