Western culture: good or bad?

Western culture: good or bad?

19th August 2009, Comments 0 comments

What does the Islamic world really think about the West? Dutch specialist in Arabic and Arab affairs, Robbert Woltering decided to devote his dissertation to this question.

It appears that far from all Islamic thinkers see the West as the root of all evil.
"Why do they hate us?" was the question that resounded in the United States in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. But does the assumption underlying this question ring true? Is the West really the object of so much hatred in the Islamic world?
While studying Arabic at the University of Amsterdam, Robbert Woltering learned to look with a critical eye at the Western representation of Islam. But to his surprise, he discovered that very little research had been done into its opposite: the representation of the West in the Muslim World. He decided the time was ripe to devote a PhD research project to the topic. "Given the times we're living in, it seemed like a very relevant subject to investigate."
The diabolical West

In the 1970s, Palestinian writer Edward Said caused a genuine revolution in Middle East scholarship with his book Orientalism. Said argued that the Western image of what he referred to as "the Orient" was permeated by the desire to rule over that part of the world: the West was represented as enlightened, rational and democratic, while the Orient was described as backward, irrational and tyrannical.


 Burqa-clad Afghan women sit in a vehicle as they watch policemen at a checkpoint on the Kandahar-Kabul highway on 15 August 2009

In the writings of Islamists such as Sayyid Qutb and Mohammed Imara, Woltering found a mirror image of Said's orientalism. "Just as certain orientalists do with Islam, they describe a West that in essence, from the very depths of its being, is hostile towards Islam. Qutb and Imara argue that Islam is in danger and that Muslims have to guard against the threat from the West."
Western modernity

But Woltering discovered a far greater diversity of images of the West in the Middle East, and that furiously anti-Western images were certainly not the rule. Despite frustration at Western domination, the Muslim world also harbours a widely held desire to adopt Western science, democracy and human rights.

The 19th century modernist author Mohammed Abduh speaks to this desire by arguing that the West is in fact Islamic. "Abduh argues that the West came into contact with Islamic civilisation during the Crusades. The knowledge and culture absorbed at that time led to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment in Europe.

And ultimately to the economic and political success we see today." According to Abduh, Muslims need not feel uneasy about taking their cue from Western modernity, since this modernity ultimately has its roots in Islam.
However, Abduh stops well short of suggesting that the Islamic world should become secular, like Europe, explains Woltering. "He argues that in Europe all that scientific knowledge could only flourish because people cast off the constricting influence of religion. But in the Islamic world, Abduh maintains, there was no need for this since Islam is a rational religion which, unlike Christianity, can be readily combined with scientific thinking."

Palestinian mourners carry the body of Mohammed al-Shamali, the Hamas military chief for southern Gaza, during his funeral in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on 15 August 2009 a day after clashes between Hamas and a radical Islamist sect

The ideal West

In addition to the diabolical West of radical Islamists such as Qutb and the Islamic West of modernists such as Abduh, Woltering identifies a third prominent image, that of the ideal West: "Liberal-secular thinkers such as the Egyptian author Rida Hilal believe that the West is essentially good. And by this goodness they mean the Western ideals of critical thought, democracy and human rights."

At the same time, Woltering observes great dissatisfaction among liberal thinkers about Western politics in the Middle East, most noticeably the support for Israel and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: "The problem with the Western world according to such authors is essentially its failure to put its own ideals into practice. For instance, Rida Hilal says that all the United States has to do to solve the crisis in the Middle East is to live according to its own principles."

Michel Hoebink
Radio Netherlands

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