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Friday, 13 June 2008

We should not be afraid to assert the superiority of Western values

This is the text of a speech given by Ibn Warraq, the author of, amongst other things, Why I am Not A Muslim, as part of a discussion of the significance of Western values in London on 09 October 2007. He was opposed by, amongst others, Charles Glass and Tariq Ramadan, but his opening statement was outstanding, and once he had finished, the argument was all but over. The full step-by-step point and rebuttal, followed by questions from the audience, can be obtained from the Spectator website.


We should not be afraid to assert the superiority of Western values

Ibn Warraq – October 09 2007

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 civilisation, remain the best and perhaps the only means for all people, no matter what race or creed, to reach their full potential and live in freedom.

That is why Western values, on which its self evident economic, social, political, scientific and cultural success is based, are clearly superior to any other devised by humankind. However, when these values have been adopted by other societies, similar benefits have accrued to its citizens, as in Japan and South Korea. Liberty, the second great panel in the triptych, is also an immense human idea. It is embodied in the magnificent creation of human rights.

Human rights are, I believe, universal. They transcend local or ethnocentric values, and confer equal dignity and value to all humanity, regardless of sex, ethnicity, sexual preferences and religion. I also believe it is in the West that they are most respected; it is the West that has liberated women, racial minorities, religious minorities, gays and lesbians, to an extent unimaginable sixty years ago. It is in the West that their rights are recognised and defended. In the West we are free to think what we want, to read what we want, to practice our religion, to live lives of our own choosing. The notions of human rights and freedom were, I believe [there], the dawn of Western civilization, as ideals at least, and [they were] further developed during the Enlightenment, but are only now coming to fruition in the twenty-first century, as a result of a series of supreme acts of self-criticism. [These were] acts of self-criticism that led to greater freedom for a greater number of people.

It was the West that took steps to abolish slavery. The calls for the abolition of slavery did not resonate in black Africa, where rival African tribes took black prisoners to be sold in the West. By contrast, stoning to death someone for adultery is a clear violation of the human rights of the individuals concerned. Punishments, laws concerning inheritance, and the rights of women prescribed by the Sharia’h Islamic law also flagrantly violate the human rights of individuals. Under [Sharia’h] Islamic law, women are not free to marry whom they wish, homosexuals are killed, apostates are to be executed. The Koran is not a rights-respecting document.

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, define succinctly the attractiveness and superiority of Western civilisation. 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 of Human Rights.

This desire for knowledge, no matter where it leads, inherited from the Greeks, has led to another institution that is unequalled, or very rarely equalled outside the West – the University. Here the outside world recognises this superiority. It comes to the West to learn not only about 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 civilisation 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 the third world countries.

A culture that gave the world the spiritual creations of classical music, of Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner and Schubert, the paintings of Michelangelo, 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 […..]

To paraphrase Alan Coors, 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 of 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, in contrast to the mind-numbing certainties and rules of Islam, Western civilisation offers what Russell once called liberating doubt, which leads to the methodological principles of scientific scepticism. Politics, as much as science, proceeds by tentative steps of trial and error, open discussion, criticism and self-correction. One could characterise the difference between the West and the rest as a difference is epistemological principles. Western institutions such as universities, research institutes and libraries are at least ideally independent academies which enshrine these epistemological norms and where the pursuit of truth is conducted in a spirit of disinterested enquiry, free from political pressures.

In other words, behind the success of modern Western societies, with their science and technology and their open institutions, lies a distinct way of looking at the world, interpreting it and the recognition and rectifying of the problems besetting them. Problems are lifted out of the religious sphere and treated as empirical problems whose solutions lie in rational procedures and open to rational [inter]subjective criticism, not in appeal to revelation.

The whole edifice of modern science and its methodology is one of Western man’s greatest gifts to the world. But the West did not only give us just about every scientific discovery for the last five hundred years, from electricity to computers, but gave us, thanks to its humanitarian impulses, the Red Cross, Doctors without Frontiers or Borders, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. It is the West that provides the bulk of the aid to beleaguered Darfur. Islamic countries are conspicuous by their absence.

The West does not need lectures on the superior virtue of societies in which women are kept in subjection, endure genital mutilation, are stoned to death for alleged adultery, have acid thrown on their faces, are married off against their will at the age of nine, or where the human rights of those who are considered to belong to lower castes are denied.

The West does not need sanctimonious homilies from societies that cannot provide clean drinking water for its citizens, that cannot provide sewage systems, that cannot educate its citizens to within forty to fifty per cent literacy, that makes no provisions for the handicapped, from societies that have no sense of the common good, civic duty, civic responsibility, and civic accountability, from societies that are riddled with corruption.

Moreover, the rest of the world recognises the superiority of the West. It is to the West that refugees from theocratic, totalitarian regimes flee, appreciating the West’s tolerance and political freedom. Millions risk their lives trying to get to the West, not to Saudi Arabia, or Iran or Pakistan.

[Also], no Western politician would be able to get away with the kind of racist remarks made by [Mohammed Mahathir] the Malaysian leader. No Western politician could survive in office; there would be calls for his or her resignation from third world leaders themselves, but also Western media and other intellectuals.

Yet we tolerate Mahathir’s anti-Semitic diatribes – double standards? Yes, but also a tacit acknowledgement that we expect higher ethical standards from the West. There are no jokes in Islam, as Ayatollah Khomeini once famously said. The West is able to look at its foibles and laugh, to make fun of its fundamental principles, but there is no equivalent as yet of Monty Python’s “Life of Brian.” Can we look forward to the “Life of Mo?” or – “Half a Mo?”

Finally, when Chinese students cried and died for democracy in Tiananmen Square, they brought with them not representations of Confucius, or Buddha, but a model of the Statue of Liberty.

Thank you.

Ibn Warraq - October 09, 2007

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