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Civilization Envy
On Muslims, Israel, and McDonald's.


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Jonah Goldberg

Someone once noted that a “gaffe” in Washington is when a politician accidentally tells the truth. Thanks to globalization, this is a worldwide phenomenon.

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A Reuters story this morning begins, “Muslims around the world today demanded an apology from Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and the European Union recoiled with horror after the Italian asserted that Western Civilization was superior to Islam.”

The Arab League demanded an apology or an explicit denial that the Italian could have even said such a thing. The European Union, led by Belgium (stop laughing), acted as if someone had used his fingers to eat caviar. “I can hardly believe Mr. Berlusconi made such remarks,” gasped Guy Verhofstadt, the Belgian prime minister.

Mr. Berlusconi told reporters in Berlin, “We should be conscious of the superiority of our civilization, which consists of a value system that has given people widespread prosperity in those countries that embrace it, and guarantees respect for human rights and religion.”

“This respect certainly does not exist in Islamic countries,” he asserted.

While critics have called his remarks “unacceptable,” “barbaric,” “silly,” and — of course — “racist,” I am at a loss to find a single untrue word in his remarks (meanwhile, how his comments can be “racist” is beyond me, since all “races” can be found within the Islamic world).

Now of course, this hasn’t always been so. There was a time when the Muslim world was out in front in the race for human advancement, and there was an even longer period when the leader in that race was too close to call between the Islamic, European, and Chinese civilizations. But for right now, and for the foreseeable future, members and fans of Western Civilization have every right to wave the big foam “We’re Number 1″ finger as high as we want.

There’s not a single category of enlightened governance in which the West broadly speaking isn’t superior to the Islamic world — again, broadly speaking. Religious freedom, social mobility, and tolerance, the guarantee of rights and liberties in law, prosperity — you name it, and we beat the robes off them (though in family cohesion, they probably have the edge on us).

To disagree with this assessment would require us to throw out the very standards by which we judge our own society’s shortcomings. For example, you can’t say (as Jesse Jackson does all of the time) that the United States is racist or authoritarian or a police-state, and hold that Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, et al., aren’t far worse, without being intellectually dishonest. You can’t say that it’s a crime that America “lets” so many of its people live in poverty, and then think that Saddam Hussein, with his dozens of palaces, is in some way a more enlightened leader. The same holds even for our “allies” Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

Even in the historical arena, the argument is not so cut-and-dried as the anti-Westerners would have us believe. After all, the Arabs are just as culpable for their participation in the slave trade as the West. What makes the West unique was not our involvement in slavery, but our insistence upon ending the institution, both at home and abroad.

Envious Islam
No, I’m beginning to believe that the central source of animus from the Arab world is, quite simply, envy.

Indeed, I’ve been reading a lot of books and articles about the Middle East lately (what? I do research sometimes), and I’m coming to the conclusion that this really doesn’t have much to do with Israel after all. At first, like everybody else, I could hardly avoid the conclusion that the World Trade Center was related in some significant way to Israel. I never agreed with the folks who are always looking to peg any of these sorts of things on our support of Israel, but it seemed naïve to think that the Jewish state didn’t have something to do with it (even though bin Laden’s biggest gripe is the presence of our “crusader” armies on the Arabian peninsula — and they aren’t there because of Israel, they’re there to protect the flow of oil from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia).

Of course, even if the attack did result from our support for Israel, I wouldn’t have agreed with those who say September 11th proves we should abandon Israel. After all, you can make enemies by having the right policies just as easily as you can from having the wrong ones — just ask all the cops who are hated just for being cops. We supported Afghani freedom fighters in order to defeat the Soviet Empire, and just because the Taliban is a harsh unintended consequence of that support, doesn’t mean we should have held the door open for Soviet expansionism. Does it?

Bernard Lewis, perhaps the greatest living English-language historian of the Middle East, wrote a brilliant essay eleven years ago in the Atlantic entitled “The Roots of Muslim Rage.” It is the best short piece I’ve found on this subject to date, and I think anyone interested in this topic should read it (thanks to Andrew Sullivan for calling it to my attention).

Lewis shows that while Israel is obviously unpopular in the Arab world, it may not be for the reasons so many knee-jerk Israel foes believe. Consider that when the Soviet Union was a bigger supporter of Israel than the U.S., the Arab world didn’t turn their enmity upon the Russians for it. Nor did they praise America when we stood aloof from Israel’s plight. The United States has no imperialist or colonial record that even compares to Britain’s, France’s, or Germany’s, and yet we are denounced for our “imperialism” more than any other country. Indeed, the Russians ruled millions of Muslims, while the U.S. ruled virtually none. And yet the United States remains the bad guy above all others. Lewis suggests, with professional restraint, that this is because the Muslim world is jealous and resentful. Pure and simple.

Islamic culture, politics, and religion — which are far more conjoined than they are in the West — cannot reconcile with the fact that the West, led by America, is the lead dog on the sled of humanity. Israel may serve as a painful reminder of this superiority, but they will find something else to gripe about no matter what you do.

The Islamic world has a self-esteem problem.

Lewis gives a wonderful example. In 1979, a group of Muslim dissidents seized the Great Mosque in Mecca — “an event in which there was no American involvement whatsoever,” Lewis writes — and an angry crowd in Islamabad, Pakistan, attacked and burned the American embassy in response.

This is the sort of thing individuals and even whole societies do when they feel they aren’t getting the respect they deserve. Personally, it reminds me of our domestic race-mongers who are convinced that every American action or event has to do with race. It’s an attempt to elevate your own status by picking an “opponent” of greater stature — even if that “opponent” doesn’t spend a minute out of his year thinking about you. The deeper your sense of victimhood, and the more unfair the world is to you, the greater your claim to moral superiority.

Indeed, after September 11, claims to social martyrdom were invoked by Arab-American activists far more quickly than any denunciations of the assault. In that corner of the national conversation, the shrieks of outrage about discrimination against Muslims came fast and furious, while the fatwas against mass murder remained in their holsters.

But this attitude also reminds me, oddly enough, of the global assault on McDonald’s, about which I’ve written a bunch. Around the world, McDonald’s is attacked for all sorts of bizarre reasons, including ones that don’t technically qualify as “anti-American.” Depending where you go, Mickey D’s haters may invoke the environment or animal rights, economics or religion. Indeed, protestors often prefer attacking McDonald’s to attacking the local American Embassy.

While ideologues of all kinds see McDonald’s as an enemy, McDonald’s sees them only as potential customers. This conflict of visions alone may explain a lot of the problem. But from a broader perspective, the anger may be explained by the fact that McDonald’s is a tangible signal that the world is going in a direction these people don’t like. McDonald’s is carried on the same wind as consumer culture generally, women’s rights, economic freedom, and all sorts of other stuff, good and bad.

But one thing is certain: That wind blows from America. This arouses jealousies, inflates grievances, and fans resentments not based in fact. The problem is that even if you get rid of McDonald’s, you do nothing to stop the wind. In this sense, Israel may just be like a giant McDonald’s franchise in the Middle East — an infuriating reminder of the fact the Islamic world won’t be calling the shots for a long time to come.

In fact, as Lewis argues better than I, this poses a real problem for both sides in the conflict of civilizations. If America is going to be resented for its success no matter what, there isn’t much we can or should do to make them like us. All we can do is protect our own interests as best we can. And then wait for them to grow up.

Minor Memos
The decker (as we call the teasers for upcoming material) for this column said I would deal with Bill Maher as well as with the new Star Trek series, Enterprise. Well, like a Castro speech, I went too long again. So, I’ve posted my syndicated column on Bill Maher here on the site, in part because both http://www.townhall.com/ and the print edition of the Washington Times curiously chose not to run it. As for Enterprise, I’ve decided to write a full review for next week’s National Review Weekend.



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