The Western difference

About five months after the inauguration of Barack Obama, the president gave a strange address in Cairo. The speech was apparently designed to win over the Muslim world and set Obama apart from the supposed Western chauvinism of the prior and much caricatured George W. Bush administration. Obama started off by framing past and present tensions between Muslims and the West largely in the context of explicit and implied Western culpability: past European colonialism, and the moral equivalence of the Cold War and disruptive Westernized globalization. In a pattern that would become all too familiar in the next seven years, Obama reviewed his own familial Muslim pedigree. This was his attempt to persuade Islam that a president of the United States, no less, now uniquely stood astride the East–West divide with a proverbial foot in both America and the Middle East. Obama nobly lied that Islam had been “paving the way” for the West’s Renaissance and Enlightenment (neither claim was remotely true). Equally fallacious was Obama’s additional yarn that Muslim Cordoba was a paragon of religious tolerance during the Spanish Inquisition (it had been liberated by the Reconquista Christian forces nearly 250 years before the beginning of the Inquisition, and by 1478 few Muslims were left in the city).

The message — its veracity was irrelevant — was that a humble and multicultural Barack Hussein Obama alone had the historical insight and cultural background and authenticity that would allow him to serve as a bridge to peace between two morally equivalent rivals. Obama then rattled off a series of relativist, on-the-one-hand and on-the-other-hand, split-the-difference remedies to the current tensions with radical Islamism (all couched in vague euphemisms). The proposition was that the West should accept blame, and so should the sometimes culpable Islamic world. Only then would good compromises follow — given the assumption that conflict always arises out of ignorance and misunderstanding rather than that the guiltier side of a dispute knows precisely why it has chosen an aggressive and hostile path.

Seven years later, Obama’s outreach and his successive lengthy recitals of all the bad things America has done in the world and all the good America has done to encourage and placate Muslims (including redirecting NASA to the agenda of Muslim outreach) had come to nothing. Indeed, the years of Obama’s presidency saw a sharp uptick in jihadist attacks against Europe and the United States, the rise of ISIS in Iraq, the genocide in Syria, and a series of appeasing gestures that spiked tensions, from the false red line in Syria to the bombing of and skedaddle from Libya to the disastrous and deliberate laxity in diplomatic security that culminated in the tragedy in Benghazi. Obama left office having alienated the moderate Sunni Arab nations, appeased an anti-Western Iran, and abdicated American power in the Middle East. Calm did not follow. . . .

Whereas Obama listed supposed cultural achievements of Islam (most of them of dubious historicity), Trump rattled off examples of Western exceptionalism, its unmatched culture, values, and concrete achievements, all of them persuasive: We are the fastest and the greatest community. There is nothing like our community of nations. The world has never known anything like our community of nations. We write symphonies. We pursue innovation. We celebrate our ancient heroes, embrace our timeless traditions and customs, and always seek to explore and discover brand-new frontiers. We reward brilliance. We strive for excellence, and cherish inspiring works of art that honor God. We treasure the rule of law and protect the right to free speech and free expression. We empower women as pillars of our society and of our success. We put faith and family, not government and bureaucracy, at the center of our lives. And we debate everything. We challenge everything. We seek to know everything so that we can better know ourselves.

While Obama was in an Islamic country and Trump in a Western one during these respective speeches, the difference in tones transcended location and marked antithetical historic strains of Western culture. Obama believed that the crisis of the West originated in its arrogant, “high horse” historic overreach, and clingerism; this hubris demanded a corrective deference to equally brilliant or indeed superior alternate cultural paradigms. It never would occur to Obama that immigration (a concrete arbiter of culture) is a one-way pathway for a reason. Muslims seek out Europe and the United States to relocate, not vice versa. Immigrants seek to live among non-Muslims rather than with only Muslims — again, for a reason. The world outside the West depends on Western-driven technology — again, not the other way around. The top 20 universities in the world are not in the Middle East, Africa, China, or Latin America.

Western influence that transcends its population and geography is the logical result of a system that promotes self-criticism and rationalism, free expression, market capitalism, the rule of law, and consensual government rather than gender apartheid, tribalism, autocracy, statism, and religious intolerance. There is again a reason why there is not a single church in Riyadh but plenty of mosques in the West, and why blasphemy or being gay can get you killed in Iran but not in Dayton, Ohio. Muslims can walk into the Vatican; not so Christians into Mecca.

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