Reviewed by: Michael Kravshik.
At first glance the title of this book caught my attention. Why the West is Best: A Muslim Apostate’s Defence of Liberal Democracy, is obviously seen by many groups as highly contentious, and therefore sparked my interest. The author Ibn Warraq, labeling himself a Muslim apostate (which he most certainly is), is without apology as he intensely attacks the concept of cultural relativism. The book is bold, honest, and at times quite harsh, especially so for anyone who has not seriously contested the multicultural world-view we are submersed in (at least here in Canada). In all honesty, I thought that I was going to get a content-lacking read that points out some of the obvious benefits of Western society, and maybe a few anecdotes. However, I was pleasantly surprised when I found myself highlighting a large portion of the book for future review. Warraq has provided a plethora of historical context and adds some excellent analysis, which results in him not only explaining why he believes the west is the best, but also why it turned out that way. To accomplish this he provides a thorough description of what he see as the differences between both Western and Eastern (Islamic, Sinic, Indian, etc…) cultures, as well as a deep investigation into the historical underpinnings of those differences.
The introduction labeled “The Superiority of Western Values in Eight Minutes,” is a quick overview of the many accomplishments of Western culture. These few pages were a real reminder of how amazing our society is, and the universal goodness of the virtues that make up its foundation. He spares no time exalting the magnificent diversity in Western culture for everything including art, music, literature, and most importantly opinion. I must plead with all potential readers to push through the first chapter, as I almost put the book down halfway through. In hindsight, I am extremely grateful that I waded just a few pages into the second. Warraq discusses aspects of the West’s cultural ancestors, including Greek, Roman, and Judeo-Christian culture that have all influenced what it has become today. One of his major arguments is that cultural mindsets have been conditioned by thousands of years of “cultural evolution” (a term he doesn’t use, but t thought seemed apt). He maintains that the differences in the modern cultures of the East and the West can be linked back quite distinctly to their philosophical foundations and the change (or lack thereof) since those foundations were laid. The book concludes with a discussion of some of the dangers to Western culture in the present day, and how to best defend against them.
There were certainly aspects of his analysis that I disagreed with, and I think no matter who the reader is, that will be the case. I especially found his discussion of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel to be a little lacking in its defense of his criticisms, but at the end of the day he does not entirely dispute Diamonds conclusions. It is also not a ‘statistics-heavy’ read and I would almost call it more of a philosophical book, both historical and modern. He focuses on conceptual issues and gauges their effects through the resulting influence those concepts had on either Eastern or Western cultures. That being said, the analysis he does provide, and the historical facts he lays out surrounding his major points are quite thorough and enlightening. Overall, the major concepts are well defended and most of my criticisms can be said to be minor. In addition, he brought up quite a few arguments that are rarely discussed in the debates on cultural relativism.
Warraq himself is a very contentious figure. Having been born in Pakistan and educated in the UK, Warraq is in a good position to critically assess the differences of Western and Eastern culture. Ibn Warraq is not actually his name, since in his own words, “I had a fear to become the second Salman Rushdie.” For years he has stayed out of the public eye to try and avoid any violent repercussions of his writings, but recently has taken part in some public debates. This book is his eighth, and most of his work surrounds the differences between West and East, and the Muslim world. He gained notability with his first book Why I am Not a Muslim, and has been pursued by both high praise and heavy criticism since. I give Mr. Warraq credit for truly living the virtues he supports by putting his own safety on the line to support them, something that is quite rare.
My overall analysis of this book is that the facts he presents are not really all that controversial. The controversy seems to flow only from his conclusions. Unfortunately for those who criticize his conclusions, they follow quite well from the uncontroversial facts he presents. It seems as though the book is really only contested because it does not align with the popular concept of cultural relativism. Warraq is defending the ideology of Westernism (as I have defined it), although not using that word, and makes the case that this ideology has created the best humanity has to offer (at least so far). I tend to agree, and for that reason alone I would recommend this book. Especially to any who disagree.
To report your faith or revelation to someone else is not to give him what you have, as you do when you show him your evidence or give him your arguments – Thomas Paine (quoted in Why the West is Best)
The rest of the world recognizes the virtues of the West in concrete ways. As Arthur Schlesinger remarked, “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.” – Ibn Warraq in Why the West is Best