The West’s Unexamined Problem with Itself

By Jeremy Salt – Ankara

… but first,  does it really exist? As an oppositional force to the ‘east’, the political ‘west’ arose in the wake of the Second World War, when the ‘east’ was the Soviet Union and its satellite states.  The ‘west’ provided governments opposed to the Soviet Union for ideological purposes or strategic reasons a blanket, all purpose identity that would deflect attention from their individual state interests. In the name of the ‘west’ or ‘western interests’, or common defence against color-coded threats (the red menace and the yellow peril) any act of aggression could be justified. The package was wrapped and sold by the mainstream media.

The origins of the ‘west’ as a concept go back to the discovery of what has passed into history as the ‘New World’. Of course, it was a very old world, but ‘new’ and ‘discovery’ gave the conquerors of these ancient societies, as they saw it, the ‘right’ to claim them for themselves and their kings. These conquests stimulated the development of ‘civilisation’, a word coming from the Latin that fundamentally means knowing how to behave (well, not badly). The civilised world was Europe, divided into tributaries on the basis of race (‘the anglo-saxon’ race) and religions. Depending on your own religion, you were likely to exclude the other. Thus, while Greece sits squarely on the ‘European’ land mass, and is regarded as the font of democracy, it could not be included by Samuel Huntington as part of ‘western civilisation’ because of the orthodox religious faith of the Greeks. The fact that all forms of Christianity are eastern in origin made no difference because, as refined in Europe, Christianity had been ‘westernised’, down to the porcelain skin and tawny hair of the figure of Christ on the cross in every church.

In the 19th century the ‘east’ consisted of the Near East (or the Levant) and the Far East, divided into specific territorial components (such as Indo-China). Insofar as the Near East was concerned, the polar opposite with regard to the ‘west’ was not the Near East itself but first ‘Christianity and Islam’ and then ‘Europe and Islam’. An American naval geographer, Alfred Mahan, at a time the US was developing its own empire, later came up with the concept of the Middle East, from which time the polar opposites became ‘the Middle East and the West’ and ‘Islam and the West’, depending on whether the ‘threat’ to ‘western interests’ was secular (Arab nationalism) or religious (‘political’ Islam) in nature.  

‘Europe’ itself is a concept. It is not a ‘continent’ at all but part of the Eurasian land mass, stretching all the way to the borders of China. The historical, cultural, scientific and philosophical links across this vast land mass have continued for centuries. Nationalism and religion insisted that these links be broken and that ‘western civilisation’ be set up as construct that had developed all by itself. The research by Martin Bernal, showing that the roots of ‘western civilisation’ are Afro-Nilotic, caused Euro-sclerotic outrage among the professors of ‘classics’. In fact, not just the evidence but common sense confirms the inter-dependence of cultures and ‘civilisations’. Why wouldn’t the ancient Greeks want to paddle across the Mediterranean to see what was happening on the other side? What could be more normal and natural for a sea-faring people?

If the Near Eastern ‘east’ had to be set up as the polar opposite of the ‘west’ it was because, centuries before, Islam had emerged as a greater threat to the church in Rome than the church in Constantinople. The Arabs made their forays into Europe but retreated: the Turks came and stayed, founding one of the most powerful ‘civilisations’ in history. The Ottomans got as far as Vienna,  but, while retreating, held on to the whole southeastern corner of the ‘continent’, posing an existential threat to the church and the territories held by the Christian princes.

Invalidation and demonisation are the key elements of propaganda and they were used against the Turks, mostly by the church, for centuries. The Ottoman Empire was never an Islamic state, as popularly imagined. Its laws were a hybrid of shari’a law and traditional law. The empire was guided by the normal rules of statecraft, not dogma, so it was its power and territorial reach that alarmed the church and the princes, not religion. The abuse of Islam was simply a way to get at the Ottoman Empire, and at Muslims generally, for ideological, territorial and political reasons (summed up under the heading of ‘power’) as the sensuous and brutal followers of a false prophet.

No wonder, then, that in the 19th century, the Scottish orientalist William Muir, at a time the conquering ‘west’ was crushing Muslims everywhere, could describe Islam as the greatest enemy of civilisation, progress and liberty yet known. This reversal of realities has continued apace. It was the Muslims whose freedom was being taken away, and European governments, the self-acclaimed beacons of civilisation, progress and liberty, that were taking it. In Iraq, Jerry Bremer, the American ‘pro-consul’ ruling the country from Baghdad in the early 1990s, described the war recently declared as a victory for civilisation. General Maude, conquering Baghdad in 1917, said the same thing on behalf of the British government. In the 1920s the British used aircraft – the cutting edge new weapon – and machine guns to quell rebellious tribesmen. If their villages had to be bombed to ruins, so be it. In 1991 the systematic destruction of Iraq included the destruction of factories, bridges, roads, water, sewerage and electricity plants. The war was followed by a decade of sanctions, described as genocidal by the chief UN humanitarian representative in Iraq, Dennis Halliday, before another war was declared. The total civilian death toll in Iraq from 1991 to the present day probably hovers around two million, with millions of other Iraqis wounded or forced to seek refuge outside the borders of their own country.  Many of the wounded are permanently disabled, while in Falluja and elsewhere, the high number of birth deformities and cancers is the result of the use of depleted uranium shells and probably the release into the atmosphere of toxins from bombed chemical plants. Such is the high cost of ‘civilisation’. So who do we hold responsible for this, the ephemeral ‘west’, or ‘western civilisation’ or very real individual governments involved in this premeditated program of destruction? Not even Saddam Hussein’s worst enemy could say that he destroyed Iraq to this extent.  

Iraq was preceded by the invasion of Afghanistan. Even now there is no arrest warrant out for Usama bin Ladin for the bombing of the World Trade Centre in 2001 and there is no evidence, if he arranged it, that the Taliban knew about it. Indeed, they offered to hand him over if the US could come up with a prima facie case, but this was brushed aside by an administration determined to go to war. Many thousands of civilians had died as a direct result of the war between 2001 and 2009. By the end of 2009, the lowest estimate for deaths as the result of ‘insurgent’ actions was just over 4000, while the highest approached 6000. For deaths caused through the direct actions of the US-led military forces,  the lowest estimate  was close to 6000 and the highest well over 8000. Estimates of total civilian deaths ranged from a low of just over 10,000 to a high of nearly 13,000, and the numbers are increasing all the time. Large groups of people, including several wedding parties, have been obliterated in the name of confronting Al Qaida. Apologies and regrets are hardly going to bring them back to life. Is this what the victims of 9/11, in whose name these crimes have been committed, would have wanted? According to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, 2412 civilians were killed in 2009 alone and 3566 wounded.

The use of drones alongside aircraft to kill Afghan civilians has extended to the northwest province of Pakistan, Waziristan, where hundreds of civilians have been killed by missiles fired from US unmanned aircraft. A young officer types the coordinates into a computer a thousand miles away and people die. It is as simple as that, a virtual reality game at one end and real reality at the other. No blood and no guts, except where the missile lands, and the young officer doesn’t see that in the grainy image filmed from overhead. He doesn’t have to see it at all. While the dead are being buried he is working out or having a drink. In April, 2009, the News of Lahore, published figures showing that 687 civilians had been killed by drone attacks since January, 2008, alongside 14 alleged Al Qaida leaders. Now the Obama administration is considering the use of drone attacks against Somalia, invaded by Christian Ethiopia (2006-2009) with the support and close involvement of the US and now a battlefield between rival Islamic forces.

Another focal point for drone attacks is impoverished Yemen. There, the targets, again, have been alleged Al Qaida leaders, with anyone who happens to be travelling with them or sitting by them at home (wives and children) when the missile lands also being killed. Other weapons are also being used. The government of Yemen took responsibility for an attack last December that killed 52 people, including 14 women and 21 children (here it is worth pointing out that in all these theatres of war, a very large percentage of those killed have been women and children). The survivors said they had nothing to do with Al Qaida, the purported reason for the attack. Now it turns out that the Yemeni government must have been pushed into taking responsibility. An Amnesty International investigating team found the remnants of Tomahawk cruise missiles and cluster bombs in the debris of the attack. Cruise missiles are fired from warships or submarines and Yemen does not possess them. The use of cluster bombs against civilians is an open breach of the laws of war.   

Now to yet another theatre of war.  The illegality of Israel’s occupation of Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights is challenged only by the occupying power. As the recent attack on the Mavi Marmara has shown, while it has withdrawn its troops and settlers on the ground, Israel remains in control of air space and territorial waters and therefore remains an occupying power. B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights organisation, has released figures showing that between September 29, 2000, and December 26, 2008, 4791 Palestinians were killed by Israeli ‘security forces’ in the occupied territories. Another 69 Palestinian citizens of Israel were killed. The dead included 952 minors. To this toll must be added the 1300-1400 people, almost all of them civilians, killed in the full-scale invasion of Gaza launched in late 2008. The dead included hundreds of children. As Israel’s armorer, financier and diplomatic protector, the US is jointly responsible for what most people would consider war crimes. Richard Goldstone, appointed by the UN to investigate, certainly regarded them as war crimes. To these figures have to be added those who were wounded, and in many cases permanently disabled, and the  many thousands of Palestinians who have been killed or wounded since the beginning of the occupation in 1967.

In Lebanon the civilian death toll since the Israeli invasion of 1982 runs into tens of thousands. Close to 20,000 people, many Palestinian but mostly Lebanese, were killed by Israel’s ‘defence’ forces during the 1982 invasion and many more were killed in the occupation of southern Lebanon that followed. Many of the attacks resulted in mass deaths. The bombardment of a UN compound at Qana in 1996 took the lives of more than 100 people. About 1400 civilians were killed in the onslaught of 2006. Hundreds of children were among them, including dozens pulled out of the ruins of Qana after missile strikes. Again, as Israel’s armorer, financier and diplomatic protector, the US is jointly responsible for these deaths. Indeed, the administration deliberately allowed the invasion to continue week after week in the hope that Hizbullah could be destroyed, Condoleezza Rice regarding the Israeli onslaught as the ‘birth pangs’ of the new Middle East.

So, who is responsible for all this? Clearly it is not something as ephemeral as the ‘west’ or ‘western civilisation’. In fact, the responsibility lies with individual governments, first the US and secondly those governments that did not have the moral backbone to say ‘no’ to participation in wars that have cost the lives of millions of people. They are also responsible for Israel’s crimes. They created Israel out of Palestine. They voted for partition and then did nothing while Israel hounded hundreds of thousands of Palestinians out of their homeland. They have never taken any responsibility and are still watching as Israel builds and kills on occupied land. So where, between ‘Islam and the West’ or between the ‘The Middle East and the West’, does anyone think the source of all of these problems lies? Is it in the Middle East or ‘Islam’ or in the ‘west’ itself? Where, in the last two centuries, has a ‘western’ state come under attack from a Muslim state? How many Muslim societies, on the other hand, have been attacked, invaded and occupied or threatened until they give the ‘west’ what it wants? The answer is that virtually all have suffered this treatment. It would hard to find one Muslim territory on the map that has escaped the long reach of the ‘west’.

The Palestinians did not ask the British to give their land to someone else. The Iraqis did not ask the US to invade once let alone twice. Afghans do not want foreign soldiers in their country. The writ of the US-supported Karzai government scarcely extends beyond the municipal boundaries of Kabul. None of these people have engaged in aggression against the countries which have sent their armies against them. What are Germans, Danes, Norwegians and Australians doing in Afghanistan? When was the last time Afghanistan attacked Scandinavia? How was it possible for the US attack on Afghanistan to be transformed into a NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) operation?  NATO was set up to defend western Europe against an attack by the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union no longer exists and Afghanistan is hardly a threat to Europe, so what is a North Atlantic army doing there? 

The reaction to the recent attack on the Mavi Marmara has again brought these questions to the fore. It was the Israelis who attacked the Mavi Marmara. The first batch of ‘commandos’ to land on the deck were overpowered by a small group of civilians, who disarmed them and threw their weapons into the sea. Humiliated and enraged, heavily armed Israelis boarding the Mavi Marmara began shooting everyone in sight. There was no firefight. This was a massacre in which the Israelis murdered nine Turkish men in cold blood, shooting most of them in the head at short range.  The ship was then taken over, after a gun was held to the throat of the captain, and the hundreds of passengers, kidnapped on the high seas, taken to the Israeli port of Ashdod (built on the ruins of the ethnically cleansed and destroyed Palestinian village of Isdud. 

Yet to read accounts of this attack in the western media it was the commandos who had been attacked and had killed people only in defence of themselves. It was Turkey which set the situation up, which lured naïve Israel into a trap, and Turkey, therefore, that has to take responsibility for the killing of its own civilians. It is Israel which faces an existential threat and not the suffering Palestinians or the countries around it which it has repeatedly attacked and which it continues to threaten. (And remember, Israel has hundreds of nuclear weapons and none of these countries has one). Like the ‘west’, Israel has shown itself to be incapable of looking at the ugly reality in the mirror. It bristles with outrage and indignation. Debate  is dominated by self-pity and a growing hatred of an outside world which not only refuses to understand it as it would like to be understood but has grown increasingly aware of its disgraceful behavior. It still has friends, but can Christian fundamentalists who can’t wait for the Middle East to go up in flames so Jesus will step out of the clouds and save the survivors really be called friends?

‘The west’ and ‘western interests’ are propaganda camouflage for the actions or the inaction of individual governments. The ‘west’ was not responsible for the creation of Israel out of Palestine. Britain was and then the United States was. The ‘west’ was not responsible for the Suez War of 1956. Britain, France and Israel were. The ‘west’ was not responsible for the war of 1967.  Israel was, backed by the United States. ‘The west’ did not arm Israel for the attacks on Lebanon in 1978, 1982 and 2006. The United States did. ‘The west’ was not responsible for the attacks on Iraq of 1991 and 2003. The United States was, followed by Britain and a cake-walking line of camp followers hoping to get something out of the Americans by killing Iraqis. It was not the people of the ‘west’ who were responsible either. They were opposed to these wars, universally so in the case of the 2003 war on Iraq. It was their governments, and their mass media, hiding behind the chanted mantras of ‘weapons of mass destruction’, ‘western interests’, ‘civilisation’ and ‘democracy’, who were responsible. Now, with their orchestrated attacks on Iran, these same governments and same media are setting the stage for another war. 

If there is a ‘west’ it has more than one face. The one the ‘west’ sees when it looks in the mirror is flattering and very civilised. This is the ‘west’ of  Bach, Beethoven, Locke, Mill,  Rembrandt,  Dickens, Cervantes,  Shakespeare, Voltaire and a civil society founded on  law, ethics and  morality. This is the face the ‘west’ wants to see, but it is not the ugly and brutal face shown to the non-western world. This other ‘west’ will do whatever is necessary to get its own way. In the last century alone it has taken the lives of millions of people far from its own borders. Its civics, its laws and its morality do not apply in these remote territories. The faces of those being killed are not seen at home. Their destroyed lives are invisible. They hardly count as human, because if they did, they could not be treated like this. From the ‘gooks’ of Vietnam to the ‘towelheads’ of Iraq they are cancelled out as human beings so they can be killed as insects.

So, ‘west’, isn’t it about time you faced to what you are? Dorian Grey could not stand the sight of his own face in the mirror. As an honest examination of your other mirror will show you what you don’t want to see, you don’t look. You shift the blame to someone else, just as Israel does. That is why you jumped at the ‘clash of civilisations’. It was a convenient way out. If it’s all ‘their’ fault, then you don’t have to do anything except give ‘them’ – all those confused and resentful Muslims – the benefit of your superior morality and systems. Even if you have to enforce these new rules with your armies, you proclaim that it will work out for them in the long run.

What you will see if you actually look into this other mirror is the immense damage done through your actions, directly and indirectly, to large numbers of people who have done you no harm and even in their distress wish you no harm. Your determination to control their lives, to kill them in large numbers   in pursuit of your own ends, is what  you call defending ‘western interests’, ‘democracy’, ‘freedom’  and ‘civilisation’ against the forces of darkness. But what kind of dark world do you think you have created,  with your wars, your armies, your missile-firing helicopters and submarines, your drones, your massacres of civilians, your murderous  ‘contractors’ and your support for governments that live outside the laws and covenants you are formally obliged to uphold? Can’t you see how you are corrupting yourself? If you say there is a ‘west’, isn’t it about time, after half a millennium of this, that its better side shone through?

– Jeremy Salt is associate professor in Middle Eastern History and Politics at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. Previously, he taught at Bosporus University in Istanbul and the University of Melbourne in the Departments of Middle Eastern Studies and Political Science. Professor Salt has written many articles on Middle East issues, particularly Palestine, and was a journalist for The Age newspaper when he lived in Melbourne. He contributed this article to

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