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Is the West really the best?
(Filed: 30/09/2001)

Silvio Berlusconi's comments about Western superiority attracted a barrage of criticism, but there can be no real comparison between representive democracies and Muslim theocracies, says Alasdair Palmer.

SILVIO BERLUSCONI'S comments about Western superiority attracted a barrage of criticism, but there can be no real comparison between representive democracies and Muslim theocracies, says Alasdair Palmer.

Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister, has brought down a torrent of international condemnation on his head for his now infamous comments that "we [in the West] must be aware of the superiority of our civilisation, a system that has guaranteed well-being, respect for human rights and - in contrast with Islamic countries - respect for religious and political rights". He added that he felt that "Islamic civilisation is stuck where it was 1,400 years ago".

Mr Berlusconi's remarks were insensitive, particularly at a time when the West is trying to build a coalition with Islamic countries to fight terrorism by Islamic fundamentalists. He was predictably forced to apologise, although he apologised only for upsetting Muslims. He did not retract his opinion.

Still, while recognising that it was an inappropriate time for Berlusconi to say such things, many people in Britain, Europe and America will secretly agree with him.

It is not just that the European cultural tradition has a richness and variety - from painters such as Michelangelo and Picasso, to the music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi and Wagner - that Islamic cultures cannot match.

It is also that extreme fundamentalist Islamic regimes, such as that of Afghanistan, are an affront to civilisation. Women are treated as little better than beasts of burden; they are denied education, property, and even medical treatment.

They are stoned to death if they are discovered committing adultery. Their inferiority is enshrined in law, and their testimony in a court of law is worth half that of a man.

It is a capital offence to convert to Christianity or Judaism. Men and women have no political rights, there is no possibility of free speech and the country has been impoverished, indeed economically destroyed by the mullahs' insistence on forcing obedience to Islamic law in every minute detail.

The horrible persecution of the people of Afghanistan by their Taliban rulers has become the public face of Islam in the West. That persecution is not, of course, the essence of Islam itself, or indeed any necessary part of it - any more than was the regime of Ayotallah Khomeini in Iran. (Khomeini, in between stoning adulterers and burying other offenders alive, banned chess and musical instruments as "an offence against God".)

Nevertheless, it is a notable fact that even Islamic regimes that are avowedly not fundamentalist remain places that do not enshrine the values that, in the Western democracies, we regard as essential to an acceptable society.

It is difficult to think of an Islamic state governed by what we in the West would recognise as the rule of law, for instance, or based around the separation of powers of the legislative and executive functions of government, or that separates church from state, that tolerates dissent, accepts as fundamental the notion of a "loyal opposition" and that recognises that every individual has the right to live as he or she chooses, providing he or she does not harm anyone else in doing so.

Even the "nicer" Islamic states are, in the main, one-party regimes. They are not liberal democracies, and they are not places in which those brought up on Western values would like to live. Islamic countries are neither as economically prosperous nor as politically advanced as Britain, America, or most of the countries of mainland Europe.

All citizens are not equal before the law: women are of inferior status to men. Punishments are often barbarously violent. There is very little individual liberty, and there is often no freedom of religion at all.

In that limited sense, it is difficult to deny that Berlusconi is right: Western societies are politically better than Islamic ones. That of course does not mean that citizens of Western countries are superior to Islamic people, or that they are somehow morally better: a quick glance at the history of this century, from Auschwitz to Srebrenica (where 8,000 unarmed Muslims were massacred by Christians), will show that Christians yield to no one when it comes to a willingness to wade knee-deep in the blood and bones of their enemies.

But the point remains: the secular societies of the West are more tolerant, more prosperous and more dynamic, and place more emphasis on respecting and preserving individual liberty, than any of their Islamic counterparts.

That fact is not one which has escaped Muslim leaders. In the period after the First World War, which saw the final dissolution of the Islamic Ottoman empire - it had backed the German side - many Islamic thinkers started to wonder why Europe seemed to have forged ahead so decisively.

The gap between the two civilisations in terms of technology was indisputable, but the differences in law and politics, and the attitude of governments to the rights of their populations, was hardly less noticeable.

In what had been the heartland of the Ottoman empire - Turkey - there was a secular revolution led by Kemal Ataturk, who tried to transform the country on Western lines. Many other Islamic countries were tempted to follow suit, including Iraq, Iran and Egypt.

Europe's technological superiority was extremely difficult for Muslims to accept. After all, Islam led the West technologically and in terms of political power for hundreds of years after its foundation in the seventh century by Mohammed. In the eighth century, it seemed a serious possibility that Islam might conquer all of Europe.

As the historian Edward Gibbon noted in the 18th century, by 732, Islam had conquered from Baghdad to the north of Spain, and was raiding as far north as the Loire. "The Arabian fleet might have sailed without a naval combat into the mouth of the Thames," he added. "Perhaps the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mohammed."

That did not happen. Gibbon thought it was entirely due to the "genius and fortune of one man", Charles Martel, to whom Europe's Christian clergy "are indebted for their present existence".

Today's historians do not agree with Gibbon about the importance of Charles Martel, but whatever the explanation for Islam's defeat by Martel's army at the battle of Tours, the fact is that, for at least the next 400 years, Latin Christendom was indebted to the Islamic Caliphates for most of the intellectual developments that took place in Christian countries: Islamic philosophers such as Averroes and Avicenna introduced their Christian counterparts to the learning of the ancient world, Islamic doctors provided medical insights to Christian doctors, and Islamic mathematicians developed algebra and helped European mathematicians recognise and develop the mathematically critical notion of zero.

Islamic armies destroyed the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Ottomans drove the Venetians out of the eastern Mediterranean, conquered Byzantium, Greece and the Balkans, invaded Hungary and besieged Vienna.

The Ottoman system of "enlightened despotism" seemed to have achieved power, peace and stability in regions where Europeans had found it impossible to do so, and was eagerly, and enviously, studied by Western political and social thinkers.

Then the balance suddenly seemed to change. Islam appeared to stagnate, while Europe moved into economic and political "take-off", developing technologically and politically. Islam seemed to look backwards, to the golden age of the Prophet and the Koran, rather than forwards. Many Islamic clerics, then as now, seemed to think that the problem with Islam was that it was not sufficiently "stuck where it was 1,400 years ago".

They abhorred the drift towards secularisation and irreligion that they saw, perhaps rightly, as the fundamental characteristic of European and American society. Western democracies are indeed thoroughly secular. Islamic societies are not.

The process of secularisation that took place in Europe in the three centuries after the Continent had been soaked in blood by a series of religious wars produced states based around the idea that, whatever God thinks about any given policy, it cannot be made the basis of political decisions on whether or not to implement it.

By contrast, Islamic societies are, in aspiration at least, theocracies. They hope to follow God's word, which is thought to be decisive on all political questions. A theocracy - which is what Islamic clergy would like every Islamic society to be - cannot be a liberal democracy, because the views of "the people" cannot be taken to be more important than the voice of God.

The conflict between a secular and a theocratic view of politics and the state lies at the heart of the conflict - if such there is - between Western societies and those of Islam. It is not an issue on which there is much room for compromise.

29 September 2001: Berlusconi makes guarded apology over interview
28 September 2001: Islam is inferior, says Berlusconi

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External links  
Muslim Council of Britain