The legendary Ibn Warraq is my dear friend. I decided to review his new and very excellent book Why the West is Best: A Muslim Apostate’s Defense of Liberal Democracy and to interview him here as well.
But let’s be clear from the outset. I am reviewing his book not because he is my friend. Rather, he is my friend because he writes great and important books. He is someone with whom I can share serious and witty conversations; he may very well be the best-read man I know. His familiarity with a vast array of fields is truly astounding and a great consolation (at least to me) in our world of apps and pads and short attention spans. He is supremely knowledgeable about philosophy, Islamic and Western art, music, theater, architecture, and literature, both sacred and secular.
I view Ibn Warraq as the intellectual leader of the global anti-Islamist/anti-jihadic dissident movement. He knows and supports everyone doing anti-jihad work.
As his friend, I know Ibn Warraq as a shy and rather humble man; occasionally mournful, touchingly private. He can, miraculously, be an Indian, a Frenchman, an Englishman, and a quintessential American, at any hour of the day. He inhabits all these identities. He commands many centuries of knowledge. Whatever language he may be speaking, whatever country he may be in, Ibn Warraq is mainly at home in the world of ideas. He dresses indifferently, not foppishly. He often wears a hat the way men of my father’s generation did. If you don’t stop him, he will absent-mindedly wander over to any nearby bookshelf or bookstall and immediately begin reading.
Now, on to the review, or rather, to the homage due this scholar-warrior.
Ibn Warraq has written a bracing, definitive, scholarly, masterful, unapologetic, and possibly redemptive defense of Western values. It is a rallying cry for an Islamic “Enlightenment,” not merely a “Reformation,” but one which will never happen unless Westerners engage in the most spirited defense of Western freedoms.
In Why the West is Best, Ibn Warraq urges us to “defend these rights without compromise and without fear of hurting the feelings” of potentially friendly Muslim countries or of angry Islamic terrorists. Westerners must not self-censor or censor and must not allow “barbaric laws from 7th century Arabia” to supersede Western freedom. We must end our failed policies of multicultural relativism, anti-Americanism, and anti-Westernism which have led to the most profound, possibly suicidal crisis. Indeed, this is the best way we can strengthen our like-minded allies who are trapped in theologically fundamentalist Muslim countries.
The book is not boring. It is unexpectedly charming. But it is also a riveting read.
Ibn Warraq engages in a fearless discussion of non-western — including Islamic — nations’ long histories of racism, colonialism, imperialism, slavery, and gender and religious apartheid. This history has been omitted from textbooks, in both the East and the West. The East remains unrepentant but is neither blamed nor held accountable for these crimes; the West has fought and won wars to end slavery and has withdrawn from its former colonies. It has also steadily granted freedom and rights to both women and minorities. Nevertheless, leading Western intellectuals continue to blame only the West, never the East.
Why the West is Best is both eye-opening and radical. For example, Ibn Warraq teaches us that racism is not only confined to the West but is a world-wide plague which operates in Asia (Japan, China) India, Africa, and the Middle East. He documents the fact that Islamic Jew hatred existed in Mohammed’s time, that historically, Muslims have used the Qu’ran to justify their ceaseless persecution of Jews (and other infidels), and that such Judeophobia preceded the founding of the Jewish state thirteen centuries later; that black Africans and Arabs were more involved in the global slave trade than the Western powers; and that in the short period of time in which England colonized India, it prepared the country to become a modern democratic state. Ibn Warraq compares this to the very long colonization of India by Islam which led to the slaughter of 80 million Hindus and to the complete erasure of India’s (and for that matter, Turkey’s and Persia’s) non-Islamic past. Only Westerners lovingly restored Christian, Pagan, Buddhist, and Zoroastrian temples and only Westerners taught the people to honor rather than to erase their past glories.
Most important, Ibn Warraq describes the “mind-set” of most Muslims as intolerant, self-pitying, stagnant, and trained to blame others for their own failures. He also sees the Muslim “mind-set” as akin to that of people trapped in totalitarian regimes. The need to control thought and to sacrifice individuality characterizes both Islamic and Marxist regimes. Thus, we understand the affinity that Western “leftists” have with reactionary Islamists. Ibn Warraq contrasts this with a Western “mind-set” which is built upon Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian, scientific, and Enlightenment foundations and is characterized by intellectual curiosity, genuine interest in the “other,” a sense of irony, the ability to engage in self-criticism, and a concern with finding the truth.
He does not view Western survival or success as due to historical imperialism, colonialism, or slavery:
The West has succeeded because of an insatiable curiosity that has fueled countless experiments and innovations. That is surely something to be proud of.
Ibn Warraq makes concrete suggestions as to what Westerners and our pro-Western allies may do. I urge that everyone read him and take his advice. Our lives, and the survival of our civilization, depend upon doing so.
I recently spoke to him about his work:
Phyllis Chesler: How do you answer the infernal accusations that because you are anti-Islam you are therefore a racist?
Ibn Warraq: I am from India, of Indian origin. Second, Islam is a religion, not a race — more and more Westerners are converting to Islam. How, then, could I possibly be considered a racist if I choose to use my constitutional rights to criticize that most criticizable of all religions, Islam? It is the duty of all those who value our Constitution and take seriously the First Amendment to criticize Islam and its non-human-rights-respecting holy book, the Koran.
PC: Why did you write this book, what do you hope it will accomplish?
IW: We have an urgent need to defend Western civilization. We, in the West in general and the United States in particular, have witnessed over the last twenty years a slow erosion of our civilizational self-confidence. Under the influence of intellectuals and academics in Western universities, and destructive intellectual fashions such as post-modernism, moral relativism, and multiculturalism, the West has lost all self-confidence in its own values, and seems incapable and unwilling to defend those values. By contrast, resurgent Islam, in all its forms, is supremely confident, and is able to exploit the West’s moral weakness and cultural confusion to demand ever more concessions from her. The growing political and demographic power of Muslim communities in the West, aided and abetted by Western apologists of Islam, not to mention a compliant, pro-Islamic USAdministration, has resulted in an ever-increasing demand for the implementation of Islamic law — the Sharia — into the fabric of Western law and Western constitutions. There is an urgent need to examine why the Sharia is totally incompatible with human rights and the US Constitution. My book proposes to examine the Sharia and its potential and actual threat to democratic principles. This book defines and defends Western values, strengths and freedoms often taken for granted. This book also tackles the taboo subjects of racism in Asian culture, Arab slavery, and Islamic imperialism.
I hope Western readers come away with some pride of the achievements of Western civilization after reading this book, and no longer have feelings of guilt for all the ills of the world, and are better prepared to defend Western values. Pride, self-confidence, and a willingness to fight for Western civilization — that is what I hope my book will instill into its readers.
PC: You begin the book by writing in depth and with both knowledge and love of New York City. Why?
IW: It begins with an 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. 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. Henry James, going up the East River, found the wide waters of New York exhilarating. But it was left to P. G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster to discover the what and why of New York:
The odd part of it was that after the first shock of seeing all this frightful energy the thing didn’t seem so strange. I’ve spoken to fellows since who have been to New York, and they tell me they found it just the same. Apparently there’s something in the air, either the ozone or the phosphates or something, which makes you sit up and take notice. A kind of zip, as it were. A sort of bally freedom, if you know what I mean, that gets in your blood and bucks you up, and makes you feel that “God’s in His Heaven: All’s right with the world,” and you don’t care if you’ve got odd socks on.
A sort of bally freedom, yes indeed.
PC: What have you just been working on in Europe?
IW: I have been trying to learn German, and have been working with my German colleagues preparing for a conference in March 2012 on the origins of Islam and the Koran. I have found the first task fiendishly difficult — a question of age and memory. I have been more successful in encouraging my colleagues to write more articles on various aspects of the Koran and the early history of Islam.
PC: What can other Muslims and ex-Muslims like yourself do now that they are trapped in increasingly totalitarian Islamist regimes in the Middle East and central Asia?
IW: Fortunately, living in the West I am not confronted with this problem in a direct way. Those secular minded Muslims living in Egypt, for example, have no short term solutions — they will have to form secular, reform-minded political parties, and slowly educate their own people on the merits of democracy, human rights, and pluralism. They will have to win through the ballot box. That, I realize, is an extremely difficult task. But I cannot see any alternative.
The ex-Muslims living in the West must continue to pressure the US administration to back democratic reforms in Islamic countries. Ex-Muslims must continue to educate the West on the iniquities of Sharia, and fight its slow imposition on the West.
PC: In Why The West is Best, you write very movingly about popular American music. What music have you been listening to lately?
IW: I have been listening to Billie Holliday singing the classics from the Great American Songbook — I found a great four-disc CD in a flea-market near where I am staying (in Germany). I also came across CDs by John Coltrane and Miles Davis, including a fairly rare one of their joint European tour.
PC: What books are you currently reading?
IW: I have almost finished a biography of William Wordsworth — not particularly well-written, unfortunately, but well-worth sticking with. I have just finished a biography of Madison by Richard Brookhiser — an intrinsically fascinating story of our fourth president. I always keep several books going at the same time: having finished several thrillers/ mysteries by Val Mcdermid and Michael Connelly, I have embarked on Tobias Smollett’s 18th century picaresque novel The Adventures of Roderick Random.
PC: Thank you.
Check out these previous Phyllis Chesler interviews with more inspiring defenders of freedom: