A Muslim apostate's defense of liberal democracy.
Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Ibn Warraq, an Islamic scholar and a leading figure in Qur’anic criticism. He is a Senior Research Fellow at the Westminster Institute, VA. He has addressed distinguished governing bodies all over the world, including the United Nations in Geneva, and Members of the Dutch Parliament, at The Hague.
In 2007, Mr. Warraq completed a critical study of the thought of Edward Said, Defending the West. Paul Berman, author of Terror and Liberalism, described the book as "a glorious work of scholarship, and it is going to contribute mightily to modernizing the way we think about Western civilization and the rest of the world".
Mr. Warraq was goaded into writing his first book, Why I am Not a Muslim (1995), when he felt personally threatened by the infamous fatwa pronounced on Salman Rushdie for his book that satirized Islam, its founder Muhammad, and his family. He felt that only a ferocious polemic against Islam as a totalitarian system would wake up Western intellectuals to the dangers that the Iranian theocratic regime posed to our own freedoms in the West. Since this passionate attack on Islam, Mr. Warraq has edited, with long introductions, a series of more scholarly works on the origins of the Koran, and the rise of Islam, works such as The Origins of the Koran, 1998, The Quest for the Historical Muhammad, 2000, What the Koran Really Says, 2002, and the recent Which Koran?, 2011.
Ibn Warraq’s new book, Why the West is Best: A Muslim Apostate's Defense of Liberal Democracy (Encounter Books, December 2011) carries on the defense of the West started in Defending the West. He defines, describes, and defends Western values, strengths and freedoms far too often taken for granted. This book also tackles the taboo subjects of racism in Asian culture, Arab slavery, and Islamic Imperialism. It begins with a homage to New York City, as a metaphor for all we hold dear in Western culture -- pluralism, individualism, freedom of expression and thought, the complete freedom to pursue life, liberty and happiness unhampered by totalitarian regimes, and theocratic doctrines.
FP: Ibn Warraq, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Let’s start with this question:
What does this book do that is unprecedented?
Warraq: First, thank you for inviting me to Front Page; it has been a while since we talked.
I do not think there are many books on the market that are unashamedly pro-Western, defending, without apologies, Western values, and talk without reserve of the superiority of Western Civilization, and which take on such taboo subjects as Asian racism, Arab anti-Semitism, Islamic Imperialism, the role of Islam and the Arabs in the Slave Trade, the complicity of Black Africans in the enslavement, and later selling of fellow Africans to Arabs, Persians, Indians and Europeans. There also cannot be any books on the market that defend Western Civilization that begin with a walk down Tin Pan Alley in New York City.
FP: What qualities of Western societies make them superior to those societies that have not adopted Western values?
Warraq: The self-evident superiority of the West stems from certain principles inherited, and further developed and refined over two millennia, from Athens, Rome and Jerusalem. We can, perhaps, subsume these principles under the abstract terms rationalism, universalism, and self-criticism, and then unfurl them in the following more substantial manner. Under rationalism, one would include the notions of truth, objective knowledge, and intellectual curiosity. Under universalism, I would include the idea of the unity of mankind, openness to “the Other” (an unfortunate phrase borrowed from recent anti-Western polemics), other ideas, other customs, other people; and finally under self-criticism the willingness to submit all of the West’s traditions to rational scrutiny. Under curiosity, I include all those examples of disinterested study. Other great ideas of the West which further help define its character and explain its success are: the separation of church and state, the rule of law, equality before the law, freedom of conscience and expression, human rights -- in short, liberty and individual dignity which must never be sacrificed for some spurious collective, totalitarian goal.
Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness: this triptych succinctly defines the attractiveness and superiority of Western civilization. In the West we are free to think what we want, to read what we want, to practice our religion, to live as we choose. Liberty is codified in human rights, a magnificent Western creation but also, I believe, a universal good. Human rights transcend local or ethnocentric values, conferring equal dignity and value on all humanity regardless of sex, ethnicity, sexual preference, or religion. At the same time, it is in the West that human rights are most respected. It is the West that has liberated women, racial minorities, religious minorities, and gays and lesbians, recognizing and defending their rights. The notions of freedom and human rights were present at the dawn of Western civilization, as ideals at least, but have gradually come to fruition through supreme acts of self-criticism. Because of its exceptional capacity for self-criticism, the West took the initiative in abolishing slavery; the calls for abolition did not resonate even in black Africa, where rival African tribes took black prisoners to be sold as slaves in the West.
Today, many non-Western cultures follow customs and practices that are clear violations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). In many countries, especially Islamic ones, you are not free to read what you want. Under Sharia, or Islamic law, women are not free to marry whom they wish, and their rights of inheritance are circumscribed. Sharia, derived from the Koran and the practice and sayings of Muhammad, prescribes barbaric punishments such as stoning to death for adultery. It calls for homosexuals and apostates to be executed. In Saudi Arabia, among other countries, Muslims are not free to convert to Christianity, and Christians are not free to practice their faith. The Koran is not a rights-respecting document.
FP: What in your mind are the greatest achievements of the West?
Warraq: Not only is the West so successful economically, but it leads the world scientifically, and culturally (one only has to look at the list of Nobel Prize winners in science, and literature to gauge the overwhelming triumph of the West in these domains; or at the influence of the Western arts on the rest of the world- both High Culture and Popular entertainment, from Classical music to cinema).
The great ideas of the West—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, thought, and expression, human rights, and liberal democracy- quite an achievement, surely, for any civilization-—remain the best, and perhaps the only, means for all people, no matter of what race or creed, to reach their full potential and live in freedom.
Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness: defines succinctly the attractiveness and superiority of Western civilization. We are free, in the West, to choose; we have real choice to pursue our own desires; we are free to set the goals and contents of our own lives; the West is made up of individuals who are free to decide what meaning to give to their lives-in short the glory of the West is that life is an open book, while under Islam, life is a closed book, everything has been decided for you: God and the Holy Law set limits on the possible agenda of your life. In many non-Western countries especially Islamic ones, we are not free to read what we want; in Saudi Arabia, Muslims are not free to convert to Christianity, and Christians are not free to practice their faith -- all clear violations of article 18 of the Universal Declaration.
This desire for knowledge, no matter where it leads, inherited from the Greeks, has led to another institution that is unequalled-or very rarely equaled- outside the West: the University. Here the outside world recognizes this superiority; it comes to the West to learn not only about the sciences developed in the West in the last five hundred years -- in all departments of Physics, Biology and Chemistry -- but also of their own culture. They come to the West to learn of the Eastern civilizations and languages. Easterners come to Oxford, Cambridge, or Harvard and Yale, the Sorbonne or Heidelberg to receive their doctorates, because they confer prestige unrivalled by similar doctorates from Third World countries.
A culture that gave the world the spiritual creations of the Classical Music of Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner and Schubert, the paintings of Michelangelo, and Raphael, Da Vinci and Rembrandt, does not need lessons from societies whose idea of spirituality is a heaven peopled with female virgins for the use of men, whose idea of heaven resembles a cosmic brothel. The West has given the world the symphony, and the novel.
To paraphrase Alan Kors, instead of the rigid, inhuman caste system of India, we have unparalleled social mobility in the West. Western society is a society of ever richer, more varied, more productive, more self-defined, and more satisfying lives; it is a society of boundless private charity; it is a society that broke, on behalf of merit, the seemingly eternal chains of station by birth. The West has given us the liberal miracle of individual rights, individual responsibility, merit, and human satisfaction.
FP: How do you define the West in your book?
Warraq: I define the West through its values of liberty, and rationalism, and then look at their historical origins. The origins of the modern West are often seen in the Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, but the roots of the Enlightenment can be found in habits of mind cultivated in Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem, and the institutions that grew from them. The Greeks gave us the city and the notion of citizenship, the ideals of democracy and liberty, rationalism and science, philosophy and history. The Romans systematized the law, defined private property, and emphasized individual responsibility. Judeo-Christianity added a sense of conscience and charity, tempering justice with forgiveness, and the concept of linear rather than cyclical time, which allowed 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.
FP: How is New York City a metaphor for the greatness of the West?
Warraq: In New York, I show the principles of the United States Constitution being applied in a real, vibrant place. I give the term “Western civilization” a physical context in the very concrete of the city. The details of New York’s streets and structures create a believable, breathing image of Western civilization, just as Dickens created believable, breathing characters. See this building, I say—it’s an example of beautiful architecture, one of the glories of New York, and as integral to Western civilization as the works of Shakespeare. See that building—it’s the New York Public Library. Inside the Beaux Arts masterpiece is an institution that embodies key aspects of Western civilization: philanthropy, education, the love of knowledge, the preservation of all the best that has been written and published. Each time you admire the façade of the New York Public Library, you are paying homage to Western civilization. Each time you consult a book in the magnificent Main Reading Room, you are participating in the maintenance of Western civilization. By working and living in New York, you are breathing Western civilization, continuously reminded of its benefits and its values.
Describing a New York street that became known as Tin Pan Alley and the area known as Broadway led me into the Great American Songbook, created by composers and lyricists who were born and lived and worked in that great city. Discussions of Western civilization are too often confined to works of high art that reflect a relatively narrow element of public taste and experience. I maintain that Western popular culture at its best is worthy of respect and should be cherished as much as the operas of Wagner. The work of composers like George Gershwin, born and bred in New York, embodies Western ideals over and above the aesthetic principles of the music itself. I could have written at length about various artists associated with the metropolis—Fred Astaire, P. G. Wodehouse, George Kaufman, the Marx Brothers (born in the Yorkville section of the Upper East Side)—and their contributions to Western popular culture, with creations that are witty, graceful, inspired, and at times touched with genius.
New York, like life, is its own excuse. Nonetheless, no other city in the West—or indeed, in the world—so well exemplifies the inexhaustible possibilities of a modern metropolis, where the inventive and enterprising put into practice the many freedoms guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution. The implausible, well-nigh-miraculous functioning anarchy that we know as New York is adorned with every excellence of Western art. It is a city of manifold suggestions, which ministers to every ambition, engenders a thousand talents, nurtures ingenuity and experimentation.
FP: What changed within Western societies that allowed them to so dramatically outperform other societies over the past 500 years, when that wasn’t the case beforehand?
Warraq: What has made the West successful economically while so many countries in other parts of the world fail to provide adequate food and shelter for their citizens? The short answer is the Scientific Revolution of the Seventeenth Century, and the Industrial Revolution of the Eighteenth Century, both depended on European Culture, Economic and Political Freedom, that is the institutions and habits of mind developed over two millennia.
Thus we can no longer defend the notion that Western prosperity is founded on the exploitation of poor people in the Third World. The rich countries are rich because of their practices at home, and because of their readiness to adopt and adapt new things, such as Chinese inventions or New World crops. Jared Diamond concluded that the “proximate factors” in Europe’s ascendance were “its development of a merchant class, capitalism, and patent protection for inventions, its failure to develop absolute despots and crushing taxation, and its Greco-Judeo-Christian tradition of empirical inquiry.” Ironically, given Diamond’s otherwise anti-Western animus, some readers disparaged this view as ethnocentric, or as “utterly conventional Eurocentric history,” in James M. Blaut’s words. But Diamond, in fact, was pointing to some key ingredients of Western success; and behind those proximate factors were culture, ideas, and attitudes.
Many scholars have emphasized geography as an explanation for different rates of cultural development and for disparate levels of economic well-being in the modern world. In particular, they point out that the advanced industrial nations are located in the temperate zones, while the great majority of poor countries lie in the tropics, which are said to have most of the disadvantages. Clearly geography plays some part in explaining the economic success of certain countries over others. But as Deirdre McCloskey points out, geography does not account for why England had an industrial revolution in the eighteenth century whereas the Chinese people of the temperate zone did not. Lawrence E. Harrison points to the more recent economic success of Singapore and Hong Kong, both in the tropics, and Taiwan, which lies halfway in the tropical zone. He also notes the prosperity of the Chinese minorities in tropical Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, as well as the Japanese minorities in tropical Peru and Brazil. Geography alone cannot explain why Haiti, once the richest colony in the Caribbean, is today mired in poverty and misery, while Barbados, a former slave colony, is now prosperous.
A corollary of the geography argument is one that highlights the “germs” in Jared Diamond’s title, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies. Scholars have noted the prevalence of disease in the tropical ecozones, where so many poor countries are located. But McCloskey replies that “northwestern Europe initiated the modern world when still debilitated by cholera and smallpox and tuberculosis and especially by the malaria so devastating to modern Africa,” called “ague” at the time. This latter disease was at its peak in the nineteenth century, while Europe was industrializing.
Another variant of the geographical theory is a focus on natural resources. But as white South Africans, for example, came to understand, “merely having a stock of gold and diamonds in the ground does not make for a modern economy,” especially if a substantial part of the population, or “human capital,” is kept uneducated. On the other hand, some countries with few natural resources—Denmark, Hong Kong, Japan—have managed to develop modern industrial economies. Natural endowment is far less consequential than the ability to use it productively, and that ability is an outcome of culture.
“If we learn anything from the history of economic development, it is that culture makes all the difference,” argues David Landes. By way of illustration, he mentions the relative success of various expatriate minorities in comparison with the dominant population: “the Chinese in East and Southeast Asia, Indians in East Africa, Lebanese in West Africa.” He also points to the Jews and Calvinists as successful cultural minorities in much of Europe. In other words, “Max Weber was right on,” Landes adds, referring to the thesis that Weber made famous in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (first published in 1904). The economic and technological success of the West began with culture, and with principles embodied in its characteristic institutions.
FP: Tell us about creeping Sharia in the West. How is Sharia incompatible with human rights and the U.S. Constitution?
Warraq: In February 2008, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, said that “the application of Sharia in certain circumstances” in the United Kingdom was “unavoidable,” and he was not troubled by that prospect. In subsequent interviews, he asserted that a belief in “one law for all” was dangerous—one of the cornerstones of Western civilization, equality under the law, a danger! In July 2008, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, Lord Phillips, also opined that Sharia principles could be the basis for mediation, and that national courts should recognize these decisions.
There are already eighty-five Sharia courts operating in Great Britain, many working out of mosques, applying Islamic law to resolve domestic, marital, and business disputes. These courts are intrinsically divisive, placing some Muslims above the law that the rest of the community has to obey, while denying certain rights to other Muslims, particularly women. The very existence of sharia courts threatens the system of laws passed by elected representatives in Parliament. Insouciant government officials assure us that these courts may not contradict the law of the land. But some decisions of the Islamic tribunals are already considered legally binding and could be enforced in civil courts in England and Wales. A report by Civitas, a leading think tank in London, revealed that the rulings handed down by Sharia tribunals have included some that went against the human rights standards applied in British courts.
The situation in Germany is equally worrying. Chancellor Angela Merkel said that Islamic law had no place in Germany, but a little research shows that in fact it has been applied there for years. Der Spiegel reported in 2010 that elements of Sharia are most often used in cases involving family and inheritance disputes.
Jordanian couples, for example, are married (and divorced) in Germany according to Jordanian law, which is partially based on Sharia. Furthermore, multiple wives in a polygamous marriage, provided the marriages were legal in their home country, have legal rights to alimony, social security benefits stemming from their husband’s occupation and a portion of the inheritance should he die. . . . A federal court in Kassel, for example, cited Islamic law in a ruling several years ago in which the court found that a widow had to share her husband’s pension with his second wife. Another case saw a court in Koblenz granting residency to the second wife of a man from Iraq. A Cologne court forced an Iranian man to pay his ex-wife 600 gold coins in “bride price” (money paid by the groom or groom’s family to the bride or bride’s family) upon divorce and cited the Shariah system applied in Iran. A court in Düsseldorf arrived at a similar verdict, forcing a Turkish man to pay 30,000 in bride price to his former daughter-in-law.
Hilmar Krüger, a law professor at the University of Cologne, called this all “a good thing.” Mathias Rohe, a lawyer and Islam expert in Erlangen, said it was merely a product of “globalization.” They seem to be unaware of the implications of accepting Sharia into the Western mainstream. Laws passed by democratically elected representatives are now being superseded by barbaric laws from seventh-century Saudi Arabia, putatively decreed by God. The principles of justice enshrined in Western constitutions and the rights achieved through centuries of struggle are to be given no precedence over a system derived from a very different worldview, one in which women are the property of men and where freedom of conscience is nonexistent.
Sharia is totally incompatible with Western liberal democracy and with human rights in general, because it is a totalitarian construct designed to control every aspect of the life of Muslims and even non-Muslims. It discriminates against women in many ways: their testimony in court is worth half of a man’s testimony (Surah II.282); they inherit half what men do (IV.11); they may be beaten by men (IV.34); they may not marry non-Muslims (II.221). Sharia prescribes amputation of hands for theft (V.38), crucifixion for spreading disorder (V.33), stoning to death for adultery (Reliance of the Traveler, p. 610), execution of homosexuals and apostates (XXVI.165–66; Reliance, pp. 109 and 665). In other words, Muslims want to reintroduce practices that we in the West long ago deemed barbaric.
Moreover, Islamic law is considered infallible and immutable. In contrast to the fixed edicts of Sharia, Western law is bound up with the realities of human life and conflict. It allows the flexibility of making new law to accommodate changing circumstances, within a framework of fundamental principles. The Western constitutions and systems of law are magnificent creations; are we really prepared to jettison them in the name of multiculturalism and globalization?
Most troubling are the efforts to enforce Islamic laws against “blasphemy” throughout the world. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation is taking steps toward outlawing “defamation of religion” (i.e. Islam) worldwide, and these efforts have, in effect, been abetted by Western governments under the guise of suppressing “hate speech.” As Islamic countries consolidate their hold on the UN Human Rights Council and demand national laws to suppress criticism of Islam, how long will it be before Western legislation forbids research into the origins of the Koran or early Islamic history?
FP: Why does the Left in the West not stand up against Sharia? And why do you think the West has lost all self-confidence in its own values and is unable and unwilling to defend its own civilization?
Warraq: I think these two questions, and their answers, are related. One of the reasons why Westerners feel so shy about defending Western civilization was well-described by James Burnham, “When the Western liberal’s feeing of guilt and his associated feeling of moral vulnerability before the sorrows and demands of the wretched become obsessive, he often develops a generalized hatred of Western civilization and his own country as a part of the West….The guilt of the liberal is insatiable. He deserves, by his own judgment, to be kicked, slapped and spat on for his infinite crimes”
First there has been the influence of intellectuals and academics who have undermined the confidence of the West in its own values and strengths. For more than sixty years schools and universities in the West have inculcated three generations of the young with moral relativism leaving them incapable of passing moral or cross-cultural judgments, and unwilling to defend those values. Post-modernism and multiculturalism have completed the destruction of the West’s self-assurance.
Another reason was the intellectual terrorism of left-wing ideologues such as Edward Said, and his highly influential book, Orientalism, that bludgeoned Western intellectuals into silence. Post–World War II Western intellectuals and leftists were consumed by guilt for the West’s colonial past and continuing colonialist present, and they wholeheartedly embraced any theory or ideology that voiced or at least seemed to voice the putatively thwarted aspirations of the peoples of the third world. Orientalism came at the precise time when anti-Western rhetoric was at its most shrill and was already being taught at Western universities, and when third-worldism was at its most popular. Jean-Paul Sartre preached that all white men were complicit in the exploitation of the third world, and that violence against Westerners was a legitimate means for colonized men to re-acquire their manhood. Said went further: “It is therefore correct that every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was consequently a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric” (p. 204). Not only, for Said, is every European a racist, but he must necessarily be so.
As I have argued, Western civilization has been more willing to criticize itself than any other major culture. These self-administered admonishments are a far cry from Said’s savage strictures, and yet they found a new generation ready to take them to heart. Berating and blaming the West, a fashionable game in the 1960s and 1970s that impressionable youth took seriously, had the results we now see when the same generation appears unwilling to defend the West against the greatest threat that it has faced since the Nazis.
When shown that Said is indeed a fraud, his friends and supporters in academia sidestep the criticisms and evidence, and pretend, as did several reviewers of Robert Irwin’s book on Said, that Said may indeed have got the “footling details” wrong but he was, nonetheless, onto a higher truth. Said’s influence, thus, was a result of a conjunction of several intellectual and political trends: post-French Algeria and post-Vietnam tiers mondisme (third-worldism); the politicization of increasingly postmodernist English departments that had argued away the very idea of truth, objective truth; and the influence of Foucault. In effect Said played on each of these confidence tricks to create a master fraud that bound American academics and Middle East tyrants in unstated bonds of anti- American complicity.
FP: This is a toxic combination with Islam’s supreme confidence and agenda to exploit the West's moral weakness and cultural confusion. Your comment?
Warraq: The West must wake up to the nature of the enemy. Islam is supremely confident in its values, and, of course, convinced that these values are blessed by God, and it is the God-given duty of every Muslim to spread Islam, until it covers the entire world. This is not right-wing paranoia of Western extremists but self-confessed principles everywhere openly proclaimed by the Muslims themselves. Only the Left refuses to recognize it, and is scandalously complicit in helping Islam take over the Western world. It is no less than civilizational suicide. It is perhaps already too late as, on December 13, 2011, the White House invited the OIC within its doors to plan how best to destroy the West from within.
FP: Ibn Warraq, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.