Western Supremacist History

In the last 10-15 years, there have been a lot of popular accounts of Ancient and Medieval European history trying to portray it as a natural precursor to the Enlightenment. Although global politics has yet to become a clash of civilizations, the earnest belief of some Westerners that the next conflict is going to be between the West and other cultures has led to a surge in Western supremacy.

To wit, the conventional explanation of the rise of secular liberalism was based on the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Naturally, it involved a rediscovery of ancient European learning, but it emphasized the break from the feudal past.

In contrast, the new explanation typically invokes a continuity that wasn’t there. In The Clash of Civilizations, Huntington writes that the feudal state was significantly more decentralized than the Chinese or Japanese state or the Caliphate. It’s true, but it makes no sense to extrapolate from that to the Enlightenment; doing that is akin to saying the Southern US must be more liberal than the Northern US because of its tradition of decentralization.

Typically, this Western supremacist narrative is directed against Islam. It’s standard among Western conservativesto believe that in contrast to the tolerant societies of Europe, Islam was always authoritarian, even in Andalusia, where Jews and Christians were required to pay special taxes (hence the term “dhimmi”). It’s that view that’s underlying a lot of the crap that’s going on in one comment thread on Winds of Change.

In reality, Andalusia wasn’t the only Muslim empire around. The Caliphate had its periods of greater tolerance of Jews and Christians and its periods of less tolerance. In contrast, feudal Europe was uniformly authoritarian and superstitious, and it wasn’t until the 1860s that its Jews were emancipated. The reconquista led to massive persecutions of Jews that were unheard of under Muslim rule. Applying the conservative methodology, one would conclude Christendom was inherently theocratic in 1500.

The Mughal Empire was India’s most liberal regime until independence in 1947, and before the late 1930s, India’s Hindu pro-independence activism was led by the religiously fanatical Mahatma, while its Muslim activism was led by liberal Jinnah. An observer in 1930 applying the conservative methodology would conclude a Hindu country could never be really democratic; an observer in 1930 who was told there would be a partition would conclude that Pakistan would be a lot better developed than Hindu India.

3 Responses to Western Supremacist History

  1. The typical rationalization many conservatives offer for the supposed superiority of the West has to do with the it’s obvious success in empire building. While it is true that Western European powers (France, Germany, Britain, Spain and Austro-Hungary being the most prominent examples) have had more measurable success in expanding economic and political hegemony beyond their borders, this has little to do with any inherent superiority of Western culture or values. As Jared Diamond points out in Guns, Germs and Steel, such success is far better explained by the geographical advantages the Western European landmass enjoys.

    That anyone would try to claim that Christendom was always more tolerant than Islamic civilization is a bad reflection on the human mind itself. Anyone who knows the history of Christendom, from it’s expansion after the fall of Rome on, can tell you that it was no pretty picture. It was no less violent than the expansion of Islam throughout the Arab and Persian lands later on.

    As an aside, one notable difference between European and American conservatives is that the former appeal to Enlightenment values against Islam while the latter appeal to Christianity. It’s easy to see why, as appeals to religion draw a collective yawn in most of Western Europe nowadays. 50 years ago the rhetoric would have been identical.

  2. Alon Levy says:

    Good point about Europe versus the US. There are exceptions, of course, but in France and NL most anti-Islamic appeals are based on the Enlightenment and secularism – in fact, many of the people making them are just as opposed to Christian fundamentalism – while in the US most appeals are based on Christian values.

    About imperial expansion, Europe didn’t do it any more than other countries. It just did it overseas rather than in neighboring territories (but note that Hitler preferred Chinese- and Russian-style expansion, i.e. over land).

  3. SLC says:

    Re Levy

    1. Hitler preferred land expansion over sea expansion because, as he himself stated, “on land I am a hero, on the sea, I am a coward.”

    2. European imperialism may best be described as, “he who gets in the white mans’ way gets trampled.”

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