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West Is As West Does

“[A] war has been declared upon Western societies. It is mistaken to view the events of 11 September solely as a war on America. It was an act of war in America, on the West,” writes Anne McElvoy in the Independent. The statement/theme, or variations upon it, is being shouted from the rooftops, by politicians, media people, scholars and commentators, liberals and conservatives, right-wingers and social democrats; out-and-out racists, bible-thumping televangelists and pro-lifers no less vehemently than strictly p.c. feminists, gay rights activists and militant vegetarians. Thoroughly interchangeable with the West have been two old but robustly born again self- designations: “the civilised world” and “the free world.”

So not only did Bin Laden allegedly bring down the “Soviet Empire,” he has now also achieved what that empire in all its nuclear might was unable to do in many decades: he has recreated the “West” as a coherent, cohesive monolith in which left-wing liberals such as Ms McElvoy can bask in the identity, values and civilisation they share not only with Tony Blair and Gerhard Schroeder, but also with George W Bush, Silvio Berlusconi and — why not? they’re “Western” too — the manifold White supremacists, Paki-bashers and Neo-Nazi skinheads who, indeed, have been prophetic in their warnings of the dire threat the non-Western world poses to the West.

Credited with so much power, it is little wonder that the Saudi millionaire’s interviews read as the ravings of a megalomaniac.

So attached is Ms McElvoy to her “war against the West” thesis that she makes a clumsy and transparent attempt at bluffing her way to proving it. The target, the World Trade Center, is apparently sufficient proof to McElvoy that the terrorists’ evil design was directed not at the US alone, but at the West as a whole. Why? Because it housed people from many different nationalities, she writes in complete seriousness. She skims, however, over the obvious corollary to her argument, which is that these “different nationalities” were all “Western.” I don’t have access to a civilisational breakdown of the thousands of men and women who were heartlessly murdered in the twin towers of the World Trade Center, but I would be very interested to find out how Ms McElvoy would have gone about making such a distribution. For instance, we know that some 100 British nationals were killed in the attack; how many of them, one has to wonder, were of South Asian origin (including turbaned/bearded Sikhs and clean-shaven Muslims)? Are they to be categorised as Western or non-Western? Is a third-generation Briton of Indian origin Western or non-Western?

And what of African Americans? White Anglo-Saxons may (however improbably) trace their “Western origins” back to the Ancient Greeks — who actually belonged to a Mediterranean civilisational bloc, which was even then in close and constant contact with other civilisational blocs in east Africa and south and east Asia. If she thinks about it, McElvoy will discover that, despite their contribution to “Western” American culture, the “Western” roots of African Americans may plausibly be traced back merely to the ’60s and ’70s of the last century — a dubious privilege they won, paradoxically, by reclaiming their African heritage. And take the Jews. Notwithstanding Marx, Freud and Einstein (the very hallmarks of modern Western civilisation), “Western societies” slaughtered six million Jews before affording them the privilege of being constructed as “Western” — and then only in conjunction with the creation of the state of Israel, through which Jewish colonists in Palestine proved that a Jew could be as “Western” as the next man. He too could plunder, dispossess and subjugate a de- humanised “non-Western” population.

Define “Western.” It is not race, God forbid, though there are still a great many people in “Western societies” — not least in Mr Berlusconi’s government — who would argue otherwise. Clearly, it can no longer be defined in Cold War terms — Western democracies versus the “totalitarianism” of the Eastern Soviet system. Ah, but what of Western culture, and even more significantly, Western values? This, surely, is fine and dandy, especially if one refrains from such faux pas as the Italian prime minister’s confidence in “the superiority of our civilisation” over the Muslim one. But here is the rub: Western values, it is widely accepted by almost everybody (including both Berlusconi and Bin Laden), entail such things as democracy and human rights, the emancipation and equality of women, secularism, reason and tolerance.

Do they now? Perhaps Messrs Bush, Blair, Chirac and Schroeder (who resolutely and hysterically refused to proffer an apology for slavery and colonialism) would explain to the less fortunate non-Westerners among us where these Western values were during the plunder of Africa and the enslavement of millions of its people. And what of the overthrow of the elected governments of Mosadegh in Iran, Sukarno in Indonesia and Allende in Chile, to name but a few of the more grisly examples? What of the vicious dictatorships the “West” put in place, bolstered and supported there and throughout the “non-Western” world?

Where were Western values when millions of people in the non-Western world were killed and tortured by Western-government-sponsored butchers and villains such as the Shah of Iran, Indonesia’s Suharto or Zaire’s Mobutu? And what of the napalming and murder of two million Vietnamese, or the bitter irony of Western support for Pol Pot’s bloodthirsty brand of “communism”?

And what of Francism, Fascism and Nazism — why are they not products of “Western civilisation” as well? Does McElvoy know that the Muslim Brothers (the fountainhead from which today’s militant Islamists can trace their beginnings) started their political life in the late 1920s as “brown shirts,” that they drew inspiration and ideological sustenance from that particular brand of Western civilisation?

“Berlusconi and civilisation do not mix,” was the title of a devastating Leader published by the Guardian on 28 September. Mr Berlusconi, said the leader, “is living proof that there is nothing inherently superior about western civilisation.” It went on to describe the Italian prime minister as a megalomaniac “who has compared himself with Justinian, Napoleon and Jesus,” a politician who was twice convicted of corruption and who has brought post-fascist and racist parties into his coalitions. All in all, the Italian premier has proven a grave embarrassment from whom various Western leaders have hastened to disassociate themselves. But one has to wonder whether he was merely saying what many others, including such liberal-minded people as McElvoy, are too ashamed (consciously or unconsciously) to express openly. Because if such things as democracy, rationalism, human rights and women’s equality are to be hailed as exclusively and/or essentially Western values, it is only natural for those who uphold them to consider Western civilisation to be superior to other civilisations that do not.

It so happens, however, that we — in the non-Western world — have a life-and- death stake in the struggle for democracy and human rights. Bin Laden and his cohorts are not a function of an inherent hatred of democracy by “Islamic civilisation,” but of its increasing obliteration at the hands of “Western”-driven capitalist globalisation. CP

Hani Shukrallah writes for the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Weekly, where this column originally appeared.

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