A major issue nowadays is immigration and the refugee crisis, particularly the immigration of Muslims into Europe. Some people warn that they are a threat to Western Civilisation as they don’t have “Western values”. This is a strange argument for numerous reasons such as the assumption that none will assimilate and that it’s somehow impossible for two cultures to live side by side. However the strangest part is that no one seems to know what Western values are.
Even defining what is the West is difficult. People have a rough idea that it’s probably America and some of Europe, but it’s hard to be more precise. Does Eastern Europe count? Do the Balkans? What about Russia? They consider themselves part of the West, but other Westerners would disagree. I’m from the west of Ireland so everywhere in Europe is to the east of me. The kind of people who oppose Muslim immigration often also oppose Eastern European immigration for similar reasons. So while the leaders of Hungary and Poland believe they are defending the West from an Islamic invasion, ironically the rest of the West is as unaccepting of them as they are of Muslims.
So what are Western Values? When asked, people would probably mention freedom and liberty in some form, perhaps also democracy. But these are relatively new developments, Western Europe has only been democratic for about a hundred years or less, depending on which part you’re talking about. The former Communist bloc has only been democratic for 20 years and it’s still shaky in some places.
Can such a new development really be a core principle? What about the hundreds of years before the rise of democracy, what values did we have then? If Eastern Europe can develop Western values in two decades, is it too much to imagine the Islamic world doing the same? Nor was the path to democracy smooth and natural, it took decades of struggles and the Second World War before most countries achieved it. So if democracy and freedom is a new development in Europe without deep roots, perhaps soon it will develop in Islamic countries too. The Arab Spring shows that the desire for freedom is just as strong in Islamic countries as in the West.
Another western value is supposedly equality. All people are equal before the law and there is no elite class as during the Middle Ages. While most western countries no longer have an aristocracy, the same can be said for the whole world. Yet there still are Monarchs in several countries like Britain and Scandinavia. While the West has better economic equality than 3rd world countries, there is still a large gap between rich and poor and it often seems as if the middle class and the working class live in different worlds.
People often argue that Muslims lack respect for women’s rights and are opposed to the western value of feminism. Yet few westerners call themselves feminists and the term is as often used as an insult. Plenty of Westerners believe that feminism is destroying Western society and the Bible is just as intolerant towards women as the Koran is. It was not Muslims who locked women in Magdalene Laundries and barred them from the workforce in Ireland. How can gender equality be considered a western value when we haven’t achieved it? Women are still paid less than men, the top roles in politics, business and culture are still overwhelmingly dominated by men.
Rape culture is a serious problem even in progressive western countries, to say nothing of Eastern Europe where the situation is even worse. Claims of sexual assault are often ignored or downplayed unless the assailant is a Muslim in which case it’s a national disaster. Here in Ireland women lack the freedom to make choices about their own body and must flee abroad to get an abortion. Will this Western Value come under attack from Muslim immigrants?
Claims that Muslims are especially homophobic are hypocritical considering how new equality and full marriage rights are in the West. Homosexuality was illegal in Ireland until 1993 and the LGBT faced massive discrimination until recently. Homophobia has by no means been banished from the West and last year’s marriage equality referendum showed how many Irish people are uncomfortable with treating homosexuals the same as the rest of society.
Progressives claim that western value of secularism will come under attack from extremely religious Muslims. Yet few countries in Europe bar France and Scandinavia, could be called secular. The Irish constitution claims that the right to govern comes not from the people, but from God. Religion still plays a large role in many Western countries through state support, political influence and community activism. It’s an unofficial rule that all American politicians must be religious and end their speeches on a religious note (God Bless America).
Ironically, the Prime Minister of Hungary claimed that Europe’s Christian heritage is under attack from Muslim immigrants (as if centuries of religious war, persecution and prejudice was a common value we all cherish). So which is it? Is the West a secular place that Muslims will make religious, or a religious place that Muslims will make secular? Islam seems to be a blank slate where you can project all your fears. The left worries about religion being forced into public life where the right fears religion being removed from public life, both without actually considering what the Muslims themselves think or actually are capable of doing. None of the fear mongers stop to consider whether Muslims merely want Islamic law for themselves rather for the whole society or how a tiny minority is supposed to dominate the whole continent.
What about America? If equality, secularism and feminism are Western Values, does America qualify? If migrants from the Middle East should be blocked from entering Europe because their home countries are too religious, should we not do the same for America? Studies show that Americans have almost the opposite view of the role of the state, the economy and society to Europeans, so should we have immigration restrictions because our cultures are too different?
When talking about Western values people seem to just take whatever values they hold and apply it to the whole West. For some people it’s low taxes, capitalism and the freedom to get rich, for others it’s a strong welfare state, co-operation and equal opportunities. For some it’s a white Europe that belongs to native Europeans, for others it’s a diverse and multicultural Europe open to everyone.
A good example of the vagueness of Western values, is Russia. Russia sees itself as the defender of Western values that the decadent Western Europeans have abandoned. Moscow is seen by some as the third Rome, home of key values like a strong authoritarian state, the defender of the faith, strict traditional family values and resisting foreign influences. Ironically, many Westerners see it as the opposite of Western values, as a xenophobic, homophobic semi-dictatorship with massive inequality. Russia sees itself as the defender of Western values while others see it as a threat to them.
What about peace, is that a core Western value that those violent Muslims lack? Well, you can only believe this if you have never opened a history book. Until about 60 years ago, there was near constant warfare and the history of Ireland is pretty much continuous rebellion against British rule until independence. The West has seen its share of war and massacre driven by religion fanaticism, so much so that it is only delusion to call others violent and pretend we are peaceful. A core value extending back centuries is imperialism and not too long ago, Western nations ruled most of the rest of the world as a colony. I can only imagine people in the rest of the world must ask why the West is so violent and greedy.
While many think that Islam is inherently violent, until 20 years ago, the stereotypical view of a terrorist was of an Irishman. For centuries, Americans and British people worried if the Irish had the right values to live in their country. There were fears that the Irish were too violent, too religious, too conservative to integrate and there were frequent panics that waves of Irish would wash away proud American and British values. After all, until recently, Ireland was an exceptionally conservative and religious country whose views would not be far from the Syrians on many social matters.
Underneath it all, it’s hard to shake off the racism in these fears. Worrying about the supposed clash between enlightened Western values and savage Islamic values, seems a lot like worrying about the threat to white civilisation from primitive barbarians. We are progressive individuals, whereas they are an ignorant monolith. Many debates on Islam simply assume that all Muslims are the same and think the same, so if Muslims in Iran want sharia law, then Muslims all over the world must also want the same. The idea that Americans, British, French, Germans, Poles, Swedish, Spanish, Hungarians and Russians are the same and think the same is completely ridiculous, yet Bosnians, Pakistanis, Turks, Egyptians, Syrians, Indonesians, Saudis and Sudanese are lumped together because they are Muslims.
I still don’t understand how this Islamic tide is supposed to work. Even if a million Muslims refugees come to Europe, the total Muslim population will be only 5 million out of 500 million. How exactly are 1% supposed to dominate everyone else? If my next neighbour is a Muslim with a different culture and different values, how does this affect my life? Am I going to suddenly hate democracy and freedom as if I were infected by a virus? The supposed threat to western values reminds me of the supposed threat that same sex marriage provided to traditional marriage. Because a small number of people were doing something new, traditional marriage and society would inexplicably collapse.
But in reality, there is no horde of Muslims coming to destroy our society. Western society, whatever it may be, is not one culture, one viewpoint. It is a multitude of views and opinions. It always has been and to claim there is one united Christian West facing an invasion is to rewrite history. The West has always been multicultural and although dictators frequently tried to suppress this and create a monoculture society, they always failed. There have always been those who claim their one narrow viewpoint represents the true values of society and all others are threats that will lead to destruction. Yet it seems that rejection of this and its replacement with multiculturalism and a diversity of thoughts has been the trend in Western history.
Embarrassingly for those who claim that Islam is incompatible with Europe and the West, is the fact that there are even three countries where Islam is the largest religion, Bosnia, Albania and Kosovo. Yet the supposed collapse of Western values hasn’t happened and when fear mongers want to spread panic about the danger of Islam they conveniently ignore these examples. These countries are not Islamic theocracies that enforce fundamentalist teachings at the point of a sword. I guess secularism and Islam do mix after all.