How Muslims View the West
How do the differing mindsets of Westerners and Muslims explain tensions between the two groups?
- The most dangerous conflicts in the world are those between any two forces that believe equally strongly that virtue is on their side and the other represents the face of evil.
- Many Muslim intellectuals would also assert that it would be disingenuous for the West not to take some — if not a lot — of the responsibility for the fate of Islamic societies.
- Secretly, many Westerners also believed that the inability of Islamic societies to separate religion from the state and embrace secularism was corrosive.
What went wrong? This is where the Western and Islamic narratives diverge completely. In the Western narrative, once the Europeans ended their colonial rule of Islamic territories, from Morocco to Indonesia, they were no longer responsible for their future.
The failure of most Islamic countries (with the possible exception of Turkey, Malaysia, and Indonesia) to successfully modernize (like, say, Japan or South Korea) only reflected the internal cultural weaknesses of Islamic societies. Secretly, many Westerners also believed that the inability of Islamic societies to separate religion from the state and embrace secularism was corrosive.
They were privately critical of the treatment of women in Islamic societies. The continuation of feudal monarchies and social systems, especially in some Arab societies, was believed to be responsible for the failure of Islamic societies to develop. The Islamic world failed in the absence of the West’s guiding influence.
Many Muslim intellectuals are ready to take responsibility for their own failure to develop. In three Arab Human Development Reports produced by the UN Development Program between 2002 and 2004, several Arab intellectuals pointed to their own failures.
The 2002 report is openly critical of the performance of Arab regimes in many areas. It faults those regimes for allowing three interrelated deficits to develop — freedom, knowledge and gender.
For example, the report explains, “If development is understood as ‘a process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy,’ then the challenge of human development, calculated to include variables associated with various forms of instrumental freedom, remains a real one for over 90% of the Arab population.”
But many Muslim intellectuals would also assert that it would be disingenuous for the West not to take some — if not a lot — of the responsibility for the fate of Islamic societies. Many of the feudal regimes that the Western intellectuals criticize, from Morocco to Saudi Arabia, are kept in office at least in part through Western support.
The West has promoted democracy everywhere except in the Islamic world. The West may not exert a direct colonial influence, but its influence is palpable nonetheless. It can rise up or overthrow a regime — it is neocolonial. At least many Muslims believe this to be the case.
The growing conviction among Muslims of the malevolent intentions of the West toward the Islamic world has been strongly reinforced by several Western actions since the end of the Cold War. Many Muslims now believe that the West, for all of its respect for the sanctity of human life (which is reflected in the abolition of the death penalty by the European Union), shows scant concern when innocent Muslim civilians are killed.
The United States launched a huge global furor in 1983, when the Soviet Union downed a Korean civilian airliner, yet it showed little remorse when the U.S. Navy guided-missile-cruiser USS Vincennes downed an Iranian civilian airliner in 1988 in the Gulf.
Muslims will also mention the initial silence of the West when Muslim citizens were slaughtered in Bosnia (and Dutch soldiers actually handed over young Muslim men to be immediately killed by Serbian warlords). They remember too the launch of cruise missiles into Afghanistan in 1998 in retaliation for the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The U.S. attack did not kill Osama bin Laden but twenty-one Afghan civilians.
However, it has been the great indifference to the loss of Muslim civilian lives in the Middle East that has now firmly convinced Muslims that in the eyes of the West, Muslim lives do not matter. Since the American invasion of Iraq in March 2003, almost 50,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed. Many were the victims of fellow Iraqis, but after the American invasion the United States was perceived to be responsible for the fate of Iraq.
The 2006 massive Israeli assault against the Lebanese population and infrastructure in response to the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers — leading to the severe loss of Lebanese civilian lives — served to reinforce the notion that in the Western moral calculus, the loss of Muslim lives is unimportant.
This is dangerous. It explains why few Muslims felt any real sympathy for America when it lost 3,000 civilian lives on 9/11. Indeed many celebrated the event, believing that it was a just retribution for years of American indifference to the loss of Muslim lives.
The most dangerous conflicts in the world are those between any two forces that believe equally strongly that virtue is on their side and the other represents the face of evil. The West sees only its own virtues — it cannot understand the hatred it has generated in the Islamic world.
The Muslim world can only feel its own victimization at the hands of Western power — it cannot understand why it is held responsible for creating a more violent and dangerous world.
Editor’s Note: This feature is adapted from The New Asian Hemisphere, by Kishore Mahbubani. Copyright 2008 Kishore Mahbubani. Reprinted with permission of the author.