Why Warraq Is Right
In 1988, Salman Rushdie wrote The Satanic Verses, a novel that depicted several iconic figures of Islam in ways taken to be sacrilegious. Muslims who took affront launched a worldwide campaign of murder and mayhem.
American and British bookstores carrying the title were firebombed. The Norwegian publisher was shot. The Japanese and Italian translators were stabbed, the former fatally. And an attempt to murder the Turkish translator through arson missed its mark but claimed 37 other lives. Lest this all be taken as merely the acts of the rabble, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, ruler of Iran, the world’s first Islamic Republic, issued a fatwa enjoining all Muslims to kill Rushdie.
In the West, reactions were mixed. Many were appalled and expressed support for Rushdie, while others, such as British writers Roald Dahl and John le Carré, and former president Jimmy Carter, were equivocal and eager to affirm their respect for Islam.
But in the Muslim world, voices were less variegated. While many, no doubt, disapproved of their co-religionists’ violent reactions, defending Rushdie would have meant inviting the same threats that surrounded him. Nonetheless, one Pakistani was moved to such indignation over the whole episode that he renounced his faith and set to work on a book, Why I Am Not a Muslim, published in 1995, which was characterized by the Middle East scholar Daniel Pipes as “an astonishing provocation” that “transcends The Satanic Verses in terms of sacrilege.”
The author took the precaution of publishing pseudonymously, as Ibn Warraq, a moniker used by earlier Muslim dissenters. Without this single discretion, his life would have been forfeit, and we would not have had the benefit of his prolific additional efforts to illuminate Islam and its relations with the West, notably his powerful 2007 book, Defending the West.
Now, Ibn Warraq continues these themes in Why the West Is Best. Here he takes aim at the prevailing assumption, so effectively popularized by the late Palestinian academic Edward Said, that the woes of the world’s poorer countries are primarily the fault of the more advanced ones, thanks to imperialism and related sins. As one self-imagined wit put it, if the former are “underdeveloped” it is because someone “underdeveloped them.”
This aphorism may have a grain of truth, but not in the way the coiner intended. What “underdeveloped them” was their own cultures; and what has ameliorated their unhappy state is, precisely, contact with the West, even—so Ibn Warraq implies—the experience of conquest. “Much of what has been most valuable to the nations emerging from colonialism was bequeathed to them by the British and other European powers,” he writes. He goes so far as to hint that the colonized might have benefited further had that situation lasted longer, describing Britain’s granting of independence to his own native land as a “hasty and unseemly abandonment.”
The West’s superiority is manifold. It is “responsible for almost every major scientific discovery of the last five hundred years.” Its aesthetic contributions likewise soar above those of others. “The West has given the world the symphony and the novel,” Ibn Warraq says, adding a dig at the supposedly greater piety of the Muslim world: “A culture that engendered the spiritual creations of Mozart and Beethoven, Wagner and Schubert, of Raphael and Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Rembrandt does not need lessons in spirituality from societies whose vision of heaven resembles a cosmic brothel.”
What is the source of this multifaceted intellectual fecundity? “Western values,” says Warraq, are “clearly superior to any other set of values devised by mankind” and form “the basis of the West’s self-evident economic, social, political, scientific, and cultural success.” He lists these values as “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.” Despite their provenance in one culture, they are transmissible. “When Western values have been adopted by other societies, such as Japan or South Korea, their citizens have reaped benefits,” Warraq writes.
Critical to the West’s success has been its validation of human reason as a source of knowledge alongside revelation, its openness to criticism, and its thirst for information about what lies beyond itself. In contrast, Muslim authorities subordinated reason to faith and, as the Rushdie case exemplifies, aimed to silence critical voices. As for openness, Ibn Warraq turns Said’s argument back on itself. The latter argued that Western scholars of Islam—the eponymous “orientalists” of Said’s signature book—were stalking horses for imperialism, but Ibn Warraq takes them as examples of the intellectual superiority that makes the West so strong. A student from almost any corner of the so-called Third World could get a first-class education about his own society in various Western universities, he points out, but no Western student could get the like in any university in the Third World.
The values that grant Western superiority, according to Warraq, go deeper than political and intellectual matters to the most basic qualities of character. “The Judeo-Christian ethic introduced compassion and forgiveness,” he writes, and Christian love teaches “that our humanity is inseparable from our responsibility for others.” In the Muslim world, in contrast, he finds much darkness. He quotes with implicit approval the Egyptian renegade from the Muslim Brotherhood, Tawfik Hamid, thus:
Islamic terrorism stems from personality changes which occur in those who try to be sincere followers of their religion. These changes initially affect the relationship of a Muslim to his children, his wife and his neighbors. But the change becomes greater and greater until, at the end, a person becomes quite evil. It is not hard to understand how beating your children to force them to pray, beating your wife to discipline her, and thinking that your neighbor’s house deserves to be burned because he does not go to the mosque to pray, can become consuming dimensions in a Muslim’s personality, and part of the religious duties to be followed.
And what of the genuine sins of the West? Ibn Warraq singles out the issue of slavery for lengthy exposition. He does not excuse the West but offers a comparative perspective. “Muslim Arabs and black Africans had been enslaving other human beings for centuries before the white man arrived in Africa,” he writes; and slavery endures among those peoples today, more than a century after it was abolished in the West.
True enough, but there are other items to be charged against the West that Ibn Warraq does not tackle and for which no such ready answers are available. Above all, there are Communism and Nazism. One could make the point that Communism was a Russian invention, and perhaps one could argue that Russia was not really part of the West. But however easterly in geography and however Asiatic, Russia was nonetheless Christian, the essence of “Westernness.” And Lenin, though the birth mother of Communism, carried to term the embryo that had been implanted by Marx and Engels, consummate Westerners whose letters to each other playfully intermingled English, French, and German. Then, following Lenin, came Hitler and his millions of delirious German followers. You can call him and them many things, but not non-Western. To this account must be added two other monstrosities of Western contrivance, namely the two world wars. Warraq does not tackle the vexing question of how a culture that gave rise to most of what is good in the world also produced such evil.
The foil to which Warraq compares the West is sometimes Islam and sometimes the non-Western world writ large, and these seem to alternate without clear enough explanation. Another problem is that he locates the source of the Third World’s failures sometimes in doctrine and sometimes in practice. One wishes for more guidance about why at one moment we are discussing the one, and at another moment the other.
Whatever the book’s shortcomings, large or small, these are overshadowed by its powerful achievement. It takes an important truth that is blindingly obvious but that almost no one dares to say and says it with brio, eloquence, and erudition. Unlike the aftermath of Why I Am Not a Muslim, no one is likely to seek Ibn Warraq’s death for Why the West Is Best. But it, too, is a work of considerable courage.