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Diplomatic dilemma

This notion of a dichotomy in values between the West and the rest is posing considerable diplomatic dilemma and raising a lot of questions. When Western governments formed a coalition with Arab and Muslim countries to combat the Islamic State, they had to explain what political values the Muslim countries were being called upon to fight for. Were they being asked to fight for Western and Judeo-Christian values and against Islamic values?

When Iranian youths demonstrate for a more liberalized polity, are they demonstrating for Western values? When Indian women demonstrate for greater gender equality are they aspiring to be Western? When activists there campaign against discrimination against people of the “lower castes,” are they being Western? When Nigerian journalists crusade against corruption, are they on a quest to institute Western values?

Or in all these instances are the non-Westerners in pursuit of causes that have a universal impetus? Might they be responding to the same human impulses that gave rise to the Enlightenment? From all indications, the protesters and crusaders for reform remain anchored in their respective core national values and might even hold some disdainful views of the West. Most of the Iranian protesters, for example, are probably devout Muslims and the protesting Indian women are proudly imbued with their country’s fundamental cultural values. It would seem, therefore, that their advocacy for change is driven by reasons other than the quest for “Western values.”

Western values as boogeyman

And then there is the matter of “Western values” as a boogeyman. In an essay in The Globe and Mad (Toronto) on August 23,2014, Canadian journalist Doug Saunders notes that it has become a double-edged sword.

It becomes dangerous when applied in the negative: When autocrats on the other side of the world want to deny their people basic rights and freedoms, they can then use our chauvinism to spread the notion that these universal human assets are merely ‘Western’ imports or incursions.

There is thus a circular logic to the notion of Western values. First, the West lays claim to a set of civic and political values. Then despots and Islamists label those values alien and invoke the said alien-ness to cultivate

Democracy is Western 13 ideological, nationalist, and religious sentiments against reform. Then that exploitation ostensibly validates the thesis of a clash of cultures.

Significantly, the global war on terrorism has been fought not just with weapons but also with narratives. In the years after the “September 11,” the United States began implementing a war of information to supplement invasions and other military actions. In fact, then Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld told the press that the war against terrorism had to be waged primarily as a war of ideas.

However, U.S. implementation of this parallel war has been schizophrenic in its narrative. On the one hand, “September 11” is said to be an attack on “America’s values” or “Western values;” on the other hand, it is as an attack on “universal principles.” While the West is thus mired in rhetorical confusion, the Islamists formulated and propagated a simple message: the West is out to destroy Islam and the Islamic way of life. It is a coherent message that resonates even among Muslims who otherwise crave a democratic society.

[P]eople want to know that as they move in the direction of greater individual liberty, secular democratic institutions, freedom of conscience, and the rule of law, they are also moving in the direction of cultural, historical, and religious authenticity—not away from it,

write John Gallagher and Eric D. Patterson in the introductory chapter to their book Debating the War of Ideas.4 Because of its narrative confusion, the West could not provide an affirmative answer to the implied question. In contrast, Islamists foster the view that liberal democracy is incompatible with Islam.

So, while the West is winning the war on the battlefields, the Islamists are successfully appealing to potential recruits. And their success in the narrative front has checkmated the West’s progress on the battlefield. There is no stronger evidence of this problematic than that groups such as ISIS have had remarkable success in recruiting Muslim youth in Western countries, despite the latter’s relatively comfortable life in secular and democratic societies.

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