The West is a vexed and elusive notion. From the outside, it seems to be a coherent, perhaps even monolithic, whole—a single pole, both attractive and repellent, but somewhat identifiable. The crosses that adorn church steeples, the fine wines of Bordeaux, television shows like Cheers and Friends, women’s rights advocates like Mary Robinson, multinational corporations like ExxonMobil, the American president, pop star Michael Jackson—from the outside, these are all emblems of the West and yet from within, the West hardly exists. Americans and Europeans do not call themselves “Westerners”; they may see themselves as members of the communities that others perceive as the “West,” but rarely do they feel loyalty to or affection for that all–inclusive identity.
Were we examining some of the constituent communities—the Roman Catholic Church, France, Hollywood, human rights groups, Wal–Mart, the Bush administration, the German Social Democrats—we would be better able to identify spokesmen, exemplary figures, and representatives whose pronouncements summarize consensus or convey authority. As this list suggests, however, the “West” is a complex, fractious, and conflicted group of societies. The Catholic Church and women’s rights groups differ over abortion; the Americans and French differ over the meaning of secularism and the merits of the war on Iraq; Europeans differ among themselves about the historical significance of Christianity in defining and shaping modern Europe. Indeed, one of the most striking features of the West is its frequent embrace of difference, its willingness—not to say, eagerness—to encounter, adopt, and adapt new ideas, peoples, and institutions. This enthusiasm can be delightfully invigorating: from the adoption of Arabic numerals to the development of “Asian fusion” cuisine, the West has borrowed, changed, and used elements of cultures from around the world. This voracious appetite can sometimes also appear threatening, however, as the West seems to appropriate for itself what is good and valuable from around the world. But then haven’t all civilizations, including Islamic civilization, done just that?
Although the importance and influence of the West are undeniable, it is still difficult to know how we can determine the real nature of Western opinion today. How are we to know whether a prominent Westerner’s statement—for example, the then–Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s remark late in 2001 that Western civilization is “bound to Occidentalize and conquer” Islam—represents a popular or idiosyncratic belief? How significant were the Christian echoes of U. S. President George W. Bush’s reference that year to a “crusade” against terrorism?1 How, if the Muslim world seems to be faced with a determined and dangerous adversary called the West, do we account for the fact that Islam is the fastest growing religion in Europe and the United States?
Today, the West has immense economic, political, and military power—and sometimes expresses imperial or quasi– imperial ambitions—but it is also riven by significant discord. Its two main political components—Western Europe and the United States—are frequently at odds on policy questions. The United States and France, for example, faced with Muslim girls wearing headscarves in state schools, started from the same premise of religious liberty and state agnosticism—and yet reached entirely different conclusions. The decision by France to ban the wearing of scarves by Muslim girls in French public schools was made in defense of secularism (laïcité). It was also, to many Americans, an infringement of personal choice in a matter of religious expression. The decision by a Bush administration official to publicly criticize France in the matter may be taken as an illustration of how differently Americans and Europeans think of religion and of how different their fears are.2 When we examine the question, who speaks for the West? we therefore need to acknowledge at the outset that any claim to represent the West must be partial at best.
A second caution is in order: the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush reflects a relatively new “neoconservative” worldview. This view tends to see treaties and conventions as constraints on American power rather than part of a durable global order. It is largely uninterested in the “soft power” of culture, the slow improvements achievable by aid, development, and human rights programs, or the conservation of environmental, cultural, or other resources. It takes only passing interest in trading systems or international commerce. It commonly disdains the accumulated wisdom of the foreign policy establishment in particular, though neoconservatives also have little regard for military or other traditions.3 Yet we should not assume that any American administration, even one with the ideological vigor and forcefulness of the administration of George W. Bush, can speak even for the American policy–making establishment, much less the American people, and very much less the West.
Looking beyond the present moment, this paper will consider popular beliefs, political movements, and currents of analysis that have defined the West and in part have affected its relationship with the Muslim world. These themes are (1) the distinctive liberalism of the West as a product of constant struggle with (and accommodation of) the power of religious institutions and beliefs; (2) the “export” of the West through economic, military, political, cultural, and institutional expansion; and (3) the institutional complexity of large, economically advanced Western democracies.