Europeans might have learned a valuable lesson after Western Civilization was nearly wrecked on the shoals of national socialism. Namely, nations unwilling to defend liberal democracy against those who would destroy it will not long have a democracy to defend. Sixty-two years later, many of their children and grandchildren remain reluctant to defend Western values if so doing gives the impression of cultural or racial superiority, which in today’s society must be one the worst crimes imaginable.
It is Muslims or former Muslims like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Ibn Warraq, Irshad Manji and Salman Rushdie who are not hesitant to speak out for Western values. Ms. Manji, author of The Trouble With Islam, recently cautioned Europeans that “if you give up on yourselves people like me are dead.” Manji, who lives a precarious existence under countless death threats, notes that whether out of moral cowardice, an inverted snobbishness, or the fear of being regarded as unenlightened or culturally insensitive, many in the West will simply not stand up for liberty. This unwillingness has allowed a coterie of religious fundamentalists and moral relativists to whittle away at the core of Western Civilization. To paraphrase Douglas Murray, this type of death wish can only be explained as a kind of masochism being offered to us by intellectual sadists.
This then was the mood going into the October 9 IQ2 debate titled “We Should Not Be Reluctant to Assert the Superiority of Western Values.” Participants included Ibn Warraq, David Aaronovitch, and Douglas Murray, in favor of the motion, and William Dalrymple, Charles Glass, and Tariq Ramadan in opposition.
Those on the right praised the Western values of liberal democracy, individualism, gender equality, human rights, freedom of expression and religion, and separation of church and state. Dalrymple and Glass chose to use their allotted time ticking off lists of European and American colonial crimes, while Ramadan — taken to task for his unwillingness to support an immediate ban on the stoning of adulteresses — fretted about a need for “humility” and dialogue. In the evening’s best rejoinder, Murray wondered how such a dialogue could begin when any kind of doubt or criticism of Islamic civilization in most Islamic countries will get one killed. Even in Europe cartoons lampooning the prophet Mohammed result in riots and boycotts and death threats, while critical films like Theo van Gogh’s Submission gets one butchered on the cobbled streets of Amsterdam. How then shall such a dialogue begin? he asked.
Ibn Warraq, another former Muslim writer living under a fatwa, picked up on the theme noting that self-criticism was the greatest legacy of Western Civilization. It was self-criticism that brought slavery and colonialism to an end, and accounted for the civil rights movement and opposition to Vietnam, he said.
Indeed whether Western values are unique to the West or are universal was one of the key points of debate. For Tariq Ramadan so-called Western values are shared by all people, and were apparently invented by obscure 12th century Moghuls (the fact that we never heard of them is our fault and proof again of our ethnocentricity). Ramadan reminded those in attendance that Western Civilization came out of Judeo-Christianity, which was a Middle Eastern religion, though he neglected to mention the apparently “negligible” role Greek and Roman civilizations, as well as secularism and the Enlightenment, played in its evolution.
In his book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Samuel Huntington argues that individualism is the most important Western value and one not often present in other civilizations. He concludes that Western values have always been more prevalent in the West. “At most these values were not unique to the West, but the combination of them was.” Murray agreed that so-called Western values may be universal — which would seem an argument for returning them to other civilizations — but they have only been adopted in the West.
The historian Dalrymple was more comfortable commenting on the West’s dark history, than dwelling on the inconsequential present. For Dalrymple Western values were equivalent to the Holocaust. Indeed colonial genocide, Nazism and Marxism were “not freak departures from form,” they were rather the logical consequences of Western — or universal — values. In contrast Ramadan and Glass were happy to discuss the West’s recent history, which they summed up as Abu Ghraib, torture, extraordinary rendition, and, curiously, the mistreatment of immigrants.
IT MAY BE ARGUED that Western Civilization did indeed produce Hitler, Ulbricht, Franco, Mussolini, Stalin, Milosevic and Ceausecsu, but the free West also defeated them. Huntington at least would reject the notion that the last three dictators were in any real sense “Western.” He maintains that Eastern Orthodox nations of southeastern and Eastern Europe constitute a distinct “Euro-Asiatic civilization.” Though European and Christian, these nations were but minimally effected by the cultural influences of the Renaissance. As for Hitler and Ulbricht, the German has never shown much respect for individualism. Most important, these dictators could only flourish by completely crushing Western values. Like Islam, none of these dictators allowed for the West’s two key values: self-criticism and individualism.
Granted, the West is no Utopia, and it has seen its share of excesses (My Lai and Abu Ghraib), though these are seen as blots on our name, not good policy. If William Calley got off with a slap on the wrist, Abu Ghraib veteran U.S. Army reservist Charles Graner received 10 years and his “ex-girlfriend” Lynndie England was sentenced to three years in a naval brig.
The ultimate irony, of course, is that such free exchange of ideas could only take place in a Western country. That in itself should prove the superiority of Western values. In the end the audience seemed to agree, as 465 audience members voted in favor of the motion, 264 against; a sign perhaps that the intellectual elite in Britain may be slowly rousing itself from a half-century slumber.
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