Ibn Warraq reminds us of the magnificence of a Western metropolis that we may take for granted.
Ibn Warraq is the pseudonymous, Pakistani-born author of the modern classic Why I Am Not a Muslim and the writer or editor of several other estimable books about Muhammed, the Koran, Islamic culture, Muslim apostates, and Western civilization. Surely few people know as much as he does about both the West and Islam. Therefore I was more than eager to read his new book, Why the West Is Best: A Muslim Apostate's Defense of Liberal Democracy.
Naturally, I expected something wise and incisive and steeped in learning – and I wasn't disappointed. But what I hadn't counted on was how fresh, original, delightfully inspired, and emotionally stirring Warraq's approach to his topic would be. Take his first chapter, which is about New York, a city he views as “a testament to the robustness of Western culture and to its welcoming catholicity.” Warraq's goal here is to help us to see a Western metropolis through the eyes of a person from, say, the Islamic world, and thus recognize the magnificence of things so familiar to us that we may take them for granted.
Let it be said at once that he is highly successful at this. He tells a surprisingly touching story about an Iraqi colleague who, at age forty-five, left his country for the first time on a visit to New York and was so overwhelmed by “the number and variety of magazines available” at the Barnes & Noble in Warraq's neighborhood that he started taking pictures of them. Warraq quotes a paean to the New York Public Library by none other than Lenin, who, at some point between that institution's founding in 1911 and the Russian Revolution, took time to marvel at the number of people who used the library, at the number of books they took out, at the then-expanding system of branch libraries, and at the resources the library made available to children. “Such is the way things are done in New York,” Lenin wrote. “And in Russia?”
Warraq devotes several pages to a celebration of Tin Pan Alley, noting perceptively that the Great American Songbook is not just a collection of pretty tunes and clever lyrics but a life-affirming cultural inheritance that “lend[s] dignity to the lives and struggles of ordinary people” and “cross[es] all the boundaries of race, class, and religion.” He pays tribute to American humor, noting that the abundance of comedy clubs in a city like New York “is a sure sign of a healthy society.” And he expresses admiration for “[t]he civilized pleasure of alcohol,” citing the philosopher Roger Scruton's thumbs-up for American cocktail parties, which “immediately break the ice between strangers and set every large gathering in motion.”
In praising all these things about New York, of course, Warraq is not only extolling the core values of the West itself but, implicitly or explicitly, rebuking non-Western – and especially Muslim – culture. Islam, after all, abhors a library or magazine rack which has not been cleansed of “offensive” items, and it frowns on music, humor, and the consumption of alcohol. These, Warraq wants us to realize, are not minor issues – they are the kinds of things that make the difference between a happy life and a miserable one. For him the Declaration of Independence's foregrounding of the right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” is no mere rhetorical flourish – it sums up the rich possibilities and promise of life in the West as opposed to life in the less happy regions of the world.
After taking us on his enthusiastic spin around New York, Warraq leaps back in history to discover why the West has been so successful. The Greeks bequeathed us critical thinking, the concept of citizenship, and the separation of politics from religion; Rome developed law; Christianity taught compassion and forgiveness.
There were other important factors. While Islamic educational institutions were “governed by religious law” and thus limited in what they could explore and teach, European universities “were independent institutions” and could thus “engage in relatively unfettered research into a multitude of subjects and cultivate a rational approach to studying the world.” Reason was crucial: if “[m]edieval Christian philosophers believed that the rational faculties not only came from God, but represented the likeness of God in man,” in Islam “[t]he idea that human reason could be a source of law or ethics was considered blasphemous.”
Warraq also highlights the importance to the rise of Western civilization of such things as literacy, the recognition of the importance of the freedom to criticize, Spinoza's introduction of Biblical criticism, and the introduction of the newspaper. (“Newspapers,” he notes, “did not appear in the Islamic world until the nineteenth century.”) In addition, he very effectively takes on the argument that the West won its prosperity at the expense of “exploited” non-Western peoples, the romantic myth that “Native Americans and other primitive cultures lived in harmony with nature before the white man's arrival,” and the uninformed notion that Western civilization is uniquely violent and other cultures uniquely spiritual.
In the same way, he shows that – contemporary leftist rhetoric to the contrary – neither racism nor imperialism is distinctively Western. He reminds us of the now politically incorrect fact that if West African natives had not sold their black brothers and sisters to Europeans and Americans, there would have been little or no Atlantic slave trade. He notes that during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, North African Muslims made slaves of a million or so white Europeans and Americans. And he stresses that while human bondage still exists in the non-Western world, its abolition on moral grounds “was very much a Western initiative.”
Warraq points up one substantial irony that should receive a great deal more attention – namely, that many of the same people who consider Western imperialism an unmitigated evil hold up Arab imperialism, which crushed “many ancient, advanced civilizations” without mercy, “as something admirable and a justifiable source of Muslim pride.” In a wonderful passage, he observes that
Muslims despise any coreligionists who accept what they regard as alien Western values, yet fail to consider that they themselves could justifiably be seen as “traitors” to the culture of their ancestors. Muslims in present-day India are descendants of Hindus; in Iran, of Zoroastrians; in Syria, of Christians. A vast number of Muslims throughout the world have been persuaded to accept a religion that originated thousands of miles away and to bow toward Arabia five times a day – a vivid symbol of cultural imperialism. Before they can read or write their national language, they are taught to recite a book in a language they do not understand. These Muslims learn more about the history of a people remote from them geographically and ethnically than about their own countries before the advent of Islam.
Indeed, as Warraq so pithily puts it, “[t]he Arabs turned out to be the most successful imperialists of all time, since so many of those conquered by Arabs came to believe they were thereby saved and that their whole prior cultural heritage was worthless.”
What Warraq has produced here is a wide-ranging, illuminating, and powerful case for the superiority of Western civilization to all others. His purpose, to be sure, is not to encourage self-congratulation on the part of those of us who happen to be the heirs of this civilization. We are not its creators, after all, but its beneficiaries – and should also be its fierce and uncompromising protectors. That's Warraq's point: to underscore what an incomparable treasure we have in the edifice of culture and values that our ancestors built, generation by generation and century by century, and that we owe it to them, and to our posterity, to preserve in the face of every assault against it – whether from without or from within – so that we may be able to pass it on as it was passed on to us.
If I had written this piece a few weeks ago, I would have urged readers to buy copies of Warraq's book as Christmas or Hanukkah gifts for the intelligent young people in their lives. In a time when students in the West are, all too often, being taught to despise their own civilization and to exalt others – the more primitive, brutal, and alien, it sometimes seems, the better – this book can provide a desperately needed corrective. So, okay, don't buy it for Christmas – but buy it for their birthdays, their graduations, their confirmations or bar mitzvahs. Whatever. Just buy it, and talk to them about it. The next generation needs to know the things that are in this book.
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