Ibn Warraq is the pseudonymous, Pakistani-born author of the modern classic Why I Am Not a Muslim and the writer or editor of several other estimable books about Muhammed, the Koran, Islamic culture, Muslim apostates, and Western civilization. Surely few people know as much as he does about both the West and Islam. Therefore I was more than eager to read his new book, Why the West Is Best: A Muslim Apostate’s Defense of Liberal Democracy.
Naturally, I expected something wise and incisive and steeped in learning – and I wasn’t disappointed. But what I hadn’t counted on was how fresh, original, delightfully inspired, and emotionally stirring Warraq’s approach to his topic would be. Take his first chapter, which is about New York, a city he views as “a testament to the robustness of Western culture and to its welcoming catholicity.” Warraq’s goal here is to help us to see a Western metropolis through the eyes of a person from, say, the Islamic world, and thus recognize the magnificence of things so familiar to us that we may take them for granted.
Let it be said at once that he is highly successful at this. He tells a surprisingly touching story about an Iraqi colleague who, at age forty-five, left his country for the first time on a visit to New York and was so overwhelmed by “the number and variety of magazines available” at the Barnes & Noble in Warraq’s neighborhood that he started taking pictures of them. Warraq quotes a paean to the New York Public Library by none other than Lenin, who, at some point between that institution’s founding in 1911 and the Russian Revolution, took time to marvel at the number of people who used the library, at the number of books they took out, at the then-expanding system of branch libraries, and at the resources the library made available to children. “Such is the way things are done in New York,” Lenin wrote. “And in Russia?”
Warraq devotes several pages to a celebration of Tin Pan Alley, noting perceptively that the Great American Songbook is not just a collection of pretty tunes and clever lyrics but a life-affirming cultural inheritance that “lend[s] dignity to the lives and struggles of ordinary people” and “cross[es] all the boundaries of race, class, and religion.” He pays tribute to American humor, noting that the abundance of comedy clubs in a city like New York “is a sure sign of a healthy society.” And he expresses admiration for “[t]he civilized pleasure of alcohol,” citing the philosopher Roger Scruton’s thumbs-up for American cocktail parties, which “immediately break the ice between strangers and set every large gathering in motion.”
In praising all these things about New York, of course, Warraq is not only extolling the core values of the West itself but, implicitly or explicitly, rebuking non-Western – and especially Muslim – culture. Islam, after all, abhors a library or magazine rack which has not been cleansed of “offensive” items, and it frowns on music, humor, and the consumption of alcohol. These, Warraq wants us to realize, are not minor issues – they are the kinds of things that make the difference between a happy life and a miserable one. For him the Declaration of Independence’s foregrounding of the right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” is no mere rhetorical flourish – it sums up the rich possibilities and promise of life in the West as opposed to life in the less happy regions of the world.
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