By Jamie Glazov On December 16, 2011:
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.
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