Ibn Warraq’s eloquent defense of Western civilization
3 February 2012
Why the West is Best: A Muslim Apostate’s Defense of Liberal Democracy, by Ibn Warraq, (Encounter, 286 pp., $23.95)
Occasionally, the mainstream media will let slip something that reveals the incoherence of multiculturalist orthodoxy. Not long ago, the New York Times reported 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.