Why the West is Best
a review by Rebecca Bynum (December 2011)
Why the West is Best: A Muslim Apostate's Defense of Liberal Democracy
By Ibn Warraq
Encounter Books, 2011
Ibn Warraq’s latest book may be best viewed as a follow up to his excellent 2007 critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism, entitled Defending the West (reviewed here). Why the West is Best is meant more for the general reader and is a thoroughly enjoyable exploration of the Western world as seen through the eyes of a man born a Muslim in Pakistan and whose appreciation of the West is fresh and stimulating. Warraq begins by taking on the attitude embodied in a flippant remark made by Mahatma Gandhi, who when asked what he thought of British civilization, replied that he thought it was "a good idea." To Warraq, these words reveal “ingratitude, hypocrisy, arrogance and incomprehension” which characterizes fashionable anti-Western thought the world over. It was, after all, those evil British colonialists who studied and translated ancient Hindu manuscripts and who preserved their crumbling monuments, essentially restoring India’s history to the Indian people. And by establishing British law and administration (along with the unifying English language), those same terrible colonialists laid the groundwork for India’s economic success today.
Warraq takes us on a tour of New York City as a prime example of the modern Western ingenuity and creativity, not to mention the political innovation which allows all manner of people of live together in relative peace and harmony. He relates a particularly poignant anecdote about an Iraqi friend of his, Dr. W. Ali, whom Warraq discovered photographing the racks of magazines in a New York Barnes and Noble bookstore. The number and variety of the magazines was overwhelming to Dr. Ali, who, realized the amazing societal dynamism required on the part of readers and publishers alike to produce such an incredible number of periodicals specializing in every conceivable subject. In the end, Warraq’s friend was overcome with melancholy.
“It was a shocking revelation to Dr. Ali, who by his own description had lived a constricted life, with leisure activities limited to discussing the latest conspiracy theory while drinking coffee on the streets of Baghdad. It was a sudden realization that not only had a large part of his life perhaps been wasted, but his country had failed to create the necessary conditions – the political and social structures, the principles and values – for such diverse activities to flourish.”
Here is the central theme: Western superiority in relation to the Islamic world in ingenuity, morality, technological and cultural achievement is the direct result of freedom of thought. The ability to examine, criticize and adjust in an endless cycle, both individually and en masse, is crucial to progress. A culture which stifles curiosity, forbids cultural or religious criticism and requires all individual and social adjustment to be toward conformity to stagnant cultural forms will inevitably fossilize. This is seen in numerous ways. The numbers of books printed in the Muslim world is miniscule in comparison with the huge output of the West. And while there is no Islamic objection to scientific or technological advance per se, the Muslim contribution to that advancement is practically non-existent. Without oil as a major export, the gross domestic product of the Muslim world would be negligible and even with the immense revenues brought in by oil, Arab states have by and large failed to develop fully functioning, self-sustaining economies, and so forth and so on.
Warraq also celebrates New York City during what has turned out to be the height of American popular culture (roughly 1920 through 1960), when music, movies, novels and art reached a peak which was truly expressive of the American character. Warraq stumbles a bit by ignoring the obvious cultural deterioration over the last 40 years and in essence contrasts the ideal New York of yesterday with the prostitution and drug addled Teheran and Islamabad of today, but who can deny the power of Tin Pan Alley through American songbook? It’s lovely to view this fragile and now vanished cultural achievement through the fresh eyes of discovery.
Warraq spends a good deal of time on the history of slavery and its eradication in the Western world as an example of cultural self-criticism and moral advancement. In doing so, he puts the Atlantic slave trade (the sole object of Western focus) into a broader perspective and context in which Arab slave traders often financed by Indian merchants bought and sold Africans who were initially enslaved by their fellow Africans. Plus, he covers the period when Arab raiders captured and enslaved over a million white Christians from coastal settlements all over Europe and even the British Isles. He points out that Islam to this day still sanctions and regulates slavery even if its practice has been lessened in the modern world. Racist attitudes of Arabs are still quite prevalent as we have seen with the massacre of blacks during the Libyan liberation and the mistreatment of foreign workers in Muslim countries generally is profoundly shocking to Western sensibilities.
We often hear the call for an Islamic reformation, but these hopeful souls fail to understand that the Christian reformation was based on the return to scripture – that the people could read the Bible for themselves without the need of clerical interpretation. The resurgence of Islam we see today is likewise based on the return to scripture and thus it could be argued that Islam is experiencing its reformation – a return to its pure form. Certainly there has never been a time in history when Islamic scripture was for widely and freely available in so many translations, nor a time when Muslims were so widely literate. Warraq therefore recommends an Islamic Enlightenment, that is, a general abandonment of religion and turn toward secularism including the separation of mosque and state.
Warraq is greatly enamored of the age of Enlightenment (the name, however, is a rather cynical use of a religious term to describe the rise of atheism), in which the myth of the founding of modernity is embedded and which has shaped our modern age and bestowed what is doubtless a great advance toward peace and that is the separation of church and state – the very thing so prominently lacking in Islam. Warraq is a man who left Islam for atheism and is therefore disinclined to examine Christianity and the Christian roots of the Western world, specifically that man is possessed of an immortal soul and thus all his actions have consequences which stretch beyond this short and brutal life.
In The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky puts the following thoughts in the mind of Ivan Fyodorovitch (a staunch unbeliever who nevertheless understands that Western civilization rests upon Christian belief):
“I ask your permission to drop this subject altogether,” Miusov repeated. “I will tell you instead, gentlemen, another interesting and rather characteristic anecdote of Ivan Fyodorovitch himself. Only five days ago, in a gathering here, principally of ladies, he solemnly declared in argument that there was nothing in the whole world to make men love their neighbors. That there was no law of nature that man should love mankind, and that, if there had been any love on earth hitherto, it was not owing to natural law, but simply because men have believed in immortality. Ivan Fyodorovich added in parenthesis that the whole natural law lies in that faith, and that if you were to destroy in mankind belief in immortality, not only love but every living force maintaining life would at once be dried up. Moreover, nothing then would be immoral, everything would be lawful, even cannibalism. That’s not all. He ended by asserting that for every individual, like ourselves, who does not believe in God or immortality, the moral law of nature must immediately be changed into the exact contrary of the former religious law, and that egoism, even to crime, must become not only lawful but even recognized as the inevitable, the most rational, even honorable outcome of his position.”
Can anyone doubt the life of modern man is floundering after having purposely cut his moral lifeline? One might further assert that freedom cannot be separated from the self control that religion confers and that license parading as liberty is always and has ever been the forerunner of abject bondage. For if man cannot control himself inwardly, he will be forced to turn to the state (or mosque) for social control and immorality becomes transformed into illegality – the ultimate removal of individual freedom – a freedom that God himself stands back and allows, even if that means the temporary flourishing of evil. Even during times of moral confusion, man must be free to choose to move toward Love, Truth, Goodness and Beauty or to reject those values, otherwise life would hold no meaning.
The Western political ideal rests directly on the moral foundation of a Hellenized Christianity - that free will is God’s gift to man. Man is free to choose between righteousness and sin and therefore what God has given, no individual or system of government may take away without becoming an unjust oppressor. The Western conception of justice allows that if any system of government presumes to remove the freedom God has given to man, that system may be justly overthrown and replaced by a government that is dedicated to preserving man’s freedom.
The Western state exists to serve man. Man does not exist to serve the state. This primary political concept did not spring from pagan Rome or Greece. Nor could the pagans, with their overwhelming sense of tragic fatalism (or “glorious sadness” as David Bentley Hart describes it) ever have conceived of the pursuit of happiness as a worthy goal of civilization. Nor did the rationalism of the Enlightenment give rise to the concept of equality before the law. These concepts are only found in the deeper Christian strata of our civilization. Indeed it is the Christian conception of man’s immortality and his relation to God as his son (not servant of slave) that Warraq unfortunately omits, but which is essential to a profound understanding of the Western conception of reality and the ordering of the world.
Be that as it may, this book will provide much food for thought and a considerable supply of ammunition for secularists seeking to defend the West on that basis. If it seems that I have taken issue with much, it is because this book made me think, which is naturally the highest criterion by which a work may be judged. Ibn Warraq is the best kind of public intellectual. His books always stimulate thought and by that standard Why the West is Best is yet another home run.
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