Islam Is Part of “The West”

Depiction of Socrates by a Seljuk illustrator from a 13th century Arabic manuscript. Topkapi Palace Library, Istanbul, Turkey. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Whether or not “the West” actually exists, enough scholars have written about it, from those critical of it like Edward Said to those defending it like Samuel Huntington, and enough digital ink has been spilled by journalists seeking to conveniently lump America and its allies against Islam (most prominently by The Atlantic, whose article “What ISIS Really Wants” (written as if The Atlantic is the world’s authority on that question) seeks to link ISIS with something fundamentally Islamic and also fundamentally premodern and non-Western) that we may as well accept the term. But what then does “the West” refer to? Huntington, author of the vaguely racist and surprisingly influential “Clash of Civilizations” theory, insists that Islam is a separate civilization fundamentally opposed to “the West,” and while Edward Said, author of the not racist and sadly less influential (at least in circles of power) Orientalism, admirably criticizes cultural depictions of the East and demonstrates how they fuel Imperialism, he also inadvertently reinforces the notion of an fundamental difference between Islam and “the West.”

The truth, however, is more complicated. For me, a Muslim born in the United States, someone who grew up reading both Aristotle and the Qur’an and who disagrees with both neoconservatism and Islamic extremism, there has never been a clash of civilizations, some internal struggle between the two halves of my self. For me, Islam and “the West” have always been part of the same tradition. And so, if we accept the existence of a concept called “the West,” then we have to accept that Islam is, politically and culturally, from its founding in the 7th century to its various modern forms (including the .002% who’ve committed themselves to ISIS), a fundamental part of it.

The most commonly cited examples of Islam’s compatibility with “the West” are historical. Aside from the obvious fact that Islam is simply a successor to Christianity (the religion Huntington and others identify, along with Judaism, as fundamentally Western), with the same philosophical underpinnings of monotheism and many of the same moral tenets (not an accident considering Islam accepts the Christian and Jewish holy books and simply added its own sequel, like Book III in a trilogy), the Islamic world was also the philosophical successor to the Ancient Greeks, those toga-ed men historians of “the West” hold as their dear founding fathers. Throughout the Islamic Golden Age, from roughly the 8th century to the 13th century, Islamic philosophers including Al-Kindi, Al-Farabi, Ibn al-Haytham, Ibn Sina, Ibn Khaldun, and Ibn Rushd not only translated, annotated, and wrote lengthy commentaries on works by Plato, Aristotle, and the Neoplatonists but also developed their own philosophical ideas, including, amongst others, secularism, empiricism, deductive reasoning, the scientific method, and modern notions of historiography — in short, almost everything that the Europeans would several hundred years later claim credit for during their “Renaissance” and their “Enlightenment.”

Even in the modern age and in the century in which Huntington lived, Islam and what he calls “the West” were intricately linked. When the capitalist and democratic (except when it came to propping up anti-communist dictators) United States was fighting the Soviet Union, it turned many times to Islam to fight the “godless communists,” including supporting Saudi Arabia, the Muslim Brotherhood, and, most famously, Afghanistan’s Mujahideen (the other big financier of which was the famous-for-other-reasons Osama bin Laden). Back then, when there was a Soviet Union to fight, Islam was very much a part of “the West.”

But even the political Islam of the post-Cold-War period — the Islam that Huntington threw a tantrum about and the one that itself claims to oppose “the West” — is really a product of the same forces present today in Europe and the United States. The rise of Islamic extremism in the 1980s coincided with the rise of the Christian Right in the United States, and the rise of ISIS today coincides with the growth of neofascist, right wing parties in Europe like Greece’s Golden Dawn, Austria’s Freedom Party, and France’s National Front. And while these parties represent a different strain from ISIS, ultra-nationalist rather than ultra-religious, together with ISIS they are simply different manifestations of the same ultra-conservative current sweeping across “the West” and similarly reject the tolerance and openness and pluralism that has characterized our entire intellectual tradition, from Antiquity to the Islamic Golden Age to the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and Modernity.

But even if we do accept The Atlantic’s characterization of ISIS as “medieval” (which in some ways it certainly is), that still doesn’t make it non-Western. The very term “medieval” is associated with what Huntington and others see as “the West”, describing an age when Europeans were killing each other in many of the same grisly fashions we now see in ISIS videos (the Islamic world, by contrast, was at this time in its golden age, cultivating knowledge and preserving those Greek philosophers that Huntington and his circle insist are, unlike their Islamic saviors, fundamentally “Western”).

Of course, killing people in the name of religion or ideology is not a solely medieval value. The Thirty Years War, Imperialism, World Wars I and II, the Holocaust — all these happened after the Renaissance, most after the Enlightenment, and the worst of them during the modern age. And so, this current conflict between the tolerant world and religious extremism, between the United States and its allies and ISIS, is not a clash of civilizations between “the West” and Islam but just another in the long string of violent spasms in our civilization’s epileptic history, ultimately more civil war than civilizational war. And the only way we’ll win this civil war is to accept that there is no clash of civilizations, that Samuel Huntington was a racist idiot whose theory of history was about as sophisticated as Age of Empires, and that Islam is not some non-Western “other” but rather a fundamental part of this thing we insist on calling “the West.”