Ideas & Philosophy — 24 September 2012
Western Civilization is Not Universal

Moez Mobeen

The Muslim world has risen once again over the blasphemous film insulting the Prophet of Islam. Although such blasphemous material against the Core beliefs and Creed of the Muslims in the forms of books, theatres, pictures and verbal commentary can be found in the archives of Western Civilization dating back to centuries, in recent years such provocative and sacrilegious attacks on the Prophet of Islam or the Quran has become a tool through which the Western Civilization and its proponents emphasize the ideals which define the Secular West and her civilization.  Ever since the birth of the Liberalism in Western Europe and its spread and adoption by countries which now constitute the “Western World”, the leading states of the West have emphasized the universality of Western ideals and promoted “Liberalism” as a global ideology for all to embrace.

After destroying the Ottoman Caliphate, which epitomized the Muslim Civilization and its beliefs, the Western World introduced “liberal” ideology to the Muslim World through European colonialism. But unlike the Americans who also were introduced to “liberalism” through European colonialism and who embraced “liberalism” as an ideology while shrugging off political and military control of European colonialists, the Muslim World rejected not just the political and military control of their lands but “liberalism” as an ideology as well. This is because before the secular revolution in Western Europe, the Islamic Caliphate led the World and pursued the policy of expansion of her frontiers inviting the nations of the world to the Islamic Ideology in which the Muslims had deep conviction and belief. From the time of the first four Caliphs after the death of Prophet Muhammad till the great Ottoman Sultans the military might of the Caliphate helped her expand her frontiers, but it was the intellectual superiority of the Islamic Ideology which won the inhabitants of these new lands to the ideology carried by the caliphate. It is this intellectual conviction in the correctness of the Islamic ideology which caused the Ummah to resist “liberalism” when it was forced upon it by European Colonialists.

In his famous essay titled “The Root of Muslim Rage” published in The Atlantic Magazine in the September of 1990, prominent Western thinker and Orientalist, Bernard Lewis used the term Clash of Civilizations to explain the increasing rejection of Western values and Western civilization by the Muslim World. Explaining his views, Bernard Lewis argued that the concept of Separation of State and Church is unique to the Christian World and that the Muslim World’s experience with religion was totally different from that of Christian Europe. Lewis says:” Muslims, too, had their religious disagreements, but there was nothing remotely approaching the ferocity of the Christian struggles between Protestants and Catholics, which devastated Christian Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and finally drove Christians in desperation to evolve a doctrine of the separation of religion from the state….. Muslims experienced no such need and evolved no such doctrine. There was no need for secularism in Islam….” .

Celebrating the triumph of Western Liberalism, after the fall of communism, American philosopher Francis Fukuyama authored a piece in 1989 “The End of History” in which he went as far as to suggest that with the fall of communism, humanity’s intellectual quest for a universal ideology has ended. Although the essay was more a product of euphoria which had overwhelmed Western philosophers, who were overjoyed on the collapse of the Soviet Union, even in his euphoria Fukuyama admitted that “Liberalism’s” universality didn’t extend to the Muslim World. Fukuyama wrote:” In the contemporary world only Islam has offered a theocratic state as a political alternative to both liberalism and communism. But the doctrine has little appeal for non-Muslims, and it is hard to believe that the movement will take on any universal significance”. Fukuyama’s thesis about “Liberalism’s” universality was later rejected by his fellow American thinkers, especially, by Robert Kagan in his essay published in 2008, titled “The End of End of History” in which he argued that after the fall of communism it was the political and military power of the Western World which created an illusion of “Liberalism’s” Universality and not the intellectual superiority of the “Liberalism”. In other words, the Western World muscled the nations of the World in to adopting the liberal ideology.

But it was the work of American political scientist Samuel Huntington which he presented in his book “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order” published in 1996 which powerfully challenged the notion of the “Universality” of Western Civilization. Huntington states:” Throughout Western history first the Church and then many churches existed apart from the state. God and Caesar, church and state, spiritual authority and temporal authority, have been a prevailing dualism in Western culture. Only in Hindu civilization were religion and politics also so distinctly separated. In Islam, God is Caesar; in China and Japan, Caesar is God; in Orthodoxy, God is Caesar’s junior partner. The separation and recurring clashes between church and state that typify Western civilization have existed in no other civilization. This division of authority contributed immeasurably to the development of freedom in the West.”


So the debate about freedom of expression and placing limits upon it in the West as well as asking the Muslim World to understand the limitations of Western Governments and their helplessness in stopping such hateful material against Islam from being published in their societies,  is a misleading one. It is misleading because it assumes the universality of Western Civilization and the idea of separation of the state and Religion. Hillary Clinton’s denouncements of the sacrilegious film and its creator are aimed at protecting American interests in the Muslim World by cooling the tempers there. She neither intends to nor believes that such material should be lawfully banned in Western societies because for the Western Civilization there is nothing wrong in creating such a film except for the political fallout of such an act. So Hillary the politician condemns the film but Hillary the ideologue rejects the violent outrage in the Muslim World over it. Neither Hillary Clinton, nor Barack Obama would ever publicly admit the notion of the Clash of Civilizations, which this film so resoundingly signifies. This is because the idea of “Universality” of Western Civilization is a tool employed by Western governments to extend political, economic and military control over the non-Western World.

As for the Muslim World, “looking the other way” is not an option. The consistent and massive mobilization of the Muslim World as a reaction to the repeated attacks on Muslim sanctities by elements from the Western society is enough to prove the unwillingness of the Muslim World to simply “ignore” this issue. More than that, this is a powerful message from the Muslim World to Western societies that they do not believe in Western ideals based on the separation of religion and the state. “Ignoring” the issue or “looking the other way”, for them, is an implicit acceptance of the doctrine of separation of state and religion. But violence and rampage in Muslim streets is also not the answer. So what is the way forward?

The Dilemma of the Muslim World is that it is governed by liberal state structures which espouse the separation of the state and the religion, a legacy of European colonialism. So while the Muslim World erupted in fury against the blasphemous film, the liberal state structures governing Muslim populations did not respond to the Muslim Street. So the demands from the Muslim streets were not channelized in to political actions by governments in Muslim lands like expelling Western diplomats, threatening Western interests or cutting alliances with Western governments. Quite the opposite. Scenes of angry mobs marching towards American embassies and consulates with the state machinery mobilizing and employing heavy handed tactics to protect them signified this dilemma. In the clash of civilizations, between Islam and the West, the Muslim governments are siding with Western states.

The idea of clash of Civilizations is rejected by Muslim Governments as well as majority of the academia in the Muslim World. Not because there is no clash of Civilizations, but because both the Muslim governments and the liberal Muslim academia have convinced themselves of the universality of Western Civilization.  They have borrowed the experience of the Christian World about religion and have incorrectly applied it on Islam. They consider the rejection of Western Values by the Muslim World as an outcome of Islamic fundamentalism and they insist that the Muslim World adopt the Western Ideal of Separation of State and Religion. In their opinions and their views, they echo the Western World. But they are gravely mistaken. As Huntington put it :”The underlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture and obsessed with the inferiority of their power”. Unrest, resentment and instability in the Muslim World will continue to exist unless state structures in the Muslim World are radically changed to represent the aspirations of the Muslim masses to unite the Temporal with the Religious and to revive the Political Power of Islam and the Islamic civilization which existed under the caliphate.

Moez Mobeen is an engineer residing in Islamabad and a freelance columnist who regularly writes on Muslim Affairs.


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(8) Readers Comments

  1. Very good article.

  2. Regarding the comparison of protestants and catholics, maybe this explains why the US has promoted a shia government in iraq. They want to create a similar conflict and struggle by empowering the shia’s, and then giving the impression to common muslims that religion is a cause of unrest – and hence needs to be separated. It also explains the US’s unmatched support for “minorities” such as the Ahmedis, Ismaelis, Aga Khanis etc. At the end of the day, they want the common muslim to reject religion because it causes violence, when it is them infact who has been empowering/interfering and causing problem.

  3. > and they insist that the Muslim World adopt the Western Ideal of Separation of State and Religion

    And this is precisely the source of the misery of the Muslim World. Just because something has happened first in the Western World, it doesn’t mean that it is exclusively or it should be considered exclusively as a Western concept.

    Secularism is a universal concept, except that different nations based on their capacity, culture and history don’t achieve it at the same time. It’s purely a question of mental & cultural maturity.

    • Secularism as a universal concept is contested – the fact is that it emerged as a result of specific political and historical conditions within Europe over the middle ages. As for your social darwinism, its outdated and discredited.

      • > As for your social darwinism, its outdated and discredited.

        Darwinism ???!!!???
        Did you even read and understand my comment ???

        > Secularism as a universal concept is contested
        Yes, and as I said this is the problem, it is contested based on what concrete reason?

        • You said:
          “except that different nations based on their capacity, culture and history don’t achieve it at the same time. It’s purely a question of mental & cultural maturity.”
          This is social darwinism. (Some wikipedia for you – “Social Darwinism is an ideology of society that seeks to apply biological concepts of Darwinism or of evolutionary theory to sociology and politics”)

          As for the universality of secularism – the reason i gave already discredits such an assertion. It was borne out of a compromise reached as a result of a struggle between church and state in Europe, therefore is linked to the specific political and historical context. As an example to show its not universal – Islam as a religion does not have any official clergy, nor the concept of theocracy. Therefore to try to apply the concept of secularism – the separation of church and state, to a religion that has no equivalent of Church, is impossible. This is just one example.

          • Secularism is a universal concept to Hindus, Buddhists, Atheists, sikhs, shinto, christians and Jews. It is just Islam and Communist china who struggle with it. That is because of the reasons stated in the article. In Islam, God is Caesar; in China, Caesar is God.

            except that different nations based on their capacity, culture and history don’t achieve it at the same time.
            Japan had the similar traditions to to china and she embraced it.

            It’s purely a question of mental & cultural maturity.

  4. @JAY C

    Mental & cultural maturity ? And how exactly do you measure that ? That argument is similar to the false “progressive” argument. Progress to what end ? So these are just cliches with no measure or proper logic in it. It reminded me of this critique given by Sayyid Naquib al-Attas:

    ” Development consists not in ‘activating and making visible and concrete what is latent in biological man’ because man is not merely a biological entity: humanity is something much more than rationality and animality. Progress is neither ‘becoming’ or ‘coming-into being’, nor movement towards that which is coming-into being and never becomes ‘being’; for the notion of ‘something aimed at’, or the ‘goal’ inherent in the concept of progress can only convey real and true meaning when it refers to that which is understood as something permanently established, as already being. Hence what is already clarified in the mind and permanently established therein and externally, already in the state of being, cannot suffer change, nor be subject to constant slipping from the grasp of achievement, nor constantly receding beyond attainment. The term ‘progress’ refers to a definite direction that is aligned to a final purpose that is meant to be achieved in worldly life.

    If the direction sought is still vague, still coming-into-being as it were, and the purpose aligned to it is not final, then how can involvement in it truly mean progress? People who grope in the dark cannot be referred to as progressing, and they who say such people are progressing have merely uttered a lie against the true meaning and purpose of progress. The concepts of ‘change’, ‘development’, and ‘progress’ presuppose situations in which we find ourselves confused by a mixture of the true and the false, of the real and the illusory, and become captive in the ambit of ambiguity. In such ambivalent situations, our positive action in the exercise of freedom to choose for the better, to accept what is good and relevant to our needs, to deliberate correctly in our judgment of needs, all the while maintaining our endeavor to return to the straight path and direct our steps in agreement with it—such endeavor, which entails change, is development; and such return, which consists in development, is progress. ” End Quote

    [Ref: “Prolegemona to the Metaphysics of Islam: An Exposition of the Fundamental Elements of the Worldview of Islam” by Sayyid Naquib al-Attas.]

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