Why the West is Best: A Muslim Apostate’s Defense of Liberal Democracy.
By Ibn Warraq, Encounter Books, 286 pages, $19.
One principal reason why the Islamic jihad is advancing with such confidence around the world today is because its chief competitor, the West, has lost its nerve. The iron and unquestionable dogma of multiculturalism has eaten away at its self-confidence and left only a relativism that walks to the brink of excusing genocide. Instead of defending its principles of liberal democracy and attempting to convince the Islamic world of their virtue and utility, the U.S. and Europe appear to stand for no principle more noble or compelling than majority rule. If, in any given country, a regime takes power dedicated to implementing a vision for society that is absolutely opposed to basic notions of human dignity and human rights, that’s fine with Washington and Brussels, as long as the majority voted for it.
And so the U.S. intervened military in Iraq and Afghanistan only to oversee the adoption of constitutions in both countries that enshrine Sharia as the highest law of the land. This was tantamount to tacit U.S. approval for stonings, amputations, restrictions on the freedom of speech and freedom of conscience, and the institutionalized discrimination against women and non-Muslims, since all of this is mandated under Sharia. Anything else, particularly any defense of the humane values of Judeo-Christian and/or Catholic civilization such as was once mounted against the Communist bloc on Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America, would have been seen as ethnocentric and parochial.
But now a man of the East who came to the West as a youth and gradually realized that it stood for a vision of the human person and human society that far surpassed anything in his native culture has written a courageous and insightful new book that shows that the West can and should stand for more than mere head-counting, and above all, should stand up for itself: Ibn Warraq’s Why the West is Best: A Muslim Apostate’s Defense of Liberal Democracy.
Ibn Warraq is a Pakistani ex-Muslim who writes under a pseudonym as a consequence of Islam’s death penalty for apostasy – and because his previous books have roused the ire of Islamic hardliners. His 1995 manifesto, Why I Am Not A Muslim, was a searing criticism of the brittleness, brutality, and barbarism of Islamic culture; he followed that with a series of scholarly collections that struck at the very foundations of Islamic faith, including The Quest for the Historical Muhammad, What the Koran Really Says, and The Origins of the Koran. His work, however, is not just about what he rejects, but what he accepts: his defense of the West and its values began with the brilliant Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism and now continues with Why the West is Best.
Ibn Warraq writes with an unusual depth, elegance and breadth of erudition, enhanced by an extraordinarily perceptive eye; thus one of the most remarkable and winning chapters of a book that is remarkable and winning throughout is its first, an examination of how daily life in New York City, even in these anxious days, manifests some of Western civilization’s finest qualities: efficiency and sense of responsibility; a love for humanity and its best manifestations, such as music, humor, and intellectual curiosity; a genuine multiculturalism, and above all, a living respect for freedom. “The multifarious interests of free men and women,” he observes, “are mirrored in the extraordinary number of activities available for the enthusiast, the curious, the intellectually and culturally alert….New York stands as a concrete definition of Western civilization in its energy and creativity, its air of unlimited possibility.”
But Ibn Warraq’s notion of unlimited possibility is not mere libertinism. He notes that while “the origins of the modern West are often seen in the Enlightenment,” its cultural splendors and the habits of mind it encourages must also be traced to Athens, Rome, Jerusalem, and “Judeo-Christianity,” which “added a sense of conscience and charity, tempering justice with forgiveness, and the concept of linear rather than cyclical time, which allowed for the possibility of progress. The Middle Ages brought a deeper synthesis of Athens and Rome with Jerusalem, laying the foundations for the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution, the Enlightenment, and pluralistic liberal democracy.”
He discusses the development within the Roman Catholic Church, beginning with St. Augustine’s City of God and Pope Gelasius’s “doctrine of the two swords,” of the idea of a distinction between the sacred and secular realms. But this is no mere historical survey: Ibn Warraq also compellingly explains why this distinction is an indispensable foundation of a society that allows not only for the fullest possible flowering of the human spirit, but for the cultivation of genuine virtue as well – as opposed to the empire of fear that is the Islamic world, where draconian punishments and violent intimidation masquerade as fortitude and self-control.
At the same time, Ibn Warraq explodes the idea that Muslims share roughly the same moral outlook as that of Western Christians, and hence can and should be reliable partners with Catholics and other believers in the struggle against radical, anti-religious secularism. His exploration of the Islamic family culture of violence and hypocrisy will be eye-opening to those who have bought into the view of some modern Catholic writers who purvey, in his words, “a romantic, idealized vision of Muslim domestic life.” He adduces statistics that many will find surprising, including indications that the use of pornography and drugs is higher in some of the world’s strictest Muslim societies than it is in the confused and alienated post-Christian West.
Why the West is Best also includes a brisk tour through all the flash points of the Leftist and Islamic supremacist critique of the West: racism, slavery, imperialism, and the like. In every case, we find not only that the Islamic world’s record is worse than the West’s, despite the frequent recourse of Muslim apologists to these warhorses of the evils of Judeo-Christian civilization, but also that the West, with its love for truth, has demonstrated a capacity for self-criticism and self-correction that is unparalleled in any other culture.
“The West,” Ibn Warraq concludes, “did not get rich because of slavery or imperialism or because of a neocolonialism that supposedly siphons off the riches of Third World countries. It is successful because of its culture, rooted in the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian heritage, because of the distinctive institutions that developed over centuries, because of the freedom granted to individuals.”
It is a bracing message, and in these days when self-criticism seems to be the only virtue that the Western intelligentsia, a rare one. For that, Why the West Is Best is all the more needed: as a much-needed corrective to the all-pervasive and highly corrosive self-hatred that the Left has succeeded in spreading through contemporary American and European culture. We can only hope that its message will gain the widest possible diffusion, and that it does not come too late.